What is the perfect picture book? Its language is spare and strong, complementing and complemented by its art. Its characters are appealing without being cloyingly adorable, and their compact adventures resonate. The book surprises--it is like nothing else. It can be read over and over by children and parents without a diminishing of joy. The right picture book makes you laugh, or sometimes just sigh and smile. It makes you want to touch the pages or, if you're a toddler, chew on them. It doesn't need movies or toys to be a power in its own right, even a force for good--better than Superman. A perfect picture book is as whole, complete, and round as a year with its set of seasons, a day bordered by sunrise and sunset, or the Earth itself.
Where the Wild Things Are is unquestionably the best picture book of all time: it is as perfect as a poem in both pacing and wording, and its illustrations are equally, elegantly concise even when they go wild. The book touches on the fierceness of the love and flashes of hate small children feel toward their powerful parents, moving on to acknowledge the child’s need to venture beyond the safety of those parents’ arms every so often and then come back again. (Be sure to read Sendak’s Nutshell Library while you’re at it, especially Chicken Soup with Rice!)
2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
There’s a reason The Very Hungry Caterpillar is read in kindergarten and first grade classrooms around the world. Not only does the text build wonderfully well, but the collage-based art is like nothing ever done before or since, with simplicity and richness coexisting in beautiful balance. (When I was teaching kindergarten, my students made their own book, The Very Hungry Kindergartners. Needless to say, it was a great success!)
3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
I’m not as starry-eyed over this book as most people, but I’ll agree that it’s an utterly soothing and skillfully written bedtime story. It’s also right up there with Where the Wild Things Are as a classic in the field. My favorite piece of writing from this author is The Important Book, which is thought-provoking, if less well crafted. I also love a poem by Margaret Wise Brown in which she describes a bumblebee as “humming along like baby thunder.”
4. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr., John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert
The catchiest alphabet book in the world, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom turns the capital letters into parents and the lowercase letters into children. It’s so chantable you practically have to sing it. And illustrator Lois Ehlert does an amazing job of giving the chunky graphic letters personalities.
5. No, David! by David Shannon (Caldecott Honor, 1999)
This picture book reaches out and grabs you with its titular refrain and trouble-bound protagonist, who is sure to remind you of a lot of small children you’ve met, some of them quite possibly your own. The art is beyond brash, and kids love this book—especially the part where David runs down the street naked.
6. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson and The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson (a tie!)
Harold is such a pleasant child that he reminds me of Mr. Rogers, whose television program was found to be more effective in reaching small children than things like Sesame Street because it was slower paced. Children will simply enjoy following Harold as he rambles around, using his purple crayon to make friends, create and escape danger, and finally return home to bed. Johnson’s other classic, The Carrot Seed, is a fairly bold work for its time: it encourages small children to believe in their own plans even when the taller, more knowledgeable people around them disagree.
7. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Caldecott Honor, 1993) by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith (another tie!)
Like Where the Wild Things Are, these two books represent a turning point in the history of picture books and arguably of children’s books in general, as they seem to have ushered in a golden era of fairy tales retold with a twist. They also introduced more sophisticated, contemporary humor to children’s books, along with a new, off-the-wall approach to illustration. All that aside, however, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man are just really funny.
8. The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood
Still among the best picture book teams of all time, Audrey and Don Wood have created more than one classic. They are widely known for this cumulative tale, The Napping House, in which a slumbering pile of pets and people are galvanized into motion by the smallest of visitors. I am also fond of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, about a monarch with a twinkle in his eye who refuses to leave his bath, to the despair of everyone around him.
9. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
This book perfectly captures the drama of being a child—wonderful highs and excruciating lows in artfully realistic counterpoint. Could there be anything better than a purple plastic purse that plays music when you open it, or anything worse than having the teacher confiscate it? Henkes’s mice, with Lilly at their helm, are Russell Hoban’s Frances for a new generation, playing out the vagaries of childhood with humor and a surprising depth of feeling. (Besides, how great is it to have little mouse characters star in picture books without being so precious as to make one gag?) I should note that the rest of Henkes’ picture books are very, very good, as well; I especially like Julius, the Baby of the World, the funniest book I've ever seen about a child resenting the new baby.
10. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback (Caldecott Honor, 1998)
Some of my favorite read-alouds can be sung or at least chanted, and this is the best one I’ve ever shared with children. The story-song is goofy and the art is both hilarious and striking, especially the holes allowing readers to look back and view the contents of the old lady’s stomach along the way. See also Taback’s 2000 Caldecott Medal winner, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.
The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South by Robert San Souci and Jerry Pinkney (Caldecott Honor, 1990)
Here’s a newsflash: I read my first graders the most marvelous picture books I could find every single day for a year, and guess which one was their favorite? Yes, it was The Talking Eggs, this underappreciated rendition of a Southern version of an older European folktale. I thought their loyalty was an isolated experience, but then I was chatting with the mother of a bright four-year-old boy the other day and she said, “You know what’s weird? Out of all the books I’ve read to him, his favorite is one called The Talking Eggs.” The thing is practically a secret weapon! This also reconfirms my belief in children’s appreciation of excellent storytelling, not just sparkles and sentiment.
NEW CLASSICS (in alphabetical order)
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Caldecott Honor, 2001) by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
Farm animals haven’t been this funny since—well, ever! Click, Clack, Moo and its sequels offer us amusing evocations of the labor movement, not to mention parent-child negotiations. Meet Cronin and Lewin, one of the most impressive new teams in the picture book world.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Caldecott Honor, 2004) by Mo Willems
Having honed his craft working for Sesame Street and other children’s television shows, Mo Willems turned his attention to the picture book and quickly began to dominate the field. Terms like “meteoric rise” spring to mind. Willems is the master of humorous everyday interactions and of the small child’s free-ranging facial expressions, which he creates using only a few simple lines. His Pigeon is the absolute incarnation of a four-year-old. Willems has a lot of good titles out there, but I predict that ultimately, his very funny easy readers about Elephant and Piggie will end up being his most enduring work.
Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow
There’s a reason this chant has endured in the oral tradition, and Christelow’s illustrations are inspired—especially her little joke on the very last page.
Flotsam by David Wiesner (Caldecott Medal, 2008)
Wiesner’s books are really kind of weird, which is precisely why I like them. This wordless picture book shows a boy finding an old-fashioned camera washed up by the tide. He develops the photos and enters a strange world, as well as a silent history of other children who have found the camera before him. (It is clear, happily, that grown-ups are never the ones to find the camera!)
Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London
London has written a number of books about Froggy, but this first one is supreme in my affections. Excited about playing in the snow, Froggy doesn't care about the fact that frogs are supposed to sleep through the winter. Unfortunately, he keeps forgetting key articles of clothing. The call-and-response with his mother and the sound effects of dressing and undressing make this a perfect read-aloud for three- to six-year-olds.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Caldecott Honor, 1989) and other folk- and fairy tales illustrated by James Marshall
For many years, Paul Galdone dominated folktale illustration, but James Marshall is my preferred illustrator when it comes to well-known stories like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs. His chunky, Everyman characters and friendly cartoonish style are as appropriate to this genre as they are for his cheerful stories about George and Martha.
Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman
Whenever I’m invited to a baby shower, this is one of the two board books I buy. (The other is Jamberry—see below.) Rathman’s virtually wordless bedtime story about animals in a zoo and their zookeeper is clever and so clearly told that even the youngest readers can follow the action.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff
Numeroff’s take on the circular story stands alone in its freshness. A friendly mouse in overalls asks for a cookie, which leads to another request, and another, and another, before eventually circling back to the cookie. The author has written successful sequels along the same lines, but this one, like Baby Bear's porridge, is just right.
