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!)

Helpful Books for Writers

After discussing this topic with a student, I thought it might be valuable to share which books on creative writing have helped me the most.

October 2020 Update: I am currently reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby and find it insightful and very comprehensive. For something less analytical but just as valuable, I also enjoyed Stephen King’s autobiographical, fun, and practical book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Story & Structure

  • Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
    Robert and this book are infamous among screenwriters. This book is bold, clear, and goes beyond screenwriting, but I must admit I find it more enjoyable to skim and bounce around than to read it cover to cover. Watch the 2002 film, Adaptation, to see him (as portrayed by the great actor Brian Cox) giving a writing seminar.
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
    Joseph inspired George Lucas and many writers, and I’d estimate there are at least 50 writing books that basically just simplify and repeat what he said. It is dense, being a study of world mythology. I forgot to photograph Mythology for Dummies, which is a better intro to the topic.
  • The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
    This is one of those books that borrows from and simplifies the words of Joseph Campbell, but it does so very effectively. For new writers, this would be my top recommendation to learn about story and structure.

Ideas & Character Inspiration

  • 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto
    It’s basically a notebook filled with 642 writing prompts. I’ve written in my copy and will probably revisit it someday. I think it’s a good book to help build a writing habit and work that creativity muscle.
  • The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon
    This book is my secret sauce and I’m almost unwilling to share it. It’s a surprisingly helpful book with a lot of lists, including things like potential character names, occupations, adjectives to describe their appearance, vices, etc. It’s a great resource if you like to explore possibilities, shortlist items, and pick the most fitting words for your story.
  • Chinese Horoscopes: An Easy Guide to the Chinese System of Astrology by Debbie Burns
    I don’t think Debbie Burns is a Chinese name, nor do I really follow Western or Eastern astrology. So why is this here? I’ve discovered it’s actually a great resource for character personalities and relationships, at least as a starting point.

Writing Novels/Fiction

  • Writing Fiction For Dummies by Peter Economy and Randy Ingermanson
    Pretty comprehensive and easy to read. It’s very well organized so you can skip to whatever you’re looking for if desired.
  • How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
    Regardless of how you feel about his fiction writing, Mr. Card wrote Ender’s Game and among many other books, and is also an experienced writing teacher. He provides valuable advice for writers looking to write in these two genres, in terms of world-building, rules for magic, futuristic technology, etc., all of which he takes quite seriously.
  • Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
    The Save-the-Cat methodology was first introduced in a book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder. It also borrows from common themes found in universally loved stories, reminding me of Joseph Campbell’s work. While it provides a helpful roadmap, I would recommend not limiting yourself to matching its guidelines exactly, or ONLY reading this book. Many writers have created story structures (Dan Harmon’s story circle, for example), that have similar benefits in creating a story that flows in a familiar way.


  • How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method by Vicki King
    This old gem is the first book on creative writing that was ever given to me. I have my great Aunt Jacque to thank for that. It holds a special place in my heart and I’m happy to see a revised edition is expected for August 2020. It’s a comprehensive book that speaks to you like a mentor and a friend. It was my companion when I wrote 3 feature screenplays. I referred to it again recently when working on my novel and found it still contained wisdom I had forgotten. If it’s not clear already, this is my favourite book on writing.
  • Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History by Tom Pope
    You’ll notice while I own many screenwriting book (see photograph above), I’m only recommending two. Honestly I feel many screenwriting books are the same, and most contain primarily contain opinions that could help or hinder your writing. This one is a fun one, that definitely contains opinions, but is looking at popular opinion and trying to understand it through close examination. It encourages you as the the reader to examine and break down the stories you love (and hate) to think about what didn’t work for you, and how you would try to make it better. If you already do that, then you don’t need this book. Lastly, I’d like to recommend the Scriptnotes Podcast, as it is delightful and also immensely comprehensive (400+ episodes).

Are there books that I missed that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments below.