Picture books may typically range from 32 to 48 pages, but their slenderness is no indication of their relative importance in the lives of children. They provide introductions to rich, literary language, to the rules of storytelling, and to the possibilities of literature. They also bring children and caregivers together for critical, intimate moments of physical warmth. And they are art objects in themselves—in fact, for far too many children, exposure to a picture book may be the closest they’ll ever get to fine art.
Happily, among the 75 best picture books of the year, there is some amazing art.
Using pastel, crayon, and colored pencil, Japanese illustrator Kaya Doi creates the magical world of twins Chirri & Chirra in the Tall Grass. On their tiny bicycles, the smiling Asian girls in identical white dresses and black pageboys navigate a world of giant vegetation and benign bugs that has the gorgeous, soft-edged look of lithographs. The look is charmingly old-fashioned, burgeoning with details that will keep young readers rapt.
Canadian Caitlin Dale Nicholson’s painterly acrylics grace Nipêhon / I Wait, written with Cree author Leona Morin-Neilson, a serene story of a tri-generational expedition to forage for wild yarrow. A young Cree child, her mother, and Nôkhom walk, pray, and pick as their dog romps around them. Nôkhom’s yellow boots and the narrator’s purple shirt and pink pants stand out against the tall grass, visible brush strokes and the canvas they are applied on lending warmth and texture to the scenes.
In Where’s Rodney?, multiaward-winning African-American artist Floyd Cooper applies his trademark technique to the story of young black urban dweller Rodney, who goes on a class field trip to a park outside the city. In a sequence of portraits done by laying down oil wash and then erasing it till he has exactly the dappled effect he wants, Cooper depicts Rodney’s full-body embrace of nature, his comfort and happiness evident in his luminous, delighted smile.
Persian-American illustrator Susie Ghahremani uses a strikingly graphic style in her counting book, Stack the Cats. Strong, fluid black lines delineate the outlines of, ultimately, 10 cats. They are vaguely bean-shaped, with pointy ears and little cat noses. The elemental shapes and bright, unmodulated colors give the impression of simplicity, but the artist’s subtle use of pattern and humorous variations from cat to cat keep children’s eyes moving—and counting—as they pile ever higher.
The young Vietnamese-American narrator of A Different Pond often goes fishing with his dad to supplement the family’s groceries. Illustrator Thi Bui, also Vietnamese-American, uses strong, brushed ink lines to define her protagonists and their fishing spot by the bridge, delicate watercolors in a palette of blue, brown, and sepia lending grace and beauty to this urban haunt. It is cold and dark before dawn, but the warmth of the love between father and son takes off the chill.
These are just five—there are 70 more to leaf through and love.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.