Children's illustration is an exciting design niche alive with color, rhythm, intricate patterns, poetry, wisdom, and irresistible characters. It's a fantastic opportunity for artists to exercise creative freedom and depict imagination, magic, and emotion.
Often referred to as picture books, the types of illustrations required for such a project vary depending on the story, the publisher, and the particular style of the artist.
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What makes a beautiful children's book illustration?
There is endless creative possibility in the world of children's book illustration. Through the use of rhythm, color, texture, and emotion, professional illustrators bring simple stories to life with visuals so that children can comprehend and feel into the story.
Creating a book for children requires a lot of empathy. Children comprehend on a more emotive level, so it's important that the artist can channel this through their illustrations.
They have to be able to aptly convey the emotions of the characters in the story for children to be able to understand and connect with. You'll notice that characters in picture books are alive with definitive expressions, and illustrators spend a lot of time perfecting these emotions in their character development.
Their description of a winning book is that it provides "a visual experience." They say that "A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures."
So, if you need some criteria to define what makes a successful picture book illustration, focusing on the theme, storyline and concept would be a good place to start! Having a strong visual theme throughout the illustrations is key.
The style of illustration really depends on the story and the artist, in the end. Like any art form, there isn't exactly a required set of standards that should be met. Not all picture books are colorful, for example. There are plenty of gorgeous monochrome picture books, as you'll see below.
Where to find a children's book illustrator
Whether you're a children's author, a publisher, or just someone excited to embark on a new creative adventure, finding the right illustrator is not always the easiest task. Aside from just knowing where to look, you've also got to find someone who will be on the same wavelength as the author to do the story visual justice.
Luckily, the internet is a wonderful place full of creative communities for artists to share and find work. You can browse Behance by simply searching for "children's book illustration," or you can look on other freelancer platforms.
Most illustrators are freelancers, so you can set out finding one on websites such as:
Most successful illustrators have their own portfolio website, which they will link to through the larger platforms. Here, you'll be able to browse more of their work, read a little about them, and source their contact details.
Publishing a children's sook
Whether being a children's book author is your full-time career or a side project, there are plenty of ways to go about publishing, with many artists choosing to self-publish children's books.
Getting your book publisher takes some time. It requires research, a proposal, and plenty of applications. The publishing industry is extremely competitive, so getting into a large publishing house like Penguin Random House is more challenging. There are tons of smaller publishing houses focused purely on children's books, however, such as Sleeping Bear Press, Charlesbridge, Holiday House, and many more.
So, if you do your research and look at the options you have available both locally and internationally, you can put together a list of publishing houses that you can send your proposal to.
Alternatively, you can self-publish, and release an e-book for digital distribution or have a few copies printed to sell through your own online store, and at local bookstores and markets. You'll have to come up with a strategy for your book sales and do some research on how to successfully self-publish.
How to become a children's book illustrator
If you're thinking about illustrating a children's book, you're likely already an artist. You might be a professional designer, and if not, you'll have to transfer your art into graphic design software or work with a graphic designer to help you.
You might need to find an author to work with or come up with the story and write the words before you get started illustrating.
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Most professional illustrators have studied art, illustration or graphic design. However, you can undertake these studies and start practicing your skills at any time.
You might want to try out a free illustration app like Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator) to get started on your illustrations or take a course to learn how to use other advanced design software.
Children's book illustration examples
Below we've listed some of our favorite, not-to-be-missed illustrations in a variety of styles to begin your adventure.
1. Sulwe- illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Illustrated by Vashti Harrison, written by Lupita Nyong'o, and published by Simon & Schuster, this is a beautiful collaboration between two feminist artists that touches on the important topic of representation.
This inspiring children's book tells the story of Sulwe's journey in discovering the meaning of beauty and finding her own.
The book explores important themes such as body acceptance, self-love, and colorism, which are eloquently depicted in the artwork.
These gorgeous illustrations play an important role in representing women of color and telling empowering stories around beauty. You'll find similar themes in another of Vashti Harrison's books, "Little Leaders," which depicts iconic female leaders throughout time.
"Sulwe" means "star" in Swahili, and by the end of her journey, Sulwe learns to embody her name and shine her inner beauty and love her "midnight" skin. This story is mirrored visually by the depiction of light, stars, and the night sky throughout.
Vashti Harrison's illustration style portrays a sense of magic and movement, which carry the theme of illumination.
There's a strong possibility that we might see this story rise into stardom as an iconic children's tale thanks to Netflix turning it into an animated musical.
Created in collaboration with Ananya Dasgupta, this vibrant picture book tells the tale of three children in the year 2563 who take a trip to Pluto and run into a black hole along the way.
Chaaya Prabhat has a well-refined individual style that comes through in his use of bright colors and expressive characters who come to life and convey emotion in definitive facial expressions.
