How to Illustrate a Children’s Book

Updated on July 7, 2016
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.


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

Baby books
Nursery rhymes, lullabies etc.
Toddler books
Up to 300 words and 12 pages
Colors, shapes, numbers and everyday objects
Early picture books
4-8 (lower end)
Up to 1000 words
Simple stories
Picture books
Up to 1500 words and 32 pages
Simple plots with one main character
Easy readers
Up to 2000 words and 64 pages
Simple stories with action and dialogue
Transition books
30 pages in 2-3 chapters
Easy reader style
Chapter books
Up to 60 pages in 3-4 chapters
Action based but more complex stories
Middle grade
100-150 pages
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

And Finally

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.

And don't forget to take the quiz at the bottom of the hub to find out how much you've learned.

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    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 15 months ago from England

      Hi Philippawords. Thanks for your message. The truth is that all publishing houses have their own rules about these things. Some ask for text without illustrations, some are looking for illustrators, and others want the complete package with text and illustrations ready to go. I was always led to believe that if you could do both (text and pictures) it would be easier to get your foot in the door, but it depends on the publisher. The best place to start looking is the Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016 which lists all publishers in the UK and worldwide. The book's for sale on Amazon and in bigger bookshops :)

      Good luck!

    • profile image

      Philippawords 15 months ago

      Hi John,

      I want to create a children's book. I'm an amateur but have a few ideas. I can draw but not certain how to present the drawings to a publishing house. I am based in the UK.

      Please advise,

      Thank you

    • annejantz profile image

      Anne Crary Jantz 22 months ago from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S.A.

      Thank you, John. My husband and I lived in Harpenden many years ago and absolutely loved it. We also lived in Australia a couple of times so we have a lot of English friends that we met in both places. Keep up the great work.

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 22 months ago from England

      Thanks annejantz. You've got it spot on :-)

    • annejantz profile image

      Anne Crary Jantz 22 months ago from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S.A.

      Very nice job. I agree with you on your emphasis on quality. Your book will be out there in the world for a very long time. No pressure :) but it will be part of your legacy. So it pays to make it as good as possible while still getting it done.

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Hi Tricia... depends how good the software is I guess. If the result looks good, then fair enough!

    • Tricia1000 profile image

      Tricia1000 3 years ago from South Africa

      What do you think of converting pictures into artwork? I discovered some good software.

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks askpanditji and nancynurse. Really appreciate your comments and praise!

    • nancynurse profile image

      Nancy McClintock 5 years ago from Southeast USA

      Once again you have shown us what an awesome writer you are. Thank you for taking the time to write such interesting Hubs!!!!

    • profile image

      askpanditji 5 years ago

      Great hub. Awesome tips. Well written. I liked this article a lot.

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks Robin. I'll definitely give his books a look-see. Glad you like my hub :)

    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Fabulous information for budding and experienced illustrators! My favorite children's author is Graeme Base and the main reason is his illustrations. They are amazing. We have three girls of different ages, and each one could relate to the artwork but on a different level. His books Water Hole and Anamalia are my favorites.

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks for all the comments guys! Nice to know someone's reading....

    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 5 years ago from Mexico City

      Very Useful information about illustrating children's books! I learned from reading your hub how important it is to maintain consistency, and use illustrations based on the age of your readers.

      I once, started studying the bible, but I had trouble understanding some passages like those occurring when the people of Israel were made captive in Egypt. I bought an illustrated book for children with lots of pictures within. From reading and relating to illustrations, I was able to digest the story with ease.

      Voted useful!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Useful hub, many thanks- I'll vote for it. As a drama teacher I'm always on the look out for workable books and stories and it is amazing how good illustrations can sometimes yield more than the text when it comes to dramatisation!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      I have worked with art for many years from the other point of view -- as an editor of art-heavy textbooks. It's great to hear the artist's perspective and learn about a different area of publishing. Voted useful and interesting!

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks pstraubie48. Glad it was of interest to you!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      You clearly are more artistically inclined that me. I can draw stick people, sticks, animals, and anything with circles but that is where the buck stops.

      The information you have provided is very helpful. Your observation about the younger children needing more pictures is so true. That little book about the train that wouldn't give up is on my coffee table. Each time my two year old grandson comes he 'reads' me the story and tells me about the pictures with a lot of 'uh-oh, what happeneds' interjected. He will study over the pictures for long periods of time so for this toddler the illustrations are his avenue into this lovely book.

      Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks, Vitallini. These are just general guidelines, which by their very nature are not all inclusive. Good point though :)

    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 5 years ago from UK

      A very useful hub. Great work, although I would say books for 8-12 are often longer than 150 pages.