I have this anthology of classic children’s stories sitting on my son’s bookshelf, given to me when I was a child. It was respectfully buried in a cardboard box for the better part of ten years, partially because I adored it, and partially because I was terrified of it. It is beige with an image of Snow White waving goodbye to seven dwarves, and has a very particular smell I can’t entirely describe. I’ve actually never smelled another book like it, and after twenty years, the scent hasn’t lessened. It’s one of those aromas that burns in your nose the more you smell it. Like too much dust in the nostrils. It’s funny, but when I pull out the book and catch it’s scent, it is less an odor and more a picture. The smell is a series of vivid images. A black-eyed tin soldier burning with a lovely ballerina. An emaciated dog with huge orange eyes, carrying a high foreheaded woman through the night. An ugly woman opening a box of jewels.
Each story in this book is illustrated by a different author. Each art style is distinct, and are highly effective in conveying the narrative. I remember the stories because of the artwork. I was afraid of the stories because of the artwork. It is a testament to the survivability of imagery, and how much of an impact pictures have on us.
That said, I am far more impressed by the plethora of children’s books my son has at his disposal. Some have wonderful stories with deep meaning, some with no real message (which in and of itself is a lovely message – the book version of art for art’s sake, childish for children’s sake, perhaps), but I sometimes buy a book for him solely based on the art alone. There are incredible artists illustrating children’s books, some with highly stylized line, shape, and form, and others with a beautiful semi-realism. Walking into the children’s section of a bookstore is a real treat, with narrative artbooks on the right and left. It is important for me to immerse my son in art, and help him develop an artistic intelligence early on. This feat is easier and easier to accomplish when you can have well-designed artwork in your home. Hardly exhaustive, here is a list of some children’s books to check out. Whether the stories are didactic or purposefully not, all these illustrations add something to the ever expanding territory of artistic expression.
This was a favorite of mine as a child. I somehow lost this book at one point and never really recovered. Each page contains a highly detailed illustration, playing off the alphabet with alliterative narration. Beware of a modicum of overwhelming busyness, which nevertheless lends itself for creating your own search-and-find book.
As a child, I was obsessed with rabbits. I drew rabbits, collected rabbit figurines with top hats and gardening hoes, had snow globes with rabbits inside a wintery landscapes, had pencils with snow globes with rabbits inside wintery landscapes – as I said, I was obsessed with rabbits.
Naturally, this book makes it on the list. This heartening story of a cat and bunny’s relationship is wonderfully illustrated by Clare Newberry. Her charcoal drawings utilize few strokes, creating images that feel buoyant and alive. You can see how much drawing from life, which she did nearly exclusively, has improved her line work and brings life to everything she creates. A lovely book.
8. Harold and the Purple Crayon
Somehow I never came in contact with this book as a child, which is supremely unfortunate. Crockett Johnson creates a wonderful world by charting the imagination of a young boy as he creates the world around him with a single purple crayon. These illustrations are a great introduction on how to utilize the element of line, and is just pure fun.
7. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present
Maurice Sendak illustrates Charlotte Zolotow’s story of a young girl gathering a present for her mother, aided by a long-limbed rabbit. My son was given this book on his first birthday by one of my aunts. A relic from her children’s youth, she bundled it up with some Dr. Suess pulled from a closet, the cover nearly ripping away from the book. The art is obviously Sendak, but with an impressionistic twist.
I find this book oddly moody, the artwork having a quiet solemnity that ends with an image of the rabbit waving goodbye as he wanders back into the dark night. The writing reiterates itself, but in a conversational way, with the tone between girl and rabbit soft and effortless. I am so intrigued by this book.
I requested this book on my baby registry after only seeing the cover. The clever illustrations utilize simple lines with a limited color palette. Olivia is Ian Falconer’s story of a sassy pig and her daily adventures, aided by charmingly minimal imagery. You’re able to really focus on the meaning of the story, as each drawing is carefully chosen and crafted to highlight the nucleus of Olivia’s day.
5. The Little Boy or Girl who Lost Their Name
This story is about a little boy or girl who wakes up and goes on an adventure to find his or her name. Each of these books are customizable, with the story following the letters in your child’s name. The art is very fun and the quality is excellent. The company has quite a few personalized books and items for sale, all with different artistic styles and stories. You can preview the entire books before you purchase!
4. Beatrix Potter
I grew up with Beatrix Potter’s stories, marveling, even as a young child, at how accurate her portraits of animals were. Her background in art (talent, plus practice, minus proper teaching) heartens me to the fact that even those of us with minimal academic art training can reach artistic heights. If you don’t own a single Beatrix Potter story, go out and buy one. Buy several. Do yourself a favor and just buy the set.
3. Petit Inventaire du Monde
Maya Hanisch’s illustrations are clever and well-rendered, collages pieced together to reveal the small inventory of the world. Each page is beautiful. Follow Maya on Instagram to keep up with her lovely paintings and artistry. Now, her books are not the easiest to get ahold of, but well worth it if you take the time to hunt them down. This book is great for children to learn new words and for use as a reference for collaging, so go on an internet adventure and find it! I implore you!
2. The Biggest Story
Try not to fall in love with Don Clark’s artistry in this absolutely gorgeous book. To say I’m consumed with his art is an understatement. Vivid and graphic, this feels less like children’s lit and more like a bona fide artbook. I implore you to go out and buy this as soon as you are able.
1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I’m ending with this novel, because it is my personal favorite. My grandmother gave me a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass from her bookshelf, and I read both in a day. I used to practice reciting The Mouse’s Tale in one long breath, having memorized it due to endless, breathless repetition, and was crazy about Tenniel’s illustrations. I went on to get one of them tattooed on my forearm. The highly detailed artwork aids the fanciful, well-crafted narration, and Carroll’s world is only enriched by it. I am never pulled away from the novel when staring at the illustrations, as they are so intrinsically linked to the image and story of Alice that looking at them is like reading them. I cannot encourage you enough to pick up these books, they please both the right and left brain in word and render.