How to Illustrate a Children’s Book
The most important thing to keep in mind when illustrating a children's book is the intended audience. In other words, who will be reading it?
If the book is for very young children, the artwork needs to be simple. It needs to tell the story in pictures that are instantly recognizable and clearly identifiable.
Older children have different requirements. They might be able to read the story by themselves, so there isn’t as much reliance on images to tell the story. In this case the pictures might highlight important events in each chapter or illustrate crucial points in the plot.
Illustrate The Story: Work With the Words
It seems obvious to say this, but a good illustrator brings the story alive, adding something to the finished product. Without the story the artwork could be meaningless. It has no frame of reference on its own, nothing linking it to a tale or event.
To do justice to the author’s text, an artist needs to read the story and understand it in depth. Very often the author will suggest ideas for illustrations, even suggesting images for each page. For picture books that could amount to one picture per page, up to as many as a dozen plus the cover design. Books for older children have fewer pictures per page, but depending on the length of the book there could still be plenty of artwork required.
Keep Children's Illustrations Consistent
Another issue that needs to be taken into account is the consistency of the artwork.
Each character in the book needs to be clearly identified from start to finish. Think of the Mr. Men books, for example. If Mr. Tickle is orange on page 1, with a little blue bowler hat, he and his hat need to be the same color throughout – and on the cover. Same goes for Mr. Bump’s bandages, Mr. Sneeze’s nose, and so on.
Children of all ages like to be able to identify the characters in a book as they flip through or read it. A boy can’t have glasses and tousled hair on one page, and then be bald as a coot on the next with perfect vision. Just as the story flows logically, the illustrations must do the same.
How Many Pictures to Illustrate a Children's Book?
How much artwork will be required for a children’s book? That’s a tricky question.
All publishers work differently. Children’s books cover a wide range of styles and genres, usually categorized in terms of age and reading level. You’ll find a basic idea in the table below, which shows exactly how complex the topic can be.
Children's Book Formats
Nursery rhymes, lullabies etc.
Up to 300 words and 12 pages
Colors, shapes, numbers and everyday objects
Early picture books
4-8 (lower end)
Up to 1000 words
Up to 1500 words and 32 pages
Simple plots with one main character
Up to 2000 words and 64 pages
Simple stories with action and dialogue
30 pages in 2-3 chapters
Easy reader style
Up to 60 pages in 3-4 chapters
Action based but more complex stories
Complex storylines with multiple characters
Generally speaking, the younger the child, the more pictures will be required, starting with one picture on every page. Easy readers may include pictures on every page to aid comprehension, while middle grade books often have few illustrations, if any.
In most cases, publishers work with authors and artists to create a finished product that complements their existing catalogue. Traditional paper books often rely on conventional layouts, such as the 24-page picture book. But these days it’s also possible to publish books online. E-books can be found on Amazon, Lulu, and other sites, and are available as iPad downloads through the iTunes store. Naturally these formats can give artists a bit more freedom, particularly with e-books that can be self-published. Books for the iPad and similar devices will still need to go through a publisher of some sort, so it might be necessary to adapt the artwork to fit in with their specific needs.
For my own children’s books I’ve worked with artists directly and indirectly. One publisher sends me a draft of the finished product before publication so that I can proofread it and request any changes I feel need to be made. Another asks that I work with the artist to compile a final draft, which then gets sent to the publisher for approval. Either way is acceptable providing the illustrations fulfill their underlying role, which is to help bring the story alive on the page.
Children's Illustrations Should Stress Quality
What should the illustrations look like?
Throughout the illustration process it will be necessary for the artist to forward sketches to the author and the publisher, usually by e-mail. These sketches might include pencil drawings, character designs, and ideas for background colors. They need to be easy to view, but not necessarily at publication standard. That’s good news, because large image files can be memory heavy and slow down the communication process.
Final artwork should be of the highest quality. Once all the decisions have been made and everything’s been approved, artists should send their artwork in the highest resolution available, or the resolution requested by the publisher. Files can be sent individually or as a zip file, through SendIt or similar services that specialize in transporting larger files safely online.
18 Tips for Illustrating Children's Books
Illustrators and Authors Should Work Together
A children’s book is first and foremost a story. It might be the story of a hungry caterpillar, a cow that wouldn’t eat grass, the alphabet, or a train that wouldn’t give up. Whatever the subject, the story is king.
Illustrators need to treat the text they’re given with respect. In some cases, and especially with e-books and downloadables, they’ll be asked to illustrate whole pages, text and all. This takes time, effort and coordination with the artist and publisher.
Naturally storytellers do what they do best: they tell stories. Sometimes their words might suit pictures better if they’re altered slightly, and sometimes it can be difficult to translate their ideas into pictures. In these cases your best bet is to contact the author directly, express your concerns, make a case for any changes you’d like and try to negotiate. Never change the text without contacting the author, because that might be construed as an insult. He or she will have spent months and possibly years getting the story just right. You wouldn’t want them to tinker with your pictures without asking, so grant them the same courtesy.
Do Some Research
Illustrated children’s books are everywhere. You’ll find them online, in libraries, in book stores and in waiting rooms. If you need some inspiration, check out some of the most popular listed on Amazon or visit your local library.
Here are a few classic favorites that demonstrate how illustrations can add depth and interest to a good story:
Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat
Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Roald Dahl's The BFG
Remember that once the book is published you can’t make any changes. If you’re not happy with any part of the process, tell someone. Ask a friend or colleague who’s not involved in the creation of the book for some feedback. Put all your energy into designing the best book you can at the time, and then move on to the next one.
The completed book will be the product of a joint venture, one that will carry your name. You owe it to yourself to make sure that it’s illustrated to the best of your ability, in line with the author’s wishes and the publisher’s needs. As long as you do that, you can hold your head up high.
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