There are picture books that children love—The Berenstein Bears, Clifford the Big Red Dog—and picture books based on cartoons like Scooby Doo or Dora the Explorer. There are picture books that we lovingly recall even when we’re not children anymore—Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, The Snowy Day. And then there are picture books that are meant for a wider audience. They tend to be overlooked, because we think of storybooks, with their big colorful pictures, as books that are meant for little children only. But a simple story can be just as heartfelt, dramatic, and exciting as any book double its size. You’ll be surprised at the wit, elegance, and sophistication that can be packed into a picture book’s brief but stunning pages.
The Enemy by Davide Cali, illustrated by Serge Bloch, 2009, Schwartz and Wade Books (Children’s Fiction)
Two opposing soldiers in foxholes contemplate each other and the nature of war in this deceptively simple children’s book. At first, the soldiers think of each other only as The Enemy, a nameless, faceless, dangerous other. When it rains, the soldiers only consider their own discomfort—the thought that the enemy might be just as wet and gloomy never crosses their minds. Both soldiers consult manuals that assure them the enemy is little more than “a wild beast” whose only goal is to hurt and harm. But when the soldiers tire of their tedious duties, they end up sneaking past the other in the night and into each other’s foxholes, where they are confronted with evidence of the supposed enemy’s humanity. The choice to continue or end the war, then, becomes a great deal more complex. The two soldiers are little cartoon men existing on an otherwise blank white page; their foxholes are collaged bits of torn paper; the covers of their manuals are bright spots of red. This subtle simplicity is the work of artist Serge Bloch; the plaintive testimonies of the soldiers are penned by author Davide Cali. The result is a lesson in war and peace that we are never too old to learn.
The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan, 2003, Simply Read Books, originally published 1998 (Children’s Fiction)
The Rabbits is a picture book, but it is a beautiful and sophisticated picture book, the kind that can be read and reread from age eight to eighty. The story begins when a ship full of white rabbits arrives on a faraway shore, armed with black muskets and other strange technologies. The rabbits come to take rather than give, and to the marsupial-like inhabitants who have lived for generations in harmony with nature, the rabbits are terrifying indeed as they chop down trees, construct factories, and alter the land to suit their own purposes. Out of fear and anger, especially after their children are taken, the marsupials rise in rebellion against the rabbits, but by then it is too late—the rabbits are too many, the marsupials are too few, and the damage is done. Author John Marsden and illustrator Shaun Tan are from the land Down Under, and their story is an allegory for the settlement of Australia and the destruction of the aboriginal people at the hands of the self-righteous European settlers in the 19th century. It’s a mature theme indeed, highlighted by Tan’s gorgeous, highly-stylized, intricate paintings of canon-wielding rabbits marching to overcome the sand-colored marsupials armed only with their spears and their sense of right. This story book is no fairy tale, and that means its powerful message hits home with eloquence and compassion.
Woolvs in the Sitee by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, 2005, Camberwell Press (Children’s Fantasy Fiction)
Dystopias come in all forms, even picture books. But Woolvs in the Sitee is not for little children. Told by a lonely, scared boy, this dark story features text scrawled in graffiti-like writing across the page, with words misspelled and misshapen to heighten the sense of atmospheric ruin conveyed by the bleakly elegant illustrations. Ben, a young boy who has lost his family and spends his days hiding in a dank basement, tells readers that there are “woolvs in the sitee,” but these are not forest animals, oh no, these are “shadows prowling,” hateful and dangerous beings who “will kum for me and for yoo.” Ben’s only ally is his upstairs neighbor Mrs. Radinski, who offers food and water and comfort. One night, Ben is lured outdoors by a clean blue sky (the seasons are otherwise “topsee turvee,” hinting at some devastating apocalyptic disaster). The blue sky turns out to be merely a painted wall, but Mrs. Radinski braves the dangers of the street to bring Ben home to safety. And when Mrs. Radinski disappears, Ben must decide whether or not to risk all his fears and the horrors of the city to return the favor. Australian author and illustrator team Margaret Wild and Ann Spudvilas collaborate on a gripping book with mature themes, despite its slim size. The edgy text merges with images of rusty oranges streetlights, buildings that drip with streaks of black and gray, and scratchy charcoal figures in deep shadows. A deeply evocative dystopian vision, Woolvs in the Sitee should not be overlooked.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, 2006, Candlewick Press (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy)
Edward Tulane is a beautiful, hand-crafted, china toy rabbit, a doll who is adored and cared for by a little girl named Abilene. Abilene loves Edward almost as much as Edward loves himself; he is, after all, a truly wonderful specimen, and as such he can’t be bothered with any emotion more serious than concern for his extensive wardrobe. But when this very vain bunny takes a tumble over the side of an ocean liner while the family is on a voyage, he embarks on a world of adventure. From the bottom of the ocean, to the net of a humble fisherman, to the backpack of a cheery hobo, to the arms of an ill little girl, Edward Tulane, rabbit extraordinaire, slowly but surely learns to love. But the lesson is painful—everyone Edward loves is eventually lost to him. As his heart (and the reader’s) breaks again and again, Edward is once again in danger of becoming a cold, distant rabbit. This elegant little fairy tale, with its shades of The Velveteen Rabbit, is an achingly beautiful story of loss and love told by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo and illustrated in sepia tones and muted color plates by Bagram Ibatoulline. Their collaboration truly brings The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to life.
