There’s something so special about writer-illustrators of children’s books. They create a world and then personally lead you through it, the way a singer-songwriter does with music. Well-paired writers and illustrators can make a great team effort too. But the product of multiple people calls for compromise, whereas the vision of one mind can remain charmingly, idiosyncratically, deliciously singular.
Children’s literature is harder than it looks. Anyone can be a windbag. It takes a specific genius to be clear, simple and poetic – and, perhaps hardest of all, be entertaining enough to hold the attention of a little kid.
On top of all that, illustrations require a creative hand in addition to a creative mind. These folks have a disproportionate amount of talent.
For last-minute holiday gift ideas, here are some of my favorite illustrated children’s books, which I only just realized are almost all products of writer-illustrators:
The Big Orange Splot, written and illustrated by Daniel Pinkwater
The Big Orange Splot is the story of Mr Plumbean and his neighbors, who take pride in their neat street where all the houses look the same. A funny, lovely book about acceptance, understanding and dreams. Daniel Pinkwater is one of my all-time favorites. (Somebody please for the love of childhood put Pinkwater’s The Wuggie Norple Story, illustrated by the great Tomie de Paola, back in print.)
Fortunately, written and illustrated by Remy Charlip
Fortunately is the story of Ned and his adventure-filled day of fortune and misfortune. This book will teach your child the long and useful words “fortunately” and “unfortunately,” but the real lesson here is about rolling with the punches. (Another book we need back in print: Remy Charlip’s small red jewelbox of a book, I Love You.)
The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin
The Monster at the End of this Book is easily one of the funniest, most entertaining books to read aloud to kids of any age. Even if you barely remember Grover, Jon Stone’s writing will naturally kick your voice into your best imitation of the anxiously high-pitched blue Muppet. Stone didn’t illustrate this book, but along with Jim Henson, he was an original creator of Sesame Street.
Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney
The arc of a life, heartwarming and heartache-ing, is told and displayed beautifully in Barbara Cooney’s story of Miss Rumphius, from childhood to old age, and her desire to leave a lasting improvement in the world. Based on the story of the real Lupine Lady of the Maine coast.
Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
Goodnight Moon is so brilliant. Nothing happens, the words couldn’t be simpler, it’s just a little narration about a room at bedtime. But its gentle cadence, clear imagery, and thoughtful wording shepherd you from busy day to peaceful night in 131 words. Works every time. I have this one memorized for times we’re too lazy to pull out the book.
Frog and Toad, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel
The Frog and Toad books are among the very best stories about friendship. Full of warmth and humor, adventures and lessons, misunderstandings and resolutions, every chapter is a well-crafted jewel. Arnold Lobel is another one of the greats. I read these books (this treasury has all four books in one) at least weekly for years and never got tired of them.
Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne, illustrated by Ernest Shepard
I am endlessly awed by the very funny, very English cleverness of AA Milne. Kids will no doubt be familiar with Pooh and friends from popular media, but I’ve never seen an animated version that comes close to the charm of the original text. These stories are masterpieces of language, storytelling and humor that kids will love and appreciate. And the original sketched illustrations by Ernest Shepard of Christopher Robin, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo in the Hundred Acre Wood are perfection.
Curious George, written and illustrated by HA Rey
American kids know Curious George from the excellent animated show on PBS. But it’s worth discovering HA Rey’s original concept of the inquisitive, resourceful young monkey named George, as relatable to little readers as any human child. Amazon has Curious George in paperback or 7 classic books in a box set.
Go Dog Go, written and illustrated by PD Eastman
A protege of Dr Seuss, PD Eastman wrote and illustrated two of our favorite easy-read books. Go Dog Go is an amusing, aptly-named read, full of dogs and action. Kids beginning to recognize words will enjoy chiming in to this fun story.
Are You My Mother?, by PD Eastman
Are You My Mother? takes a child’s nightmare scenario – being separated from a parent – and tells a sweet story of adventure, persistence and pluck. And of course, there’s a happy reunion at the end.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, written and illustrated by Eric Carle
A masterpiece by Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has four winner elements of a classic kids book: animals, food, colors and counting. One of the best board books ever.
(On another level, this is totally a book about caterpillar overeating. Wouldn’t it be cool if human overeating worked the same way? Stuff your face for a week, rest your aching stomach for a day and wake up transformed into a beautiful butterfly.)
Harold and the Purple Crayon written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson
In this classic book about imagination, a boy takes his purple crayon and draws himself an excitement-filled journey into the world. Crocket Johnson’s story and illustrations are enduringly fresh.
The Snowy Day, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
A great wintertime gift, this winsome book does a lovely job depicting the excitement of a first snowfall in the city. It won the Caldecott Award in 1963 and quietly broke barriers in its depiction of a brown-skinned protagonist.
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