One of my favorite aspects of being an indie author is having creative control over my work. I have the final say on all decisions big and small. The buck stops here. At least it did until I decided to write an illustrated children’s chapter book series.
A few years ago, my husband and I were driving on the highway when we spotted a truck with the words CONTAINS LIVE RACING PIGEONS stenciled on the side. “What are racing pigeons?” I asked. He didn’t know, so I pulled out my phone and started googling. I learned that racing pigeons are specially trained homing pigeons that are released hundreds of miles away from their lofts and race home, relying on their homing instinct to guide them. Intrigued, I got sucked down the rabbit hole and was introduced to the two-hundred-year-old sport of pigeon racing. Once an international sensation and a popular family pastime, the sport is in danger of dying out because not enough young people are getting involved. I discovered extraordinary winged athletes that race at speeds of up to 60 mph for several hours at a time, earning them the nickname “thoroughbreds of the sky.” By the time I emerged from the rabbit hole, the idea for a children’s book about a team of racing pigeons had arrived, fully formed, in my brain.
I spent the next few weeks resisting the idea with perfectly logical objections: I didn’t know the first thing about racing pigeons. I’d never written a children’s book. I had no experience producing a book with illustrations. It was an all-around bad idea. There was just one problem: it wouldn’t leave me alone. New characters and storylines kept popping into my brain. So I shared my dilemma with my good friend and writing mentor. After explaining to her why I shouldn’t write this book, she said, “All of those things can be learned. What are you really afraid of?”
Her question cut to the heart of the matter and helped me identify the real fear behind my resistance. I was afraid that I wouldn’t find the right illustrator to bring my story to life. I was afraid of sharing creative control. “Are you really going to let that stop you?” my friend asked. As I considered her question, I got the distinct feeling that this wasn’t just a book idea, it was a universal assignment challenging me to grow as both a writer and a publisher. Inspired by a quote that Therese Walsh once shared with me, “Dream a size too big so you can grow into it,” I decided to step up to the challenge.
Today, I share the process I followed to overcome my fears and find the right illustrator for my new children’s chapter book, High Flyers: Rookie of the Year .
Step 1: Cast a wide net.
Begin by creating a pool of prospective illustrators. Even if you have a specific idea of what you’re seeking, casting a wide net ensures that you consider all the possibilities and can help reduce regrets down the road. A number of online resources are available to help you discover talent:
- Online portfolio sites offer access to thousands of artists and their work. If you’re looking for an illustrator who specializes in children’s books, try the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators  (SCBWI) and ChildrensIllustrators . If you need a generalist, many creatives display their work on Behance .
- Creative crowdsourcing sites, like 99 Designs  and DesignCrowd , allow you to hold a contest for illustrators to compete for the job.
- Global freelancing platforms, like Upwork  and Fiverr , can help you connect with and hire a broad array of professionals, including illustrators.
- Classified ad sites, like Craigslist  and Thumbtack , allow you to post a job for free and connect with illustrators in your local community and beyond.
Step 2: Explain your project scope.
You’ll need to provide your prospective illustrators with some key information about your book to help them understand the scale and scope of the project. For example, a picture book is likely to feature an illustration on every page and usually calls for full-page illustrations or two-page spreads. Chapter books may require fewer and/or smaller illustrations. Clearly communicating the scope up front will help the illustrators determine if your project is a strong match for their skills. It will also help them determine how to charge for the project, eliminating unpleasant surprises (for either party) down the road.
At a minimum, provide the following information:
- Book title
- Age range of your target readers
- Format (e.g., picture book, picture storybook, chapter book, etc.)
- Estimated number of illustrations
- Target release date
If your book is about an obscure subject, like racing pigeons, it may be helpful to provide background information and photographs to give them some context.
Step 3: Review their portfolios.
An illustrator’s portfolio is intended to showcase their best work. If you don’t like what you see, chances are that person isn’t the right illustrator for you. Here are some questions to consider as you conduct your portfolio review and decide who should advance to your shortlist:
- Is the artist’s work relevant to your project? Does their portfolio contain at least some artwork intended for children? During my search, I encountered a few illustrators who were “playing the numbers game,” trying to get their portfolios in front of as many people as possible regardless of whether the project was right for them. Considering relevance can help you quickly eliminate anyone who might fall into this category.
- What media does the illustrator work in (e.g., watercolor, charcoal, color pencil, pen and ink, digital, multimedia, etc.)? Does the artist demonstrate strength with a medium that would work well for your book?
- Is there variety? Does the illustrator exhibit competence with different subjects? If your book is about animals, look for portfolios with plenty of animals.
Just as writers have a voice, so do illustrators. Only they tell their stories with visuals rather than words. As you spend time evaluating portfolios, you’ll begin to notice each person’s unique approach to creativity. Use these observations to create a shortlist of illustrators whose styles resonate with you.
Step 4: Hold an audition.
Once you’ve got your shortlist, it’s time to determine which illustrators’ styles will translate to your story. One way to accomplish this is to hold an audition. Though not all illustrators will agree to participate in this exercise, many will.
For High Flyers: Rookie of the Year, I challenged my shortlisted illustrators to bring my main character, Rocket, to life. Since this required me to give them the first chapter of my book, I asked each artist to first sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to protect my work. As creative professionals, most illustrators understand the need for such precautions and willingly comply. (You can find NDA and contract templates at NOLO  or Legal Zoom .) Some may even ask you to sign an agreement that prevents you from using their audition artwork if they’re not hired.
Once the NDA is signed, send the illustrators an excerpt from your book and turn over creative control. It’s fascinating to see how different artists interpret the same character, and it will help you identify the top contenders. For me, the audition was critical because a few artists whose portfolios I loved had visions for Rocket that were way off base.
Once you’ve received all the audition drawings, market test them with children in your target demographic as well as adults who buy books for children, including parents, grandparents, school teachers, and librarians. It’s important to confirm that your personal favorite resonates with the people who will be reading and/or buying your book.
Step 5: Commission a scene.
Before hiring, test the capabilities of your top contender(s) by commissioning the artist to illustrate a scene from the book. Choose a complex scene to ensure that the individual has the skills to produce intricate illustrations with the quality your story requires.
Once you receive the commissioned scene, market test it with target readers/buyers, just as you did with the character illustrations. Encourage them to provide feedback by asking probing questions, such as:
- What do you like about this illustration?
- Is there anything you don’t like?
- Would you consider buying/reading a book illustrated by this artist?
In the end, I still had to share creative control of my book. But, by doing my research and market testing my decisions, I was able to find a talented, experienced illustrator who understood my vision and brought my story to life in a way that was far better than I had ever imagined.
Are you working on an illustrated children’s book? What questions do you have about finding an illustrator? Or, if you’ve already worked with an illustrator, what helpful tips can you share?