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How to Illustrate a Children’s Book

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician, and author of books for children and adults.

A good illustrator brings the story to life.

A good illustrator brings the story to life.

Illustrations Complement Storytelling

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.

Understand the Story In-Depth

It seems obvious to say this, but a good illustrator brings the story to life, 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 the 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. The 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?

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

1 to 3

Up to 300 words and 12 pages

Colors, shapes, numbers and everyday objects

Early picture books

4 to 8 (lower end)

Up to 1000 words

Simple stories

Picture books

4 to 8

Up to 1500 words and 32 pages

Simple plots with one main character

Easy readers

6 to 8

Up to 2000 words and 64 pages

Simple stories with action and dialogue

Transition books

6 to 9

30 pages in 2 to 3 chapters

Easy reader style

Chapter books

7 to 10

Up to 60 pages in 3-4 chapters

Action based but more complex stories

Middle grade

8 to 12

100 to 50 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. Ebooks 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.

Color and 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 email. 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.

The 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.

The Illustrator-Author Partnership

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 bookstores 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, The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • Roald Dahl, The BFG

Best of Luck!

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 below to find out how much you've learned.

Questions & Answers

Question: I'm looking for an illustrator for a children's book. Do you have any recommendations on where to find one?

Answer: Some publishers provide illustrators if they like your story. They'll match you up with an illustrator whose style fits yours. Otherwise you have two options: you can advertise for someone (locally and online) or you can ask around. You might make inquiries using social media, or you might find someone at your nearest college who is studying illustration. The trick is finding someone you can work with who will be willing to make changes as required. It can take time to find the right person, but it's worth it when you do.

Question: A very old friend asked me to illustrate his book. I am a landscape artist and don't know how to draw well. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: If you are not an illustrator, then you can't illustrate his book. You might be able to find license-free illustrations online at sites like Pixabay that you could use, although that would depend on the type of book and the number of illustrations required.


JohnMello (author) from England on September 06, 2016:

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!

Philippawords on September 04, 2016:

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

Anne Crary Jantz from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S.A. on February 05, 2016:

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 (author) from England on February 05, 2016:

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

Anne Crary Jantz from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S.A. on February 04, 2016:

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 (author) from England on January 15, 2014:

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

Tricia1000 from South Africa on January 15, 2014:

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

JohnMello (author) from England on August 10, 2012:

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

Nancy McClintock from Southeast USA on August 10, 2012:

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

askpanditji on August 10, 2012:

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

JohnMello (author) from England on August 09, 2012:

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

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on August 09, 2012:

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 (author) from England on August 08, 2012:

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

Jose Juan Gutierrez from Mexico City on August 08, 2012:

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!

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on August 08, 2012:

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 from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania on August 08, 2012:

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 (author) from England on August 08, 2012:

Thanks pstraubie48. Glad it was of interest to you!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on August 08, 2012:

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 (author) from England on August 08, 2012:

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

Bryony Harrison from UK on August 08, 2012:

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