How I Hired an Illustrator

This is the process I used for finding and hiring an illustrator for my first children’s book: Sleepy Baby Samurai and the Magic Painting. I’m sure everyone’s process is different and mine may not be the “right” way. But I’m extremely satisfied with how it turned out and learned a lot!

Step 1: Research & References

To begin, I needed to have a solid idea of the type of illustrations I like and was seeking for this particular book. That meant looking through all of my favourite picture books and analyzing what I liked and why. I also started building a reference library of images that continued to grow during the illustration process. In total, I collected 180 reference images, which I organized into 11 different folders/categories, such as: Cover Design, Environments, Characters, Clothing, Hair Styles, etc. These images were used as a guide or inspiration, rather than me saying: “Just copy this.” Sharing visual references with the each other was a convenient way to help express ideas and answer questions.

Step 2: Ask Other Authors

I wanted to find out how other children’s book authors selected and collaborated with an illustrator. I am fortunate to know another author: K.L. Harris, who provided many insights into the process of creating her book: The World is Full of A**Holes (which I own and recommend). I also took an online course: The Illustrator Survival Kit by Eevi Jones, and Eevi also responded to a question I had via email. She has a wide variety of courses on writing children’s books. You can clearly see how she has helped many new authors write, publish, and market their books. Mentors are incredibly valuable!

Step 3: Contact Illustrators Directly

By browsing sites like Instagram, LinkedIn, and Artstation, I was able to find a handful of talented artists with work that matched my goals. I also asked some of my artist friends and former students with fine art backgrounds for recommendations. The challenge with this method was some artists were too busy or too expensive for me. Only 2 artists made it to my shortlist through direct messaging. Thanks to Ya-Wen Liu (a talented artist herself) for an especially good recommendation!

Step 4: Create a Job Posting

To increase my options, I created a free account and job posting on It’s a convenient website for both artists and clients seeking artists to gain international exposure. I shared my basic book concept, budget, and timeline so interested artists could share their bids with me either publicly or privately, based on their preference. Here is my personal referral code if you’re interested in signing up and receiving some $$ for your own project! In total, I received bids and communicated with 80 artists from around the world through this website.

Step 5: Ask for a Sample Illustration

It is fairly standard practice to ask for a sample illustration from artists you’ve never worked with before. Some only shared previously completed work, one would only provide a pencil sketch, and 10 artists sent me a custom, full colour illustration. Since this is basically free labor, I didn’t want to make it unnecessarily time-consuming. Asking for one character and one environment piece (a tree) was enough for me to make a decision, even though many respondents went above and beyond this request. The sample illustration also gives both artist and author a good sense of what it will be like to work together: promptness, communication style, and professionalism (or lack thereof). I really enjoyed seeing many different styles and interpretations, and have saved the contact info of artists whom I’d like to work with in the future on other projects.

My Sample Illustration Prompt & References

After walking down a dusty path, a 2-year-old Japanese boy in traditional clothes stops to look up with wonder at a very tall tree.

I only need to see the boy and the tree, other details around them aren’t necessary. Please look at the references for inspiration. I’m also looking to see your own style too. The tree should look large, beautiful, painterly, and not frightening. The boy should look small, cute, young, curious, and have personality. He should look less painterly and more like he was drawn with pen or pencil. You may use whatever medium/tools you prefer to draw/paint with. Please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to seeing what you create!

Shortlisted Sample Illustrations

Final Step: Make Your Decision

I shared these sample illustrations with several people whose opinion I trust. The vast majority preferred illustration G (by Duha Lee) overall, with illustration C (by Cecil Lu) being a close runner-up. Duha also exhibited the most enthusiasm for the project and has personal connections to the story, so I felt like she was the natural choice for this book. It’s been incredibly validating working with her and I can’t wait to share her beautiful work with you when the book is published! (Update: It’s published and available here now!)

Why “Just Be Yourself” is Terrible Advice

I was listening to the radio recently, and the hosts were discussing a survey about career-ending moves made in job interviews. An example mentioned was repeatedly swearing in the interview.  One host teased the other, saying this applies to her since she frequently swears. The other retorted: “Look, I’m just being honest and true to myself. That’s my message to kids out there: be yourself.”

I wanted to laugh, because it seems like the real-life message was: “Don’t swear repeatedly in a job interview if you want that job”. And is that really so hard and dishonest? If you can’t avoid swearing repeatedly during a 20 minute job interview, do you really have the self-control to effectively work for 40 hours per week?”

