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Everyone remembers the books they loved as a kid, and especially the famous children’s book illustrations that brought them to life. They may work with different mediums, in different children’s book illustration styles, and on different kinds of stories, but the famous illustrators always manage to make a lasting impression on little readers —and sometimes big ones, too!
Whether you’re stocking a new book collection for a special child in your life or you want to learn child illustration yourself, here are 15 incredible storybook illustrators that we love—and that you should know.
Leo Lionni is a critically-acclaimed author and illustrator who held a number of art, advertising, and design-related positions in the Netherlands, United States, and Italy, before becoming world-famous for the wildly successful and prolific career in children’s books. Beginning at age 50 and spanning the course of almost four decades, Lionni authored and illustrated more than 40 popular titles including the Caldecott Award-winning Inch by Inch, Frederick, Swimmy, and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. Many of his books have been translated into multiple languages and most remain in print to this day.
Lionni’s signature children’s illustration style is characterized by his use of collage, and for the rich textures, tones, hues, and playful geometric shapes he used to help tell his fables about anthropomorphized animals, birds, and insects. According to his New York Times obituary, Lionni first turned to using collage in a desperate attempt to keep his grandchildren occupied while he accompanied them on a long train ride. Trapped without his usual art supplies, he tore up a copy of Life Magazine and created colorful shapes that he could use to illustrate his story. The children paid rapt attention, and later, Lionni drew on that experience to inform his first book Little Blue and Little Yellow. The results are some of the best children’s book illustrations available.
Vashti Harrison is a multi-talented author, illustrator, and filmmaker whose debut children’s book Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History became a New York Times Best Seller when it was published in 2017. Based on social media posts that Harrison had created to celebrate Black History Month, Little Leaders celebrates 40 history-making African American women by introducing children to their stories while depicting each in a sweet, accessible illustration style.
Harrison says that she depicted the women with a particularly stylized illustration style because it was important to her to show that “boldness and bravery can come in different shapes and sizes.” She notes that she drew each woman with her eyes closed to suggest that leadership “can also come in the form of the quiet, shy, or introverted.” She released a follow-up title, Little Leaders: Visionary Women Around the World, in 2018.
Author P.D. Eastman, one of the most beloved picture book illustrators, worked at Walt Disney Productions, Warner Brothers’ cartoon unit, and United Productions of America on projects like “Mr. Magoo” before he devoted his life to writing and making classic children’s book illustrations. His literary career began in earnest after he was assigned to an army unit led by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), and was later approached by the famous author to help write titles with him at Random House. Once there, Eastman wrote and illustrated dozens of his own books and lent illustrations to a number of other authors’ works as well.
P.D. Eastman’s colorful cartoonish style has made his illustrations some of the most beloved and recognizable of all time. His titles like Go Dog Go, Are You My Mother?, The Best Nest, and Sam and the Firefly are considered genre classics. To date, Random House has sold more than 30 million copies of Eastman’s books worldwide.
Mitsumasa Anno is a Japanese children’s book author and illustrator who is famous for telling stories in books that contain little to no text. Instead, they rely on visually arresting artwork to portray not only his characters’ stories, but also higher-level math and science concepts, jokes, optical illusions, and the author’s appreciation for travel and discovering foreign cultures. He’s created more than 35 popular children’s books, including Upside Downers, Anno’s Journey, Anno’s Counting House, Anno’s Magic Seeds, and more.
Anno’s densely detailed illustrations are most often pen and ink and watercolor, but they sometimes feature woodcuts and collage, too. Because his work can include visual tricks, illusions, jokes, and math references, he is regularly and rightly compared to M.C. Escher. In 1984, he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest lifetime achievement honor in his field, in recognition of his “unique [gift] for communicating to both East and West” and his important, lasting contributions to children’s illustration and literature.
Renowned artist Patricia Polacco has written and illustrated more than 115 books for children, including The Keeping Quilt, Thunder Cake, The Blessing Cup and Rechenka’s Eggs. As a child in grade school, Polacco struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia and was illiterate until she was nearly 14. As a way to cope with her academic and social challenges, she developed an early interest in drawing, painting, and sculpture, ultimately earning a degree in fine art and a PhD in art history. Although Polacco didn’t start writing children’s books until she was over 40 years old, she relies on memories of her childhood to inspire many of her books. Growing up in an extended family of immigrants, she credits her cultural background for her propensity for storytelling. Characters based on her beloved Grandmother figure prominently in many of her more popular titles.
Polacco has used collage in some of her illustrations but tends toward soft graphite and pen-and-ink drawings. Facial features and dismal scenes are often rendered with sketchy lines and in grey scale, while saturated, flat colors are used sparingly to demarcate important objects, characters, or joyful circumstances.
Christian Robinson is an animator and one of the storybook illustrators who worked with The Sesame Street Workshop and Pixar Animation Studios and lent art to a number of picture books in recent years. His gorgeous illustrations for Newberry Award-winning Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña, earned him critical praise when it was published in 2016. In a review from that year, the School Library Journal said that among its other endearing qualities, the book’s “radiant geometric-shaped artwork, and…authentic and enrichingly eye-opening representation of a diverse urban setting” made it a true standout among classic children’s book illustrations.
A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Robinson says that he has “the most fun by experimenting and trying all sorts of different mediums and techniques.” In The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, he worked with colored pencils while he created the children’s book illustration styles in Mac Barnett’s Leo: a Ghost Story by using a mix of collage and paint.
Erin Stead is the acclaimed illustrator behind A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Bear Has a Story to Tell, And Then It’s Spring, and If You Want to See a Whale among others. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she frequently collaborates with her husband, children’s book author and illustrator Phillip Stead, and says the landscape of her home state is one of her strongest creative influences.
Stead’s unique and famous children’s book illustrations are created through a complex, multi-step process that involves sketching, woodblock printing, and adding more line drawing as a final polishing step. Although she says that she was initially so intimidated by the prospect of working on child illustration that she “came to illustration a little reluctantly,” her gorgeous art has inspired millions of readers and earned her a Caldecott Award for the best children’s book illustrations in 2011.
One of the world’s most famous illustrators is artist and author Tomie DePaola, who has written and/or illustrated more than 260 books over the last 50 years. His most popular titles include Strega Nona, Fin M’Coul, Jamie O’ Rourke and the Big Potato, and The Clown of God, among others. To date, nearly 25 million copies of his books have been sold, and in 2011 he was awarded the Children’s Literature Legacy Award for his lifetime of contributions to the genre.
DePaola says that most of his recent work has been created with pens, pencils, erasers, and acrylic paint, but no matter what his medium, almost all his illustrations employ his friendly, folksy personal style. He depicts characters in a flat, graphic way, with heavy lines and muted earth tones. Hair textures, folds in fabric, and landscapes are also rendered in outline, giving his oeuvre a remarkable consistency despite his incredibly high output. He has earned his place among the revered picture book illustrators of our time.
Brigette Barrager is the illustrator of the highly acclaimed Uni the Unicorn series (written by Amy Krause Rosenthal). Her drawings are rich and whimsical, and they transport kids and grown-ups in the fantasy land of unicorns while remaining realistic in their depiction of children. She mixes styles and dabbles in wonderful details, so her illustrations are layered and unique. Barrager uses color liberally and employs color theory and the color wheel to draw out desired emotions to meld with the text and illuminate the characters’ emotions.
Richard Scarry’s illustrations are pure joy. His funny animals and whimsical vehicles—best seen in Cars and Trucks and Things That Go—will keep adults and children occupied for hours, scrutinizing the pages for new details and hidden humor in the busy, colorful scenes. Scarry was a prolific writer and illustrator, publishing over 300 books, and some of his characters and places are timeless classics that every child ought to know (Lowly Worm, Huckle the Pig, Sam and Dudley the bumbling detectives, and the setting for many of his books, Busytown).
Scarry’s drawings don’t pander to a younger audience, but rather appreciate the budding minds; he includes details like properly drawn pipes under the road, electrical outlets and the wiring that make them work, and paper mills with all their different moving parts (especially in What Do People Do All Day). Kids can learn about the natural and human-made world they live in while basking in the pure enjoyment of Scarry’s created worlds populated by zany animals.
Chris Van Allsburg’s lush, muted drawings and paintings (which are sometimes grayscale, as in Jumanji) don’t overshadow the excellent writing he does to accompany them. His books have been met with roaring popularity, most saliently The Polar Express, which was so popular it was made into a highly successful movie (Jumanji was made into a well-received film as well).
Van Allsburg’s illustrations are subtle and dark but extraordinarily detailed, showing children’s emotions in curious, raw, and exultant states. His characters are fully formed as they reach the page, with complex feelings shown in realistic facial expressions that illuminate, not overshadow, the text. He has been awarded two Caldecott Medals for his work, which is not bombastic in the way of many children’s books—the quiet power of his illustrations often speaks louder than color and flash that other children’s book illustrators employ.
Sven Nordqvist is a Swedish author and illustrator whose series about an old man named Pettson and his talking cat, Findus, who live in the countryside, is a total delight for kids and caregivers. The series is very popular in Germany, but the English translations are excellent, and the illustrations give the story a warmth and kindness that make for a totally immersive experience.
