Of people who work in children's literature, author Gary D. Schmidt said, "They are artists, who make their most beautiful work for children." It was at a conference I attended, and really struck me, because I feel like my most emotional responses to words and art have often come while reading a picture book with my children. To see their wonder, see the pages come alive for your kids, is like nothing else. Whether it's detailed, vivid illustrations, gorgeous writing, or attention to things like paper stock and binding (yes, I am a nerd about that), these picture books are surely great works of art.
If children's books are often poems, at 500 words total in some cases, packing in a much more vast emotional journey than the short sentences suggest, then the books listed below prove that children's books are also legit works of art. Whether the characters are learning how to weave or sailing through the sky, the artwork will make you wish you could print it out as a tapestry and hang it on the wall to surround yourself with the feeling of that book. It will also make you wonder: gee minetti, why don't adult books get fine art to accompany the words, too?
1'Ocean Meets Sky' by the Terry Fan and Eric Fan
Terry and Eric Fan, who created the melancholy, gorgeous The Night Gardener, have created something even more expansive. Every illustration in this book is stunningly detailed. The child's imaginary boat journey is magical in the way kids' daydreams are magical. It's impossible to read this book and not feel as though you've been on a great journey.
2'Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life Of Louis Bourgeois' by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
At the library, this book practically jumped off the shelf and demanded to be brought home and loved. Louis Bourgeois was an artist whose childhood by the river was spent learning tapestry weaving from her mother. This biography perfectly depicts how her childhood and her relationship with her mother informed her art. Each spread is hand-lettered and looks like fabric. It's just a gorgeous book to hold.
3'Animalia' by Graeme Base
By far the most gorgeous alphabet book. Each letter gets a richly detailed illustration that's chock full of animals and things that start with that letter to discover, hidden within the design. Every time you read this one, you're sure to appreciate a new detail.
4'Why Am I Me?' by Paige Britt, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
This book is a meditation on what makes us all different and the all same. While two kids wonder why they are who they are, they imagine all the other different people they could be. Each illustration is a celebration of diversity that also highlights our commonalities. It's deep but accessible, and totally gorgeous.
5'The Stuff Of Stars' by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Is there anything more mind-blowing that our magical existence? That all of us are made from the same stuff as stars? These illustrations perfectly capture that sense of wonder. Starting with the Big Bang and ending with the birth of a new person, this book seamlessly incorporates science and art.
6'Drawn Together' by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat
A boy and his grandfather don't speak the same language, so they communicate through drawing. The way the two characters' drawing styles are woven throughout is as much a part of the story as the words. This is an incredible collaboration between author and illustrator, and the hidden surprise underneath the book jacket will deepen the magic.
7'Yellow Kayak' by Nina Laden, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon
8'Found.' by Jeff Newman and Larry Day
This is a wordless book that conveys so much emotion. It follows a girl whose dog is missing. She finds a dog that brings some color and cheer back to her world, only to discover that he already has a home with someone else. This title is still forthcoming (November 2018), but would make an awesome holiday gift for an animal lover or artist.
9'Grandpa Green' by Lane Smith
10'The Great Paper Caper' by Oliver Jeffers
This is an animal-filled mystery. Someone is cutting down the trees in the forest. Who would do it, and why? These illustrations help tell the story seamlessly, leaving clues and details for the reader to find. Also, the skinny-legged animals are just downright charming.
11'Imagine!' by Raúl Colón
Imagine! by Raúl Colón ($17.99, Simon and Schuster)
Not only is this wordless book a work of art in and of itself, it celebrates some of the most iconic works that can be found in the Museum of Modern Art. A boy's imagination comes alive, and he experiences New York City with new eyes when he's joined by some of modern art's greatest hits.
12'On A Magical Do Nothing Day' by Beatrice Alemagna
On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna ($17.99, HarperCollins)
Hand this to any kid who's bored. The boy in this story is bored, stuck in a house with his mom while it rains. He goes outside, skeptical that he'll have any fun. It turns out being outside in the forest in the rain can be pretty exciting. (Side note from someone who enjoys book design: the end papers perfectly match the little boy's coat, which acts as a pop of cover on every spread.)
13'The Snowy Day' by Ezra Jack Keats
The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats ($15.45, Amazon)
It's easy to miss the simplicity of the illustrations in this classic story — they convey so much movement, you can almost hear the crunch of Peter's footsteps in the snow. Keats' distinctive style — cutouts and flat, textured shapes — captures the visceral experience of playing on a snowy day, from the plop of snow off a tree branch to the excitement of looking out the window and seeing snowflakes. Looking at Peter exploring, you're reminded what it is to be a kid.
14'Dear Mili' by Maurice Sendak (and Wilhelm Grimm)
Dear Mili by Maurice Sendak and Wilhelm Grimm ($20.99, Amazon)
A far lesser-known work of literary magic than Where The Wild Things Are, Sendak's artwork in Dear Mili, a long-lost Grimm fairytale about a girl who is sent in the forest to escape war, and protected by a guardian angel, is quasi-religious and, it must be said, quite heavy! The intricate illustrations, which seemingly sketch out every twig in the deep forest, every carving on the cabin the girl discovers deep into the woods, bring the reader to an incredibly uplifting moment as she comes out of the forest and sees, for a moment, just how much beauty there is in the world.