What's the best illustrated picture book for kids? As an art-literate creative, you're not going to be content with giving your children (or your friends and relatives children) something from the hundreds of twee and poorly-drawn picture books that are released every year. You want something that’s going to stimulate you visually as much as them – especially if you spend as much time reading to and with your kids as I do.
So to help you out, I've collected 14 of the best picture books that feature the level of illustration we'd be happy to run on Digital Arts, books that help you to pass on your love and understanding of considered, creative art to your children (and others).
Some of these are classics – I grew up reading Where The Wild Things Are and The Tiger Who Came To Tea – and some are more modern releases that are firm favourites with both me and my children. A couple aren’t strictly picture books – though I doubt anyone's going to be that pedantic about what the definition of a picture books – but I’ve included them as they include wonderful artworks and can encourage young kids weaned on picture books to discover other forms of children’s literature.
Read on to see the list (using the controls above or on the image, if you're on a desktop browser. If you're on mobile, just scroll down).
Is your or your children’s favourite on the list - or have I missed them? Let me know in the comments below.
Coralie Bickford-Smith, The Worm and The Bird
The Worm and The Bird is Coralie’s newest book, following the success of Waterstones 2015 Book of the Year The Fox and the Star. Its simple message and beautiful illustrations will be sure to make it a favourite among both adults and kids.
It tells the story of a worm and a bird with similar issues but different perspectives.The worm is frustrated with the busyness of his life and his lack of free time. The bird has similar issues but is able to experience life in the moment. He remains hopeful and puts a positive spin on difficult events. It creates an ironic twist and an inspiring lesson.
The book’s brilliant underground aesthetics create a beautiful contrast with the vibrant oranges and yellows of the above ground world, and make it a visually enjoyable experience for everyone.
Anthony Browne, Gorilla
First published in 1983, Gorilla’s painted artworks feel like they should be from an earlier age – but the driving force of the story is as relevant now as it was in the early 80s (and for much time before). A child feels neglected by her father, who she feels works too hard and never has time for her. The night before her birthday, a Gorilla toy given to her by her father comes to live and leads her on some wonderful adventures.
One of the key appeals of Anthony’s artwork – and one of his trademarks – is the inclusion of hidden details. The outline of a treeline in the distance features the silhouette of a gorilla, and the painting of Mona Lisa has a distinctly simian appearance. Finding these details encourages children to explore each illustration, which is both fun and increases their understanding and appreciation of art.
Chris Haughton, A Bit Lost
A Bit Lost’s plot is one well-travelled by children’s books – a small animal loses its parent/s and receives unhelpful help from another creature/ other creatures until, by a process of elimination, they are reunited (see also Julia Donaldson’s Monkey Puzzle).
It’s Chris Haughton’s rough-edged artworks that give A Bit Lost its charm – a style of artwork that’s distinctly different from the usual naive styles of many children’s book that pretend to have been drawn by a child. The style is distinct and really brings out the emotions of the owls, squirrel, frog and others.
Read our interview with Chris about creating artworks for a children’s ward at the Royal London Hospital.
Coralie Bickford-Smith, The Fox and The Star
Winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year 2015 prize, The Fox and The Star is one of the few recent children's books that I predict our children will be reading to theirs. Its simple, poetic language is perfect for reading aloud, and Coralie has illustrated her words with artworks with no more than two or three colours, which weave around the type like the forest around the titular Fox.
What makes The Fox and The Star truly special is how Coralie eschews the usual tropes of stories of one creature who loses another (including the ending of miraculously finding them) to tell a touching story with themes of loss and grief. It will resonate with any child (or adult) who has ever lost something or someone special – whether a favourite toy or a grandparent.
Dr Seuss, The Sleep Book
It’s so well known that it’s easy to forget how good Theodor Seuss Geisel’s art is.
Like his wordplay, the artworks he created under the pen name of Dr Seuss are a celebration of the power of imagination. His worlds may seem chaotic and inconsistent, but they have their own internal logic and rules – just like the adult world seems to children.
While Dr Seuss’s ABC and The Cat In The Hat books are best known, The Sleep Book is where really where he let his imagination carry the reader through. It's packed with imaginary creatures from the Foona Lagoona Baboona to the Collapsible Frink, as well as the Chippendale Mupp. Plus I’ve found it very easy get my daughter off to sleep reading this (the small print: it’s not guaranteed, your child may vary).
Jean Jullien, Hoot Owl
You'll likely recognise Jean's rough, hand-painted style of artwork from his widely shared images of strength and defiance in the face of terror attacks in Paris – Je Suis Charlie and Peace for Paris.
Hoot Owl, his first children's book – which was written by Sean Taylor – is a slightly dark and rather ridiculous story of a melodramatic owl looking for food. The tone of the story prevents Jean's naive-looking artwork from becoming twee.
Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back
A lot of kids books are overflowing with niceness. The characters are charming – or at least inoffensive – they have a lovely time and nothing worse than a mild upset that’s made good at the end, with lessons learned all round.
I Want My Hat Back is not one of those books. While it’s not gonna traumatise children, all of its animals are a bit weird, nobody seems to be having fun and someone gets eaten. Jon Klassen’s expressionless, textured animals are the perfect accompaniment to the book’s deadpan humour.
Judith Kerr, The Tiger Who Came To Tea
This 1968 book sees a scene of a mother and daughter having tea, in a world rendered straight out of a Ladybird book, interrupted by a "big, furry, stripy tiger”.
Whether the tiger is friendly or menacing (or both) is the subject of much debate. In my experience, children love the tiger and find it cuddly, while adults find its intrusion into the family and imposing size next to the girl a bit threatening (also, it’s a tiger). There has also been an attempt by the likes of Michael Rosen to link the tiger to the Nazis - as Judith’s family fled Germany just before they came to power after her father was publicly critical of them. Judith herself has denied any direct link.
Adults are very good at seeing things in children’s books that are and aren't there, such as the giggling that ensued when Bill Oddie read the line about that it couldn’t be the delivery boy at the door, “as it wasn’t the day when he came” at a recent reading at St Pancras station.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland, as it’s normally called, isn’t a picture book per se, it’s a full-on novella – but it’s a great choice for older children looking for longer text but with some wonderful artwork to accompany.
As you’d expect from an out-of-copyright book, there are many different editions available with illustrations from the well-known 1865 edition with art by Sir John Tenniel to the very rare 1959 Swedish edition with art by Moomins author and artist Tove Jannsen. The edition shown here is one of my favourites, a brand new reprint of a 1989 version with art by Anthony Browne – featuring his characteristic hidden details.
Lostmy.name, The Girl Who Lost Her Name / The Boy Who Lost His Name
Books with your child's name printed in them – or through them – are nothing new, but the Losymy.name project offers a level of personalisation we've not seen before – making them the must-have purchases for those of us with children in our lives of our own or others.
Startup Lostmy.name has created two picture books – The Girl Who Lost Her Name and The Boy Who Lost His Name – that follow a central character who wakes one day unsure of what their name is. Over a series of chapters they meet characters to acquire letters that build up to spell their own name. The order of chapters – and which chapters you see – depends on the name of your child – so my daughter Alice will get a completely different story to her friend Jennifer.
There's also more than one chapter possibility for each letter, so my son Adam gets to meet an Angel and an Aardvark (as well as a Dragon and a Mermaid).
Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Troll (aka Hildafolk)
Recently renamed Hilda and the Troll to match the title pattern of its sequels, Hildafolk isn’t a picture book. It’s a comic or graphic novel (depending on how stuck up your are about such things). But this book by acclaimed indie-comic author Luke Pearson as easy to follow as a picture book and, like many featured here, is set in an unreal world of imagination that draws visually from both European/American comic traditions and Japanese manga.
The work is beautifully detailed and the print finish is wonderful – which makes the book feel a lot more special to your children than an easily torn cheap paperback.
Reading Hildafolk is also a much better way to get your kids into comics than Peppa Pig magazines.
Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are
Where The Wild Things Are is the favourite children’s picture book of almost every artist, designers, animator or director I know. It’s mine too. Max is the epitome of every little boy - wanting to run off and do his own thing for a while, but drawn back to his parents and home comforts in the end.
The forested world of the Wild Things is wonderfully realised, as are the Things themselves – who are terrifically exciting but also genuinely menacing. And the energy and fervour of the Wild Rumpus make for some iconic artworks.
Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found
Oliver Jeffers' second book – and the first to bring together the boy and his penguin – is a heartwarming tale of adventure and friendship. A penguin turns up at the door of a small boy, and the boy attempts to get him home again.
Oliver’s distinctive style is charmingly simple without being reductive. There’s also a pop-up and flaps version of the book, engineered by Corina Fletcher, that heightens then sense of adventure and exploration.
If your children love this book and you find yourselves in East London, visit the Discover Centre in Stratford, which has an Oliver Jeffers-themed series of playrooms – including a Lost and Found office, the boy’s bedroom and the South Pole – that are quite wonderful.
Raymond Briggs, The Snowman
The Snowman is probably better known for the animated adaption of Raymond Briggs’ book that’s on every Christmas than for the book itself (which isn’t actually set at Christmas). Like many traditions, the film – and, by extension, the book – are seen as cliched, which can make the charming pastel artworks seem twee.
But the warmth of Raymond’s artwork – which is all readers have to go on, as there are no words – lulls the viewer so that they’re unprepared for the end of the book, which is guaranteed to bring tears to your children’s eyes. So have the tissues ready before starting.