How to Become a Better Children's Book Artist

How to Become A Better Children’s Book Artist

We want to go over some questions that Will has been emailed about that all revolve around the general topic of: How to become a better children’s book artist.

As a Children’s Book Artist Do You Really Have to Speak and If So to What Capacity?

Will got this email from a student who got a literary agent last summer and who was wondering if publishers require illustrators to do school visits and publishing conferences. Essentially they are afraid of speaking and were wondering: As an illustrator, do you have to speak?

Will used to be petrified of speaking, it probably doesn’t seem like that now because he has a Youtube channel, and speaks at conferences, and now it’s no big deal to him. However, before his heart would pound like crazy just thinking of an upcoming speaking engagement, if he had to speak or teach at church or in school. Maybe some of you also feel that way.

Do you really have to speak and if so to what capacity? Jake has done 15 or so books through publishers and he has done school visits for 1 book in particular and it was completely optional. They asked if he would be willing to do it. He went to 6 different schools and didn’t know how much it actually helped his book sales? Ultimately, he doesn’t know how effective it is. You shouldn’t worry about it or let it hinder you from pursuing a career in children’s books.

Maybe if it’s apart of your business plan and you are visiting 50 schools a year and you have a line of books to offer for sale, then it might be much more effective. There are some people who do this and they make a lot of money from it. If you go out of state and visit 5 or 6 schools and line them all up and coordinate it so it works out then you can stack a bunch of schools next to each other. Some people will finish a book and then spend the whole next year doing school visits.

Once they were trying to get an illustrator to come and do a video with SVS, and he said no and the reason he said no was really really smart, and Lee thinks about this all of the time now. The reason he said no was “because he would come film a 2 to 3 hour video, but it would take a month or two to get ready for it, with rehearsing it, practicing it, writing the course, it takes so much time to prep it and he has learned that he doesn’t have the capacity to do that sort of stuff. Now Lee tends to fall along that line now when he is asked to speak at a SCBWI Conference etc. it’s exhausting and it zaps all of his creative energy out of him. So for Lee, it’s a mixed bag for him.

If you take 2 months to prepare a presentation and you can give that same presentation 50 or 100 times then it really pays off and is worth it. But if it’s for a one time or two time presentation it may not be worth it.

David Biedrzycki and Jerry Palada do school visits all of the time.

So maybe we’re not directly answering the question but these are all different ways to consider speaking and the benefits of it.

Average payment for a day is about $1500 and so if you do a few days in a row it can really add up pretty quickly.

For David, his wife does all of his booking, hotels, and airfare. And he is now going back to some schools that he went to a few years ago. Publishers like it and want to work with someone like that. It takes away almost all of the risk because if they are doing so many trips, the publisher should be able to at least sell the amount to break even. These guys make a lot of money.

How about speaking at bookstores?

You have to decide who you are. Some people love to travel and know how to work while they are out and they can keep their routine. It seems like a really lopsided investment and you don’t get much out of it.

Lee, works on a book and then it comes out six months later and he is already on to the next thing and he doesn’t want to stop all of that.  The thing is book stores typically don’t pay, but schools do. So you’re paying to go and sign books and it’s not very profitable.

It’s really hard to make them worth the time. You might sell 10 books in 2 hours and with your royalty of 50 or 75 cents a book, you might make $7. Book signings work for the famous but not so much for the up and coming person.

Why You Should Learn To Speak Publicly

If you do this job and you start to get work, at some point you will be asked to speak publicly. So should you? Yes you should, at least learn to be comfortable speaking. Take classes or do a workshop to learn to speak publicly. You will be asked to speak publicly, or you’ll be asked to teach, or you’ll be asked to present, we get those offers all the time.

How to get good at it? Start saying yes to every opportunity where you can. Will used to be that guy that hated it. Will could barely speak when he was chosen as illustrator of the year for the California Teachers Association, and he had to go around giving speeches and he gave a speech in front of 1000 people in a ballroom and that was 10 years ago and he was so nervous beforehand but now today he has spoken so much since then that it doesn’t even phase him anymore.

One nice thing about this profession is you can use visuals and you don’t have to worry so much about people staring at you while you are talking.

The best advice is the advice that makes you a better person in the end, it’s what makes you more experienced and more capable.

So if public speaking is not your strong point, then do whatever you need to do to learn how to feel comfortable with it.

