Enjoying the Journey to Illustrating Children’s Books by Erika Jones
My road to becoming a professional kidlit illustrator was long and unpredictable. Sometimes it was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it. In fact, I still look at this as one big adventure with lots of good surprises ahead. And while I love sharing wisdom to help others fulfill their creative dreams, I’ve realized I can’t predict how another person’s path will unfold. I certainly could not have predicted my own journey - I sometimes feel like I am just following breadcrumbs like a character in a fairy tale.
For years I tried the approach of applying every piece of advice someone in the field said or wrote, and it wore me out. I learned it's best to go with what resonates and follow my intuition. So rather than write my “blueprint” to getting published, I’ve decided to share some things that helped me stay the course. And while they may not make your journey to publication faster, they could make the journey more fun and sustainable until your big breakthrough comes.
1. Draw things that make you happy and put them in your portfolio.
You’ve likely heard you need a professional portfolio - a website featuring your best body of work. You do! But trying to include everything in your portfolio that everyone you consult with suggests, is likely unnecessary. Simply include the art that represents the kind of art you’d like to make in the marketplace. And as a bonus, use the media you really enjoy using, because to quote illustration agent, Lilla Rogers, “People buy your joy!”
My first two picture books illustrate this point. I believe The Loud Librarian illustration opportunity came to me in part because my portfolio had a fun picture book scene featuring a library. My next book, Black Girls: A Celebration of You was likely offered to me because I had a number of adorable Black girl characters in my portfolio. I was also asked to work in cut paper - my favorite medium - because I had examples of this in my portfolio.
2. If you can get paid to level up your portfolio, do it!
As I’ve worked on professional projects in education and trade books, I’ve had the opportunity to get paid (and professionally art directed) to create an array of characters and scenes that weren’t previously in my portfolio such as characters of different ethnicities and abilities, animal characters, as well as children playing and doing things I might not have been inspired to draw without a manuscript prompting me.
Also, it is a game changer to have professional direction to help elevate your clarity, composition, and storytelling in a scene. Once I started working with art directors and book designers, I realized it is the only way I wish to work. Because illustration is best when it's collaborative.
3. Find learning environments and mentors you vibe with.
Before you can get paid, you will likely have to invest in training. This isn’t my first career and I didn’t attend traditional art school. I learned much of what I needed to know through virtual classes taught by working artists, agents and editors. When I started my journey (nine years ago) online education was just blossoming. Today there are a plethora of opportunities to learn from quality teachers. If you start and don’t quit (breaks are okay) you can absolutely become a professional illustrator.
I recommend taking classes with deadlines, because you’ll have to learn to manage them as a professional illustrator. I also enjoy classes with live interaction because they’ve allowed me to meet art buddies, critique partners, and friends.
In my courses I’ve also encountered wonderful teachers, and some have become mentors. Not only have they shared art skills, but also tips for what it’s like to work in the field and how to avoid pitfalls. This combination of wisdom and knowledge can be invaluable when you start picking an agent and trying to figure out which projects to accept, etc.
Illustration can be an isolating career. Unless you work full time for a corporation, or on collaborative projects, most work is done virtually and then uploaded for feedback. However, it doesn’t have to be lonely. As I said before, taking classes can be a great source of connection. But so can joining associations like SCBWI and attending conferences for artists and illustrators virtually or in person. Reaching out to people who are on a similar journey on social media and setting up a call can also be an effective way to connect and build your art village.
5. Stay in Your Lane.
By this, I mean focus on where you’re headed vs. on what others appear to be doing. In the beginning, I wasted lots of energy comparing myself to other artists. At times it would suck the joy right out of me and make me want to quit.
I’m not saying you can’t get inspiration from social media or cheer for fellow creatives, but the moment you start to think: “I’ll never be THAT good,” or “I wish I could have gotten to work on THAT project,” or “How can I get as many followers as them?” you likely need to unplug and take a break.
It’s time to reconnect with the fact that what’s for you is for you on this journey. When I find myself here, I remind myself that there are things only I can bring into this world, there are stories that only I can help tell, and my job is to be ready and receptive when those ideas and opportunities show up. My job is not to be the best at anything but being me. When I got clarity around this truth, my work and career started to flourish and I have no doubt yours will too.
Being a professional illustrator is a dream come true for most who do it, but you will likely hit rough patches on the way to publication and during your career. I hope some of these tips help you keep going when you need it most. “Enjoy the journey” became more than a cliche to me when I realized the part in between the big accomplishments is most of the life I’d be living. So my hope is that you find ways to love and enjoy the path that is uniquely yours on the road to success.
Erika Lynne Jones is the illustrator of The Loud Librarian by Jenna Beatrice (published by Simon Kids) and Black Girls: A Celebration of You (to be published by HarperCollins on September 26). Erika lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and three children. Her author/Illustrator debut Zara In the Middle will be released in Summer 2025.
To learn more about Erika, visit her website here!