How to illustrate a children’s book: 9 steps to illustrate your book

Illustrating a children’s book, whether your own or someone else’s, is a rewarding accomplishment, but where exactly do you start?

From working with trim sizes to collaborating with authors, adhering to strict briefs, and more, it seems as though this process is a whole world in itself. But what if we told you that illustrating a children’s book doesn’t have to be difficult or overwhelming? And that the process could not only be a simple one but one you’ll cherish (and want to repeat over and over again) for the rest of your life?

You see, we’ve written an in-depth, step-by-step guide on how to illustrate a children’s book to serve as the beginner’s guide you’ve been waiting for. We’ll take you through the entire process, from finding a story idea to getting the book cover design sorted, so when it comes to your children’s book, you’ll hit the ground running. 

Find inspiration for your story

Gathering inspiration plays an important role in any creative project, but many can find it difficult just knowing where to start. While some can quickly become overwhelmed by inspiration overload, others become frustrated, just waiting for something – anything – to spark their story idea.  

Sure, inspiration might be “all around you,” but the trick to truly finding it is to know exactly where to look. 

Begin by tuning in to the world of children, whether it’s paying attention to their favorite TV shows, flipping through a magazine aimed at kids, or scanning the toy aisle to see what’s on-trend at the moment.

  • Do you notice any common or emerging themes? 
  • Has something sparked your curiosity?

You can also use tools such as Google Trends to see the popularity of a search term or topic across various regions and languages. Search for potential themes for your children’s book (i.e. dragons, American football) and compare their search volume over time. Have these terms risen or fallen in popularity?

Tip: During your inspiration phase, it’s important that you keep a notebook handy or use an app on your phone to record any observations or thoughts that come to mind. You may not think it’s special at the time, but when you go over your notes in the coming days or weeks, an entry may just turn into a successful children’s book idea.

Here are some tips to help you find some inspiration for your story

#1. Decide your audience age range

While a children’s book already has a defined target market, you will need to narrow this down to a specific age range. After all, books aimed at toddlers are very different to those aimed at children starting school.

According to Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, “picture books should appeal to ages 3-8, but the age of your target audience is really determined by how complex the story is and how much text is involved.

Although your story will be aimed at children within this age group, they’re usually not the ones sourcing their books. Therefore, you must also keep parents, teachers, and librarians in mind as a secondary target audience. It’s important they see the value in your story first to ensure it gets into the hands of your primary target audience.

#2. Think like your audience

Once you’ve decided on your audience’s age range, it’s a lot easier to “get inside their head,” so to speak. Ask yourself:

  • What are their main interests?
  • What language do they use?
  • What obstacles do they face?

The best way to think like your audience is to surround yourself with them as much as possible, particularly when they are engaging with books. We recommend reading to children regularly, whether it’s your own kids, your nieces, and nephews, or even your friends’ children. That way, you can observe first-hand how they interact with picture books, including what story themes or illustration styles they love the most.

#3. Look at other children’s book illustrations

One of the best sources of inspiration is to look at what others within your industry are already doing. Remember, the aim here isn’t to copy other children’s book illustrations, but rather to get your own creativity flowing.

Are you drawn to a particular illustration style, color scheme, or genre? Again, record your observations and see what inspires you. 

#4. Get others involved to brainstorm

In the words of Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” 

When seeking inspiration for your children’s book, don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family members, or those already working in the book industry. 

Ask for their opinions on your ideas so far or see if they have any ideas of their own

“Popular topics in contemporary children’s literature include books about girl power, diversity, STEAM, wellness and social issues, classics and nostalgia, and humor”

Create the story brief

Once your inspiration has taken shape, it’s time to put pen to paper (or should we say fingers to the keyboard?) and create a general outline of your story. 

The aim here is to narrow all your brainstormed ideas down to a single storyline that has a beginning, middle, and end. 

  • The beginning sets the mood and tone of the story and the reader is introduced to the main characters, as well as the setting. The character’s goals and main conflict(s) are also highlighted here.
  • The middle is where a series of events or complications happen. The reader witnesses the main character(s) grow as they try to overcome these challenges. The storyline is building in suspense, towards a climactic point (the most important or exciting point in a story).
  • The end is the part where the main conflict is resolved, and the loose ends are tied up, leaving the reader with a satisfying ending to the story. 

Essentially, your brief contains a summary of your storyline, which you can use when hiring freelancers to assist with your book (such as an illustrator or ghostwriter), or when approaching a publisher. 

If you’re struggling to summarize your story, think about the five Ws: 

WHO is involved in the story? Who are the main characters? 

WHAT happens to these characters? What do they do? What are they trying to achieve and what obstacles or challenges do they face?

WHEN does the story take place? What is the sequence of events?

WHERE does the story take place? Be as descriptive as you can.

WHY do these events happen? Why does a character act in a certain way?

Tip: Go one step further and think about what emotions you want your reader to feel, as well as why they should care about your story. 
Does your book have a moral or important message for children? If so, mention this in your brief too.

Define the illustration style you’re trying to achieve

Sure, illustrations can act as an additional way to entertain children as they read the book, but in reality, they’re so much more than that.

It doesn’t matter what age you are, images still play an important role in the way our brains work. When we simply hear a piece of information, we remember just 10% of it three days later. Add in a picture, however, and we remember a whopping 65%.

For young children learning how to read, you can imagine just how effective illustrations are then. 

According to EBSCO, “Picture books for young readers are building blocks that promote literacy, vocabulary skills, sentence structure and story analysis”, however, it’s the illustrations in these picture books which help children understand what they are reading. 

The organization explains: “If children are having difficulty with the words, the illustrations can help them figure out the narrative, which can increase their comprehension.”

This is why the illustrations in your children’s book are just as important, if not more so than the actual words in your story. Not only do they leave a lasting impression – or memory – on the child, but they also help them develop a sense of self and the world around them.

When determining what style of illustrations you want in your children’s book, there are plenty to choose from. We explain each of these illustration styles below:

  • The Airbrush technique uses a machine that spreads paint (or less commonly, ink or dye) using air pressure. Airbrushed images are often more realistic than other forms of illustration and are especially popular among fantasy and science fiction books. 
  • Crayon illustrations are also quite common in children’s books, as they mirror the colorful art that children themselves produce. Because of this, crayon illustrations tend to be more simplistic than other styles however, this makes them suitable for books aimed at a younger age range. 
  • Comic book: The comic book style has had a long and popular history, with illustrations ranging from abstract to realistic. The most famous comic books can be described as having a Pop Art style, which is known for its bold imagery, bright color palette, and repetitive patterns.
  • Traditional storybook: When it comes to the traditional storybook illustration style, think back to childhood classics such as Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and old fairy tales. These had a sketch-like appearance, with soft and muted colors. Unlike the digital illustrations of the modern era, traditional storybook illustrations were done by hand using pencil, ink, or watercolors. 
  • Photo-realistic illustrations take their inspiration from photographs, causing them to be very lifelike. These illustrations get their appearance from using many different techniques, including drawing, painting, and airbrushing. First, the illustrator studies a photo, then recreates the exact image using these other mediums. 
  • Vector art is a form of digital illustration based on geometric shapes. To create vector art, an illustrator must use a vector art program such as Adobe’s Illustrator. The vector style can be described as colorful, clean, and cartoon-like, a look which children are increasingly enjoying in television shows, movies, and video games.
  • Portrait: The most skilled portrait illustrators express the personality of each character through an expression, gesture, physical characteristic, or mannerism. This style of art is better suited to books that focus heavily on characters (especially showcasing different characters), rather than scenes or locations. Regardless of the medium, a portrait should be brought to life with color, lighting, highlights, and shadows.
  • Watercolor: Watercolor illustrations have been created using watercolor paint, which can be mixed with water to create translucent layers of color. This style of illustration is very popular for children’s books, as it adds a whimsical, creative, and enchanting feel to the story.

Find a book writer

Contrary to popular belief, a children’s book is one of the hardest formats you can tackle. It’s hard to create a captivating story using simplified language, all without losing meaning, ‘dumbing’ it down, or interrupting the flow of the story. 

Thankfully, this is where a children’s book writer can help. Those with experience in writing children’s book manuscripts know how to write in the correct way to appeal to a specific age range, as well as how to keep their interest and create an emotional response from the reader.

When hiring a book writer, DO:

  • Focus your search on “ghostwriters” if you wish to have your name, not theirs, as the published author
  • Check out their portfolio in length, including looking through their previous work, reading testimonials, and viewing their services and fees
  • Be upfront about your expected timeline and respectful with your proposed budget
  • Provide your book writer with the resources (i.e. the brief) and information (i.e. content style, timeline, target audience) they need to write your story

DON’T:

  • Be afraid to give feedback. It is your project, after all
  • Settle for a writer just because they had the cheapest rates or fastest turnaround. If you want quality, you have to pay for quality
  • Fail to communicate with the writer throughout the project to keep up-to-date with their progress

To determine if they’re the right writer for you, ask them:

  1. Have you written for this audience age range before?
  2. Have you previously worked with these themes?
  3. Have you written any published children’s books? If so, which one(s)?
  4. What would your rate be for this project?
  5. What would your expected timeline be to complete the first draft, second draft, and final draft? 
  6. What are your policies or terms and conditions?

Decide your book trim size

Have you ever arranged your books on your bookshelf, only to notice just how many different sizes there are? When it comes to the publishing world, one size doesn’t fit all, making an author’s decision-making process even harder.

What is a book trim size and why does it matter?

Trim size is just the publishing term for book size. You see, when a physical copy of a book is made, it is trimmed by a machine before the book makes its way out into the world. This ensures every page and every copy of the book is the same size.

Now, we hate to say it, but it’s true: everyone judges a book by its cover, and whether you’re aware of it or not, the size of a book influences what you think about its contents too. 

Are you likely to associate a mass-market paperback (you know, the ones you find on grocery store shelves) with a large square format? Unlikely. Or to think a highly visual coffee table book could be small enough to fit in your pocket? We didn’t think so. 

The common sizes and shapes of various book formats are already ingrained in you, helping to influence your decisions when you browse a library or bookstore’s shelves. 

Overall, you want your readers to have a good experience as they hold your book in their hands. Before you decide on your trim size, however, there are three important factors you must first consider.

#1. The trim size must suit your word count

Your book’s trim size will determine how many words fit comfortably on a page. 

According to the industry average, picture books are usually 32 pages long, including the cover pages, introductions, back flaps, and copyright information. In terms of word counts, a book aimed at babies will be less than 300 words, while those aimed at children up to 8 years old can be as long as 1,000 words.

#2. The trim size must suit children’s standard book sizes

There are three main sizes (measured in inches) that are considered when publishing a children’s book:

  • 7.5×7.5
  • 7×10
  • 10×8

When considering each size, think about the layout of your words and illustrations. Do you want a book that’s square or rectangular in shape? And if rectangular, will it be in portrait or landscape orientation?

#3. The trim size will have an impact on the cost

Remember how we mentioned that trim size affects the number of pages in your book? Well, print-on-demand presses base their pricing on page count, so ultimately, your trim size will affect your bottom line. 

If the smaller trim size pushes your page count out to a point where you cannot afford to print the book, then the larger print size may make more sense for your budget. 

Find a book illustrator

While your book writer will bring your story to life with words, your illustrator will make these scenes bounce off the page, taking your reader on a visual journey. 

When hiring an illustrator, DO:

  • Look carefully at their previous work. Is this the style you want? Is it appropriate for your target audience?
  • Be upfront and respectable about your budget
  • Present the illustrator with a reasonable schedule to complete the work 
  • Ask if you can see illustrations in their back-catalog that suit the general theme of your book and that you might be able to license. These work out much cheaper because the artist has already done the work! 
  • Commission some sample pages first (rather than the whole book) to see if they’re reliable and a good fit.

DON’T:

  • Ask an illustrator to match the style of another artist – especially an artist you couldn’t hire because they were too expensive or unavailable.
  • Settle for an illustrator just because they had the cheapest rates or fastest turnaround. If you want high-quality illustrations, they don’t come cheap, nor do they only take days to complete.
  • Tell your illustrator exactly what you want every image to look like. They’re professionals, so give them creative freedom.
To determine if they’re the right illustrator for you, ask them:
Have you worked with this style of illustration before?
Have you had your illustrations published in a children’s book before? if yes, which one(s)?
What would your expected turnaround be to complete these illustrations?

Show the Illustrations to children (and get their feedback)

We often think to have other adults critique our work, but when the target audience is children, we recommend going straight to the source.

Once you’ve received the work back from your illustrator, try to show it to as many children in your audience age range as possible in order to hear their opinions on it. 

Ask them the following questions:

  • What do you like about this drawing?
  • Is there anything you don’t like about it?
  • How does the drawing make you feel? 
  • Do you like the colors and/or patterns used?
  • Do you think this character is happy, sad, excited, angry, etc.?
Remember: your target audience are likely very young, so you won’t want to ask them anything too complicated or confusing. Start with basic questions first (do you like it?) and move up from there to gain a more in-depth response.
If the children are getting mixed messages from your illustrations (such as thinking a character is sad, when they are meant to be happy), then you may need to go back to the drawing board – literally

Choose the right font style and color

While choosing the font style and color may seem like a small decision in the creation of a children’s book, we beg to differ.

