11 Children's Book Illustrators on How They Built Great Careers

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, but, children’s books are still going strong. In 2018, they accounted for almost a third of the top 100 print bestsellers in the UK. And in this thriving industry, a new generation of illustrators has emerged, using modern tools to create books that stand the test of time. 

We asked eleven extraordinary illustrators to share their best tips for achieving success in today’s competitive market. They told us about their favorite resources and shared invaluable tips for up-and-coming artists. Read on to learn how they got their foot in the door, found inspiration, and kept the momentum going over time. 

They do their research.

Image from: Red Again by Barbara Lehman, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Image from: Red Again by Barbara Lehman, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Barbara Lehman: 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. Study 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. 

They join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Image: Sea Serpent by Lucy Farfort

Image: Sea Serpent by Lucy Farfort

Lucy Farfort: One thing I did that boosted my career was joining the SCBWI, a non-profit organization connecting children’s book writers and illustrators. They organize awards, conferences, and publications and have more than eighty regional chapters around the world. 

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.

Image: bunny, I love you (acrylic, color pencil) by Dream Chen

Image: bunny, I love you (acrylic, color pencil) by Dream Chen

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. 

They attend events.

Image: Floop and Cordelia by Andrea Ipaktchi

Image: Floop and Cordelia by Andrea Ipaktchi

Andrea Ipaktchi: 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. 

They share work online. 

Image: My beloved monster and me by Esther García

Image: My beloved monster and me by Esther García

Esther Garcia: 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. 

Image from: The Day the Universe Exploded My Head, written by Allan Wolf and illustrated by Anna Raff, published by Candlewick Press

Image from: The Day the Universe Exploded My Head, written by Allan Wolf and illustrated by Anna Raff, published by Candlewick Press

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.

They reach out to publishers.

Image from: Kiki & Jax: The Life-Changing Magic of Friendship by Marie Kondo, Co-Authored and Illustrated by Salina Yoon

Image from: Kiki & Jax: The Life-Changing Magic of Friendship by Marie Kondo, Co-Authored and Illustrated by Salina Yoon

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. 

Image: Happy Beet by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Image: Happy Beet by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Tatjana Mai-Wyss: 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. 

They stay curious. 

Chuck Groenink: 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. 

Image from: A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books

Image from: A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books

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. 

They stay young at heart. 

Image: Yam the Spring Time Snail by Esme Shapiro

Image: Yam the Spring Time Snail by Esme Shapiro

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.


On your own illustration journey? Skillshare has dozens of great classes in illustration, drawing, and design to help you learn and grow.

 

Cover image from: Red Again by Barbara Lehman, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For more information on Feature Shoot, click here.