Children’s books have come a long way since the days of Dr. Seuss—here are 10 titles that work just as well as art lessons as bedtime reading.
As MGMT once sang on Yo Gabba Gabba, “art is everywhere” as far as little kids are concerned. This is especially true of their literature, better known as picture books. But one thing I’ve discovered over three years of brim-filling my son Emile’s bookshelf is that not all illustrations are created equal.
Some, like the Dr. Seuss’s whimsical drawings, are pitch-perfect visualizations of the story, while others are simply tossed onto the page in hopes that kids are happy enough to see a somewhat recognizable cow. (Often they are.) But neither necessarily tempt you to frame ‘em.
However, there are also a whole raft of books whose striking images are essentially their raison d’etre. Some are done by moonlighting artists and designers, others by kids-book stalwarts with a distinctive style. (And one is from a turntablist named after a marsupial.) But all transcend toddler books to the realm of art.
Gary Taxali, This Is Silly!: Toronto’s own Taxali made a big splash as a magazine illustrator for the likes of Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire after graduating from OCAD in the early ’90s. He started drawing retro-inspired toys (and eventually producing actual ones, too), which he then used to populate his first, and so far only, kids book in 2010. Not only does my son adore its stylized wackiness, it also taught him the word “tomfoolery.” Win-win.
Kid Koala, Space Cadet: Montreal-via-Vancouver DJ legend Kid Koala has lately become almost as famous as an illustrator—in fact, his recent Space Cadet album is a soundtrack to his same-named book. Conceived as a graphic novel version of a silent movie, it’s about a guardian robot whose female astronaut charge flies off on a solo mission, leaving him sad and lonely. Hand-drawn on etchboards, this follow-up to Koala’s graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall is a melancholy rumination on fatherhood that will wow little kids with its evocative white-on-black sketches—and, y’know, all the robots and outer-space stuff.
Paola Opal, Saffy: Award-winning Dutch-Canadian illustrator Opal aims very young with her “Simply Small” board-book series about tiny animals like Saffy the giraffe, who dreams of growing tall enough to reach the stars. But even cuter than the poetically simple stories are Opal’s signature big-eyed and thick-lined illustrations, introducing the appeal of clean design and stylized graphics to tiny tots.
Yoshitomo Nara, The Lonesome Puppy: If the little girl who befriends this absurdly gigantic dog looks familiar, you’re probably in your mid-30s: Nara—a manga-inspired veteran of the Tokyo pop art scene—used the character on his cover for Shonen Knife’s 1998 album Happy Hour. Nara’s first children’s book is a logical extension of his oeuvre, which achieves whimsy without stereotypical Hello Kitty “kawaii” or cuteness.
Alison Oliver, Little Master Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet: The N.Y.C. designer and illustrator of micro-studio Sugar usually puts her skills to work on everything from cookbooks to company logos to surface imaging. But her, shall we say, sweetest effort is the BabyLit series, in which Oliver and author Jennifer Adams reimagine classic literature, from Jane Austen to Bram Stoker, as impeccably designed board-books. We have Romeo & Juliet, which has taught Emile to count from one balcony up to 10 kisses (and don’t worry, two is not “suicides”).
Marc Boutavant, Around the World With Mouk: Parisian illustrator and graphic artist Boutavent’s Mouk work is like a modern French version of Richard Scarry’s overstuffed Busytown books. Though he started out hand-drawing the kid’s comic Ariol, Boutavent’s current efforts are done primarily in Photoshop. Of course, the creation process is irrelevant to his cute, quirky images’ dense creativity and bright energy. Around the World even ups his usual ante with 46 reusable vinyl stickers.
Vicki Wong and Michael C. Murphy, Octonauts: The west-coast husband-and-wife duo of Meomi Design, otherwise best known for designing the adorable Vancouver Olympics mascots, have become preschooler heroes thanks to their Octonauts books (and computer-animated TV adaptation), which grew out of simple desktop wallpaper art. The clean, vinyl toy–influenced design is a perfect fit for their cutesy, Cousteau-esque underwater adventures of Captain Barnacles Bear, Kwazii Kitten, and Peso Penguin.
J. Otto Seibold, Olive, the Other Reindeer: Digital artist and graphic designer Seibold animated the video for They Might Be Giants’ classic “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” before getting into children’s books. Inspired by Japanese cartoons and his own dog, Seibold first found success with his Mr. Lunch books. He had a holiday hit with Olive, The Other Reindeer (as in the Rudolph line “all of the other reindeer”) that Matt Groening made into a late-’90s Christmas special featuring the voices of Drew Barrymore, and Michael Stipe.
Barbara Reid, Picture a Tree: Reid is another award-winning Toronto artist, with Tree picking up the 2012 Libris Children’s Picture Book of the Year prize, among others, but she works in a whole other medium from the rest of this list. Rather than digital or hand-drawn art, Reid works in Plasticine, a type of oil-based modeling clay. Each “illustration” is first sketched, then shaped and finally photographed for the page with typeface added after. The end result gives the images a three-dimensional, almost tactile, appearance—like static stop-motion.
Julie Morstad, The Swing: This East Vancouver artist, who specializes in pen-and-ink and mixed-media work, has seen her images exhibited in galleries and books as well on the cover of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Often compared to surrealist illustrator Edward Gorey, Morstad’s fine-line sketches have brought to life a series of award-winning books including When You Were Small, while her just-released board-book, The Swing, is a visualization of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem and bears influence of legendary Japanese kids’ book illustrator Gyo Fujikawa.
Charley Harper, Charley Harper’s ABCs: The late Modernist specialized in extremely stylized nature prints, which he called “minimal realism.” So it was an easy transition to take the graphic designs he began doing for the Ford Times travel magazine, The Golden Book of Biology, and World Book Encyclopedia and simply apply them to board-books. There’s a whole series, but the best known is ABCs, which simply pairs his animal art with the alphabet (A is for Ape, B is for Bird, etc.).
Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found: The artwork of Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based Jeffers, a co-founder of the OAR art collective, has been exhibited around the world. But he’s most famous for his popular children’s books thanks to the breakout success of his hand-painted Lost and Found, a watercolour and acrylic work about a boy bringing a penguin back to the Antarctic—though The Way Back Home, in which said boy gets himself stuck on the moon, is even better.
Do you have any picture-book recommendations? Share them in the comments section below.