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Three Tips For Those Interested In Illustrating Children’s Picture Books

I took this photo during the SCBWI Portfolio Showcase

From time to time, I answer a question on Quora about children’s book illustration. I do this partly because I like to pay it forward but also because I find it a good writing exercise, summarizing my thoughts and process this way.

Q: “How do you become an illustrator or artist for children’s books?

My answer on Quora (tweaked a bit):

As the others who have answered this question so far have pointed out, there is no one right route to becoming a children’s book illustrator.

My own journey, briefly summarized: I have no formal art training (my first job was a computer programmer/analyst, my degree is a B.Sc. in computer science) BUT I have immersed myself in the world of children’s books since early on because I have always wanted to write middle grade novels. After years of rejections (despite having an excellent agent), I realized I needed to get out and network with others in the kidlit community. I started attending SCBWI conferences. A friend convinced me to enter the Portfolio Showcase at their NYC annual conference – I resisted since I had no portfolio, but she helped me put my first together. I ended up winning two awards and being offered a book contract by Simon & Schuster (publisher/editor was one of the judges). My career took off since then. I have since worked with not just S&S but also Random House, HarperCollins and other publishers.

Though I have no formal art training, I have always loved to draw. My main style is simple (some would describe it as “cartoon-y”), not realistic, but I do have multiple illustration styles and am now trying to branch out.

If I was going to give my younger self some basic advice about how to break into children’s book illustration, it would be this:

  • Read a LOT of picture books, especially those published in the past 5–10 years. Look closely at how to text and art interact. Illustrating picture books does NOT mean just illustrating what’s in the text. If you can’t afford to buy, go to the library. 
  • Practice a LOT. Be able to show that you can draw the same character consistently in a story sequence, from different camera angles. I see so many portfolios which are basically a collection of one-offs (a beautiful image with a character that never appears in any other image in the portfolio). It’s much more of a challenge to be able to draw the same character in a story sequence and have that character be identifiable as the same character throughout. You can find other tips for children’s book illustrators on
  • Network. Join SCBWI (Society Of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) – they have chapters all over the world. If you’re in Canada, join CANSCAIP. Get to know others in the community, exchange info, support each other. Find a critique group – try to find a group in which members have at least as much or more experience as you do. Talent is not enough. So much is about being discovered by the right person at the right time. 

One more bonus piece of advice: DON’T assume that it’s easy to write or illustrate picture books (that people will want to read).

You can find out more info in my FAQ and my Creating Picture Books resource.