Writing And Illustrating Fantasy Stories For Children

by Wendy Peterson

Writing The Text

Many popular children’s stories are really wish fulfillment for the reader. Escaping to a world where magical adventures and fantastic creatures are only a page away, appeals to the child in all of us. Enid Blyton wrote her series of Faraway Tree books decades ago, becoming one of the most popular children’s authors ever. J.K. Rowling’s world of wizards and wizardry schools has captured the imagination of children today.

However, fantasy can be the most difficult of all genres to do well. Many writing tutors urge the beginner to write what they know as it’s easier to write an account of something you’re familiar with than creating imaginary worlds and fantasy beings.

And often truth is stranger than fiction – and richer.

The writer of fantasy needs to learn how to spin fantastic, though believable, worlds from the fabric of dreams and imagination – to create a fiction that is stranger than reality, though just as plausible.

A way of achieving this is to enter the world of your story by visualizing it as clearly as you would the physical realm. Your world will become real to you and begin to take on a life of its own. Walk around in your created world, observing and listening as your characters live and laugh and interact. They will continually surprise you as they take on a life of their own. You are breathing life into your world and it’s people, and they will come alive just as powerfully for your reader, too.

I believe the most compelling fantasy literature doesn’t just echo the popular beliefs and culture of the times, but should lead the way to change by speculating upon new philosophies, attitudes, lifestyles and even fashion and music. The Arthurian saga arguably introduced the concept of chivalry towards women. These stories demonstrated how ordinary men of the lower classes could gain prestige and honor by protecting vulnerable members of feudal societies instead of taking advantage of them. A kind of democracy began at the Court of Camelot with the famous round table. Every man seated at this table was equal under the King.

Although Charles Dickens wasn’t a writer of fantasy, in stories like Oliver Twist he paved the way towards releasing children from workhouses and unfair treatment by demonstrating how they were being exploited. He tweaked the conscience of a nation.

Don’t worry too much about tailoring your stories to what you think children might be interested in. Every child is an individual like every adult. As Sharon Martini points out in her article on writing for children, write for your inner child. Write the stories that the child inside you is passionate about, and you will tap into the passions of today’s children, too.

However, five sub-genres of fantasy you might like to consider delving into are:

Fantasy horror stories:

the Goosebump series of books by R.L Stine almost rivaled the Potter books for popularity a few years ago. ‘Reader beware–you’re in for a scare!’ is the byline on each book. They’re really a tongue-in-cheek kind of horror story – children don’t need or want anything too frightening — with more focus on adventure and excitement than on anything gruesome or gory.

High fantasy

these stories are usually set in alternative worlds, are more epic in scope and serious of intent with more complex plotting and are intended for the older child or teenager. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy is an example of this style as would also be Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Fantasy animal stories

e.g. Wind In The Willows, Winnie The Pooh. For more information on this style of literature, click on this url:

Fantasy/sci fi

e.g. the series of books based on the Dr Who TV series and the series of children’s stories based on the Star Wars movies. The following URL has an informative article on this subgenre:

Magic reality stories

My ebook, The Tail Of The Sea Witch, is an example of this fantasy sub-genre. Usually these stories have a contemporary setting with a human character as the protagonist and start off quite normally with the magic seeping in gradually. Humour often plays a part in these stories. In fact, the lighter the touch, the more enjoyable the read.

In The Tail Of The Sea Witch, I’ve not worried much about conflict, a concept that would have writing teachers and experts wringing their hands. However, while children certainly want their stories to be entertaining, I hark back to my original statement that many prefer wish fulfillment to drama. I certainly did, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories always sell well. A story doesn’t need panic and mayhem to give it sparkle. However, a story with an intriguing plot and believable, compelling characters that draw the reader into a world filled with fun and wonder and what if’s is always an unforgettable read.

Most – probably all – of Roald Dahl’s children stories were written in the magic reality style, e.g., James and The Giant Peach. Margaret Mahey is an excellent New Zealand writer who specializes in this category for children, e.g., The Haunting. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis was the first in the series of Narnia books relating the adventures of three children who found their way into a fairy-tale land through the back of an ordinary wardrobe. Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series fit nicely into this genre and so do the Harry Potter books.

