We were stunned that such a small child noticed McCloskey’s distinctive illustrations and correctly identified all the other McCloskey books we owned. Small children notice more than we think about picture books. The story is important, but so are beautiful illustrations! As St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists: “beauty is the visible form of the good.” Here are five authors who grasp this and personally pour effort both into crafting their story and creating artwork to accompany it.
1. Shirley Hughes is one of my absolute favorite children’s authors/illustrators. Not only are her distinctive illustrations carefully executed, they contain so many small details that little children delight in studying them. Her stories are always simple and engaging on the surface, but underneath they invariably present an age appropriate lesson. For example, Alfie Gets in First is a cautionary story about locking your parents out of the house. Moving Molly encourages children who are moving that there will be good aspects of their new homes. In Alfie and the Big Boys, Alfie exemplifies that even a small child can offer comfort and help to an older child. And Dogger is what I consider Hughes’ masterpiece: a tear-jerking tale of sibling love and sacrifice. Hughes also wrote one of my favorite book of children’s poetry:Out and About: A First Book of Poems.
2. Jan Brett‘s highly realistic and detailed illustrations are extremely popular right now, and I like most of her stories, though not all. One of my favorites is Fritz and the Beautiful Horses , a lovely story about a pony who realizes that being gentle and kind is more important than being physically beautiful. We also enjoy Annie and the Wild Animals, Town Mouse, Country Mouse and Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella. While I enjoy the illustrations in her Christmas themed books, I do not recommend them since she sadly promotes a heavily secularized view of Christmas.
3. Jane Hissey‘s endearing illustrations fittingly accompany the gentle adventures of a gang of stuffed animal friends in The Old Bear Collection. We love all her stories about Old Bear, Jolly Tall, Little Bear, Rabbit, and Bramwell!
4. Nick Butterworth is another English author whose stories we read with great appreciation. His stories, such as The Secret Path , star Percy the Park Keeper, a sweet-natured gardener who makes friends with all the animals in the park. The largest collection of Percy’s adventures, Percy the Park Keeper: A Classic Treasury, is out of print but can often be found in used condition quite cheaply.
5. To return to the anecdote I began with, my children all love Robert McCloskey‘s stories and illustrations. We also appreciate that not only does he draw illustrations for his simplest picture book, Blueberries for Sal, but he also includes fun illustrations in his chapter books like Homer Price.
By age three to four, toddlers are becoming preschoolers and are ready for longer, more challenging stories. Here are some of our favorites for this age!
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If you only buy one book off this list, buy Dogger. In my opinion Shirley Hughes’ greatest work, Dogger tells a humorous and heartwarming story of losing a favorite toy, and big sister saving the day through a sacrifice. I always tear up for this one. Themes: sacrifice, sibling love, giving
With The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook, you get four stories plus poems in one book! In this collection, Alfie and Annie Rose build a store, help a cow find its way home, go camping, and visit the seashore. Themes: enjoying nature, patience, playing together, sibling love
Under the Moon by Joanne Ryder has incredibly beautiful, detailed nature scenes (my kids wanted to eat the blackberries!). Mama Mouse teaches baby mouse to find her way home by using her senses. Themes: nature, five senses, mother-child love
Make Way for Ducklings is a famous Robert McCloskey story about a mallard duck couple raising their babies in a busy city. Themes: helping, kindness to animals
Speaking of ducklings the lesser known Lucky Ducklings is a fun story about baby ducklings falling down a storm drain and being rescued in a dramatic manner by fireen and a truck with a tow hitch. Themes: helping, rescues, bravery
Jane Hissey’s beautifully illustrated Old Bear books about the adventures of a collection of plush animals are definitely worth buying. Her original unabridged stories are difficult to find, but The Old Bear Collection contains most of her charming text and illustrations. Themes: friendship, sharing, kindness
The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown is a layered story about at once an island steadfast through the seasons of the year and a curious kitten who adventures on the island.
The Perfect Pony is a perfect story for horse loving children. It has an amazing theme about patience and kindness mattering more than beauty.
