There are picture books… and there are books with pictures.
Illustrating for children’s books is a specialized field of illustration. To be a successful children’s book illustrator though, it may help to take an even closer look at the various kinds of illustrated books for children. While illustrators can and do illustrate for more than one kind of children’s book, focusing on a particular niche may help give your portfolio an edge when breaking in to this competitive market.
Educational Workbooks & Textbooks
Educational books are not often discussed when it comes to children’s books. However, for an illustrator, they may be a way to get started. Educational books include a wide variety of topics, and can also include other educational material such as charts, posters and cards. Illustrations need to be clear and concise to serve as learning aids to young children. They range in size and complexity, from a single apple to busy crowd scenes featuring many characters.
Board book are often books that are aimed at very young children. Typically, they will be read to infants and toddlers. Such books are short in length and made from sturdy board to protect the book from wear and tear. These books often have very simple stories or concepts, such as the names of common animals or the alphabet. Illustrations for such books tend to be bright yet simple. Board books are usually fully illustrated from start to finish.
Picture Books (Fiction)
The typical picture book is meant for children aged 4-6. Stories are generally less than 1000 words long, and the book is usually fully illustrated from start to finish. Occasionally, there are picture books that have no words at all. Thematically, the stories are more complex than board books. Illustrations can range from simplistic to complex. Children and animals are common features, with central characters often approximating the intended reader in age. Most importantly, illustrations in picture books work to help tell the story. In many cases, a picture book without pictures would not be engaging to a reader as the pictures are necessary to help understand the story.
Chapter books & easy readers
Chapter books and easy readers are for young readers who have outgrown picture books but who still have a limited reading range. Illustrations accompany the story, and to an extent still help to inform the reader, but to a lesser degree than in picture books. Generally, as the reader grows more confident in reading ability, the more the illustrations work to embellish the story, rather than help tell it.
Middle Grade Novels
Middle grade novels often feature illustrated covers, and often have a few black and white illustrations on the interior. The great majority of the story is told in text now. As the main illustration on a middle grade novel is usually the cover, its main purpose is to attract attention the book and convey, in broad strokes, the general jist of the story or main theme. Characters on middle grade covers are often representative of the reader’s age, and are older than that depicted in picture books.
Non-fiction children’s books can be a niche unto itself as far as illustration goes. Some non-fiction books require illustrations that are similar to fiction picture books. However, other non-fiction books may require specialized artwork (such as cutaways of vehicles, or maps).