The holiday season is quickly approaching, and for many the time has come to start giving serious thought about what gifts to get for loved ones. What better gift for the children in your life than one of literature? If you’re not sure what children’s books are worth purchasing, here’s a handy guide as curated by the New York Times’ Book Review, which gathers together a panel of independent judges to pick the best illustrated children’s books of the year.
1. Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
An important lesson in our nation’s history as well as a beautifully illustrated, poetic read, Freedom in Congo Square tells the story of slaves in 19th Century Louisiana, who would count down the days until Sunday, when, for half of the day, they would be able to briefly congregate in Congo Square in New Orleans. The gorgeous art from R. Gregory Christie is accompanied by powerful rhymes from Carole Boston Weatherford, which chronicle the slaves’ daily duties building up to the freedom of Sundays. This book also features a foreword from Freddi Williams Evans, a Congo Square historian, as well as a glossary of terms with definitions and pronunciations.
2. The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Christian Robinson
This classic picture book from 1938 by Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, has been re-illustrated for contemporary readers by award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson. The story focuses on a group of children who find a dead bird in the woods and decide to give it a burial service. In this new version, the setting is moved to an urban park and the children don fairy wings and fox costumes. This tale is as touching as it is bold.
3. The Princess and the Warrior written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
In this re-telling of one of Mexico’s most well-known legends, two volcanoes are formed to commemorate the Princess Izta and a warrior named Popoca, who promised Izta that if he defeated their enemy, the two would wed. This story tells the tale of undying love through an original style that mixes traditional Mixtec art and collages.
4. The White Cat and the Monk retold by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Sydney Smith
This modern retelling of the classic ninth-century Old Irish poem Pangur Ban follows a monk named Pangur, his simple life, and his pet cat who ends up leading him to the truth he has been seeking all along. Jo Ellen Bogart’s elegant narration is heightened by Sydney Smith’s art which falls somewhere between a modernist fairy tale and graphic novel.
5. The Cat from Hunger Mountain written and illustrated by Ed Young
While on the topic of felines, The Cat from Hunger Mountain centers around the selfish Lord Cat who lives in luxury on a mountain and treats his servants poorly. However, when a drought brings hunger, Lord Cat is forced to venture down the mountain and change his ways. This fascinating cautionary tale is presented in the form of a mixed-media collage by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young.
6. Little Red written and illustrated by Bethan Woollvin
As the story goes, Little Red Riding Hood encounters a big, bad wolf on her way to grandma’s house. But in this updated version of the fairy tale, a mischevious twist is added with a heroine who’s smart enough to not be fooled by the wolf’s tricky ways. Bethan Woollvin uses a juxtaposition of sharp humor and minimalist illustrations with a limited color palatte to effectively set the tone of this fun, updated version of the classic story.
7. A Voyage in the Clouds written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall
As the subtitle says, this is a (mostly) true story about the first international flight by balloon in 1785. John Jeffries along with his pilot Jean-Pierre Blanchard set out to be the first two people to ever cross the English Channel to France in a hot air balloon….but things don’t quite go as they planned! This historical tale is filled with humor from writer Matthew Olshan and elegant illustrations from Sophie Blackall that perfectly set a vintage tone.
8. Preaching to the Chickens written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E.B. Lewis
John Lewis is a Georgia congressman, a political activist and a former member of the Freedom Riders. But before that, he was a young man with a dream… a dream of becoming a preacher. Preaching to the Chickens takes an exploratory look at Lewis’s upbringing on an Alabama farm, where he would practice his oratorical skills on the farm’s chickens. Writer Jabari Asim’s riveting prose and Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis’ (no relation) stunning, observant watercolors bring this inspirational story to life.
9. The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window written by Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrated by Peter McCarty
Told from the perspective of the famous tree in the courtyard outside Anne Frank’s window, Jeff Gottesfeld’s writing showcases Anne Frank‘s story in a gentle, yet powerful way, highlighting the somber realities of the Holocaust along with the flashes of joy in her young life. Caldecott Honor artist Peter McCarty’s minimalist illustrations work perfectly to capture the powerful story in heartbreaking detail.
10. The Polar Bear written and illustrated by Jenni Desmond
This beautifully illustrated nonfiction book provides factual accounts of polar bears’ biology and habitat, along with a poetic story about a curious little girl who visits a polar bear in her imagination. Jenni Desmond blends watercolors, acrylic paint, pencil, crayon and printmaking to create the landscapes, creatures, atmosphere and emotion that drive this book forward.
Children’s illustrated books have grown into much more than just cute stories with fun pictures. They’re brilliant pieces of art that tell amazing, thought-provoking stories to both educate and inspire the younger generation. Which children’s books have left an impact on you or the children in your life?
YouTube Channel: Macmillan Children’s Books
Featured image via The New York Times