Picture books bring an entire world into our lives and our children are delighted by the images that let them explore the farthest stretches of their imagination.
Children are naturally visual learners and discoverers. When we read a book to kids, they interrupt the narrative to question the illustrations or to talk about them. According to a study, illustrations encourage more parent-child reading interactions, which leads to children thinking about abstract concepts, relationships and having greater recall.
Some of the greatest artists have illustrated picture books. From Harry Clarke and Shaun Tan to Chris Van Allsburg, their illustrations have powered books and elevated them to high art. According to the New Yorker, children’s brains have no thresholds and they can vibe with the most ambitious of themes when it comes to art, because their minds are so fluid and have no boundaries.
In no particular order, here are 10 picture books whose illustrations have challenged the picture book genre.
1. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Considered one of the greatest picture books of all time, the Arrival is one of many masterpieces to come from illustrator Shaun Tan’s stable. The Arrival is a wordless book filled with masterfully drawn images that tell the story of a man who takes leave of his family to travel to an unnamed town in search of a livelihood. This book is brilliantly topical, given the current world scenario today and is a wonderful way to introduce children to displacement, the immigrant experience and the universal question, ‘Where do we belong?’
Why it’s special: The Arrival exposes a child to different ways of seeing and to see a picture narrative, as it were. It’s also a treat for the eyes and while its themes are no doubt ambitious, children will love guessing the wordless pictures and encountering the many fantastic elements that populate the book.
2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
In this book, Sal and her mother go blueberry picking on Blueberry Hill. Sal’s mother hurries on to collect blueberries that will be canned for winter but Sal plonks herself on the grass and eats every blueberry she picks. A few miles away, a mother bear and her baby cub are also blueberry picking and the baby bear is impatient to eat the blueberries, while the mother soldiers on to collect blueberries for winter. Both pairs end up losing each other and Sal ends up following the mother bear while the baby bear follows Sal’s mother!
Why it’s special: This book’s colour palette is something that children may never have encountered before. It also brings in a sense of blueberries and the feeling of being intoxicated by consuming some, similar to Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘Apple Picking,’ so much so that the entire journey is coloured by the hue of blueberries. The sense of growing up and experiencing a countryside and landscape are universal themes.
3. Draw by Raul Colon
It certainly is wonderful to expose children to picture books from different countries. Take Puerto Rican Raul Colon, for example. His wordless masterpiece ‘Draw’ is one of the greatest picture books in modern times. In this book, a boy named Leonardo is confined to his room and in his longing for adventure, imagines that he is in forest and draws them. His art transports him to a forest and he meets different wild animals.
Why it’s special: Forget the masterful textures and techniques. What is brilliant about ‘Draw’ is that it is so cool. The paneling effect pulsates with the energy of a graphic novel or a comic. The illustrations here convey movement; how Leonardo sees the rhinoceros and the way it advances towards him, closer and closer, will astonish a young mind. The panels weave in and out, carrying a few instances of Leonardo’s room, including his backpack and clothes.
4. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg
How can one not be in awe of Chris Van Allsburg? Considered one of the greatest children’s book illustrators of all time, he has given us absolute treasures from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and the Widow’s Broom to The Polar Express and Jumanji. His first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, brims over with exquisite detailed grey pencil illustrations, with exquisite depictions of light and shadow.
Why it’s special: The story about a boy who loses a dog in the garden of a retired magician, Abdul Gasazi, the book is drawn with such mysterious power and lush, fluent strokes that children will have a blast figuring out little visual hints and the twist in the end.
5. The Only Child by Guojing
Illustrated with remarkable grace, The Only Child is based on the author’s own childhood experiences of feeling lost in the one-child policy of China in the 1980s. This wordless picture book is about a girl who plays with her dolls and toys when her mother leaves for work. She then boards a bus to her grandmother’s house, misses her stop when she falls asleep and runs into the woods, where she sees a stag that guides her through the forest.
Why it’s special: The scenes are illustrated so tenderly – close-ups of the animal cuddling with the scared little child, the translucent and soothing graphite compositions and a gamut of emotions ranging from fear to silliness and excitement.
6. The Magic Feather by Roma Singh
Roma Singh was an intern at Tulika Books when she created a unique 3D character that would inspire a beautiful picture book that pushes the boundaries of the child’s imagination. An owl drops a feather in a magical forest, which a girl picks up. The feather takes her into the forest and on a grand adventure.
Why it’s special: The illustrations challenge a child’s sense of linearity. Kids are so imaginative that their minds can take anything. This book has the girl depicted as an old, rundown black book and kids can buy into its curious conceit with ease.
7. Journey by Aaron Becker
Another picture book without words, Journey is the story of a girl who draws a door on her bedroom wall and escapes through it into a magical world where she can use her crayon to draw anything she wants and chart her own adventure.
Why it’s special: Drawn with sumptuous detail and luminous colours, this one is boat loads of fun and a treat for the eyes!
8. Only a Witch Can Fly illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
What is it about the swoop of a witch’s cloak that lends itself to brilliant illustration? Only a Witch Can Fly is drawn by Taeeun Yoo to reflect a sense of nostalgia. The book is about a girl who is not a witch and is determined to fly on a broom.
Why it is special: The magnificent woodcut engravings and linolium prints will have your children hooked.
9. Tuesday by David Weisner
A picture book that is great fun and very cool, Tuesday Evening chronicles the Tuesday evening of a few swamp frogs, who ride lily pads, only to be joined by many more as they jump and sail over the town and even waving their webbed feet at late night diners and other hilarious feats.
Why it’s special: There is so much drama in the way Tuesday is illustrated, with sprawling watercolors and a variety of expressions. Picture this — an illustration of a swamp with frogs includes a small panel with a zoom-in of the frogs in question and shows the finer detail, almost like a graphic novel!
10. Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrations by Sydney Smith
The city, with the hustle and bustle of its sidewalks, is a child’s province. Kids are always fascinated by strangers and the little things in life. Indeed, these sketches make up the narrative arc in another wordless book, Sidewalk Flowers. The book is about a girl who follows her father around the city, after his grocery shopping is done. He is focused on his problems and tasks, as any parent would but she is so enamoured with the people on the sidewalk that she decides to do something completely charming.
Why it is special: Illustrated like a Parisian artist sketchbook, the illustrations are beautiful and also cleverly contribute to the narrative. With its interplay of colour and monochrome, it is sure to delight any child with its beautiful detailing and clever art work.