Six Things Children’s Book Illustrations Need

By Diana Zipeto

People unrelated to illustration have words of wisdom that can apply to illustration. In his TED talk, Why We Do What We Do, motivational guru Tony Robbins has a list of Six Things Every Human Needs. I have taken them and adapted them here to be Six Things Every Children’s Book Illustration Needs, because I am pretty sure they relate!

A girl is launching a handmade sailboat onto a small water stream that is entering a large stream.

1. Certainty

Tony Robbins says the first human need is to have certainty. Some things are known, reliable, unchanging. We need that.

Every illustration needs to have some certainty, too: something that is clear and easy to read. You and a child need to know at a glance what is happening in an image, that something happened before and that something will happen after. You can give visual cues to the viewer to help convey that information. In the case of this image, it is (hopefully) clear that a child has built a small boat and is testing it out in a stream. You know she built the boat because there are items around her that seem to suggest some creating went on (scissors/string/sticks).

2. Uncertainty

Tony Robbins’ second human need is for uncertainty. This is to challenge the boredom and stasis that total certainty brings. Every illustration needs to have some uncertainty, too; some tension that leads the reader to turn the page, stay engaged, and wonder “what happens next?” In this picture, the uncertainty is (supposed to be) the larger stream on the right that the boat is headed into. Where is the boat headed?

3. To feel unique and special

Tony Robbins says the third human need is to feel special and unique. The same holds true for images and children’s book characters. We need to identify with the main character, really feel the main character’s specialness, uniqueness and be able to cheer for them. (I’m still working on this one!) Some ways to do this is by giving characters open, expressive faces, interesting clothing and items that reveal characteristics (always carries belt pouch with PEZ dispenser, has double thick glasses, wears lightening bolt t-shirt).

A smiling girl is about to drop water balloons from an upstairs window onto her brother.

4. Connection/love

We need to feel connections and love in our lives. In children’s books, we need to feel personally connected to the illustrations and love the character. One way to do this is by using point of view. In this illustration, I recently received art direction to get even closer to the girl who is dropping the balloons, so she takes up more room and we can cheer for her as she gets ready to soak her brother below. As it is right now, she is pretty remote and we don’t exactly love her yet. Point of view is just one tool that can help create a solid connection between the reader and the main character.

Grumpy Cat in the rain; Grumpy cat snuggled up with Kitten

5. Growth

Humans need to grow. This need is mirrored in how we tell our stories. In children’s books, we have to show some arc, some character growth, some reason to have invested in the character. If a character goes from uncertain to certain, grumpy to grateful, lost to found, how does that show up in images? It may be a little hard to see from my fuzzy photos, but in Britta Teckentrup’s Grumpy Cat, she uses body language, expression, ear and eye shape, and point of view to convey the change in Cat from angry to content. In the first image, Cat is angry with flat ears and slanted eyes. At the end, the camera has been pulled back, we are looking upon a calmer cat, with curvy ears and quieter eyes.

6. Contribute beyond ourselves

Robbins talks about this. Author/Illustrator Peter Reynolds talks about this, too. Recently at his NESCBWI14 conference keynote speaker Peter Reynolds asked us, “What is your mission?” I’m still thinking about this question. One of my missions in children’s book art is to try and give young girls great role models. I want them to see female characters acting boldly, accomplishing things, actively facing their fears and finding success. At this stage, the way I do that in my images is to make sure girl characters are active, strong, confident, fun.

You can see some more of my attempts to contribute and grow at

What is your mission with your children’s books? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Diana Zipeto is an illustrator and designer living in an energizing artist community in Lowell, MA. You can see her work at She has most recently illustrated books in the Olive and Max series published by Schoolwide, Inc.


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