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Maurice Sendak got his start by building window displays at F.A.O. Schwarz in New York City. Dr. Seuss pursued a career in drawing because his wife believed in his talent and convinced him to make a go of it. Before publishing his first book, Shel Silverstein was a cartoonist for an American military publication.
The industry has evolved significantly since those masters first broke into the business of being a children’s illustrator, but children’s books are still going strong. In the U.S. alone, children’s book publishing is a thriving $2 billion industry. And, a new generation of children illustrators has emerged, using modern tools to create books that stand the test of time.
Read on for how to become a children’s book illustrator, including tips from 11 extraordinary illustrators on achieving success in today’s competitive market—from how to get your foot in the door, to sourcing inspiration, to keeping the momentum going over time.
1. Learn Everything You Can About the Field
Knowledge is power—and this applies to your future children illustrator career, too. The more you know about the industry, the better. Do ample research on current trends, analyzing what publishers, writers, and kids are looking for when it comes to book art.
To start, become acquainted with as many children’s books as possible, paying close attention to the techniques and approaches the children illustrator used to help tell the story and convey the author’s message. And remember: Children’s books vary greatly depending on the age group they’re targeting, so make sure you take a look at picture books, books for early readers, and beginning chapter books.
Don’t forget that the internet is your friend, too, when it comes to learning more about being a children’s illustrator. For example, you could start following a children book illustration blog like Picturebook Makers, or you could dig into the portfolios like the 11 artists listed below.
Lastly, an incredibly useful way to learn more about a field is connecting with those who work in it. Search for illustrator groups in your area (or ones that meet virtually), attend events like children’s book fairs, and consider joining the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a non-profit organization that connects children’s book writers and illustrators. The SCBWI also provides ample professional development opportunities, including the chance to consult with industry professionals about your art.
2. Cultivate Your Craft—and Share It With Others
If you’re serious about pursuing a children’s book illustrator career, you’ll need to put together a portfolio, even if the art you create is just for yourself and not a commissioned project. There’s no better time to start than now.
When you finish a piece, don’t hide it from the world. Send it to peers—including the new connections you’ve made at events or in a group—and seek feedback. Create your own children book illustration blog to showcase your projects, and consider sharing them on your social media feeds as well. If you become a member of SCBWI, take advantage of their online illustrator gallery and try to get your work featured.
The more feedback you receive, the more you can improve, and the better your children’s illustrator portfolio will be. Plus, you never know—this simple act of sharing your art could end up leading to a paid gig.
Get Started on Your Portfolio
Children’s Book Portfolio Assignment: Plan, Sketch, and Create a Double Page Spread
3. Make Yourself Known to Publishers
Whether you like it or not, children’s book publishers probably won’t search far and wide just to find you. It’s a competitive field, and they have many other aspiring and current children illustrators to choose from. That means you need to get your work in front of them as soon and often as possible.
But before you start spamming every publisher on the planet, take the time to refine your list. Identify the publishing houses that produce the types of books you want your illustrations to be in. The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market is a great resource for this. Once you do that, start reaching out to them on a regular basis, providing samples of your amazing work.
And again, we can’t stress enough the importance of networking. Attending events and joining groups related to children book illustrator jobs will help you meet publishers and children’s book authors, and that can give you an automatic leg up.
Where to Find Children Books Illustrator Jobs
Being proactive and starting to build relationships with publishers and writers will be very helpful when it comes to finding available opportunities. But you shouldn’t rely solely on those connections.
There are several job sites you can leverage to find children books illustrator jobs, such as normal aggregator sites like Indeed, SimplyHired, and ZipRecruiter, and options more geared toward gig workers, like Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer. One resource you definitely shouldn’t skip out on is Reedsy, which is a job site that caters directly to book industry professionals, including children illustrators.
Children’s Book Illustrator Salary Details
Of course, you’re probably wondering, “How much does a children’s book illustrator make?” According to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for book illustrators is around $29 an hour, or $60,360 a year, with annual income ranging from $17,500 to $138,500.
“My number one tip (besides developing your work!) would be to research all you can about this field and how it works. The internet wasn’t around when I started, but I joined an illustrator’s group and researched in libraries and bookstores. It all helped me tremendously to make my start. Start Harold Underdown’s book and website—they are excellent. Read loads of books for the age group you feel fits your skill set and talents.”
2. Lucy Farfort
“One thing I did that boosted my career was joining the SCBWI. The SCBWI support network is incredible, and it continues to give me so much helpful advice. It helped me get a grasp of the industry and greatly improved my confidence in my work.”
3. Dream Chen
“After graduation, I emailed my website to all the illustration agents listed in the SCBWI book, an annual guide to publishing for children. The book includes surveys, directories, reference books, best practices, and more. Finally, one agent contacted me. This is the same agent I work with today. Having an agent to represent me really boosted my career and made it easier to get gigs.”
“I wasted too many years toiling away in my studio alone and trying to get everything ‘just right’ before anyone was allowed to look at it. Then finally, I went to an international children’s book fair and showed my portfolio over and over again over a period of two days. I persuaded agents, editors, illustrators, writers, and art directors to critique my work. It was like desensitization training. In the end, I had a large panoply of comments to sort through”
“The truth is, we are all insecure, even the people you admire. You are better than you think, and you get better and better the more art you make. We learn by sharing our work and giving it our best try. One day, I made the choice to start posting my work more often on Instagram and promoting the fact that I did children’s book illustrations, even if I thought my work wasn’t good enough yet. That’s how I met a writer, who then told me she had a story, and a year later, we did a book together through a Kickstarter campaign. And then more work came out of that.”
6. Anna Raff
“When I was trying to break into children’s publishing, I knew no one was going to hire me right away. I was just out of grad school and had to rely on my prior career as a designer to support myself while I sought work. So I embarked on a personal illustration project and made new work each day for a year. I shared the project on a blog I created, gradually gained a following, and wound up getting my first book deal.”
7. Salina Yoon
“I made myself familiar with what the various publishing houses were currently publishing, so I knew what they wanted and could target my submissions. Find books that are similar to the kinds of books you want to illustrate, and submit to those publishing houses—either with postcards of your art or book submissions with text and art.”
“The reason I was assigned my first picture book was that one of my promotional postcards arrived just as the editors were starting to match an illustrator with a manuscript they had acquired. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and show your work. Have a website and an Instagram account and approach publishers regularly by email and regular mail.”
“The one thing that has helped my career is staying curious and remaining open to the world. That means trying different things out, reading far and wide, and going to museums. For me, a project can spin out of finding some unexpected bit of inspiration. A 15th-century painting can inform the color scheme for a whole book, and reading a history book can lead to an idea for a picture book.”
10. Brendan Wenzel
“Many of the illustrators I’ve met share a fervor for drawing/painting that doesn’t dissipate at the end of the working day or the completion of a project. Most illustrators draw for enjoyment. They keep sketchbooks. They doodle on napkins at restaurants. Many even draw or paint on vacation. I’m guessing this may be partially fueled by the fact that most illustrators tend to be particularly curious people. They read, explore, and discuss with anyone who is interested.”
11. Esme Shapiro
“If you are interested in building a career in illustrating children’s books, my biggest piece of advice is to stay connected to your inner child. A good place to start is to try and remember the kind of books that you loved as a kid. The kind of books that you would stay up late reading with a flashlight under the covers. The kind of books that you would read just to smell the pages. Then ask yourself, ‘Would the younger version of me enjoy the books that I want to make now?’ Asking yourself this keeps your work authentic and fresh, and people respond to that. Those are the kinds of books publishers want to bring into the world.”
What Type of Illustrator Are You?
Children’s Book Illustration: Discover Your Style