Illustrating Books For Kids: 15 Useful Tips

Some call them ‘fidgety’, some refer to them as ‘restless’, others get all worked up about their ‘low attention spans’. However, the truth of the matter is – it is only to be expected that kids between the age of 3 to 7 would be a playful, lively lot. A proven way of keeping them happily engaged for extended periods is letting them read good books for kids. It’s not a foolproof method though, with surveys revealing that the average reading time for children hovers around 30 minutes per day worldwide at present (significantly down from the 46 minutes reported at the turn of the century). A key cause for this is the poor quality of pictures and illustrations that some of the so-called ‘best children’s books’ have. We will here share some handy pointers to nicely illustrate a kids’ book:

  1. Start with rough sketches – Go through the entire storybook you will be illustrating first. Once you get an idea about who the main character(s) are, draw rough pencil sketches of them. It would be easier if you put the characters in certain situations, and draw them accordingly. Remember, your illustrations are meant to complement the accompanying text – so what you draw should be a decent pictorial representation of the written material.
  2. Look for inspirations – No matter how lovingly (and how many!) parents buy books online for their kids, the latter won’t like them if the illustrations seem boring and done just for the heck of it. The onus is on professional illustrators and graphic designers to look for inspirations in every visual element they create. Thankfully, such inspirations are all around us – on the tele, on roadside hoardings and picture pamphlets, on t-shirt images, and the like. Gather unique, novel ideas from all possible sources which can be put on paper. Do not directly copy someone else’s illustrations though!
  3. Keep spacing in mind – Designing a storybook with pictures is all about planning where exactly the pictures would go in it. Ideally, you should create a storyboard of the entire book you would be illustrating. Note down things like the total number of pages, the gaps between paragraphs, and the random line breaks (where the pictures might fit in). Do this on a large piece of chart paper, and draw samples of the pictures at the positions you deem appropriate. This will give you a blueprint for starting the actual artwork.
  4. Don’t focus only on characters – General landscape painters need not be good character illustrators, but the reverse is absolutely necessary. Browse through the picture books available at any leading online bookstore, and you will find that the artists have made a conscious effort to draw backgrounds that seamlessly fit in with the characters. To become an expert in background illustration, draw a lot of things – anything that catches your fancy, and is not a human. The more you do this, the better will be your ability to understand the suitable background illustrations for the different parts of a story.
  5. Strive for consistency – Continuity is absolutely vital while illustrating any book. Make sure that the characters you draw for a storybook that people will be buying online or from stores are consistent – i.e., their appearances do not change from one page to another. In addition to the characters’ faces, hair and dresses, you also need to ensure that their facial expressions are in sync with the flow of the story. If a child is being scolded in the story, and you draw him with a big smile on his face – that would appear odd. Most children would notice that oddity too!
  6. Color samples should match the story type – If a kids’ storybook is about how a brave child goes through a series of adventures in a forest (just an example), do not make the mistake of making the pictures and illustrations a riot of colors. Instead, choose a main color theme (something with plenty of darkish greenery and gloomy, foreboding skies in this case) and play around with it. On the other hand, for more fun stories (say, about a kid’s birthday celebrations), you should use a brighter and more colorful palette. Be careful while transferring the traces on to the paper. Prepare full-size sketches for books, and allow some margins on all sides for ‘color bleeding’.
  7. Understand the format – Before you start illustrating on a professional level, get a thorough idea of the format of picture books that are available at online bookstores for kids. Barring a few exceptions, the total number of pages in picture storybooks is a multiple of 8 (e.g., 24 or 32). The first page does not need major illustrations, and text/pictures should start from the second or third page. The last page should be illustration-only (i.e., a sort of visual completion of the story). There has to be some illustrations on every page. Kids hate storybook pages that have only lines of text on them.
  8. Don’t try to make your illustrations speak extra – There is a common misconception among illustrators new to the profession that their images should ‘add’ something to the story. In truth, the sole purpose of illustrations is to give a pictorial view of the text (including speech bubbles, thought bubbles and all), so that children can understand the stories more easily. The pictures add a more lively feel to physical as well as online books for kids. However, if the text is about something, and the picture next to it depicts something else – that would be a problem.
  9. Include children in your images – Even if the central character of the story is not a human kid. Little readers find it easier to relate to the illustrations of kids present in storybooks. Be very detailed while planning out their poses, positions, expressions and other tidbits. If you have a toddler at home, (s)he can be your inspiration for this purpose. If not, visit the local children’s playground a couple of times. You will find plenty of lively, sweet kids to sketch.
  10. Add variety – Illustrations (however imaginatively done) might seem boring if the artist does not change the perspectives of the pictures used. For instance, a close-up shot of a character should be followed by a distant view (e.g., the entire room where the character is present). Self-publishers who sell books online also state that illustrators should use both double page and single page vignettes. There are two rules of thumb here: the illustrations should never encroach into the text area (prior knowledge of the size of the pages is a must), and kids should never feel that they are seeing the same pictures over and over again.
  11. Portrait vs landscape – This would totally depend on the layout of the book you would be illustrating. Most popular picture books for kids have horizontal layouts – which means you also need to make your sketches in landscape mode. The best idea would be to draw two versions/mockups of each illustration – vertically and horizontally – and show them to the author/publisher/client. It might well happen that a combination of horizontal and vertical pictures finally get selected.
  12. Be prepared for initial hiccups – Your first idea won’t be your best, but it won’t be your last either. Prepare a dummy copy of the storybook (with dummy text and whitespaces at paragraph breaks), and scribble out your illustrations in them. You will soon find that some of these initial sketches are not looking good enough, and another idea/perspective/color combination is required. Even internationally renowned children’s book illustrators often require multiple tries to finalize the pictures for a book. Don’t lose heart if your first set of pictures are not approved. Learn from your mistake, understand the story better, and come up with another, better set.
  13. Create dramatic contrasts – Many self-published kids’ books that are available for purchase online have this feature. An entire page of illustrations (pictures of the characters) would follow a page where there is plenty of text. The picture-only pages also give young readers the opportunity to take a pause from the actual reading, and grasp the idea that you are trying to communicate through the images. In addition, while storyboarding the illustrations, consider having images above text on certain pages, and text above images in the others.
  14. Design every character – It is important for every character to have its own personality (even if it is not a human). There has to be some unique feature about each of the characters (the main ones and the peripherals), which would help children to identify them. You can also consider ‘humanizing’ animal characters (i.e., give them human outfits), if the story so demands. A character should be recognizable in all its different poses, postures and expressions.
  15. Read…and then read some more – Illustration styles are continually evolving, and the last things you want your sketches to be is appear dated. Buy a few bestselling picture books for kids online, and check out the way in which pictures and graphic elements have been included in them. Having academic degrees in designing is all very fine – but you cannot afford to miss out on opportunities to keep learning. Going through others’ works is the best, and the easiest, way for that.

While creating illustrations and sketches, have someone (preferably, kids in your known circle) to provide real-time feedback and suggestions. Adding detailed images to the copyright/title pages (generally, pages 2-5) would be an error. Avoid procrastination, and put every idea that you have on paper as quickly as possible. Keep track of book designing seminars and workshops that are held regularly, and attend a few. Illustrating children’s books can be a lot of fun – all that you need to do is become a skilled designing artist.