You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, except that’s exactly what I do…
Both a traditional illustrator and “Mommy” to a bookworm, children’s books were a big part of my life even before I had a daughter. We easily go through three books a night! Consequentially I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying the key components of the best children’s books.
While I do work in the industry, and my understanding comes from that background as a mother I also know that every child is different and will gravitate towards their own interests. However, children’s books are marketed primarily towards parents and not children. Which is important to remember. Often parents come across books that they really like but that doesn’t gaurentee your child will find it as amusing or even like it at all.
Here’s my criteria to determine if a children’s book is worth adding to our home library
The words shouldn’t overpower the illustrations and the illustrations shouldn’t carry the whole story!
Excluding wordless picture books, it’s obvious when there’s a lack of harmony. I often wonder about these books and if there was an internal conflict for creative control or if the creator just wasn’t playing to their strengths by attempting to be multi-talented.
I think we all know what books I’m talking about: ones that are too wordy skimping on the illustrations or have great illustrations but really subpar word content. Cheap or trying-too-hard rhymes, confusing alliteration, words that have nothing to do with the illustrations, you get the idea… These books either leave me ignoring the words altogether or reaching for something else.
I (like many other parents) don’t have the energy for this. A good children’s storybook needs a relaxing harmony between visuals and words otherwise there’s a decent chance my kiddo will start fidgeting.
It absolutely must hold their attention.
Young children have a “goldfish” length attention span, so if the story doesn’t engage them, good luck finishing that read. I chalk this up to out-of-touch authors who pick concepts that are tired, flat, or kind of strange but just not captivating overall.
Illustrators too contribute to underwhelming books by undercharging or accepting projects that don’t really match their style.
There are good reasons why books are sorted by age and development. Creators who get mismatched or ignore the intended age of the audience can really sink a story.
For example, early toddlers are much more mesmerized by high contrast, bold shapes, and simple patterns than 3-year-old’s, who love colorful yet representational art. Books that fail to partner appropriately generally struggle to keep a child’s attention. And yes, some stories fall through the cracks of being more liked by adults than children.
The illustrations must be tasteful, colorful, and expressive.
It is important as an illustrator to have a unique style but it’s even more important to be tasteful about it. The style of the illustrations shouldn’t overshadow the narrative of the illustration itself. If all we can see is the illustrator’s technique that just won’t be very compelling to a child.
There is a need for contrast between illustrations. Too much of the same design will make it difficult for children to distinguish between the different pages, and they’ll lose the narrative altogether.
While there are many books that feature black and white illustrations with just a pop of color, I’ve yet to keep a kid interested long enough to finish it. Colorful illustrations do seem to make a significant difference. Minimalist-style books have recently been on the rise, and I don’t get the appeal. Stick figures and scribbly child-drawn illustrations are whimsical for adults. But the more detailed expressions and different emotions that are captured, the better youngsters can relate to the story.
Our Favorite Books
Inside looks at titles that are delightful, adorable, and also particularly enjoyable to read as well.
You can check these out at your local library and give them a try before you buy! Obviously, my bias is implicit as an illustrator. There are many fantastic reads out there. These are just the books that we can personally recommend.
“Junkyard” by Mike Austin
We love the messy look of these quirky vibrant illustrations. Junkyards are intriguing and the haphazardness is relished by any child. The message of this book is quite lovely. It’s one of those books I have to “pretend” I can’t find just so we can read something (anything) else.
“Bear And Friends Series” by Karma Wilson & Jane Chapman
This whole series is marvelous. We love that the wide range of books which can work for smaller children and older too. The same adorable characters are seen throughout the series of titles, and the illustrations are soft, colorful, and pleasing. Wilson’s gentle cadence and soft rhyming prose are soothing and easy to read.
“I Love You Little One” by Holly Surplice
We were lucky enough to get our hands on a first edition of this title, and it has become a treasured read. We love the chubby little guinea pigs and the loving poetic embrace of motherhood, growth, and companionship. Full disclosure there is a page in the book that always makes me tear up a little…
“Our Library” by Eve Bunting & Maggie Smith
This is a very likable book. We love the way it encourages children to seek knowledge in order to solve real-life problems. The detail in the illustrations is impressive with a nice balance of colors, textures, and mediums. A cheerful read that will encourage humility, and community.
“Backyard Fairies” by Phobe Wahl
We love the highly patterned illustrations and their unique cottagecore style which expertly captures childhood and wonder. Phobe Wahl has several other adorable books which we enjoy including “Little Witch Hazel.” These charming stories encourage outdoor play and imagination. There’s also an underlying element of independence, fantasy, and imagination. It’s a gentle read with subtle rhyme that captivates kiddos who are boisterous (like my daughter.)
My Garden by Kevin Henkes
A charming read that instills wonder and whimsy. Featuring conceptually fun and imaginative ideas about the garden. We love the way this author captured how children create their own little worlds of curiosity. The busy and vibrant illustrations mesmerize anyone who looks at them.
“Only The Cat Saw” & “Baby Bear Sees Blue” by Ashley Wolff
We’ve yet to be disappointed by anything Ashley Wolff has created. In particular, we love these two titles for their unique perspectives and dreamy illustrations. Her stories are cozy, pleasant, and come with creative insights that anyone can appreciate. These books have common underlying elements of exploration which I suspect is what makes them so alluring.
“Lucky Ducklings” By Eva Moore & Nanacy Carpenter
This true story is uplifting, celebrating everyday heroes and a moment of humanity at its best. The vintage-style illustrations are soft and relaxing. While so many children’s books are rooted in fantasy and encourage imagination, we were refreshed to discover a “real-life” story that emulated a more everyday reality. I love that this book promotes kindness and community with people coming together to do what’s right. There are no small accomplishments and this is a well-told story that keeps you engaged.
“Is There Room on the Feather Bed?” Byn Libba Moore Gray & Nadine Bernard Westcott
It is a silly read with undertones of inclusion and family values. The lyrical words are fun as the story gets more and more ridiculous with each page. Delightfully colorful illustrations are expressive and the repeated phrases hold young children’s attention. There’s lots of detail to look at on each page which balances the wordiness of this book.
Check back soon to see more featured titles! I will be adding to this list over time.