While they certainly seemed to be joking around, I think many people today take the “just be yourself” mantra very seriously. It inspired me to reflect on it for several days and discuss this advice with friends. I’ve received this advice and appreciated it, as well as given it to a few of my former students. Yet I came to the conclusion that “Just be yourself” is terrible advice.

Let’s use the job interview scenario as an example. I approach my instructor or colleague and ask for advice. I’m nervous about this job interview because I really want to do well. In the best possible scenario, nervousness is my only problem, and this person recognizes that. By telling me to “just be myself”, I could feel more confident in the interview. If this role really is an ideal fit for me and I’ve already done enough preparation, then perhaps I succeed in nailing that interview. Mission accomplished and no harm done, right?

So why was it terrible advice? For several reasons, and again, that was the best-case scenario. I find this phrase particularly unhelpful and dangerous to young people, who are generally looking for or in need of guidance. “Be yourself” is a rejection of guidance. It is essentially the same as saying to someone who is angry: “Don’t be mad.” Has that ever helped someone feel less angry?

“Be yourself” might be what I say when I have no idea what to say, because it seems like the safest answer. In the process, I claim authority on two subjects that I probably know little about. The first is the job interview itself. Do I really know what this interview will be like? Do I understand the job requirements, the company, and the interviewer well enough to make that call?

The second subject is my student/colleague themselves. Do I really, truly, deeply understand who that person is? Does that person even truly and deeply understand who they are? And do we have the exact same version in our heads at that time? In my mind, I might think I’m telling them to be the confident, intelligent person I assume them to be. They might think I am enabling them to be the rude, wise-cracking jerk they assume I appreciate. So you can see it’s either a vague fallback statement for someone without anything constructive to say, or an overly ambitious judgment call that could be completely wrong.

“Just be yourself” sounds like good advice at first, but what if you’re a jerk? What if you’re a serial killer? Maybe you should be someone else. “Believe in yourself” is fine, but “anything is possible”? No, it’s not. Expressing yourself, respecting yourself, and being honest with yourself are somewhat tautological but not usually directly harmful. But “you have to love yourself first” has a crucial flaw: people who really love themselves are called narcissists, and they make horrible relationship partners.”

– Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before

Yet this phrase is directly and indirectly tattooed all over modern society. And amidst some truly wonderful tolerance compared to previous generations, we have given birth to a “cancel culture” that renders “just be yourself” a lie. We have grown so accustomed and comfortable with telling ourselves that we’re already perfect, that we ignore the logic that this statement is either false or only applicable to certain extraordinary people: like me! And because I’m so perfect, I have the right (no, the responsibility) to verbally assault and crush the career and social lives of people who I feel do not have the right to be themselves. This is where it becomes so dangerous and lives begin to fall apart.

So what do we do? Do we just let powerful, famous people continue to do intolerant acts and speak words of prejudice? Do we stop recognizing the good in ourselves and others? No, no. Please don’t get me wrong.

What I’m suggesting is we start on a personal, individual level and make careful, realistic assessments. This starts with acknowledging that “be yourself’ shouldn’t be said anytime to anyone. It starts with admitting that I can’t claim to know who you truly are, but that I might see areas where you can become better in a particular area (if I actually know you well). You probably can see the same for me too in this case. It starts with recognizing mentors in our life, and giving them the freedom to speak to us truthfully without fearing that we must feel good about everything they say. I’m thankful that I’m far from perfect in any regard, because it gives me room to grow, to learn, and improve myself. The advice I try to live by is:

"Never stop trying to be the best YOU that you can be."

There’s this oversimplified view that we need to stop hating ourselves and start loving ourselves. But in real life we fluctuate on a spectrum between the two, and need each other to prevent us from dwelling too much on either side: self-hate or self-infatuation. So while “be yourself” may arise out of kindness or love, real love comes through wanting the best for someone else. It comes from teaching your child not to steal candy from other children, so they grow up to be respectful and generous. It comes from helping someone overcome an addiction they’ve been struggling with or from stopping them from saying something stupid when they’re drunk. Tolerance and love are not the same thing. A tolerant person ignores the angry shouts of a homeless person. A loving person buys them food, listens to them, and treats them with respect. One is a lot harder than the other. We can all strive to be the best versions of ourselves: that isn’t becoming someone else; it’s becoming more fully ourselves.