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My 10 Favorite Children's Book Illustrators of All Time

Updated on November 28, 2015
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A Treat for the Eye

Beautiful illustrations are nothing short of a delicious gourmet meal for the eyes. Tracing your hand over the pictures on the page is a tactile pleasure.

Opening a book with stories and pictures is like opening a sewing basket bursting with ribbons and fabric swatches and colorful threads. It's like a toolbox with hammers and various sizes of nails and screws. Dig deep into the box and you'll discover not only more tools but also more parts of your soul.

I have been an avid collector of children's books since my days in New York City. One of my special treats was to make regular trips to the Strand Book Store looking for used books. I even started collecting new, expensive coffee table books that highlighted illustrators with giant lush reproductions of drawings. Note that this was on a part time sales clerk salary at a Woodwind and Brass Store on 43rd Street.

It wasn't until reading picture books to my young children that I added another layer of understanding towards the depth and importance of illustrations for children's books. Children gain the concept of the story better with good illustrations. They start imprinting long term memories with images of Little Bear or the Sneetch. They also actually learn from the mistakes. If they are read a story and the character had brown hair but the picture shows golden hair (that's happened to me as a child more then once) then it becomes a lesson not only of accuracy, but in a negative way of what is more valued or visually appealing.

The Poppy Seed Cakes - Illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham The exquisite art in this book is almost like old fashioned block prints.

Image text says: My red-topped boots and your red tomatoes are the same color.
Image text says: My red-topped boots and your red tomatoes are the same color. | Source

What Makes Them Special?

Each of these artists created images that are not only beautiful but capture an intense human emotion. The art is lovely in its delivery. The sketches and paintings range from the realistic to the fantastical. The books listed below are a great overview of each artist's style. They are special because they bring something to my eyes that touches my soul and I assume it has this effect on others.

Most of these illustrators are either from the United States or eventually immigrated to the United States.

Beatrice Potter (England,1866-1943)

Beatrix Potter the Complete Tales (Peter Rabbit)
Beatrix Potter the Complete Tales (Peter Rabbit)

Potter was both a naturalist and a conservationist. Coming from a well-to-do family, she was educated as well as encouraged to pursue her talent in art. Her drawing was realistic anatomically, but still whimsical in having animals dress and act like humans. Her writing style was delicate, almost fable-like with situations and conversations that mirrored human interactions. She was my inspiration when I started drawing. I loved her technique with watercolors with the fine brush and the delicate shading.

This is the hardback collection with all the original illustrations. Her watercolors were an inspiration for me to do my own drawing.

 

In the Night Kitchen

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Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

The illustrator and writer Maurice Sendak’s drawing style is distinctive and easily recognizable. His background as the child of Jewish-Polish parents influenced his drawing psyche in a way that is almost Eastern Europe in delivery. Having lost many family members in the Holocaust, he was exposed to death and persecution at a young age. One of his traits in his book writing style is to be rebellious. The children in his stories have minds of their own and aren’t afraid to question the status quo.

In paperback, there's also a wonderful animated short of this story. My girls wanted me to read this over and over.

The Wall

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Peter Sís

Peter Sís is an American who was born in Czechoslovakia in1949. His artwork is stark and exciting. He doesn’t shy away from fantastical images. Many times his illustrations are drawn from the perspective of a specific viewer i.e. seen from a child’s viewpoint.or level. I love his dimensions of the very big placed against the very small.

This book is in hardback. I have Alphabet Soup which he illustrated. His images are whimsical, and mysterious with a slight dark edge.

Steven Kellogg (1941-)

Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett
Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett

One word to describe Kellogg’s illustrations is that they are whimsical. His drawings have humor and a well thought out descriptive quality. I can go back to his pictures over and over looking for interesting details that I missed. My favorites are his illustrations of American tall-tales.

Here is one of my favorites in paperback, I love the way he tells the story and incorporates the drawings.

 

The Snowy Day

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Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983)

Keats’s artwork has a modern, collage type of style. He was one of the first to bring multiculturalism into his work without it being an ‘international’ or ‘ethnic’ story. His groundbreaking book A Snowy Day has such simplicity and beauty. I have looked at the pictures over and over. I remember, even as a teenager, I still wanted to look at this book. Like Sendak, he came from Jewish-Polish immigrant parents, but unlike Sendak, he changed his last name from Katz to avoid prejudice. Keats had an affinity for the underdog and those who were stereotyped.

The Rooster Crows: A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles

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Maud (1890-1971) and Miska (1888-1960) Petersham

This wonderful collaborative married team between Hungarian-born Miska and Yankee Maud pumped out gorgeous illustrations and wrote many children’s books throughout their career. They drew on American and International themes for their illustrations. Their attention to detail was magical. Their ability to transcribe a story into pictures with just the right depth was awe inspiring. They are my absolute favorite children’s book illustrators.

Maud and Miska Petersham's drawings are a wonderful expression of the American country experience. Some of their other books have an eastern European flavor. They are my favorite illustrators.

Strawberry Girl

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Lois Lenski (1893-1974)

Lenski specialized in drawing everyday American people along with detailed community scenes. She also specialized in historical stories. I enjoy her rounded style, they are framed almost like Pennsylvania Dutch style images.

This Trophy Newbery awarded book is a great example of her style. I have The Wonder City, which is out of print.

Paddle to the Sea

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Clancy (1900-1973) and Lucille Holling

Holling Clancy Holling was a well known illustrator and writer of children’s books. His stint as a taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago gave him ample time to study animal anatomy. His drawings were accurate, interesting and also educational. I have both his Book of Indians and Book of Cowboys which are extraordinary in their detail. I add his wife Lucille because she helped him in his books and illustrations.

Claude and Lucille Holling's drawings are lush and accurate in their detail.

Finn Family Moomintroll

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Tove Jansson (Finland 1914-2001)

Jansson was born in the community of Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Inspired by her artistic family, she became a prolific illustrator and writer. Her most famous characters were the Moomintrolls; hippo-like creatures that lived in a Finnish-like landscape called Moominvalley. Her gift was to make you care about her characters. Somewhat simply drawn, yet her combination of drawing and dialogue made you want to learn more about them. I have read all the Moomin books and did another article about one of them entitled Meditations on the Book Moominvalley in November.

I wrote a review about another of her books, 'Moominvalley in November.' She draws simple figures that add tremendous power to the storytelling.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

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Brian Selznick (1966-)

What struck me about Selznick’s illustrations in The Invention of Hugo Cabret was the realistic black and white pen and ink drawings covered in a sort of soft focus. His unique combination of writing and drawing worked. His part novel - part picture book - part graphic novel was worthy of his Caldecott Award. I add him to this list because of his successful storytelling through his images.

Some of My Collection

The Book of Cowboys by Holling C. Holling, The Poppy Seed Cakes illustrated by Maude and Miska Petersham, The Art of Beatrix Potter collected and notated by Enid and Leslie Linder.

The craft of illustrating for children's books must include that it fits the story like a glove. If well done, you can't even imagine the story without those specific pictures. Of course, someone could argue that the story needs to stand on it's own merits. On chapter books I would agree, but with picture books the story and pictures are happily married. I hope this gives you inspiration to build your own collection or at least do more research on this art and literature topic.

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