Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Illustrations in children’s books are so much more than pretty pictures. Illustrations serve a variety of purposes: to establish the setting or mood of the story, define or develop the characters and advance or enhance the plot. Because books for toddlers and young children can’t afford to be too wordy, illustrations provide a world of information at a glance.
“Illustrations in picture books are meant to delight, to capture attention, to amplify or tell a story, to teach a concept and to develop appreciation and awareness in children.“ - Zhihui Fang
Because young children don’t have the ability to construct a visual image in their heads from text alone, they rely heavily on illustrations to provide one for them. Contrary to what you might think, however, pictures don’t take away the necessity for imagination, they enable it. With fewer words, picture books stimulate imagination as children come up with their own interpretations of what is happening in the story.
Illustrations Support Literacy
Any parent who has been interrupted during reading aloud by a child wanting to point out something in the pictures may wonder if illustrations create a distraction from the act of reading. Rest assured, research shows the benefits of providing visual images actually supports literacy.
“Illustrations in pictures books entice children to interact with the text. They motivate young readers to find/name hidden objects/characters or predict what is going to happen next.” - Zhihui Fang
In some cases, children's book illustrations will show a different viewpoint or contradict the text to create humor or suspense. But in most cases, the illustrations serve to support the text and aid comprehension and coherence. Non-fiction books, for example, use pictures and diagrams to reinforce the descriptions of the subject. An awesome picture of a Great White shark’s jaws and teeth says a lot more about its place at the top of the food chain that words alone.
Pictures Provide Context
Another function of illustrations is to provide scaffolding or context for the reader. What children lack in life experience, background knowledge and vocabulary, pictures help make up for. In the same vein, picture books foster language and literacy development by exposing them to new words and situations that engage their curiosity and cause them to investigate character motivations and actions.
The excitement of a good picture book is the constant tension between the moments isolated by the pictures and the flow of the words that join these moments together. - Perry Nodelman
Last but certainly not of least importance is art for art’s sake. Through illustrations in picture books, children are exposed to a variety of techniques and styles and can begin to develop an appreciation of art and beauty or a preference for a favorite illustrator.
Recommendations for Books with Great Illustrations
Remembering that art is subjective, here are some of my favorite books for children. Many of these children will enjoy “reading” just by looking at the pictures. For that reason, I have separated them into board books for babies and toddlers and picture books for young children so you can decide how much you trust their little hands. Also, I've included a video preview of each book so you can view the illustrator's handiwork.
Board Books for Babies and Board Books for Toddlers
Everywhere Babies - This is my new favorite gift to give. The illustrations are reminiscent of a classic baby book, making it feel like it's already been a favorite for generations. We get an intimate look at all the cute and comical scenes that make up a baby's first year from the bleary-eyed newborn days to the creeping, crawling, walking, falling chaos.
Each Peach Pear Plum - A friend recommended this book to me. It is a charming example of how illustrations can extend the plot. The authors combine characters from several well-known Mother Goose rhymes in a fresh new way. We see Little-Bo-Peep sitting on the well as Jack and Jill's legs are visible just as they're tumbling down the hill. "Bo-Peep up the hill, I spy Jack and Jill." and on it goes in a delightful way.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit - Beatrix Potter is almost as well know for her artistry as her beloved, mischievous character Peter. There are two reasons children and parents alike have adored this book for more than a hundred years, for the beauty as much as the bunny.
Madeline - A story that takes place in the City of Light, well renowned for its artists and architecture, had to live up to its birthplace. Madeline herself is a spunky character and the author is a genius with rhyme, but this book would not be the classic it is without the illustrations that bring the text to life.
The Runaway Bunny - This book is worthy of a place in your library for the illustrations alone. Featuring alternating black-and-white sketches and colorful paintings, you'll find there is a story within the story. Paired with a narrative about a little bunny who toys with the idea of running away and a mother bunny who will always find him, you'll know why this book has been a classic for more than 75 years.
Harold and the Purple Crayon - Harold's drawings come to life fueled by his imagination and his purple crayon. The fantastic journey unfolds in a clever and creative way that even adults will enjoy. Sure to inspire your budding artist! If you don't own this, you should!
Goodnight Gorilla - An almost wordless wonder, toddlers will enjoy being in on the joke as the pictures tell the story. As the zookeeper makes his rounds, he tells all the animals "good night," without noticing that a mischievous primate has swiped his keys and is letting all the animals out. Let your child be the "reader" this time.
Picture Books for Children
Where the Wild Things Are - Where the narrative leaves much to the imagination ("Max... made mischief of one kind and another"), the illustrations do the storytelling. A wild rumpus ensues as he journeys to a far away land and becomes king of the beasts, but still manages to make it home in time for supper. Children will enjoy letting their imagination run wild with this one.
Swimmy - One little black fish manages to escape being eaten and finds himself alone, scared and sad. But as Swimmy encounters the marvels of the ocean, the reader gets to share in his awe through Leo Lionni's paintings and prints. When Swimmy meets a school of scared fish, children learn a lesson about problem solving and working together.
The Scarecrow - I love everything about this book. The message is one of opening our hearts to an unlikely friendship. The rise and fall of the rhythm and rhyme are soothing and song-like. And the illustrations are absolutely breathtaking. This was my favorite book of 2019 and I could not love it more if I had written it myself.
Gazpacho for Nacho - This book was love at first read. Nacho refuses to eat anything but gazpacho until he learns the joys of cooking. The clever rhyme takes a bilingual approach with captivating visuals for context. For instance, when shopping for "tomates", Nacho is shown climbing a mountain of tomatoes, elevating the task of getting groceries to exciting new heights. The reader will find themselves immersed in the illustrations.
The Wonderful Things You Will Be - With its pretty, playful pastel pictures and lilting rhyme, this book is everything a children's book should be. The illustrations are worthy of being framed and the gatefold pages at the end will give you and your child lots to talk about. I absolutely adore Emily Winfield Martin's artistic style!
Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site - The illustrator's ability to personify construction equipment is an absolute wonder to me. This book has all the elements of a great children's book - readability, rhythm, rhyme, repetition, vocabulary, theme, interest and illustrations - not to mention an irresistible charm for young and old.
Floatsam - This book introduced me to the wonderful world of wordless picture books. While I admit I was skeptical about a book with no text, I was instantly taken in. I especially enjoyed that my toddler and I were able to discover what was happening together, unscripted and unaided by any print. His excitement grew every time he "read" it to me.
What other book could you read just for the illustrations? Who are some of your favorite illustrators? Leave a comment below.
“Illustrations, Text and the Child Reader: What are Pictures in Children’s Storybooks For?”. By Zhihui Fang. Reading Horizons, Volume 37 #2. 1996. Retrieved 2/17/20 https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgiarticle=1280&context=reading_horizons