7 Ways to Choose an Illustrator for Your Next Picture Book

I had two interesting conversations this week. The first conversation happened online, when someone recommended me as an illustrator for a children’s book (never mind that I am a graphic designer, not an illustrator, but that is a discussion for another time).

The conversation looked something like this:
[POST] Looking for an illustrator for a children’s book. Please call xxx.
[Comment] My cousin George illustrates books! Here is his contact info!
[Comment] My friend Leona illustrates! Contact her here:

…and so on, and so forth. There must have been over 500 comments on the original post, each with the name and number of a different illustrator (and some graphic designers, too!).

The second conversation happened with my husband, who has a friend whose wife is a children’s book author. This man was telling my husband about how they went about choosing an illustrator for his wife’s book. They basically made the decision based on price. Price! I was appalled. How could you choose an illustrator based on price alone?

Both these incidents made me realize that people don’t really understand the importance of illustrations in a children’s book. And this lack of understanding leads to a blasé attitude towards choosing who should, ideally, be your partner in the book’s creations.

So, in no particular order, here are 7 things to look for when choosing an illustrator for your next project.

If you are the voice of your story, your illustrator is the face of it.

Every story has a soul. And just like people, the soul of your story will shine through the voice, and the face, of the book. The point of the pictures is to give shape to the story beneath them. Therefore, you must be careful who you choose to represent you. Make sure you share the same vision for your book, and that you agree with the illustrator’s interpretation of your work when you hire them.

Match the style of the story with the style of the illustrations

Not only is it important to make sure that you and your illustrator share the same vision, but make sure that their style is one that fits your project. This is an important point – too often I see writers that choose illustrators that they “like” – oh, look, this guy is talented, in my price range, let’s give him a go. But as I pointed out before, the pictures are a visual representation of the words on the page. The styles and tones need to match. What is the tone of your story? Is it upbeat? Is it sad? Is it thoughtful? Is it quiet? Is it loud? Is it for smaller kids or older kids? All these things make a difference. If your main character is a loud, crazy, bouncing off the wall 8 year old girl, then you might want to consider an illustrator with a more chunky, fluid, colorful style. On the other hand, if you are writing a book for small children dealing with loss, you might want the illustrations to be more subtle, sweeter, quieter.

Make sure the illustrations are age appropriate

Very small children and babies like simple images, and bright colors. They are not yet old enough to appreciate the detail in a drawing, and instead are drawn to very basic colors and concepts. Older children, however, might look through a book several times to find all the details in an illustration. Remember Arthur? When I was a kid I spent hours looking through my Arthur collection trying to find Marc Brown’s son’s names in the pages. (Did you know that? Marc Brown has hidden the names of his sons, Tolon and Tucker, in every Arthur book except one.) A good illustrator will keep these things in mind, and cater the pictures to the audience.

Approach the project with a sense of wonder

Kids are amazing. They see the world in such a straight forward way that sometimes, they are able to see things that we adults, jaded big people that we are, cannot. Approach your project with the sense of wonder of a child, and make sure your illustrator does the same. The illustrations should not just be your words in pictures. They should add an extra element to the story, and tell parts of the story that your words do not. Allow the illustrator the freedom to approach the story from a fresh direction. Look for someone whose work expresses the world in a different way from your own. Your project will only benefit.

Choose someone who knows what they’re doing

Along with the creative aspects to choosing an illustrator, there are technical aspects to consider as well. How are the text and the illustrations going to interact? Is the text going to overlap the pictures? Will they be placed next to each other on the page? Will there be spot illustrations, or only full page spreads? An illustrator must take these things into consideration during the storyboarding stage. Consider things like where the text will be placed on the page, how large should the font be, and how much white space you need. The tone of the story will also contribute to these decisions. A good graphic designer will be able to help you make some of these decisions, but involve him/her early in the process to really make your book stand out. Especially if your illustrator does not have that much experience with children’s books, your designer can bridge the gap for you.

Do you like and trust them?

I cannot overemphasize the need to get along with, and trust, your illustrator. Speak to them, and get a feeling for their personality, their work ethic. Will they be a difficult person to work with? Will they discard every suggestion you make? Or will they be able to take your suggestions and run with them? It is very difficult to hand over such a significant part of your project to someone you don’t get along with. Establish trust early on, by telling them your visions and then giving them the freedom and space to do what they do best – bring your characters to life.

Are they in your price range?

See how I put this one last? Of course price is important, and you must set a budget and find someone who can work for what you are able to offer. But this should not come at the expense of the other, more important, elements on this list.

Choosing an illustrator can be an overwhelming and scary prospect, especially if this is your first time doing it. But a good illustrator will breathe new life into your story and characters, and bring your book alive in a way you can only imagine. They are an important part of the creative process.

Good luck!

4 thoughts on “7 Ways to Choose an Illustrator for Your Next Picture Book”

  1. Um, Shanie? I think it would be worth it to invest in an anti-spam plugin for the comments…

    PS I really enjoy reading your blog. I would totally love to see more articles about your thought process as you explore where a design will go.



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