Chaaya Prabhat uses a cohesive color pallet throughout the book, which ties the story together beautifully. He also makes use of space and shapes consciously in order to capture the feeling of each scene, which is an important technique in visually communicating a story.
Chaaya Prabhat has illustrated quite a few children's books, all equally beautiful and his portfolio is well worth checking out for inspiration! He is a talented artist whose types of illustrations resonate with children for their quirkiness and color.
3. Journey - illustrated by Aaron Becker
The ultimate escape into imaginative utopias, Becker’s illustrations are a prime example of captivating visual storytelling. Armed with a magical red pen, the story’s heroine draws a door which opens up boundless worlds of wonder.
Dreamy illustrations are sewn together with thematic perfection; recurring visual elements like the color red and lanterns carry the story, keeping it alive with the sense of magic and personal power that are evoked by adventure and imagination.
This wordless masterpiece by Becker is a noteworthy picture book that’s received deserved critical acclaim and calls to be paged through over and over and over again. Thankfully, it's part of a trilogy, so children and adults alike get the opportunity to enter Becker's awe-inspiring world on three separate occasions.
Flora and the Flamingo is a Caldecott medal winner for illustration created by Molly Idle. The book tells a wordless story about a girl and a flamingo who learn to dance together.
The illustrations are simple and elegant and perfectly capture a sense of beauty and gracefulness, which is enhanced by shades of pink set against a white background.
This is an interactive book with flap mechanisms which make it really engaging.
Illustrator, designer, animator, director, and poet Angie Siveria has created something wonderfully authentic in these illustrations.
Her use of color is reminiscent of old-world charm and gives the sense that these illustrations have been etched into old paper or carved into wood. These types of illustrations stay true to the artist's individual style which feels historical and enchanting.
Armando and Amira is a project created in collaboration with German composer and writer Oskar Schuster.
6. The Undefeated - illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Through inspiring illustrations and poetic wording, The Undefeated educates children about powerful icons throughout history who have braved adversity to stay true to their dreams and have a meaningful impact in the world.
Written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, the words and illustrations work together in perfect harmony to awaken a sense of courage and power in the readers that mirrors that of the characters it honors.
Nelson’s is a painter and illustrator, his painting background coming across strong in each detailed and lifelike illustration. He’s used a collage style in this project, which does a good job of creating a captivating visual atmosphere.
Many artists choose to use their work to educate and create change, particularly when it comes to representation and honoring the leaders we can all learn from. If you’re thinking about creating a children’s book, this might be a worthwhile approach to consider!
The 2021 Caldecott medal winner written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade tells an important and relevant story about environmental protection and is a #1 New York Times bestseller.
A beautiful sense of movement is created throughout the book in Goade's illustrations of water. The strength of this powerful element is communicated well, and she carries a definitive visual theme through repeated waves and shades of blue.
What would a list of children's book illustrations be without mentioning the highly successful children's book author Dr. Seuss?
This famous poet, author, and illustrator is a cultural icon loved by many well into adulthood. His types of illustration are immediately recognizable and have been influential on many artists.
It's difficult to choose one book to highlight- The Cat in the Hat is an absolute classic, while The Lorax is wildly imaginative, but Oh the Places You'll Go just has an irresistible whimsy that is true illustration eye candy and tells an inspiring and wise story.
This classic picture book is packed with pattern, color, imagination, and adventure. The illustrations are dreamy and alive with texture, and even available as prints.
Written by Nicola Edwards and illustrated by Katie Hickey, this is a fantastic book for children to learn about mindfulness.
It offers a simple and elegant introduction to mindfulness through the practice of appreciating your surroundings. Katie Hickey reinforces the message through artwork that illustrates the allure of nature and the present moment.
Hickey's style of illustration is textured and slightly reminiscent of earlier classic cartoon styles from the 1980's.
Sir Quentin Saxby Blake is the famous illustrator who brought Roald Dahl's stories to life. Seeing as he has been knighted for his work, we won't limit it to one book.
From The Witches to Matilda and the adored BFG, Quentin's iconic illustrations are classic and reflective of the era in which he was working between the 1960s and 1980s. They mirror the strange, imaginative world of Roald Dahl's stories with which you might be familiar!
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Blake’s illustration style for these stories is representative of the inside of childhood imagination- they’re textured, free and colorful.
Although he is most well-known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books, Blake has in fact illustrated over 500 (and counting) books! You can browse his latest work, exhibitions, and projects on his website.
This children's book by Japanese author and illustrator Shinsuke Yoshitake captures a certain essence of both Japanese art and literature in its strange philosophical perspective and authentically Japanese artwork.
Essentially, the story contemplates whether an apple is an apple while exploring all the other possibilities for what the apple could be. It's a good introduction to critical thinking for children and an inspiring and distinct approach to illustration.
Yoshitake has illustrated a number of picture books, all expressive of his unique style.
