Before I started working as a children’s librarian, I had no great interest in browsing picture books for children. I didn’t have any feelings against them, I just had no real reason to seek them out. Now that both my professional and personal lives involve so many picture books, I have grown mega-attached to this perpetually underappreciated art form. Many people don’t realize just how stunning and original a picture book can be. Picture books frequently make me cry and laugh out loud, but my most frequent reaction is surprise at the artistry involved: at the complexity conveyed in the smallest detail of an illustration, of the multiple tiny worlds and hidden delights you can find by studying an illustration—charming details like the pattern of a mouse’s skirt, or titles on a tiny book shelf. Picture Books contain multitudes and can play a big role in expanding the imagination and world view of anyone lucky enough to spend time with them.
As a children’s librarian, one of the most painfully inaccurate comments I overhear about picture books is that they are “for babies.” Well-meaning parents chastise their kids for wanting to read a picture book, telling them it is below their “level,” “too easy,” etc. Actually, I am always pleased to say, many picture books were meant to be read and enjoyed by children with adults. Much has already been written about this idea of picture books losing ground in the children’s publishing world, so I won’t get on my soapbox. I will say that reading picture books with a child is one of the most relaxing, bond-forming activities you can do. The benefits for the child are numerous: reading builds vocabulary and communication skills, encourages empathy and exposes children to different worlds and perspectives. For the grown up, reading picture books will force you to slow down and consider the world from a different place. It will make you nostalgic for the life you used to have or wish you did, and, in many cases, it will allow you the pleasure of gazing at beautiful, original art. Here are six gorgeous picture books that will appeal to both children and their grownups.
Awarded a Caldecott honor, this large-format picture book features warm, beautiful illustrations by the inimitable Marla Frazee, whose people and landscapes are my absolute favorite among all other children’s illustrators—and that’s saying a lot! The text is rhythmic and brief, taking us through one sweet day of family and community life. We see a brother and a sister collecting shells at a beach, climbing a tree, playing in a fountain. When a sudden storm sends everyone indoors, we see the day wind down as food is made and shared, music is played and quiet moments are had. This book evokes a strong sense of well – being, acceptance and familiarity. The images are so sweeping and lovely, it is easy to get a little bit lost and a little bit teary while reading this book. My two littles know how much I love it and will often hand it to me saying, “This is your favorite, right mama?”
A ragged little girl lives in a vast wilderness with her small dog. They live together, sleeping outside in the summer and inside a cave in the winter. They share berries and nuts, even insects for food. One day, during winter, they return home to see large footprints leading up to their cave. Later on, a big brown bear approaches. The wild girl and her dog rustle up their courage and scare the bear off. Not long after, a tiny brown bear emerges from the back of their cave. Understanding and remorseful they chase after the mama bear, trying to get its attention. I won’t tell you what happens next, but be prepared for your heart to burst into a million tiny pieces. I don’t know why this book affects me so deeply. Something about the illustration of the ragged girl and her sweet little pup against the unforgiving terrain – haven’t we all felt that way from time to time?
A New York City family is scattered around their apartment, cooking, working on the computer, talking on the phone and watching TV in this Caldecott honor book. It is a hot summer night, and suddenly the whole world goes black. It’s a blackout! The family finds their way together in the darkened house and make their way to the rooftop where they see other families, all over the city, enjoying their time together. They see more stars in the sky then they ever thought possible. It’s a simple and beautiful book, full of bright, warm, comic book-style illustrations that go from black and white to color and back to black and white again. Blackout is also the kind of picture book that manages to speak to both children and their grownups without being heavy-handed.
I had a really hard time choosing between Captain Cat and A House in the Woods, so I choose both! Like All the World, Inga Moore’s books come in a large, beautiful format, inviting the reader to spend copious amounts of time reveling in the lovely, muted illustrations. Her delicate cross hatching and careful shading evoke her characters and settings, particularly the forest. In Captain Cat, we meet a sea captain who is so in love with his pet cats, that he trades all of his valuables for more cats. Laughed out of the main sea port, he finds himself in strange waters, with his cats for company and stumbles upon an island with a little girl-queen whose home is overrun with rats. Wonderfully expressive cat faces highlight the quirky artwork and characters that populate this fairy-tale like story, which does include a few surprises, such as a picture featuring a row of rat corpses, lined up by the proud cats. While this part may jar a few unsuspecting readers or their parents, it falls neatly within the realm of a fairy tale world, which I think Inga Moore is going for with this whimsical book. Somewhat more traditional, and with a more succinct story, A House in the Woods introduces us to two pigs, a bear and a moose who decide to build a house in which they can all live happily together. They hire the most logical, hardworking animals to do the job: beavers. After working out the payment (the beavers wish to be paid in peanut butter sandwiches), the house goes up fast and we are regaled with hilarious and beautiful illustrations of a moose, pig and bear sitting around the fire like old friends. Inga Moore manages to draw realistic, animal characters with charmingly human characteristics—the moose stands upright with his hands on his hips, the beavers carry clipboards and drive a work truck. Inga Moore’s books make perfect gifts for birthday parties or holidays for the 2-5 year old set.
Enjoy this book, but know that you will weep. Homer is an old dog. Old, but happy. The wonderful Elisha Cooper illustrates a day as experienced by Homer, an aging yellow lab who lives in a house by the sea. Homer is approached by everyone in the family, grownups, kids, other dogs. He is too tired to join them in their activities, but he is content to sit on the porch, feeling the cool breeze in his fur, watching his family come and go. A lovely, understated perspective on getting old, this book treats us to the comforting rhythms of everyday life. It will delight young and grown dog lovers alike, but holds extra weight, I think, with those of us old enough to grasp the bittersweet reality of time passing. Makes me tear up every time.