Art Works Blog

Our Literature Director's Favorite Picture Books

In a proclamation penned by a few leading children’s authors, it was written that “picture books should be fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful.” To demonstrate just how fresh and beautiful they can be, NEA Director of Literature Amy Stolls recently brought in about six dozen from her personal collection to showcase at the NEA. They were so stunning that we asked Amy to share a few of her very favorites with you as well. Maybe they’ll give you a few ideas for your holiday gift list, and maybe they’ll give you a good excuse to hole up in the library and rediscover just how magical picture books can be.

Picking a dozen picture books to highlight when there are so many brilliant ones out there is no easy task, I can tell you that. But okay … I can do this. To narrow the scope, I’ve chosen picture books (not comic books) that I love (truly madly deeply), published in the last five years that both kids and adults can enjoy (though there are terrific picture books aimed solely at adults) and that are currently available through your local independent bookstores. I also tried to give a range of styles to show what the picture book is capable of these days.

The Tree House by Marije Tolman & Ronald TolmanLemniscaat USA, 2010. The gentle world evoked in this wordless import from the Netherlands is where I go in my head when I need to de-stress. Or I go to The Island, another gorgeous collaboration by this father/daughter team. To land on the last pages of these works is to know there’s love in the world. See also Marije Tolman’s wonderful book, Jumping Penguins.

Sky High by Germano Zullo (author) & Albertine (illustrator)Chronicle Books, 2012. I love this import from Switzerland. I love the book's height; the tiny, intricate details and captions; the subtle humor that emerges when two house builders try to outdo each other. See also Line 135, another one of their terrific collaborations.

Red Sings From Treetops by Joyce Sidman (author) & Pamela Zagarenski (illustrator)Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. These two have paired up on a few books, all gems. Beautiful, magical poems and illustrations of colors, senses, and seasons. See also Zagarenski and Mary Logue's book, Sleep Like a Tiger.

Black Dog by Levi PinfoldTemplar Books, 2012. This import from Australia about a quirky family alarmed by an enormous dog is haunting (in a good way) and funny and full of warmth. It creates a world that feels both mythical and real, familiar and strange, a world I find I keep wanting to revisit. See also books by Shaun Tan, another brilliant Australian illustrator.

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag by Maira KalmanSkira Rizzoli, 2014. If you’re not familiar with the hugely talented, funny, philosophical New Yorker illustrator Maira Kalman, you might want to look her up. This is her newest children’s book, based on objects from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I’ll admit I have a slight preference for her books aimed at adults, like The Principles of Uncertainty. It’s one of my favorite picture books that I own.

Madlenka by Peter SisSquare Fish, reprint edition 2010. MacArthur genius, Czech-born Peter Sis is a master illustrator. He's published three Madlenka books about a girl exploring her multiethnic community in New York. I'd highly recommend trying to snag the original hardback edition from Scholastic (2000). But check out his other books, too.

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry PinkneyLittle, Brown, 2009. This wordless book based on Aesop's fable is gorgeous. Seriously. Just hold it in your hands and marvel at the artistry, then check out Pinkney’s other books.

Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver JeffersPhilomel Book, 2014. You can't go wrong with a book by Jeffers. He’s funny and offbeat and prolific; I own more than half a dozen of his books. This quirky A-Z book is his newest, but I think it’s already my favorite, if only for the heft and bold pink cover.

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter, translated from the Norwegian by Kari DicksonEnchanted Lion Press, 2013. Enchanted Lion is one of my favorite children’s book presses. There is actually a hole through this book, a mischievous hole that moves about and demonstrates why some books work in print but not digitally. See also My Father's Arms Are A Boat, a beautiful book by Torseter on love and loss.

Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett (author) and Adam Rex (illustrator)Disney-Hyperion, 2012. I have read this book a bazillion times to my boys and every time we laugh out loud. (Okay, I may be acting a little by now.) It’s a hilarious riff on the author/illustrator relationship, with the main character having a say, as well. I have a secret wish to hang out with Barnett and Rex someday.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead (author) & Erin E. Stead (illustrator)Roaring Brook Press, 2010. I love the work of this married couple, particularly Erin Stead’s gorgeous, muted drawings. This is one of the sweetest stories of friendship I know. I also love Erin’s other books, particularly If You Want to See a Whale (written by Julie Fogliano).

Journey by Aaron BeckerCandlewick, 2013; and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter BrownLittle, Brown, 2013. I know, this is cheating … to end with two books when I promised to only choose a total of 12. (Can you see how hard this is?) But I do love these two tremendouslycthe stories and the art workthough they are more popular, which is why I thought it would be okay to cram them into one entry. Good thing I don’t write children’s books.

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