February 2, 2014

Top 10 Illustrated Kids’ Books Not to Be Missed.

Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons: FreeParking

Every parent knows—trips to the library for kids’ books are as much for the sanity of the grown-up as for the enjoyment of the child.

We are the ones who will be reading these books over and over. And if we’re lucky, we will find some gems to supplement the bedtime routine—Mommy chooses one, Opal chooses one— in a way that makes the ever-kid-requested Doc McStuffins and Dora actually tolerable.

Fact is, there are some astonishingly talented authors and illustrators out there who—hallelujah—have taken mercy on the parents of the world and funneled at least some of their well-honed craft into the world of children’s literature.

And the more I mine the library shelves, the more I realize that some of these artistic and literary creations are nothing less than works of visual and lyrical poetry.

For those of you who are looking for some artistic inspiration while frolicking in the land of children’s literature with your wee one, here are a few of my most current go-to recommendations to get you started, with gallery-worthy illustrations and stories that will charm even the toughest parent-critics.

(And, if you are in an especially curious mood, do yourself a favor and google some of these illustrators. Their creations come from such things as collage or wood-block prints.)

A quote from Pamela Zagarenski, illustrator of Sleep Like a Tiger:

In recent years, I’ve come to understand that I paint in order to solve a puzzle or a mystery.

I paint to discover a secret code which needs to be cracked in order to better understand myself,

the mysteries of life, the soul, God and even the mysteries I don’t yet know exist.

In short, these artists are the real deal.

So, grab a glass of wine and start putting books on hold at your local library, or get drunk enough to buy them all on amazon.

1.  If You Want To See a Whale. By Julie Fogliano.

Illustrated by Erin Stead.

whale cover

A taste:

if you want to see a whale, you shouldn’t watch the clouds,

some floating by, some hanging down

in the sky that’s spread out, side to side

or the certain sun that’s shining

because if you start to look straight up,

you might just miss a whale.



2. Sleep Like a Tiger. By Mary Logue. (Caldecott Honor Book.)

Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski.


A taste: 

“Even grizzly bears?” she asked.

“Bears are mighty sleepers.

They make a cozy den under the snow and sleep through the winter.”

“All winter! That’s too long!” She said.



3.  Extra Yarn, By Mac Barnett. (Caldecott Honor Book.)

Illustrated by John Klassen.

yarn cover

A taste:

And when Annabelle and Mars went

for a walk, Nate pointed and laughed

and said, “You two look ridiculous.”

“You’re just jealous,” said Annabelle.

“No, I’m not,” said Nate.

But it turned out, he was.yarn 2

4.  Wish You Were Here, written and illustrated by Holly Hobbie.

(As in, the same Holly Hobbie that made the famous dolls thirty years ago.)


A taste:

The next postcard didn’t arrive for two weeks,

when the lilacs at Woodcock Pocket were beginning to bloom.

Dear Puds,

A bit of bad luck. While exploring Great Green Swamp,

I was stung by a fierce, banded bush bee. Ouch!

The sting has given me a case of the violet virus,

which makes you pretty woozy. Don’t worry,

I’ll be a lot better once I get home and get some rest.

Your friend, Toot



5.  A Sick Day For Amos McGee. By Phillip Stead.

Illustrated by Erin Stead —who also did If You Want to See a Whale.  (Caldecott Honor book.)

sick day for Amos McGee0001

A taste:

The animals waited for their friend.

The elephant arranged his pawns and polished his castles.

The tortoise stretched his legs and lumbered up.

The penguin sat patiently, all by himself.

The rhinoceros worried that his allergies were worsening.

The owl perched atop a tall stack of storybooks,

scratching his head with concern.




6.  The Dark, by Lemony Snicket.

Illustrated by Jon Klassan—who also did Extra Yarn.


A taste:

but in the morning, the dark would be

back in the basement

where it belonged.

Lazzlo would peek at the dark every morning.

“Hi,” he would say.

“Hi, dark.”



7. Snow. Written and Illustrated by Uri Shulevitz. (Caldecott Medal book.)


A taste:

all snowflakes know is

snow, snow, snow.



8.  Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, written and illustrated by Simms Taback. (Caldecott Medal book.)


A taste:

Joseph had a little overcoat. It was old and warn.

So he made a jacket out of it

and went to the fair.



Joseph Had a Little Overcoat is based on the Yiddish song I Had a Little Overcoat:


9.  The Gardener, written by Sarah Stewart. (Caldecott Medal book).

Illustrated by David Small.


A taste:

September 3, 1935

Dear Uncle Jim,

I’m mailing this from the train station. I forgot to tell you in the last letter

three important things that I’m too shy to say to your face:

1. I know a lot about gardening, but nothing about baking.

2.  I’m anxious to learn to bake, but is there any place to plant seeds?

3.  I like to be called ‘Lydia Grace’— just like grandma.

Your niece, Lydia Grace Finch




10.  Blackout, written and illustrated by John Rocco. (Caldecott Medal book.)

blackout cover

A taste:

It was a normal night in the city.

Hot, noisy, busy.

And then…the lights went out

and everything changed.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing,

because not everyone likes normal.


Reading is a quick-path to sanity for both my daughter and myself, takes us to a place that is safe from the speedy responsibility of tasks and schedule.

Luckily, there is no shortage of beauty and attention to detail out there, waiting to be read out loud, while lying safe and snug in the confines of my daughter’s canopy bed, head propped by a generous heap of individually-named, stuffed animals.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here—I  encourage you to share your current favorites in the comment section.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Linked to Original Sources, creative commons

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