City Lit Blog

Dee Shulman: My Top Tips For Writing And Illustrating For Children

Story added 19th Sep 2017

Illustration advice with City Lit tutor Dee Shulman


City Lit tutor Dee Shulman shares her top 5 illustration tips...

1) TUNE IN (whenever you’re out and about be present: watch, listen, record)

To be totally honest in my case this is less a tip - more a personal compulsion. I just can’t help eavesdropping in cafes, museums, on beaches, on car/train/plane journeys. Obviously if I don’t want to get beaten up I can’t just sit there gawping, so I usually carry some kind of cover – a book, a newspaper, a phone, a laptop, a notebook. Most of these covers double as the recording tool – even a one word note can act as a memory jog. (HEALTH RISK WARNING: This tip is not popular with families… especially when they’re trying to have a conversation with you.)

Most of my stories and characters are based on, or contain elements of, something I’ve seen or heard – though it can take a while (years in some cases) for that little jotted note to germinate into a fully realised book: 

Aurora and Ophelia (below) are inventions, but one of the inspirations for these two was an overheard conversation between a ten year old boy I knew and his mother:

MUM: Why aren’t you inviting any girls to your party?

TOM: Because they’re mean and they whisper.

Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary, On Stage in America Random House Children’s Books


Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary, On Stage in America Random House Children’s Books

2) TUNE OUT (the toad on your shoulder)

If you think you’re the only one who has that ugly toad sitting on your shoulder telling you your drawing is rubbish, your ideas are derivative and everyone else is better than you – you couldn’t be more wrong! My own toad is alive and kicking. I haven’t yet found a way to throttle it, but I have developed strategies for tuning it out. 

A toad on your shoulder


OK –  so I don’t mean that literally! What I’m actually saying is: don’t ignore your reader. This doesn’t mean ask children what they want to read, and then write what they ask for. I’ve done the research - nine times out of ten, kids will describe the last story they heard and ask you for that. So I prefer to start thinking about my audience once I’ve drafted the idea. 

Only then will I consider who it’s for. There are children’s books covering most experience areas, though there are still a number of cultural taboos. Probably the most universal taboos are sex, drugs and swearing, so for an easier life, steer clear of those. You can also have problems with witches in some parts of the States.


Perfection sucks - don’t aim for it. The process of trying to make something perfect only tightens your fingers, your shoulders and your mind – and all that tightening ends up strangling creativity… so instead, aim for fun. Play with new materials, experiment with squirting and swishing paint, enjoy playing with words and ideas… and celebrate mistakes!  Some of my best ideas have come out of mistakes. 

Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary, Reality TV Nightmare

Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary, Reality TV Nightmare

I drew Arabella’s lips too big in one of the roughs – but loved it…  a big mouth actually defined her. 

Some of my best colour solutions have come from looking at the palette not the canvas, and some of my best ideas have originated in a phone doodle rather than sitting at my desk. 

A phone doodle that ended up as the first character drawing of Polly Price

A phone doodle that ended up as the first character drawing of Polly Price

When I'm really stuck I play the ‘What if’ game – what if that woman’s bag contained a… baby dragon? What if that man’s moustache was… the source of his strength? What if that drink she’s sipping is …poisoned/the elixir of youth/a time-travel potion? 


Be brave with your ideas – don’t necessarily settle for the first idea that comes into your head… expand it, walk around it, see if the idea can be pushed further… see how far you can take it. 

Be brave when people seem to be unable to appreciate your fabulous work. Rejection and/or criticism will always be part of the process… before Harry Potter got taken by Bloomsbury, JK Rowling had the manuscript rejected by everyone she sent it to.  Instead of crumpling, try to accept that not everyone is going to love everything you do. Keep your confidence. And try to value and use constructive criticism when it’s from someone you trust and respect.

Magenta, Haunted Mouse Series, Harper Collins

Magenta, Haunted Mouse Series, Harper Collins

Dee Shulman - Quick Q&A

Q: How did you first get a taste for children’s books?

That’s easy -  I’ve had a taste for children’s books as far back as I can remember! As a kid, I loved stories and I loved drawing… I think I started filling notebooks with my badly spelt, biro-illustrated stories when I was about six. But around GCSE time I put the notebooks away - there was no room in the curriculum for imaginative writing and drawing. A levels, an English degree, and an Illustration degree served to bury that impulse even deeper. My English degree taught me to dissect and critique narrative -  a great skill for an editor, but potentially lethal for a writer. By the end of three years the critical voice in my head got so loud I could hardly write a sentence! Though I loved art school, my tutors disparaged children’s books as a genre so that secret passion remained secret! It wasn’t until my first child was two that I allowed myself to question my compliance. My little daughter inspired me to go against the years of training - and my first picture book (One Day Janie) was published about a year later. I haven’t looked back since!

Q: What projects/jobs have you worked on that you regularly mention in class?

There are many pitfalls in this business and with over sixty published titles, I have fallen into most of them! The great news is that my disasters can be my students’ cautionary tales…Here’s one of those: 

Drum roll… the plop of a jiffy bag hitting the door mat… squeals of authorial excitement and the ripping of brown paper… Because - at last - the long awaited advance copy of my first Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary is here. The flip of joyful fingers turning pages suddenly stalls when the ghastly realisation dawns that at some point in the process between finished artwork to printed page my heroine’s hair has turned from sunshine yellow to sludge-pea-green… on every single page. 

I can guarantee that by the time the class has dissected the sequence of events that lead to this disaster, no illustrator in the group will ever find themselves in that situation themselves. 

Q: And any exciting new projects you can tell us about? 

I am on the last chapter of a teen/YA adult novel – which has taken me way longer than I expected to write. I am also really excited about a new illustrated series I am developing for younger readers (5 – 7s) about a small orphan dog. I have discovered the joys of the iPad pro, apple pencil and Procreate -   a brilliant drawing app. I love drawing on paper, but there is something amazing about the adaptability of working digitally with the apple pencil, as it is a super-sensitive drawing tool, with the bonus of being incredibly versatile. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you could offer to any student starting on your courses? 

The biggest blocks to learning and development are fear and self-consciousness. So, my most important piece of advice is: Relax! You draw way better when you’re relaxed and your ideas aren’t filtered by the anxiety. Whatever your life is outside the class, when you enter the room you are an artist embarking on your own personal journey. The other students are sharing the boat, but each will be on their own voyage of discovery – nobody is there to compete for some imagined finish line. So, just come ready to learn, to experience, to experiment and to enjoy the adventure. 

Dee's illustration classes at City Lit

Children’s Book Illustration for Beginners    

Drawing for Graphic Novels                                                                         

Create a Children's Picture Book                                                                

Develop a Children’s Picture Book                            

Children’s Book Illustration Course

Illustration for beginners

Browse all illustration courses at City Lit.