How to Become a Children’s Book Illustrator

I’ve been struggling to make it as a children’s book illustrator and have gotten a few leads but no breakthroughs. What do editors look for when selecting an illustrator?

— Toni L.

(Top illustration credit: Teri Sloat)

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When I look at an illustrator’s portfolio, I’m mainly looking for three things:

Illustration credit: Elisa Kleven


1. A good grasp of technique

I ask myself whether this artist is working at a professional level. Do they understand proportion and perspective? Do they master their medium, whether that’s watercolor, acrylic, digital painting, cut-paper, engraving, etc.

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Illustration credit: Stephanie Roth Sisson


2. A strong personal style

A lot of artists have excellent technique but their style is either undefined (for example, every book they’ve worked on is done in a different style), or it’s a style I’ve seen a million times before–it’s impersonal and doesn’t truly reflect an original and unique vision.

If you look at the Red Fox website, you’ll see that each artist has a very distinctive style that reflective of their personality and world view. Some may work in a couple of different mediums but there’s some quality that’s consistent throughout their work.

Sarah Watts, for example, has a distinct style that’s at once retro and playful. Her older style has a more Victorian/Gothic vibe than her younger pieces but there’s still that playful/retro feel to both styles. I can look at any of her pieces and know that it’s her.

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 Illustration credit: Sarah Watts


3. Do I love it?

In order to take an illustrator on, I really have to fall in love with their work. I can appreciate and admire a whole array of artists–bold, graphic artists who work with bright colors to traditional watercolorists whose faces capture subtle expressions. Illustration preferences are extremely subjective.

It always amazes me how one art director can absolutely love one artist while that same artist leaves another art director cold. So, for me, I’ve learned that I need to go with my gut. If I don’t feel a strong connection with an artist’s work it doesn’t mean that another agent won’t be crazy about it.

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 Illustration credit: Catherine Stock


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Abigail Samoun was an in-house children’s book editor for over ten years, working on a wide range of projects, from board books to young adult novels. Her books received such honors as the CCBC Charlotte Zolotow award, the New York Public Library Ezra Jack Keats award, and the Pura Belpre. In 2011, Abigail made the transition from editing to agenting, co-founding Red Fox Literary with Karen Grencik. She is the author of three children’s books, What’s In Your Purse? (Chronicle Books, 2014) and How Gator Says Goodbye and How Hippo Says Hello (Sterling Publishing, 2014) and one Kickstarter project, Mind Afire: The Visions of Tesla, an illustrated biography of Nikola Tesla with art by Elizabeth Haidle.

Abigail likes to organize her library according to which authors would get along well together (the Brontës next to George Elliot, Lois Lowry next to Margaret Atwood). She’s shelved all her Tesla books next to Mark Twain’s so that the old friends can keep each other company. Abigail lives in Sonoma, California with her entomologist husband, two dogs, a gaggle of chickens, and a curious little boy named Tristan. Visit redfoxliterary.com.