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown, 2007, McSweeney’s Books (Children’s Fiction/ Humor)
What’s a latke to do when Christmas lights, candy canes, and trees just don’t get it? Scream, of course, at the top of its potato pancake lungs until it gets the point across. Born of potato flakes and oil, the star of The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming leaps from his frying pan and runs shouting through the night. Confronted by ignorant, self-obsessed Christmas paraphernalia, the latke attempts to explain the meaning of Hanukkah, from the miraculous oil-burning lamp to the eight nights of gift-giving. Since this is a story by cheeky children’s author Lemony Snicket (best known for his gleefully gruesome Series of Unfortunate Events), any implied message about the holiday spirit or the meaning of the season gets turned topsy-turvy in an impish little tale that delights in the absurd and the unexpected. Artist Lisa Brown’s bright retro illustrations lend sass and spunk to Snicket’s irreverent “Christmas Story,” which is sure to tickle the funny bones of all ages and faiths, regardless of the season. Who knew latkes could be so delightfully amusing?
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg, 1984, Houghton Mifflin (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy)
This classic opens with a mysterious note from beloved children’s book author Chris Van Allsburg: The illustrations on the following pages were left at a publishing house by one Harris Burdick. Burdick delivered his portfolio for consideration, left, and was never heard of again. All that remains are fourteen illustrations for fourteen unknown stories. Each picture is accompanied by a title and a caption. In The Seven Chairs, for example, a dainty nun flies through ornate halls on a straight-backed chair while a pair of men in long robes gaze up her sedately. The caption reads, “The fifth one ended up in France.” There’s a blank spot on the dove-covered wallpaper of The Third Floor Bedroom, accompanied by the line, “It all began when someone left the window open.” Look closer, and you'll spot another dove, paper-wing lifted, about to take flight. All this mystery and fantasy is conveyed through Van Allsburg’s trademark style that can convey realism and whimsy in a single stroke. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has been firing the imaginations of readers since its publication in 1984. A portfolio edition is now available with a new author’s introduction and one more “discovered” drawing. The interactivity of the book continues at The Mysteries of Harris Burdick website where Van Allsburg posts stories sent to him by his legions of fans, who include Stephen King (writing a solution to The House on Maple Street, where a neatly-gabled neighborhood home blasts into the sky on rocket boosters with the caption “It was a perfect lift-off”) as well as school children, amateur writers, and non-writers who couldn’t resist the lure of a good mystery. We dare you not to be inspired.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan, 2007, Arthur A. Levine (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Graphic Novel)
The Arrival is an elegant and haunting work of art that hovers somewhere between graphic novel, comic strip, and picture book—or maybe encompasses them all. Wordless, told entirely through sepia-toned drawings that cover the pages in comics-style panels or full-page spreads, the story of The Arrival is nonetheless clear and true and stirring. A lone immigrant leaves his homeland to embark on an unknown journey and a quest for a better life. Along the way he is confronted by the strange, the wondrous, and the terrible, because there is a healthy dose of the fantastic in this picturesque storybook. Giant dragons' tails overshadow villages, ornate cities rise from bizarre landscapes, and quirky little critters accompany the residents of the foreign country where the man finally makes a new life. At first he’s put off by the creature that adopts him—a creepy-cute round little fellow with a wide smiling mouth and a long wagging tail. But the comfort of a constant companion eventually becomes a boon, as do the histories of the friendly strangers he meets. Turn-of-the-century dress and architecture meld flawlessly with elements of science fiction that abound in The Arrival—not just the captivating little beasties, but strange methods of travel, spiraling towers, and an invented alphabet by Australian author Shaun Tan that conveys more than anything else the bewildering confusion that surrounds a refugee in a strange new land. Brimming over with visual metaphors that add layers of beauty and complexity, The Arrival is a magical tribute to the unflagging immigrant spirit.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures by Brian Selznick, 2007, Scholastic Books (Children’s Fiction/ Illustrated Novel)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a 544-page picture book, and it is a fantastic, magical adventure. In 1930s Paris, twelve-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret lives a secret life behind the walls of the city’s train station. His job is to maintain the station’s many clocks, but his passion is repairing a small mechanical man that his deceased father found in a museum attic. If it ever works, the automaton’s gears will turn and it will write a message; in his grief and loneliness, Hugo believes this will somehow be a message from his father. When he is caught stealing wind-up toys for mechanical parts from the station’s toy booth, Hugo’s life changes forever. Put to work by the crotchety old toymaker and befriended by the toymaker’s inquisitive goddaughter, sensitive Hugo begins to emerge from his shell and make some intriguing connections between the toymaker’s true identity, his father’s history, and his own future. Along the way, author Brian Selznick pushes the boundaries of what the picture book can do. Subtitled A Novel in Pictures and Words, sections of the story are conveyed through silvery charcoal illustrations that zoom in and out as your turn the pages like a film on a screen. Cinema is a theme of the story, and movie stills—especially those from early French filmmaker Georges Méliès’ whimsical A Trip to the Moon—are interspersed throughout the book, as are archival photographs of the Paris of the day. More than an illustrated or graphic novel, the combination of written word and visual image is wholly unique to The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and it’s a combination that won the book the 2008 Caldecott Medal for best illustrated children’s break. Elegant, sophisticated, and charming from cover to cover, this genre-busting book is breaking new ground.