Some helpful URLs and resources for writers of children’s books: – Children’s Books Central has everything a writer could want in regard to children’s stories – even links to four online fairy dictionaries! – A super site for everything pertaining to writing for children. – A gold pan full of great information for writers of children’s literature in addition to information on her own picture books. Extensive, searchable Resource Index for fantasy writers.

Writing and Illustrating a Picture Book

The type of children’s book most often illustrated is the 32 page picture book, usually for very young children. Writers are often told they need not illustrate their own picture book unless they’re a qualified artist. However, if you’re wishing to have your story published as an ebook, the chances are you will be expected to illustrate it yourself. A number of e-publishers I contacted requested I also provide the illustrations. Profits are not large in this area of publisher and don’t usually allow for illustration costs. The e-publisher of The Tail Of The Sea Witch, Twilight Times Books, provided illustrations for this story – a fantasy novel for children – however, for subsequent picture books, they also requested I provide illustrations. Gamely, I volunteered to illustrate Bewitched and Enchanted which will be published next year. However, I’m quite pleased with how the cover has turned out:

With the digital art programs on hand today, and the amount of reference materials online, it’s not as daunting a task as you might think.

For a wonderful article by Sharon Martini outlining the steps to creating a picture book and even publishing it yourself in pdf format, go to:

Illustrating A Fantasy Story

You can never have enough reference material. A photo of a magnificent palace, a castle perched on a cliff edge, a beautiful girl in exotic clothing can only inspire some terrific artwork from you. There are tons of reference materials online including sites which have thousands of free photographs on every subject imaginable. is one I can recommend as an invaluable source for top-quality digital photographs.

When planning to illustrate a scene, ensure that all the elements add something to the mood of that illustration. This would involve your choice of colour, lighting and tone, composition, appearance and manner of characters, style (whether cartoon, stylized or realistic) and the medium used. The more powerful a mood the illustration conveys, the more powerful the affect it has on the viewer.

Any illustration shouldn’t just repeat what’s in the text but add a new dimension to the story. This is especially true in picture-book stories where the text is minimal and the illustrations carry most of the story. In a picture book the text usually just states the action while the illustration adds all the descriptive details and, sometimes, periphery activity as well.

Today’s illustrators often use digital art programs like Paint Shop Pro, Illustrator, PhotoShop and Corel Draw/Photopaint to create their images or to add special effects to hand-rendered art. However, unless you have a special drawing pad, it is difficult to draw with a mouse. One technique is to sketch the characters, and then scan them into the computer as a jpg. Once the sketch is on the hard-drive, it can be imported into an art program for finalizing and adding to a digitally rendered background. The illustrations for my book, The Tail Of The Sea Witch were done this way. See the library section of Fiction Forum for examples – Kid’s Library – Seawitch or follow the link to my website for more illustrations:

When illustrating fantasy characters try to avoid cliched images like little people sitting on mushrooms and fairies who look like human children. Go into the world you have created and allow your imagination to discover your characters – characters who will look quite different to those created by others. Also, research mythical characters by not just reading folk tales but also by delving into the source many of these tales have sprung from. Local State libraries have an abundance of out of print books and ancient texts with fascinating information on fairies, elves and ancient deities. Anything written by Lady Wilde (the mother of Oscar) or, more recently, by Katherine Brigg are filled with little known facts about those from the realm of Faerie.

All over the net are an abundance of free step-by-step tutorials that show the beginning illustrator how to achieve a variety of effects and how to make the most of digital art programs.

Here are a few: – This site has loads of step-by-step fantasy art tutorials on sketching, painting and how to use a gamut of digital art programs. – More step-by-step tutorials for all kind of media and art programs. – This site has the most jaw-dropping fantasy illustrations I’ve ever seen. Go to the Fairy Folk section for particularly marvelous work from this talented illustrator. – For those interesting in creating anime style art. – An exhaustive index of tutorials for achieving digital effects for those who don’t use or own digital art programs. – The enchanted art of watercolourist Jessica Galbreth. – Breathtaking fantasy illustrations by Josephine Wall of luminous fairies and goddesses and, also, surreal landscapes.

© 2002 by Wendy Peterson

One Response to “Writing And Illustrating Fantasy Stories For Children”

  1. Aysha says:

    Thanks a lot,
    I really find your article very useful.

    Keep It Up

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