12. Where The Wild Things Are- illustrated by Maurice Sendak
You know a book's a classic when there's a video of Barack and Michelle Obama doing a live reading of it on YouTube. Where The Wild Things Are is a Caldecott medal winner and absolute classic children’s book, having gone on to inspire a movie and an opera.
Written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak in 1963, the story tells the tale of Max, who embarks on an adventure to an imaginary island populated by wild animals. The story is a metaphor for many themes, including anger.
Each of Sendak’s illustrations is a work of art, which portrays his imagination so vividly, making many adaptations of the story possible.
These gorgeous illustrations depict a classic story through the use of vibrant colors and texture that makes each illustration feel like a painting.
Illustrator Goncalo Viana brings the famous Emerald city to life in a compelling combination of geometric shapes that make these illustrations just as spellbinding as the story.
Goncalo is a professional illustrator and architect with a distinct style that portrays the colorful and retro feel of his hometown, Lisbon. Viano’s background as an architect is evident in his art, as he carefully interweaves elements of geometry that complement the freedom in his use of texture and color.
14. Where The Rainbow Ends- Serefima Kosikava
This picture book is described by artist Serefima Kosikava as “a quiet book without words.” It tells the story of a man on a mission to find the end of a rainbow.
These mostly black and white illustrations are beautiful and moody, and perfectly accentuate the rainbow colors that pop out again the greyscale illustrations.
Edward Miller’s illustrations reflect a “typical” children’s book illustration style. Simplified, geometric, and brightly colored, Miller knows how to create art that resonates with children and visually communicates in a way that they can easily comprehend.
How to Haunt a House is created in collaboration with author Carolyn Crimi and tells the story of Groana, Moana, and Shrieky who put their scaring skills to the test one Haloween by trying to scare a particularly fearless family.
The story and illustrations do a wonderful job of humanizing monster characters and turning a "horror" theme into something joyful and funny for children.
It’s worthwhile for any aspiring children’s book illustrator to check out more of Edward Miller’s work for some inspiration, and to study a classic style that works well for young children.
Written by Philippe Lechermeier and Illustrated by Rébecca Dautremer, The Secret Lives of Princesses takes an offbeat approach to traditional fairytales by introducing some wonderfully quirky Princess characters, whose very human idiosyncrasies make them unique and lovable, for example, Princess Oblivia who is constantly forgetting things, or Princess Somnia who loves to sleep.
Dautremer's gorgeous illustrations are rich with intricate patterns, and alive with a royal red color theme that captures regal enchantment to perfection.
Dautremer is a French artist and illustrator whose impressive portfolio is moody and hints towards surrealism. Her edgy individual style of illustration works well in portraying the Princesses in this story, who are intended to break the cultural norm of idealized princesses in traditional fairytales.
Picture books that teach about culture are a wonderful opportunity to draw on tradition and symbology to create rich artwork.
Written by Rebecca Young and illustrated by Matt Ottley, this penguin random house picture book publication tells the story of a boy leaving home and taking a solo journey to find a better place. All he takes with him is a book, a bottle, a blanket, and a teacup containing some earth with which he can play.
Matt’s illustrations beautifully capture themes of vastness, possibility, and solitude. By illustrating large, open, watery landscapes in pastel colors and shades of blue and green, these illustrations convey a sense of peacefulness that reinforces the message to children that solitude and adventure do not need to be feared.
18. Imagine A City- illustrated by Elise Hurst
This picture book masterpiece is written and illustrated by Elise Hurst and proposes a plentitude of places in black ink detail offset by busts of Scarlett.
Hurst portrays a wildly imaginative place, alive with interesting architecture and intricate scenes where you'll find animals and humans living side by side in a magical city that is full of possibility.
The illustrations bring together the past and future by utilizing a classical style of drawing to depict a futuristic and otherworldly place.
19. Where’s Wally- illustrated by Martin Handford
We had to save another classic for last! Acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Martin Handford created many complex and famous scenes with his uber-engaging artwork.
Handford’s overwhelmingly detailed illustrations for Where's Wally might make most artists cringe at the thought of creating something so intimate. They are intended to be overwhelming to look at and create an intimate relationship with the viewer by teaching them to pay attention to detail.
Handford was known to take up to eight weeks to draw one Where's Wally scene, each of which contains around 300 - 500 figures!
Are you inspired?
If you've just been looking for some great children's book recommendations, hopefully this list has guided you to some books you can treasure for a long time; and if you're a professional graphic designer/ illustrator, an aspiring artist, or just someone with a story to tell- hopefully you're inspired and enlightened by the beautiful illustrations shared above. Be sure to check out Curve if you're looking for a free, feature rich and easy-to-use graphic design software to create high-quality illustrations with.
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Ben is a Content Lead for Linearity living in Berlin. His hobbies include board games, cooking, reading, and writing.