Some Thoughts on Illustrating Children’s Books


An illustrated children’s book is an interesting hybrid. A story is told using words and pictures. The work of authors and illustrators is combined with the goal of producing an entity which is more than the sum of its parts. It is difficult to find writers and artists, equally skilled in their fields, whose personal styles complement each other. An ideal match can have spectacular results. Examples of excellent partnerships, whose styles click are Robert Munsch/Michael Martchenko and Michael Kusugak/Valdyana Krykorka.

The matching problem vanishes when the author and illustrator are one person. Words and pictures created by the same imagination are de facto a perfect match. The works of author/illustrator Phoebe Gilman and Barbara Reid demonstrate the effectiveness of this two-in-one combination.

An illustrated children’s book is read and viewed at the same time. Reading and viewing are very different activities. While reading, the brain assembles information in a linear sequence – like beads on a string – to form a complete idea. When viewing, the brain perceives the entire image instantaneously. Later, it can scan the image for interesting details but in a random, not orderly, fashion.

Although the written story is the essential foundation of a book, it is the artwork that makes the initial impact on the reader. Imagine yourself scanning a shelf of children’s books in a bookstore or library. Inevitably, the colours and shapes of a particular book cover catch your eye. You pause to read the title. The title captivates your imagination. You pick up the book. You quickly flip through the pages assessing the look of the book. If what you see appeals to you, you might sample some of the text. This assessment can be done in a few seconds, and most of it focuses on the art not the text.

Even though artwork plays such an important role in a children’s book, reviewers rarely pay any serious attention to it. We learn very little about the illustrators and their work, and virtually nothing about the interaction between words and text – so critical to the success of an illustrated children’s book.

Some people wrongly suspect that illustrators are failed artists – refugees from the adult art world. This notion is based on an outdated, 20th century pecking order of genres in the visual arts where painting was placed at the top of the list, as one of the “major arts”, and illustration was relegated to the bottom, as one of the “minor arts”.

Illustration is not an “easier” or “lesser” art than painting. An excellent illustrator has the same level of talent, training and experience as an excellent painter. Good illustrations and good paintings communicate with the viewer in exactly the same way. Producing a series of illustrations for a children’s book is just as demanding, and time consuming, as producing a series of paintings for an exhibition. An illustrated children’s book is an art exhibit in miniature. The high quality of the best children’s book illustrations is one of the reasons why so many adults collect them.

All artists work on developing a recognizable personal style, just as writers work on developing a distinctive voice. Style evolves with maturity and experience but, like handwriting, remains uniquely individual. You should be able to recognize the work of your favourite illustrator at a glance.

How does an illustrator approach the job of illustrating a book? Total familiarity with the text is an absolute must. The illustrator must know and understand the story – from the general overview to the smallest detail. Since producing a children’s book is a partnership, the illustrator should consult with the author to get a better insight into the concepts behind the story – the deeper the mutual understanding, the greater the possibility of achieving that magic blend of words and pictures which makes a perfect book.

Once the page breaks in the text have been established, the illustrator creates a storyboard with thumbnail sketches of intended illustrations or a dummy book that shows what the finished product will look like. The illustrations can relate to the text in three ways: they can reflect the text; round out the text with pertinent details; or, expand the text with extra information. As a basic requirement, good illustrations must reflect the text accurately. More imaginative illustrators can round out the text with details that are implied, but not written down, by the author. Since, children’s stories are written in an uncluttered style, the artist can enrich the book by including implied details in the illustrations. Expanding the text by creating visual mini-plots and vignettes in the backgrounds and borders raises a book to an even higher artistic level. Phoebe Gilman’s Something From Nothing is an excellent example of a book that works successfully on all levels.

Another important aspect of planning a book is selecting which moments to freeze-frame and illustrate. Within each section of text there are many such moments. The artist decides which moment is the most effective visually and fits best into the sequence of illustrations. The illustrations should parallel the written text, and create a visual story of equal strength. They should flow smoothly from page to page holding and guiding the reader’s attention towards the end of the story.

Continuity is of paramount importance in illustrated children’s books. An illustrator deals with a series of illustrations with recurring characters and settings. Each player in the story must be recognizable from the beginning to the end. Backgrounds should be consistent and make sense as the story unfolds. The most fascinating books create a self-contained universe, which the reader can happily explore.

After all the planning is finished, and a storyboard or a dummy book made, the illustrator can start creating the original artwork. Drawing takes time. Depicting what an author has written is not as easy as it seems. No matter how quickly and precisely the illustrator has imagined a scene, it is always time-consuming to re-create it on paper. Writing down a simple idea can take a few seconds. For example: ”Judy sat under a tree”. When an illustrator reads this sentence, countless questions spring to mind: “What does Judy look like?” “How is she sitting?” “Under what kind of tree?” “What is the time of day?” “What season?” “What about the weather?” “What is her mood?” “Why is she sitting there?” etc. Once these questions, and many others, are answered, the illustrator can start sketching. Sketching “Judy sat under a tree.” can take five minutes, but producing a finished illustration can take anywhere from days to weeks.

Each illustration exists as an aesthetic object in its own right and is a valuable artifact. It also exists as an intrinsic part of a whole series that has its own artistic value. The skill of the artist determines the quality and therefore the value of these handmade objects.

An artist can sketch and gather information anywhere, but the production of a finished illustration requires a quiet corner or a studio. The artist’s craft involves complicated processes and delicate materials. An illustration must be executed with great care, and presented in pristine condition. In comparison, the writer’s finished product is quite different. A manuscript has no innate value – although it is an original work. The value of a manuscript lies in its ideas, not in its physical qualities. Writers have more freedom as to place of work. Some writers even say that they do their best work in cafes, parks, or libraries.

Despite all these considerations and challenges, illustrators persevere and create great books. Along with writers, they use their talent and expertise to further the development of the illustrated children’s book – a unique genre which delights children and collectors alike.

By Christina Senkiw