The Apple Pie Tree describes two sisters watching their apple tree and a family of robins throughout the year, eagerly waiting to make an apple pie! Themes: waiting patiently, observing nature, sibling fun
Tractor Mac, the friendly red tractor, learns about building a barn, patience, and humility in Tractor Mac Builds a Barn. Themes: patience, humility, boasting, hard work
Charlie Goes to School is a funny story about Charlie the ranch dog’s family starting their school year as homeschoolers. Charlie is such a sweet, amusing, sleepy basset hound he is sure to become a family favorite. You can find more of his adventures in Charlie the Ranch Dog and Charlie Plays Ball . Themes: starting school, homeschooling, friendship, helping
Percy the parkkeeper is another wonderful character of British children’s literature. In Percy’s Bumpy Ride , Percy invents a flying lawn mower and takes his animal friends for a ride over the park. Themes: friendship, building machines, kindness
The Brave Cowboy is a tale of a little boy whose days are colored with cowboy adventures courtesy of his vivid imagination. The illustrations are cleverly executed with the boy’s visions in red ink and real life in black ink. Themes: bravery, imaginative play, the wild west
Another cowboy tale, Cowboy Small rides his paint pony cactus on the range, getting back on even when he hits the dust, in this fun little story from Lois Lenski. Themes: trying again, bravery, perseverance, wild west
Raven and River is a beautifully illustrated story about a Raven and a winter in Alaska. Simple, beautiful text, poetic in its diction and rhythm, make this book memorable.
Homeplace is a fascinating book about a homestead that has been passed down through seven generations of a family. The detailed illustrations visualize what each generation adds to what begins as a tiny log cabin and ends as a thriving home and farm.
The Seven Silly Eaters is a hilarious rhymed story of a mom struggling to cope with seven picky children until they decide to do something for her for a change. I found it heartwarming, even if the ending is far fetched, and kids love the detailed illustrations. Themes: picky eating, helping out, big families
In Honey… Honey… Lion!, you get a gorgeously illustrated retelling of an African folk tale. This book is a great introduction to onomatopoeia! (Onomatopoeia are words that imitate the sound of the subject or object they refer to, like “buzz” or “drip-drop.”)
We love the description of homestead life in Ox-Cart Man accompanied by illustrations from the wonderful Barbara Cooney. A family works industriously all winter to have goods to trade in the spring.
Eric Carle’s Pancakes, Pancakes! is stellar for starting preschool minds thinking about from where food comes and appreciating the work that goes into a simple meal. Jack wants a pancake, and his mother will make it if he gathers all the ingredients himself! Themes: hard work, perseverance, where food comes from, earning something makes it sweeter
Doctor Dan the Bandage Man is the story of Dan learning from his mom’s care of his own cut to care for the hurts of his sister, pet, and even dad. Themes: caring for others, helping, bravery
As I add yet another British classic to the list, I’ll confess a weakness for British children’s books! Mick Inkpen’s Kipper Story Collection introduces Kipper, the sweet-natured dog, whose gentle adventures with his stuffed animals and real animal friends make soothing bedtime stories. Themes: friendship, kindness
In The Mitten Nicki loses his mitten despite his grandma’s warnings, and when he finds it is stretched out from a tangle of animals using it as a den. Themes: good stewardship, sharing
Another favorite Jan Brett, Annie and the Wild Animals features adorable Annie, who is searching for a new pet after her cat Taffy disappears. Themes: perseverance, friendship, loneliness
Home Sweet Home is a beautiful book both both in its detailed illustrations of different animal habitats and in its simple message of God blessing all things. Themes: appreciating nature, blessings
The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 75th Anniversary Edition is, to me, a good book in essence as long as one adequately discusses George’s disobedience and its negative consequences. These original stories by the Reys are funny and have good lessons about obedience, impulse control, and friendship. Themes: obedience, actions have consequences, helping, self control
Pond is a beautifully illustrated book that combines an introduction to the seasons with the concept of creative outdoor play.
The Seed Who Was Afraid to Be Planted is a great story to introduce the idea of dying and heaven to young children in a positive way. A little seed is afraid to be planted and “die” but realizes that only by dying can he attain a life more beautiful than he could imagine in his dark drawer. Check out my full review here.
Please also check out my list of specifically Catholic books: