How to Become a Children’s Book Illustrator in 5 Simple Steps
Close your eyes. Try to remember sinking into the art of your favorite children’s book: the one that you would pick up dozens of times a week. Did it dazzle you with stories of knights, dragons and stolen treasure? Perhaps it taught you that even a mouse and a lion could become best friends. Maybe it took you on a deep-sea plunge to the ocean floor.
In an ever-changing publishing industry, children’s book illustrations are timeless. Regardless of time or place, these illustrations provide a medium that allows authors and publishers to capture the imagination of readers still too young to read for themselves.
If you have a strong creative spirit and love letting your creativity (and pen) run loose around young ones, then you might also want to learn how to become a children's book illustrator.
Of course, children’s book illustration requires a lot of work, patience, and dedication just like any other aspect of publishing! But the good news is that it’s not impossible. Keep reading to discover how to become a children’s book illustrator in five simple steps.
Let’s first begin with a simple question.
What does a children’s book illustrator do?
Children’s book illustrators design the pictures and artwork that not only add visual accompaniment to a story but also help children better understand what they’re reading, as well. Generally, illustrators work as freelancers, although some will sign contracts with publishing houses or develop relationships with specific authors. Regardless of how they’re employed, a children’s book illustrator’s job is to create meaningful images that bring a children’s book to life.
However, no matter what style you use, every illustrator must have a strong sense of creativity and a vivid imagination. Children’s book illustrators, in particular, have the license to let their minds run free.
Just think of Felicia Bond, the illustrator for the famous If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and other books in the series! Working with very few lines of text, Felicia crafted creative and expressive images like the one above that brought the stories to life and helped make the book (and series) a contemporary classic.
💰 How much do children’s book illustrators make?
As of May 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that fine artists, such as illustrators, made an average annual salary of almost $60k/year. This number obviously changes based on an illustrator’s experience, skill, and portfolio.
It’s also important to note that a majority of children’s book illustrators are freelancers, which can make the pay range vary even more. But that means that highly-skilled and more successful illustrators can command even higher pay for their services!
But remember: it takes time and dedication to really succeed in the world of illustration.
The industry has become increasingly competitive over the past few years, as children’s book publishing has boomed. And while it may seem easy to spend every day drawing and coloring, children’s book illustration also involves close reading, frequent revision, and lots of trial-and-error. It takes constant effort and true dedication to your craft and to daily improvement. It’s certainly fulfilling if you love to illustrate, but don’t expect it to be easy.
If you set your mind to it, you can become an illustrator and share storytelling magic with the next generation of young readers — while getting paid for it. Let’s talk now about how to become a children’s book illustrator and set yourself up for success in illustration.
How to become a children’s book illustrator in 5 steps
Figuring out your first steps can be overwhelming, regardless of what industry you’re trying to enter. So, we’ve compiled five simple steps on how to become a children’s book illustrator. If you think that illustration is the career path for you, then these steps will help you set yourself up for success!
1. Understand your market
In order to become a successful children’s book illustrator, it’s good practice to understand why successful illustrators are as successful as they are, as well as what audiences are looking for in the market. The best way to learn about your future niche? Research.
Spend some time looking at popular children’s books like My Footprints illustrated by Basia Tran, or any children’s book that captures your attention. What about these books grabs your eye, whether it's the cover design or the style? What did the illustrator do that was so effective?
You can also reach out to your local libraries and elementary schools to get some inspiration. What are local kids reading? What books are flying off the shelves? Read as much as you can — it’ll help you understand your market’s audience, as well as elements of successful illustration in children’s books. The more you know about the audience you’re trying to reach, the better.
As a starter kit, you should know that children’s fiction tends to be broken down into five main categories:
|Book Genre||Reader Age||Number of Words|
|Picture Books||< 5 years||< 1,000|
|Early Readers||> 5 years||2,000–5,000|
|Chapter Books||6–9 years||5,000–10,000|
|Middle Grade (MG)||8–12 years||30,000–50,000|
|Young Adult (YA)||12–18 years||50,000–100,000|
Depending on the style of art you prefer to create, the stories you like to read, and the time you have, you could be illustrating for entirely different audiences! That’s why it’s critical to know your niche before you enter the market.
On top of that, take some time to familiarize yourself with the various types of children’s book illustration styles out there. Different artists will invariably work with different tools, ranging from watercolor painting to Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Furthermore, each artist will often have his or her own unique, personal style to set them apart from their peers, which brings us to our second step…
2. Master your personal style
Your personal style is what will set you apart from other illustrators on the market. This is where your imagination comes into the picture (no pun intended).
In your quest to become a master children’s book illustrator, you should already spend as much time as you can developing your style and honing your aesthetic. What do you enjoy drawing? And what are you interested in designing?
More than that, you should know which illustration styles are trending in the children’s book market. Here are some examples from prominent children’s book illustrators.
This image is a great example of linework. Quentin Blake, who illustrated many books for Roald Dahl, often used linework to create quirky (and very recognizable) cartoons. You can check out more of his work here.
Many children’s book illustrators will use this tried-and-true style of cute, emotive characters and intimate environments. This image by Renata Liwska is simple but humorous, endearing, and soft! You can check out more of her work here.
Tuire Siiriainen’s style is similarly simple, but it packs a lot of punch with its simplicity. The illustrations are intentionally patterned after children’s drawings and are very accessible for young readers. You can check out an example of her portfolio here on Reedsy.
Again, research is key. Embrace the artists who inspired you and study how they utilize color, shapes, and composition. How do they effectively convey their message or story? What do you like or dislike about their style?
Ultimately, it’s important that you find a style you both enjoy and are comfortable working in. The process will require some trial and error, and a whole lot of practice. Try different illustration platforms and see which tool feels best in your hand. There are tons of styles and aesthetics out there, including:
- Brush painting
- Pen and ink
- Digital media
Draw things you’ve seen before and things you’ve only seen in your dreams. It takes some work to craft, but it’ll be worth it when you can present your own unique style of art.
3. Get your artwork seen
If you want to get noticed for your children’s book illustrations, you need to set up your own portfolio. This representative display of your work will be crucial when it comes to landing jobs. It will often be the first thing in the hands of the publishers or authors looking to hire you, so you need to put your best foot forward.
To create a portfolio, you should set up a website or blog where you can showcase your best professional work as well as your unique aesthetic. There are many ways to do so. We recommend looking into the following website editors to find the platform that you enjoy best:
- Squarespace is a popular option for beginning illustrators because of its great templates, usability, and support.
- Wix is accessible and easy to use.
- Webflow allows you to build an immersive website without coding.
Alternatively, you could always seek out website design services from professional web designers. These professionals can build you a unique website straight from scratch that you can then take up and maintain as your career grows. If you're looking for a professional website, Reedsy even offers a marketplace with some of the best web designers you can find!
Once you've sat down and determined how you're going to build your portfolio, make sure to include the art that best represents your tastes, skills, and experience. In three words, you need to build your brand. Take a look at Amy Rosenthal, illustrator of Duck! Rabbit!, and her awesome on-site portfolio.
In illustration, where a lot of work is freelance and set up on a case-by-case basis, it’s essential that you have a portfolio that models the work you’ve done and can do. Your portfolio is basically a resume and interview rolled into one. The better your portfolio, the higher a chance you have at convincing publishers or authors that you’re the one for the job!
Once you have your portfolio set up, continue building out your presence. Set up an Instagram, for instance, and start putting up snippets of your art, brief sketches, or whatever you feel comfortable sharing with your audience. Your goal is to get your artwork in front of as many eyes as possible, and you can only do that by being proactive about your career. Once you build a following and start engaging with more and more users through your art, you’ll also show clients that there is a proven market for your work.
4. Build out your network
Speaking of proactivity, it’s never too early to start building out your network of publishing connections. You never know when an acquaintance might link you to your next big project or gig! Here are some places to start.
Check out the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market book
This book is the definitive guide to the world of publishing, whether you’re a writer or an illustrator. It gets refreshed every year with up-to-date information that will give you a leg up in the world of illustration. That includes awesome resources such as publisher listings, contests, agent contact information, and even business articles for freelance housekeeping.
If you’re new to the business, this book will get you on the right track and will serve as a fantastic resource for your job search well into your career too.
Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
SCBWI is another great source of information and resources for aspiring children’s book illustrators. The society schedules frequent professional development programming for its members. At these events, you can meet and consult award-winning authors and publishing professionals, attend workshops, and even receive consultations for your art.
On top of that, the SCBWI also curates an online illustrator gallery where you can feature your online portfolio (a great way to be seen by publishers and prospective authors!).
Sign up for a talent marketplace
One of the most important things to know is where to find children’s book illustrator jobs. Talent platforms like Reedsy, which caters specifically to publishing, are great places to showcase your skills to a community of authors and gain the experience you need to flesh out your portfolio. Reedsy, in particular, puts you in front of hundreds of thousands of aspiring authors, many of whom will be looking to you for their illustration needs.
5. Keep developing your portfolio
As your career builds up and you take on your first, your second, or your fifth project, it can be easy to get complacent and settle into your projects. But make sure that you don’t forget about your portfolio! Keep adding to it, keep building it out, and keep it updated at all times. Your portfolio is your front cover to the entire publishing industry. You want to put your best foot forward at all times, because you may never know when the next big gig is right around the corner.
Children’s book illustration can seem simple on its face, but it’ll take work, dedication, and a whole lot of practice to be successful. But if you truly want to work as an illustrator, and you put in the daily hours and the trial-and-error, you can make a name for yourself in the industry. And finally, you’ll be able to find freelance illustration jobs from talented authors from all over the world who can’t wait for you to help them with their publishing journey.
Most of all, children’s book illustration is unique in that it is education-agnostic. So, as long as you are creative and can tell an amazing story through art, it doesn't matter where you got your degree or learned your skillset.
And if you keep at it, you’ll be sharing your imagination with thousands of kids worldwide before you know it.