No detail is spared in Nordqvist’s fine, welcoming illustrations, which show a small, full life in all its bumps and entertaining bruises. The realistic, somber, and at times hilarious facial expressions bring a fullness and tenderness to the characters, whose wild adventures are not always what they set out to be. Nordqvist’s brilliance is in bringing small moments to big pages in absolutely hysterical, poignant fashion.
Dan Santat is a rising star in the author-illustrator world. His charming, lovely 2015 book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, won the Caldecott Medal, and he is currently. producing more excellent work that works outside the traditional boundaries of children’s book illustrations.
Santat’s imagination runs wild on the page, giving life to totally new imaginary creatures with totally recognizable thoughts and feelings. He uses color and shape to appeal to a child’s sense of wonder; a tree in Beekle fans out across two pages, and on the tip of each branch is a tiny star. Adults might think this isn’t quite realistic, but a child sees magic in his illustrations and relates to the story more deeply because of the whimsy in his illustrations.
Though she may not be a household name, Nicole Rubel’s illustrations are familiar to most families. She is best known for illustrating the classic children’s series Rotten Ralph, which includes around 20 books; she also made the art for more than 20 other children’s books. Rubel’s style is entrancingly humorous.
The facial expressions on Rotten Ralph and his child-owner, Sarah, convey more depth than the deadpan story describes, which gives the reader the feeling of being in on an inside joke with the characters. Further, the clothing she draws on Sarah and her family is outlandish and hilarious on its own, giving the impression that this family, which is portrayed in the text as quite normal and serious, is not quite what they appear. Rubel’s illustrations bring layers of intrigue to the Rotten Ralph series, so it is no wonder that she received numerous awards for her work.
William Steig’s oeuvre is large and varied. He has written and illustrated such childhood classics as Doctor De Soto, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, CDB, Gorky Rises, and Amos & Boris. He also wrote the book that inspired the DreamWorks series Shrek!. He was a nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen award for an illustrator in 1982.
Steig’s illustrations are fairly simple and not stylized; they are accessible to children because they almost look like something they themselves could have drawn, with a bit of practice. The lines aren’t always straight; the circles are wobbly; the ink marks are scratchy in places. Steig’s appeal as an illustrator is to bring the humanity of his characters to life through his perfectly imperfect art. The magic contained in his books is drawn plainly, enlivening the possibility of quotidian magic in children’s minds.
Inspired by These Illustrators?
Children’s Book Illustration: Discover Your Style
What makes a good children’s book illustration?
As with all artistic pursuits, there’s no one right way to be a children’s book illustrator. The best illustrators weave their art into the book’s text in a clever, thoughtful, humorous, or touching way, but there are many variations on this principle. Some illustrations follow the story closely, bringing the words to life. Others go beyond the text to show the characters and settings in finer detail or with more nuance (and even humor) than the author provides. Other successful illustrators take the stark route, showing just a small part of the text contained on each page, so the reader focuses on that concept, moment, or detail while the words are read.
Successful illustrators bring joy and freshness to the page—the ability to illustrate novel delight is the key to setting oneself apart. Showing emotion through art is also crucial, whether it is subtle and affecting, bold and brave, or zany and hysterical. Children relate best to drawings that cater to the way their brilliant young minds work, so illustrators who can tap into that will meet with more success.
What media do children’s book illustrators use?
The boundary of book illustration is, of course, the printed page, but there’s quite a wide variety of media that illustrators can use. Eric Carle, of course, layers bits of torn colored paper to make his extraordinarily beautiful pictures. Many children’s book illustrators use watercolor paints, pastels, acrylics, oil paints, and black pen, as these media create smooth, pleasing images.
Others use software programs like Procreate to draw digitized images that look fresh and cool. And others still—like the incomparable Mo Willems of Elephant and Piggy fame—use a bare-bones cartoon style and thought bubbles to bring the text to life.
How much do illustrators make for a children’s book?
Pay per book varies, of course, but in general illustrators are paid somewhere in the range of $8,000–12,000 per book. That figure could be lower or higher depending on previous work, awards won, and the renown of the illustrator. Beyond the initial pay, they generally earn 3.5–6 percent of the royalties made from book sales.
As in any career, more experience (more publications) means a higher earning potential, so a well-published illustrator will have an easier time finding well-paid work. It can be difficult to break into the field, and many illustrators have side gigs to support themselves while they look for work illustrating children’s books.
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How to Illustrate a Children’s Picture Book: Character Design