Let's talk about picture books! A few months ago, two friends asked me if I could recommend any good picture books for children. They explained that it seemed many picture books today are either badly written, badly drawn, or both. I sat down and soon came up with this quick list--missing many classics, no doubt, but containing all our favourites, and some others I've heard recommended:
Charming Picture Books
Stone Soup by Marcia Brown.
When three hungry soldiers, returning from the wars, come upon a little village, they invent a plan to get food. An Eastern European folktale.
Beatrix Potter’s Tales.
Beatrix Potter’s gorgeous illustrations and charming stories, some cautionary, some whimsical, were always favourites in our family, especially Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
The Dragon and the Garden, In the Time of Noah by ND Wilson
Fairy-tale-style retellings of the Fall and the Flood. I haven't read these, but I'm a Wilson fan. He's also recently released a cute board-book called Hello Ninja.
Corduroy by Don Freeman.
A teddy bear in a toy shop longs for someone to own and love him, but fears that the missing button on his overalls will mean he stays lonely in the toy shop. This is just lovable!
Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
American classics. In one, a family of ducks gets help from policemen in crossing Boston; in another, baby Sal accidentally gets switched for a baby bear on a blueberry picking trip!
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Grimm brothers, illustrated by Nancy E Burkurt
This is a famous picture book which I haven’t seen all through, but the Grimms’ story is a classic, and the pictures are exquisite. You could also look for Trina Schart Hyman’s Snow White which is out of print and sells for an astronomical price—but is gorgeous too.
William Tell and Ali Baba by Margaret Early
Two beautiful picture books, one in a medieval and the other in a Persian style. William Tell gives the story of the Swiss fight for freedom, while Ali Baba is the famous Arabian legend.
Audrey Bunny by Angie Smith, illustrated by Breezy Brookshire
"Best-selling women's author Angie Smith ("Mended") writes her first children's book in which the imperfect stuffed animal Audrey Bunny feels unworthy of love but eventually learns from a little girl that she is wonderfully made and forever perfect in God's eyes." I was unable to more than flip through this book when I saw an advance copy, but can tell you that Breezy's illustrations are full of sweetness and light, rather in the style of Corduroy.
Monika Beisner’s Book of Riddles and Fabulous Beasts by Alison Laurie and Monika Beisner.
We love the Book of Riddles, which presents a collection of riddles old and new with beautiful illustrations providing sly clues. Fabulous Beasts is just as beautifully illustrated, and prettier than Bulfinch's Mythology, but you may need to emphasise to your children that the unicorns and phoenixes don’t necessarily exist, given the solemn scientific tone of the book which doesn’t make that point!
Odette: A Springtime in Paris by Kay Fender and Phillippe Dumas.
In this beautiful and very Frenchly illustrated book, an old man who plays the accordion in the Paris Metro rescues a little bird who falls onto his hat. He names the bird Odette and they make beautiful music together, but one springtime when Odette comes back to visit with her mate, the old man is gone. This is a sweet, beautiful, bittersweet picture book that we all loved.
Veritas Press Phonics Museum readers.
We very much enjoyed the easy readers from the Veritas phonics course, although we never could make the phonics course itself work very well. It is a wonderful concept: the books are beautifully illustrated in a wide range of styles from the matisse-style book about Ella Fitzgerald inventing scat or the Communist-propaganda-style book about a spy infiltrating an evil mastermind's secret base to the bright Celtic knotwork of the book about Saint Brendan. Then there are the pure history nerd books like the ones about St Patrick or Rob Roy, Anne Bradstreet or Henry of Navarre. Now, despite the zany brilliance of this collection, the concept hasn’t been executed all that well (even despite the fact that some of the authors of these picture books include people like Douglas and Nancy Wilson and RC and Denise Sproul, Jr). The text goes through some strange contortions in order to fit the Veritas phonics structure, and my mother never found the resource helpful in actually teaching anyone to read. But those books still manage to be delightful, and maybe you could find some secondhand.
Picture Books For Character and Dominion
Doctor de Soto by William Steig.
A mouse dentist who is like his father—“I always finish what I start.” His fearless and clever assistant—who happens to be his wife. Their shady customer, a fox who they fear intends to eat them as soon as they have finished work on his aching tooth. This book celebrates marriage, work, and courage—a classic.
Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney
Celebrates hard work and entrepreneurship, with lovely illustrations.
Lizzie Nonsense by Jan Ormerod.
When Papa takes sandalwood to town to sell, Lizzie must help Mama and baby keep house all by themselves in the lonely and sometimes frightening bush. With pluck and the fun of imagination, Lizzie keeps everyone’s hopes up until Papa finally comes home. This is a very sweet, beautifully illustrated story of Australia’s pioneer days, and I love the deep sense of family and hardship it contains. See the more in-depth review at Baehrly Reading.
The Church History ABCs by Stephen J Nichols and Ned Bustard.
From Augustine through Anne Bradstreet to Antonio Vivaldi and Ulrich Zwingli, this book rollicks through church history with verve and humour (why does the picture of Jonathan Edwards have a bar of chocolate in his pocket? Maybe you’ll have to read the mini-biography extra carefully to find out). Very enjoyable, with colourful illustrations and a text which can suit either very young children or more advanced readers.
A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefurt.
In postwar Europe, it’s hard to buy something as nice as a new coat for a little girl. So Anna’s mother has to get creative to produce, exchange, and barter her way to a new coat. I love the picture this gives of creativity and entrepreneurship.
Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones by Ruth Heller.
This is a jawdroppingly beautifully illustrated guide to Things That Lay Eggs. It’s books like these that make science worthwhile!
Old Farm, New Farm by Felicia Law and Philippe Dupasquier.
This is an old book, long out of print, but well worth getting if you can. Farmer Field buys a tumbledown farm and sets to work repairing buildings, dredging ponds, cleaning out barns, servicing machinery, and easing uncomfortable animals. We only have one complaint about this deeply refreshing and endlessly interesting book—the farmer doesn’t have the proper eschatological finish: he takes no bride. Otherwise, this is just about perfect.
Very Favourite Picture Books
The Song of Creation by St Francis of Assisi (publisher: Laughing Elephant).
This hymn, originally penned in 1225 has been rendered into lovely calligraphy and accompanied with classic paintings and illustrations from Turner, Corot, and others. Exquisite.
I Believe by Pauline Baynes.
This was one the last works of the famous illustrator of the Narnia books. It is, quite simply, the Nicene Creed illustrated like a medieval illuminated manuscript in glorious colour, full of the tiny details that medieval manuscripts loved to fill their pictures with. It must have been a limited edition, and is now out of print, but I found a copy, hardcover, for around $10 on Ebay. It’s now one of my most treasured books.
Saint George and the Dragon and The Kitchen Knight, written by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.
These are wonderful stories of brave knights, fair damsels, and epic battles. The Kitchen Knight is the Arthurian legend of Sir Gareth, condensed from Malory. Saint George and the Dragon is a retelling of Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, with glorious epic dragon action. Have I mentioned that Trina Schart Hyman’s pictures are gorgeous—without sacrificing a solid ground of reality? While her damsels are breathtakingly lovely, and her rural quest-scapes are appropriately romantic, her knights are ruggedly masculine, and her battles are thrillingly gory. I love every minute of them, and hope one day to collect some more of her books.