Many people think that children don’t know much, or that a lot escapes their notice. You’d be surprised though; children have eery powers sometimes when it comes to noticing things. This is very true when it comes to illustrations in children’s books. Artwork that captures their attention will really excite them and they’ll return to the book again and again. Parents will tell other parents that their little angel can’t get enough of, such and such, and then more mums and dads will be out buying that book. The story of course, is quite important, kids like to know the words and they love repeating things, but chances are when they’re quite young they won’t be able to read. All they can do is look at the pictures, and if the pictures are no good, it really doesn’t matter what the story is about.
Firstly, if you’re going to do the illustrations for a children’s book, you need to think about the target age range. How old are the kids that this book is aimed at going to be? If they’re about one years old or less I’d recommend big friendly pictures, fairly simple style with large heads because at that age, faces are very important to them. Plus, a few animals won’t go amiss either. Children at that age also love to interact with their books, not really something an illustrator is responsible for, but books with fold out flaps always go down well.
If the children are a little older, between one and three or so, then they can appreciate much more complex illustrations. They like little hidden things to look at in and around the main illustration, rabbits poking their heads out of holes, a sleepy moon peeking from behind a cloud, an assortment of mice. They’ll spot them soon enough and then they’ll be looking out for them, plus the parent can add extra elements to the story by getting their little ones to count how many mice there are, or find the rabbits.
By the time you’re illustrating for the eight to twelve crowd, the images will be smaller. When it was for the little kids the images were full page and double page spreads; now they’ll be mainly embedded in the text, or occasionally a full page spread at the start of a chapter. The images now need to be detailed but concise, depicting a key event in the story. They’re also unlikely to be in colour at this point, so black line drawings are the order of the day. The characters are more likely to be human children around the same age of the target audience; the illustrations, whilst black and white and somewhat detailed, can still vary in style between realistic (e.g. William Brown) or friendly cartoon (e.g. Tracy Beaker) or somewhere in between (e.g. Harry Potter).
It is possible to study children’s illustration as a course all of its own, and there’s even a distance learning course available from the London College of Art, so you can do it in your own home at your own time. I myself haven’t taken this course, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s any good or not and as it costs over £300, I’m not planning on giving it a whirl any time soon. However, if it’s something you’re interested in and you haven’t the time to give up work and go to college, it might be a good plan. Here’s their site: http://www.londonartcollege.co.uk/c4childrens/C4-childrens-illustration-course2.htm
There are plenty of books you can read on the subject of illustration in general, and children’s illustration in particular. I had a read of “Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication” by Martin Salisbury but to be honest I didn’t get into it. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes you get a book about art that’s really useful and interesting, and other times it just feels like a photo album of work that other people have done. This felt like the latter. Plus a lot of the other children’s illustration advice books tend to have been published ten, sometimes twenty years ago, and they’re so out of date.
If you’ve written and illustrated a children’s book yourself then you’ll be looking to get it published, I guess the same is also true if you’re solely a writer or an illustrator. Everyone wants to see their children’s book work hit the shelves don’t they? There’s a book called “The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook”. A new one is published every year, it’s chock full of publishers set out in order of who they are, what they publish etc. It’s really useful, you can find who does children’s books in there and then get in touch with them. Although, if it says “no unsolicited emails or letters” that means you’re going to need to phone them first and see if you can get the green light to send them your work.
Overall my advice would be, do your research online for advice and ideas of what books are useful to read, use your local library to get access to those books so you can check them out first and see if they are actually useful before deciding whether or not to buy them. After that, if you write and illustrate then start approaching publishers with your work, if you just illustrate then start browsing the internet some more for writers looking for an illustrator. They’re out there, just like you. Just make sure they’re not going to take you for a ride ok?
Being a writer or illustrator means one thing above everything else, be prepared to be rejected over, and over, and over again. Don’t let it get you down though, if you believe in your work then sooner or later someone else will too. After all, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories were rejected dozens of times.