The Importance of Children’s Book Illustrations
You’ve written a great children’s picture book. The problem? You’re not an artist!
You know what to do when writing a book. But how do you create great children’s book illustrations? And what kind of illustrations are right for your book?
Here, we’ll walk through how to match your vision with a style that works. Then, discover four tips to succeed in this process.
Table of Contents
Children's Book Categories: Which is Yours?
The best children’s book writing advice? Choose the right category.
In bookstores and libraries, children’s books are sorted by age categories. The categories are:
- Board books
- Picture books
- Early readers
- Chapter books
- Middle-grade books
- Young adult books
The age category also determines the format of a book–at least to a degree.
Board books and picture books can both be for children under age two. But, board books are specifically designed for infants.
They’re made of sturdy materials that babies can chew on. Many popular picture books have been adapted into board books, including “Goodnight Moon.”
Children as old as eight might engage with picture books. Picture books typically have fewer than 900 words. Often, adults read picture books aloud to kids.
These are the books most likely to include rhythm, rhyme, and jokes. A typical picture book has 32 pages.
Early Readers and Chapter Books
Early readers are usually for kids aged five to nine. These books are for kids beginning to learn to read. They still have illustrations on every page.
Chapter books have slightly more complex stories. These books encourage kids to practice reading with page-turning plots.
The chapters often have cliffhangers. Each chapter may have one or two illustrations.
Still, these books are short: most have fewer than 10,000 words. Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants are popular chapter books.
Middle Grade and YA
Middle-grade novels are even more complex. These books are 30,000 – 50,000 words, and they’re best for students in 4th – 6th grade. Newbery-Award-winning books, like When You Trap a Tiger, are middle grade.
Young adult books often have no illustrations.
Children's Book Illustrations: Popular Titles
The best current books showcase unique, innovative ways images can bring books to life. They also show how images serve different purposes in different genres. Explore popular titles and get inspired!
For example, the non-fiction picture book Horses and Ponies, by DK Discovery, uses scientific illustrations to give kids an accurate understanding of how a horse’s body works.
It also includes candid wildlife photography to illustrate passages about wild horses’ natural habitats.
These illustrations are pretty different from those in Misty of Chincoteague. This chapter book is one in a series.
The illustrations are paintings and sketches that evoke a romantic, poetic sensibility. These fit the story of a young girl’s “soulmate”-like bond with a beloved, wild horse.
Both of these contrast to the bestselling picture book Noni the Pony. This whimsical picture book tells a simple, upbeat story about a pony who’s friends with other animals.
Its illustrations seem almost animated. The artist’s clear lines and bold colours make the animals’ expressions clear. The character’s bouncing gait seems to move at the pace of turned pages.
If you’re not sure where to start, try reading award-winning books. Internationally, the top children’s book awards are:
- The Newbery Medal
- The Carnegie Medal
- The Caldecott Medal
- The Hans Christian Anderson Award
The American Library Association awards the Newbery medal for outstanding contributions to American Children’s Literature. The Carnegie Medal is similar, but it honours children’s literature in the UK.
The Caldecott Medal specifically honours outstanding illustration. In 2019, Sophie Blackall won the medal for Hello Lighthouse.
The International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY) awards the Hans Christian Andersen Award. They grant this lifetime achievement award to authors who’ve made lasting, global contributions to children’s literature.
IBBY granted Jaqueline Woodson and Sweedish illustrator Albertine the award in 2020.
Children's Book Tips For Writers
Some writers can persuade an agent or small press to publish their picture book solely on the strength of the manuscript. But, more often, it’s better to pair up with an illustrator to create a picture book dummy.
If a writer chooses to publish independently, getting the hang of illustration is even more important. Here are four tips for writers tackling illustrated books.
Number one: Polish Your Manuscript
Polish your manuscript. Make your manuscript the best possible version of itself.
Do this before you show it to an illustration partner. And definitely do this before an editor or agent reads it.
To polish your manuscript, set it aside for a while. Then you can look at it with fresh eyes.
