Picture-Perfect: The Art of the Picture Book

If you’ve ever had the privilege of reading to a child, you can probably recall the almost magical spell that it casts. If it’s bedtime, the reading may take place inside a circle of light—outside of which everything else seems to shrink and fade. There’s a look of excitement in the child’s eyes as each page turns and as each story unfolds. The favorites are known by heart.

Even if it’s been quite a while since you read someone a bedtime story, you’ll almost certainly remember your own childhood favorites—the stories, and especially the pictures. For most of us, picture books are not just our first experience of literature, but also of art.

It scarcely matters whether your notion of picture books skews closer to mid-twentieth-century classics like those of Virginia Lee Burton (Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) or Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) or to contemporary masters of illustration such as Csil (Madame Eiffel) or Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street). Their colors and textures hold undeniable appeal for eyes of all ages. And although their pages may not be held in a frame, or hung on a wall, the artistry in them is obvious.

At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the art of picture books truly is hung in galleries, and preserved in carefully maintained archives. Carle himself is author of many classic picture books, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but the museum that bears his name is dedicated to numerous other examples of the art.

The Carle Museum’s permanent collection now holds 10,000 pieces, many of which might have been lost or destroyed in years past. “A generation ago, the originals were not important,’’ Carle told The Boston Globe in 2011. “Very often, the publisher kept them or lost them, or the printer threw them out, or the artist threw them away.’’ The first full-scale museum of its kind in the United States, the museum receives over 40,000 visitors each year.

Those who grew up during the picture book renaissance of the late 1900s (led by Maurice Sendak, Lois Ehlert, Ezra Jack Keats, and many, many others) might understandably regard the children’s picture book as a longstanding tradition, reaching back nearly as far as the language. In truth, it goes back just a handful of generations. The first true picture books, in which pictures served as much to tell the story as to embellish it, date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when Randolph Caldecott began to explore the picture book as a storytelling form of its own. Even then, their development was slowed in part by the expense and difficulty of color printing.

Thankfully, these problems were resolved, and now its truly tough to come up with just one short list of the all-time most beautiful, though list-makers like Flavorwire and Apartment Therapy have given it a good try. One look through the pages of Martin Salisbury’s more eclectic coffee table compilation, 100 Great Children’s Picture Books, shows not only the difficulty of the choice, but the breadth of creativity the form has inspired.

Despite a more than fifty-year run of successes, anxiety over the future of the picture book is growing in this digitally obsessed, achievement-oriented age. The concern led to a New York Times cover story in 2010, under the dire headline, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children,” in which publishers, booksellers, and authors waxed pessimistic about sales and appeal. The trends they’re noticing may help explain some puzzling contradictions: Despite a general increase in the U.S. literacy rate and increasing sales of books for children and young adults in recent years, fewer and fewer kids—nearly 10% fewer over a five-year period according to one recent study—say that they love reading books for fun.

Authors and illustrators have taken notice, including a group undersigning picture book author Mac Barnett in a manifesto declaring a new vibrancy in the picture book form. Those signing the proclamation–a who’s-who of today’s authors and illustrators—promise books that are “fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful,” point out that “good design fosters good reading,” and declare that “even books meant to put kids to sleep should give them strange dreams.”

“Every day we make new children,” they write. “Let us also make new children’s books.”

Below, you’ll find insights from the artists of The Public Collection about their favorite picture books, as well as some insights into how those books have shaped their art. And please make your own amazing picture book finds at any of the book share stations within The Public Collection.


The Public Collection artists pick their favorite picture books:


Brian McCutcheon

The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater

“This is a book I read with my son as a child. It illuminates the beauty of personal sensibilities and individuality.”


Brose Partington

Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman

“This was my favorite book as a child and I enjoy reading it to my daughter. I have always liked the colors, the exaggeration of the objects, and the illustration details in this book.”


Katie Hudnall

Abel’s Island by William Steig

“This is a Newbery winner, not a picture book, but it does have illustrations, and it was the first, longish book that I read to myself. I remember the illustrations vividly. I struggled to learn to read (I had a learning disability, and wasn’t reading at my own grade level until the 4th or 5th grade), and fell in love with Abel (a small mouse on a big journey), and my own ability to make books work (to go on journeys, to tell myself stories that others had written down in other years, other countries, etc…), and with the magic inherent in good storytelling. I finished it very late at night, reading under the covers while my little sister slept in the matching twin bed next to me, and I climbed into bed with her and woke her up to tell her about Abel and his island! It was that important, you know?”


The Maggie B. by Irene Haas

“A lovely picture book—a sweet story about a little girl going on a voyage with her little brother on a boat named after her. Beautiful story and illustrations—I rediscovered it recently and it reinforced my love of boats and adventure—and the adventures here (though sea-worthy in this telling) are also mostly mundane, and involve making meals, surviving a storm, and keeping a clean house…er…ship. Those ‘adventures’ have resonated more and more with me as I’ve grown into an adult and started to have the same (and sometimes mundane-seeming) adventures of my own.”


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

“Best illustrations ever, and such a good journey. This is an artist thing, but the imagery is so vibrant and it’s all done in fairly subtle, pastel hues. I used to feel like color had to be bold, and bright, and hit you over the head, but Mr. Sendak taught me otherwise. I think he taught me a similar lesson about storytelling, but I’m still learning that one.”


Tom Torluemke

Rembrandt Takes a Walk by Mark Strand, illustrated by Red Grooms

“Children’s books can be a forever memory. This was one of those books a child wanted a parent to read every night.

“A young boy, Tom, visits his crabby, stingy uncle, who happens to be an art collector. The Uncle falls asleep, Tom’s very hungry, and there is no food in the house. The paintings start to come to life. Tom sees an apple in a Cezanne painting, grabs it from the painting, and takes a bite. Then he sees an orange in a Zurbaran painting and pulls it out as well. He just keeps taking things out of the paintings and forgets how to put them back.

“He hears something from one of the portrait paintings; it’s Rembrandt offering to help Tom put the paintings back together. But first Tom has to take Rembrandt for a walk through the neighborhood, so Rembrandt can draw this new modern world. Rembrandt draws so many things, and Tom is so worried that they wont get back in time to put the paintings back together, before the Uncle awakens.”


Stuart Hyatt

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

“It reinforced the way my young imagination could conjure up new possibilities. Plus, I sort of looked like Harold when I was a toddler.”


Henrietta, the Wild Woman of Borneo by Winifred Rosen, illustrated by Kay Chorao

“Totally obscure and out of print: I don’t even remember the full story, but Borneo, then and now, still stands for something wild and untouchable.”


LaShawnda Crowe Storm

Hug by Jez Alborough

A chimp travels the forest from one animal to another, looking for a hug. This book tells a great story with just one word per page.


Phil O’Malley

Who Makes the Sun Rise? by Lois Main Templeton and Phil O’Malley

“From the Ancient Parsee Sacred Book, it’s a story about a little rooster that crows for the first time and he thinks he made the sun come up. His bragging about his great power brings his comeuppance. All is good when he admits his mistake to his barnyard friends and a new day begins again. Who Makes the Sun Rise? helped launch our grassroots art and literacy project for preschoolers called ‘Somethin’ To Crow About.’ We’ve served more than 1,000 Indianapolis children in 10 different schools. Last year, The Glick Foundation gave us a grant to continue the work. The pictures in Who Makes the Sun Rise? are original paintings made by Lois Main Templeton.”


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