Illustrators are the bedrock of children’s literature. There is an entire genre that demands their work. Yet somehow, even with picture books, we so often neglect their contribution. Oh we remember their indelible representations of our favorite characters, but we do not remember them, the artists. If you ask someone who the author of Charlotte’s Web is most people will be able to tell you, E.B. White. Now ask those same people to visualize Fern or Wilbur, they will likely have an instant picture in their mind. But ask who drew the illustrations in Charlotte’s Web and now you have a question worthy of Trivial Pursuit. (Full disclosure, I had to get my copy of Charlotte’s Web off the shelf and to find out who illustrator was…Garth Williams, should you ever find yourself in pursuit of the trivial!)
While I am a firm believer in the power of the written word, there are times when this power is made stronger by a thoughtfully illustrated picture. From the simple to the complex, the black and white to the colorful, the pencil to the digital, illustrators can transform the written word into something unforgettable. The style and form the artists use varies greatly as they carefully match the descriptions and vibe given by the author, but when done well the result is a manual for children’s developing imaginations. Not to mention, a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging introduction to reading long before the art of sounding out words is cultivated.
While there are many artists who can successfully translate one book into picture form, there are only a few who can do so consistently over many books and a range of topics. Here are some of my favorites among those few. There are others that should be here, but now I have an excuse to write “Illustrators Revisited”.
- Jane Chapman – Most well known for her illustrations of the Bear books by Karma Wilson, Chapman has many other books to her credit, including my favorite I’m Not Sleepy!. Her art is fun, vivid, and instantly relatable.
- Kadir Nelson – I cannot say enough about Kadir Nelson’s work. You may remember him from my list of favorite children’s book authors and now I will recognize him for his phenomenal illustrations. Nelson’s illustrations are realistic and stunning. Every person’s library should include his books, adults and children alike. I have already mentioned the wonder that is He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, but for a timely and excellently illustrated book to follow up with, get Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
- Guy Parker-Rees – Parker-Rees is the artistic hand behind some of my favorite children’s books. His illustrations for The Hippo-NOT-amus and Down By the Cool of the Pool are lively, exciting, and expressive.
- Leo Lionni – I have found every book with illustrations by Leo Lionni (and there are many) to be fascinating. His unique ability communicate volumes using such simply beautiful pictures is unmatched. From Fredrick to Chameleon to Swimmy, Lionni’s work is remarkable.
- Donald Crews – Freight Train belongs on every child’s bookshelf. It is a work of art. Having said that, there are many more books written and illustrated by Crews that deserve attention as well, including all his other books about different modes of transportation.
- Ed Young – One of the first books I read to my students was Seven Blind Mice. The colors against the black pages are outstanding and eye-catching. The book itself is brilliant in its introduction to colors, numbers, days of the week, and an important lesson learned, but it is the illustrations that make it so memorable.
- Derek Anderson – As the illustrator behind the adorable Little Quack, I have a soft spot for Anderson’s bright, energetic pictures. In addition to following Little Quack’s escapades, I have found a renewed appreciation for Anderson’s illustrations in Waking Dragons. He has an uncanny style that embodies adventure and cuteness and it is thoroughly enjoyable.
- Renata Liwska – Liwska’s soft, comforting illustrations are the picture equivalent of a warm blanket on a winter’s day. Just looking at her pictures turns me poetic. Red Wagon is one of those near perfect picture books and it is the beautiful illustrations that give it life.
- Pat Hutchins – Hutchins’ unique artistic style give her books a lasting impression. It is difficult to define her style, but if you have questions as to her amazing creative ability, click on the link to her website. As for her books, my favorite is Barn Dance!. I find myself coming back to her books again and again, especially Little Pink Pig and Bumpety Bump.
- Chris Van Allsburg – Jumanji and The Polar Express are a master’s class in how to brilliantly illustrate books. Van Allsburg’s muted use of color and attention to detail give his illustrations a riveting effect. He is among the very best in his craft.
I am grateful for these artists who give such incredible vision to the written word. I know there are many more like them and would enjoy hearing your additions to the list.