Believe in your work and take jobs that there is a passion there for. You see these people who are terrified of speaking but they are passionate about the work they do and so they push themselves to share that with others.

Maybe you aren’t passionate about puppy dogs and you did a book about puppy dogs, but maybe you are passionate about creativity and how a kid could grow up to become a creative artist. A lot of kids have roadblocks of parents or teachers saying that art isn’t a real job, and you speaking to them can become a driving force to help you overcome those fears.

Being a creative person, being someone who can draw for a living is such a rare privilege and is unlike any other job.

You Create and You Share

Part of that is to promote yourself and promote your work, your style, and your stories.

Somebody needs to hear your message.

Nobody is gonna hear it if you don’t start sharing yourself.

There is a person in you who is good at public speaking. You need to have faith in yourself.

Really good book:

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making Work That Lasts

1st half of the book: How to make a book that stands the test of time, that isn’t dated in 10 years, how to create something that is interesting now and in 30 years.

2nd half is about how to market the book and get it into the hands of the people who want to read it.

Jake read the book last year and marked it all up, and flipping through it right now there are a lot of great things.The book applies to anyone who creates work, it’s not focused on children’s books but there is so much that still applies.

If you get invited to speak, have some sort of takeaway that you want the audience to leave with.

Lee had a graduate school program and they had tons of artists come and speak but it doesn’t mean it was all effective.Some would just show art and have pretty meaningless commentary to go with it.

Have a specific topic or point you want to make and then have a series of images to show that topic and teach about it.

Tell stories about yourself, as humans we are interested in learning more about each other and we love hearing personal stories.

Will’s best talk he ever gave was speaking to almost 300 librarians, and he was told 9 months in advance about the presentation, and he kept a Google doc and he didn’t panic or anything but instead anytime an idea came to his head he would jump on his phone and jot it down on the Google doc. This helped him get all of his ideas down leading up to the speaking engagement.

His speech was all about “I was that kid”, he showed how he wasn’t the best student and how we shouldn’t write off these kids that are problems, because some of them are really creative and some of them are being forced into the school system. He spoke for an hour. Will sold a ton of books.

Don’t be afraid of speaking, if you do it a lot, you’ll get good at it. Anything you do a lot you can get good at it.

How to Draw Women Respectfully

Another email Will got was in response to a “3rd Thursday” a while back which was the precursor to this podcast. In it, Shannon shared how she was thinking about the issue that you they brought up that men struggle to draw females because they don’t want to sexualize them and they don’t want to over emphasize typical female features.

There is a big problem with the way that women are depicted. There are so many people doing “sexy” versions of classic characters. And the thing is those people get famous from it.

There was this artist who draws really sexualized characters and got chewed out online for it.

There is this endless appetite for it from consumers and artists and we can’t stand it.  

Jake’s approach: he has a mom, sisters, a wife, and daughters, He doesn’t want to ever disrespect them. His test is, if I would be okay with any of these people wearing the outfit that I’m drawing then I’m okay to draw it.

Don’t shy away from the female figure, there isn’t just one female figure there are 100 different female figures. He will approach it from, “Who is this character?” What does she need to accomplish? What about her image will backup and support her personality and her role in the story? He will start with the personality and then will work from the inside out.

How do you draw a female character and make her look feminine without making her look sexualized?

For drawing children it’s super easy, he just beefs up the eyelashes a little more and then he draws her wearing clothes that look female, when he drops off his children at school he looks at what kids are wearing and thinks of what outfits look feminine and more masculine and then he will dress his characters accordingly.

If it’s an older women she will have hips, and a chest, not as broad of shoulders, any genetic thing that shows that this is a female and not a male he will try and put that into his designs.

Lee had a great figure drawing class where they would have both a male and a female model take the same pose and instead of focusing on the obvious differences in anatomy, they focused on the more nuanced differences in their gestures. The more subtle things.

I.e. A man in a neutral pose, arms will typically round to the outside. A women standing in that same position, typically her elbows will go in and her lower arms will go out. It is a distinctly different silhouette just based on what their arms were doing. In every pose there was always a subtle difference or separation in how males or females carry weight and balance and all of that stuff. So if you can lean on those other things then it helps it become a lot more believable.

Before puberty we all have pretty similar body types. There are some tricks that you can use to add to either the femininity or masculinity of your children characters. Will adds thicker lashes when drawing his female characters. He also sometimes uses a little bit more round or soft shapes for his female characters and uses some more boxy or square shapes for his male characters.

This is a political topic. As illustrators we are faced with drawing all sorts of characters. Male characters, female characters, young and old characters, animals etc. When you are going down the street you notice what makes someone look more feminine or masculine.

If it’s a female character then you need to make her look like a female character. If you’re drawing a male character you need to make him look like a male character.

There is a lot of crossover, there are some female characters that have some features that would traditionally be considered more masculine, and vise versa.

You really need to be really respectful of that particular character and portraying that character the very best you can.

Jake did this ABC book about apples and there was a lot of grey area in the story. He wanted to avoid the whole issue of making sure that there was enough girls and boys, and that there was the right level of diversity among characters and he just made all of the characters animals. It took away a lot of stress and helped him develop the story and push his designs more and he was able to get some great portfolio pieces from it.

One of the through lines was that the pig got to eat whatever he wanted and the bear was on a diet. It was a lot more fun, interesting, playful, and kid friendly.

It is a proven technique, drawing animals can help you not have to worry so much about some of those other sensitive topics.

How to Create Emotional Images

The third question we’d like to address came from another message Will got which was about, “What makes an image emotional?” Sometimes we over focus on rendering and miss the emotion.

Will just finished a class with Brian Aijar, and one of the things that struck him was that the students did great work but one of the things that they were weak on was coming up with a strong story for their piece. Instead sometimes it was a story fragment. They might say,” The idea for this one is that the person is looking off to the side… that’s the story.” But, why?

Another issue was that sometimes they would have things in the illustration that were confusing or distracted from the story. We would be giving critiques but didn’t know what the illustrator was trying to say.

Have a Complete Story Idea

The way to start to convey emotion in your piece is to have a complete story idea. Sometimes you can still overdo that and try to tell too much story with your image.

It needs to be a clear illustration. Here’s an example of a good story: Someone’s walking down the stairs and they are holding a huge birthday cake and you see at the bottom of the stairs child’s blocks, roller skates, or a ball, something they are about to step on. That is a complete story idea. You could show that story at beginning or middle or end. You could show them about to step on the ball, you could show them slipping and the cake going up in the air, or you could show the aftermath with the skate next to them  and looking at it you could completely figure out what the illustration is is all about.

So in order to convey a  human emotion or make your piece feel emotional and have someone to relate to it, you have to tell a story that everyone has experienced. But we have a hard time relating to a story fragment, like someone looking over their shoulder. With a story fragment you are asking more questions than you are answering.


David Hohn and Lee are teaching an illustration class right now. One of the big things they push is that students include keywords with their sketches. They want to know the intent of the piece. Too often, if students haven’t trained this way or just draw without thinking then there is no intent.

We frame it all on if they are hitting those keywords/their intent, or not.

I.e. You say you want this to be scary, but it doesn’t look scary and now let’s go over why, and we will go over the design of the piece, the gestures, the characters, etc. But without knowing that intent then there is no driving force.

Learn How to Tell a Joke

Learn how to tell a joke. Not just creating jokes out of thin air, but go find jokes and learn how to tell them. Learn the setup, learn the meat of the joke, learn the payoff. So much is going on there, jokes are just mini stories. The more you do that the more it translates over into your work and you aren’t satisfied drawing a character just looking to the left, but you want to know what drives that character.

The main thing is, a joke teaches you to establish a character, establish a problem, establish a situation, establish an environment that that character is in, and then how that problem is solved in a clever or funny way. All of the elements are there in a short joke that apply to illustrating, comic books, even public speaking, all of that applies.

The reason for illustration, what separates it from just art or just drawings: illustration tells stories, everything you draw should be one of these parts of the story: it should be the setup, the meat, or the payoff. You want to leave the person looking at it asking, “What next?” or “What just happened?”

Will also has his students write a sentence or two to describe their intent for their illustrations.

Here’s an example that he had from one of his classes: “Two girls gossiping about another girl.” This is a great start! And the story was working well in the drawing. It’s hard to put a definition on how far you need to take something.

However we wanted to know why they were gossiping about the other girl and as soon as we added a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of the girl’s shoe, it became a much clearer idea and story.

Basically, we just helped Will answer his emails.


Jake Parker: Instagram: @jakeparker, Youtube: JakeParker44

Will Terry: Instagram: @willterryart, Youtube: WillTerryArt

Lee White: Instagram: @leewhiteillo

Alex Sugg:

Tanner Garlick: Instagram: @tannergarlick

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