It never hurts to ask beta readers to give your manuscript a once-over. This is easiest when it’s short, like a picture book or chapter book.
A beta-reader should be someone you trust to speak honestly. Hopefully, your beta readers have experience with children’s books professionally. Maybe they’re a librarian or teacher?
Finally: read your script out loud to kids. Watch their reactions. When do they laugh? Do they get bored?
If they’re old enough to respond, ask them for feedback. Brace yourself: kids are honest!
With feedback in hand, revise. Then, revise again! Polishing takes time and multiple drafts.
Should You Hire an Editor?
It’s wise to at least consider hiring an editor. Editors have more experience in the children’s book market.
They’ll be able to tell you how to improve your story fundamentally: create more distinct character voices, pare down your story to its best elements. They may also help you on a line-by-line level.
Research different types of editors. Then, hire one that suits your needs. It’s best to seek out an editor when you don’t know why you’re stuck.
Number two: Find an Illustrator
If you want to sell your book through a major publisher, you don’t need to find an illustrator. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to.
Some smaller presses pair authors with illustrators, but some don’t. And, of course, to truly publish independently, you’ll have to find someone yourself.
What is Your Vision?
How do you envision the illustrations bringing your story to life? Use contemporary picture books as inspiration.
And, as with the examples of horse books, consider the tone and theme of your story. Which style best reflects that tone? Which medium best underscores your theme?
When you have a clear concept of what you want, you can seek out a professional.
What Makes an Illustrator Professional?
Just because someone on Instagram is open to commissions, they’re not always a professional illustrator.
A professional illustrator will have a portfolio of projects. The portfolio will show you how they approach character design and how they build environments. It’ll also showcase how their style tells a story.
Only hire an illustrator with experience creating childrens’ stories specifically. Some professionals join guilds like SCBWI. Others are represented by agents or belong to agencies.
What Should Your Budget Be?
Illustrators often set their rates by project, rather than by the hour. An illustrator with a track record of delivering high-value imagery may charge £500 per page. For a 32-page picture book, that’s £16,000.
But some illustrators are more affordable. The illustrators’ medium, location, and publication history play a role in their pricing.
An art-school student may charge as little as £1000 for thirty-two illustrations. Just remember, they’re a student: you’re taking a risk on someone who, by definition, isn’t a professional yet.
Where Do You Find an Illustrator?
To find an illustrator, you may want to look at agencies that represent illustrators. Or, you may want to find an illustrator who works independently.
To do the latter, look at online art portfolio sites. Or, explore an illustration service.
Number three: Understand Book Design
Illustration is just one part of book design. To create a book as an object, a thoughtful designer considers many elements.
A thoughtful book designer will consider the writer’s vision and the themes of the book. Then, they’ll develop the front and back cover, the structures, and the interior of the book.
The cover should reflect the illustrative qualities of the interior of the book. It should also invite potential readers in with clues to the book’s premise beyond the title. If your designer also illustrates, make sure to see examples of both in their portfolio.
Making a Dummy
A dummy is a mockup of a picture book. It shows the layout and composition of the book. In essence, a dummy maps out where words and images will be.
Some agents and small presses prefer writers to submit dummies instead of manuscripts. If you pursue the independent route, a dummy is a good way to show an illustrator how you hope the images and text will connect.
Number four: Consider Your Book's Format
Your book may benefit from multiple formats.
Ebooks lack the tactile elements of a physical picture book. But, ebooks can include interactive elements that engage kids. Some designers publish digital picture books as apps, to maximize their interactive components.
Audiobooks are an increasingly popular option. These books can mimic the read-aloud experience with professional narrators.
Even illustration-heavy picture books can be adapted for audio. Sometimes these versions include the pictures as a separate PDF.
2021’s Caldecott-winning book We Are Water Protectors has an audio version available.
Gather Your Author Tools
At PublishingPush, we know your writing is worthwhile. But, you’re a writer–not a designer!
That’s why we’ve mastered the art of children’s book illustrations, book design, and copyediting. We want to make your book look great. Want to bring your story to life? Get in touch!