Illustrator 101: The Dos and Don’ts of Hiring an Illustrator for your Children’s Book

For most of us, the first books we embrace are illustrated. Picture books provide children a way into literature—they’re the tantalizing bridge between the stories told to you by your parents and the books you read yourself. With picture books, children can “read” the drawings, and the illustrations bring stories to life.

Goodnight Moon might be just fine read aloud, but what makes it really resonate are the images of that green room with its flickering fireplace, drying socks, and curious mouse. The Little Prince would not be the same without the earnest line drawing of a snake eating an elephant, so often mistaken for a hat.

At GFP, one of our favorite genres to work with is children’s illustrated books—but it can also be one of the trickiest. Finding the perfect illustrator to capture an author’s voice and then working with that illustrator to bring a story to life is both challenging and rewarding.

For a successful relationship with your illustrator, here are a few things to keep in mind

Don’t Hire the First Illustrator You Find

It’s not uncommon for us to hear from authors who have already hired an illustrator. Many times, the illustrator is someone who has been recommended to them, or someone whom they already know. While it’s great to work with a known quantity, it can also limit the potential of your work. Rather than committing to an illustrator up front, spend time looking at the illustrations in children’s books and considering what style works best for your story. Once you have a style in mind, thoroughly research illustrators. There are a number of sources available to you, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Hire an Illustrator. At GFP, we work with agents to tailor our search for illustrators who will meet the needs of an author’s vision.


Consider Your Format

In addition to determining the type of illustrations you want, consider what format works best for your book. Is it a fairy tale aimed at the toddler and preschool set? A standard 10 × 10–inch, 32-page picture book is likely the best format for you. For a typical book of this format, illustrations are mostly 2-page spreads with the occasional single-page feature. On the other hand, if your book is a guide to planets, it will probably be a longer book with a smaller footprint. For this type of book, there will be mostly 1-page and spot illustrations used to relay the information contained within the manuscript.

Depending on the format, subject, and age group, the book format can vary a great deal.


Clarify Rights with Your Illustrator

It’s important to be up front with the illustrator about rights. Most illustrators will request royalties for their artwork. If you want to own the illustrations outright, you must use a work-for-hire contract with your illustrator. Many illustrators will charge a premium for you to buy their artwork outright. However, it may be worth it to avoid paying royalties and being restricted in the usage of the illustrations. Do not avoid this issue with your illustrator. It is much better to work out an agreement at the start.


Keep Track of Approvals

Be sure to stipulate all approvals in the contract with your illustrator. A book can go seriously off track if this detail isn’t worked out. When we work with illustrators at GFP, we provide approvals at sketches, tight sketches, and color. In addition, we ask for separate approvals for main characters, as these sometimes need to go through several rounds before they look exactly as our author pictures them. Cover approvals should be separate from your illustration approvals, and they will also go through three rounds at GFP.

Be precise about what each stage means to you and the illustrator. At GFP, we stipulate that sketches mean thumbnail drawings of how the illustrator intends to depict a scene. Depending on the illustrator, the detail of these drawings can fall anywhere between stick figures and fully sketched out illustrations. Regardless, the idea is that you are approving the general direction of an illustration at the sketch stage. This is the time to let your illustrator know that you want additional characters in a scene or that she has missed some important element. Your illustrator will assume that anything you don’t change at this point is approved.

The tight sketches are far more refined and show all of the details that will be included in the illustration. This is the time to make changes regarding character placement, body position, missing elements, or other similar types of details.

Finally, once tight sketches are approved, you will receive color illustrations. At this point, the only changes you should make are correcting color mistakes or requesting color changes. Remember, if you miss changes at any step and then request them at a later point, the illustrator will likely charge you for changes outside scope.

Final Thought

Working with an illustrator to bring your characters to fully colored form is thrilling but often more complex than expected. Your book’s illustrations can make or break your story, so it’s worth spending the time to do them right.