Jamberry by Bruce Degen
Jamberry is the second board book I habitually buy for baby showers. Degan has so much fun with rhymes and berries and imaginative play that young readers will simply relish the sound of all those words bouncing around.
Little Red Riding Hood, retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Caldecott Honor, 1984)
Trina Schart Hyman is probably best known for her grand, romanticized fairy tale illustrations (e.g., Sleeping Beauty), but I like this more down-to-earth retelling of a favorite folktale.
Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall
Kids and teachers alike get a kick out of the story of the too-sweet teacher who gets a witchy substitute—or does she? The amazing James Marshall’s illustrations make the book.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
This is a fairly quiet book for today’s children, but it still inspires with its story of a woman who follows her life of adventure with an effort to create beauty by planting flowers everywhere she goes.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Caldecott Medal, 1986)
Second only to Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas as a classic holiday book, Van Allsburg’s story of a boy who takes a midnight ride on a train speeding to the North Pole is notable for its dark, thoughtful tone as the author-illustrator bypasses jolly, traveling straight on to evocative.
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and Hudson Talbot (Newbery Honor, 2006)
A beautiful poem of a book, both in terms of language and art, Show Way won a Newbery Honor award, which is unusual for a picture book. It tells the story of an African American family across the generations, tied together through their troubles by love as represented by quilts. There’s been a certain amount of fuss about Show Way—mostly by people who don’t believe quilts were ever used as maps for the Underground Railroad—but if you read it, I think you’ll find yourself touched by this epic story about family love and loyalty.
ADDITIONAL CLASSICS (in alphabetical order)
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
The battle between parents and kids over what those kids will eat rages on eternally, which I suspect means this book will continue to be relevant in the year 2100. Little girl badger Frances doesn’t like to eat anything except bread and jam, so eventually her mother starts letting her eat bread and jam for every single meal, leading Frances to reconsider her stance. The plot may seem didactic, but the illustrations and the matter-of-fact family interactions keep it feeling true to life rather than preachy.
Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys, and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina
An oldie but a goody—what happened to all of the caps stacked neatly on top of the peddler’s head? One look up into a tree he just napped beneath will provide the answer. The peddler’s call of “Caps for sale” frames the story, and the eventual solution to his problem will appeal to young children who know all about tantrums as well as copycats, or copymonkeys, as the case may be.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
How can I make a list of classics without including Dr. Seuss? Forget the Jim Carey movie, although I do recommend the Chuck Jones cartoon. This book is not only a masterpiece of rhyme, but it is the most deviously funny take on the holidays ever penned. (I'm pretty sure Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are best friends in heaven.)
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
In this beloved tale of twelve little girls in two straight lines, the juxtaposition of unexpected action sequences with seemingly placid children adds to the appeal.
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
The story of an old man who brings home countless kitties for his surprised wife is inspired whimsy, an enduring classic most notable for its refrain and its stark yet somehow warm art. Notice the familiar theme of indecision underlying the plot: how many children, or even adults, wouldn't have trouble picking just the right kitten from among so many?
There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer
Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel
A classic read-aloud—my young students loved hearing me say the title character’s great long name over and over while acting increasingly breathless, also hearing about the old man with the ladder who must keep fishing the little boys out of a well. And the illustrations are exquisite. (I’m sure there must be those who think this plot is not PC, but I find it reads like a funny folktale and can be explained appropriately to children.)
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Caldecott Medal, 1963)
A well-known story about a small boy in the snow, this was one of the first books to feature an African American child as a protagonist. It endures, not only for its historical significance, but because Keats’s art is lovely in its simplicity, as is his take on what it’s like to go out in the snow when you are not very big.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (Caldecott Medal, 1970)
Steig tells the story of a young donkey who finds a magic pebble, only to get himself stuck in the shape of a rock. Kids continue to be intrigued by Sylvester’s dilemma, and also by how desperately his parents miss him and search for him—it's the familiar childhood fantasy of “If I were gone, they’d be really sorry!"
AND DON'T FORGET...
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz