How to become a children's book illustrator

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Anna Brech
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A children's book illustrator is one of those lovely jobs that many of us daydream about; who wouldn't want to spend their days holed up a studio conjuring up funny, heartwarming sketches and brainstorming ideas for a story?

Unsurprisingly, it's also a very competitive field and you need to be witty and original with a firm grasp of narrative, pacing and characterisation to stand out. Even then, it can be tough - some of fiction's best-loved children's illustrators have been rejected time and again before getting their lucky break. Theodor Seuss Geisel, the Dr Seuss creator, was turned down by around 30 publishers before he got his first book out, and even then it was more down to luck than intent. Judith Kerr, the woman behind The Tiger That Came To Tea , actually failed her illustration diploma at art school. But they and others persevered, winning over children everywhere with their whimsical, evocative drawings.

To celebrate International Children's Book Day today, we take a look at the stories of five children's illustrators and how they became known in the field. From the maverick talents of Kerr and Geisel - who were spurred on by a frustration with the dull, stifling offering of children's set texts in the 50s and 60s - to the warmth and humanity of illustrations by Shirley Hughes (who was inspired by her own boring childhood) and emerging talent Rebecca Cobb (who pestered someone across the road to look at her work), here's how and why they broke into illustration:

Children's illustration: inspiration and ideas

Be funny

"What's wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at!" - Theodor Seuss Geisel

Use your imagination

"What you really do when you start to draw is you imagine that you are that person and you go into the reactions you think you would be having" - Quentin Blake

Channel your inner child

"When I’m working, I sometimes try to think like I did as a child. I was a daydreamer back then – I never really knew what was going on. I’m still a bit like that" - Rebecca Cobb

"In writing picture books, I drew vastly on my experience with my own children" - Judith Kerr

Creativity is key

"I think boredom's immensely important for creativity – I'm sure that's why I became an illustrator" - Shirley Hughes

Judith Kerr

The Tiger That Came To TeaMog the Forgetful Cat

Growing up, she always had a passion for drawing, but she failed a diploma in illustration in art school ("It’s the only time in my entire life that I’ve failed," she later noted) and The Tiger That Came To Tea came about first and foremost as an attempt to entertain her two children.

Frustrated with the lack of good children's books available, Kerr began creating her own. "I had always wanted to do a children's book, but it's easier when you have children because you know what makes them laugh," she said, adding, "I had to redraw quite a lot."

The book was an instant hit on publication in 1968 and has never been out of print since. Kerr's Mog series, based on the family cat, followed, with similar success. "The first Mog book was purely about the things the cat did and the things the children imagined it did – so the cat was asleep and twitching, and one of the children said, "I bet she dreams that she’s flying,'" she said.

Kerr is often lauded for the warmth, humour and humanity of her drawings but from the studio of her Barnes house where she still draws, aged 90, she is modest about her talents.

"I should be able to draw tigers, but I can't," she said in a recent interview. "Look at the tiger who came to tea - it's not really a tiger at all. Quentin Blake would have made it much funnier and Michael Foreman would have drawn it better."

Theodor Seuss Geisel

Dr SeussMog

Geisel was first motivated to become an illustrator during art classes at school in the early 1900s, when a teacher rallied against him "fooling around" with whimsical, cartoon-type drawings. "The teacher wanted me to draw the world as it is; I wanted to draw things as I saw them," he later said.

His talent for witty cartoons flourished during his years at Darmouth College, and later at Oxford, but his first attempts to get children's books published were met with continual rejections from around 30 publishers. Some felt his use of colour - including reds and "about seventeen different blues" was impractical in terms of cost, and others objected that his stories "had no moral message."

"What's wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at!" Geisel complained at the time. Eventually, his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published - but only because of a chance encounter with a publisher friend, when he was on his way home to destroy the manuscript. It promptly sold 10,000 copies - easily proving that as Geisel loved illustrating for children, they too loved his illustrations.

The Cat in the Hat, Geisel's most famous work, was published in 1957 and came about in response to flailing literary levels among first graders in the US at the time - and a challenge from a publisher who told Geisel to "bring back a book children can't put down." The formula of the book, based on tall anthropomorphic cat with verse rhymes, was radically different from anything else around then. According to Geisel, "It is the book I'm proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers."

Quentin Blake

a specially commissioned Stylist coverPunch

He has collaborated with authors including Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen and John Yeoman in the past, as well as creating his own beloved characters, including Mister Magnolia and Mrs Armitage.

However it's the funny and evocative illustrations for Dahl's books, including The Twits, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG, for which Blake is best known.

He was awarded the 2002 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration - the highest international recognition given to creators of children's books - and was given a CBE in 2005.

"What you really do when you start to draw is you imagine that you are that person and you go into the reactions you think you would be having," he said. "I find myself doing the faces as I'm drawing them."

"I like drawing anything that is doing something. I like activity," he added. "Dragons are good because you can arrange them in interesting ways across the page, get people to ride on them, that sort of thing. Most animals are interesting to draw. Cars are difficult unless they are a bit broken down."

Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes has written and illustrated more than fifty books, including bedtime favourites Dogger, the Alfie series and the Lucy and Tom stories.

"I grew up in the war and there was absolutely nothing to do, except the radio or the cinema when you were older," said the illustrator, whose childhood was based in Wirral. "There was so much time just to moon around. I think boredom's immensely important for creativity – I'm sure that's why I became an illustrator."

Despite creating some of the best-loved characters in fiction over the past 50 years, Hughes is low-key about her drawings. "Illustration was just what I did – the same way John [Hughes' husband] was an architect. It was my job," she said.

However, her daughter Clara Vulliamy was inspired enough by her mother's work to become an illustrator herself.

"Mum never went on about what she did – there was no reverence about it," Vulliamy said. "But I picked up on the commitment to her work and I understood that it was important to do what you love. And I loved drawing and painting."

Rebecca Cobb

"Every week I would go over the road and show the owner my drawings – he was a publisher as well as a bookseller and I hoped I’d eventually win him over," she told Stylist.

"One day, he relented, and commissioned me to work with Helen Dunmore on some picture books. She took me around Cornwall to see the locations of her books; we spent days climbing over rocks and visiting beaches so I could get inspiration. In the end, her agent was impressed with my work and offered to represent me, too. Since then, I have illustrated children’s books for people such as former children’s laureate Julia Donaldson and director Richard Curtis."

Cobb says she starts with an illustration by brainstorming how the text will fit around it: "I’ll make a storyboard for the whole book then start drawing full-sized rough illustrations in pencil. I use my light box to trace the image onto another sheet with ink. Then I’ll colour in with pencils, watercolours and ink depending on whether I want a ‘painterly’ effect or a ‘scratchy’ one."

She says she is inspired both by other children's authors - "Quentin Blake, John Burningham and I love Brian Wildsmith’s colourful animal designs" - and memories from her childhood.

"It helps to have a powerful imagination as an illustrator. When I’m working, I sometimes try to think like I did as a child. I was a daydreamer back then – I never really knew what was going on. I’m still a bit like that."

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.