You see, the font and font color used have an important impact on several elements of your book, including readability, emotion, and the message being conveyed.

You may be familiar with color psychology (or how certain colors make us feel certain ways) but what about font styles?

In the world of typography, there are two main categories of fonts: Serif and Sans-Serif.

  • Seriffonts get their name for the small ‘feet’ each letter has at the top and bottom. This group of fonts can be described as classic, original, and conservative. Popular Serif fonts include Times New Roman, Baskerville, and Georgia.

When it comes to the body (or inside) text of a book, genres such as fiction, memoirs, and (auto)biographies all prefer to use classic Serif fonts. This is because Serifs help pull the text together, making it easier for the eye to move and recognize one letter to another. Serif fonts are also said to be more readable in print.

  • Sans-Seriffonts are without (or ‘sans’) the small feet on each letter. This group of fonts can be described as modern, clean, and efficient. Popular Sans-Serif fonts include Helvetica, Verdana, and Futura.

Because of their clean appearance, Sans-Serif fonts are easier to read in large block paragraphs than Serif fonts. This is why genres such as non-fiction reference books and textbooks prefer to use them. They are also said to be more legible on digital devices than Serif fonts, making them great for eBooks.

Get sketches for the book cover

Did you know over one million books are published each year? Making your book stand out from the sea of publications has never been more important, but many first-time authors often don’t know where to start.

This is where your illustrator comes in, as it is part of their job to give you sketches of how the front and back covers might look, once designed. 

These sketches require feedback, and more often than not, will be revised multiple times before being approved.

Let’s look at why the front cover design is so important, as well as the qualities that make an excellent book cover.

Why are book covers important?

Here’s a surprising fact: almost 80% of readers surveyed admit a book’s cover plays a decisive role in their decision to purchase that book. 

Whether your book is positioned in a bookstore or on Amazon’s website, it will no doubt be surrounded by hundreds of other books, all with their own interesting tale to tell. 

Your cover, however, is the first bit of customer-facing marketing that your reader will ever see, and its design should immediately draw their eye and pique their interest. Within just one image – and one glance – your cover’s job is to communicate to the potential reader that they’ll like this book, it’s in the genre they love to read, and yet it’s unlike anything they’ve ever read before. It’s unique, intriguing, and certainly worth their valuable time and money.

Designing a book cover from scratch isn’t to be taken lightly, nor is it a task that an illustrator can complete within just a few days.

There are several important factors that a book cover should have, all of which we discuss in more detail below.

  • Title: This is the most important text on your front cover, so you’ll want to consider the message it sends to readers, as well as its size and typography. Your title should be large enough to make it easily readable from across the room, while the fonts you use should highlight the meaning of a book’s title or build upon key themes or moods.
  • Emotion: If your cover doesn’t evoke emotion in the viewer, then sadly, you’ve lost them from the get-go. Whether it’s the artistic style, the tone, or the small glimpse into the storyline – you want them to feel that twinge of excitement, curiosity, or inspiration before they’ve even read the blurb.
  • Uniqueness: Your book is your own vision and it isn’t the same as any other publication out there. Highlight this uniqueness in your cover design to get people excited about this new reading experience. After all, if your book cover looks like every other book cover, how will it ever stand out? 
  • Impact: The images and illustrations on your front cover aren’t just there for artistic flair – they need to make an impact on potential readers. You want your book to instantly catch someone’s eye and have them pick it up (or click through) to learn more. Think bright colors, experimenting with composition, or using size to your advantage.
  • Genre appropriate: Have you noticed most children’s book covers use bright colors, cute illustrations, and playful typography? This is to mirror their genre: light-hearted, fun, and innocent. Use visual cues like fonts and colors to suggest what your book is about and pick genre-appropriate (i.e. kid-friendly) imagery. 
  • Professional: When it comes to book covers, you don’t want them to have a homemade feel. Hire a freelance illustrator or designer who understands the power of subtle elements, such as lighting, image arrangement, and treatment. Show your reader that you – and your book – have the resources and means to do this work professionally, not at the hobby level.

Conclusion

There are many steps involved in illustrating a children’s book so that it is successful once it hits the shelves. 

Creating an attention-grabbing cover, communicating what the book is about, and attracting your target audience all rests upon the visual components of the book, so it’s important that you have a trusted and experienced illustrator on-board.

By taking the actions outlined above, your process of illustrating a children’s book – or working with an illustrator to do so – is sure to go a lot smoother. Remember, the difference between success and failure is a great team, so use this collaboration to bring your passion for children’s literature to life.

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