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I review a lot of picture books in my Stack Overflow columns, partly because we go through so many of them and partly because, well, they’re usually faster to write up than an adult fiction book. I’ve always loved picture books, even during the period when I was no longer the target audience but didn’t have kids of my own, and a lot of that has to do with the illustrations. Some books in particular have pictures that are just really striking, or clever, or move the story forward in ways that simply can’t be done in the text. Here are some of those books.


Swap! by Steve Light

Steve Light has also illustrated Have You Seen My Dragon? and Have You Seen My Monster?, both books that use a similar style. The illustrations are mostly black and white, with color to highlight particular things on the page. In Swap!, there’s a little more color than in the other two, but the illustration style is similar. Here, two sailors with a broken-down ship start with a single button and swap their way to get the parts needed to fix up their ship. It’s fun to see how everyone ends up using the things they get in trade—a ship’s wheel becomes a hat rack, for instance.

Nobody Likes a Goblin

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

My kids and I love just about everything that Ben Hatke draws. He’s the author-illustrator of the graphic novel series Zita the Spacegirl, and he has also published some picture books now. His latest is Nobody Likes a Goblin, in which a goblin’s dungeon is raided by a band of adventurers, who take all the treasure—and his best friend, Skeleton. As he sets out in search of his friend, he starts getting chased by all the people he passes along the way: a farmer, an innkeeper, a bunch of elves. The story is fun because it turns the heroic adventurer trope on its head—in this one, the adventurers are the antagonists, roaming about and taking a bunch of things that belong to other people (or creatures). And the pictures are wonderful—Ben Hatke really knows how to draw goblins and trolls and monsters, making them both creepy and cute at the same time.

Over the Ocean

Over the Ocean by Taro Gomi

Taro Gomi’s picture books are well known—his illustrations look simple but can still say so much. This book has a little girl standing at the edge of the ocean, wondering what could be over the ocean. As she asks questions, the picture changes to show what she’s imagining on the other side. The book is a fun exploration to read with your kids: what do they think is on the other side?

The Only Child

The Only Child by Guojing

Guojing, an illustrator in China, is an only child because of Beijing’s one-child policy. This wordless book depicts a young only child who goes out to visit grandma on her own, and then gets lost. A mysterious stag comes to her aid, and then takes her on a fantastic and wondrous trip before bringing her back home. The black and white illustrations are soft and dreamlike, and the book reminds me a little bit of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, though a bit fluffier and cuter looking. It’s a book that is both cheerful and poignant—even as the child is having a fun adventure, her parents are out searching for her.

The White Book

The White Book by Silvia Borando, Lorenzo Clerici, and Elisabetta Pica

Another wordless book, this one shows a little boy with a bucket of paint and a roller. As he paints the walls various colors, different animals appear in the colors—but then they leave. The pink birds fly away, the blue fish splash off the wall … and the boy is sad. Will he get an animal that stays? What color will it be? It’s a clever little book, and each back has only black and white and a single other color.

Now You See Me, Now You Don't

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t by Silvia Borando

This wordless book starts with a spread showing a bunch of animals: a brown bear, a blue bird, a pink bunny, and so on. Every time you turn the page, the same animals are on a different background, and some animals have vanished because they match the background, revealing only their eyes. The cover shows the teal-colored hippo and the chameleon, which vanishes on every page after the first. It’s a funny book and really cute, and there are a couple of funny visual gags scattered throughout.

Near, Far

Near, Far by Silvia Borando

One more from Silvia Borando: Near, Far has some of the same animals seen in Now You See Me (and a few new ones), but they first appear in extreme close up. As you zoom out, you can try to figure out what each animal is. These are fun visual riddles, though it may be a little less exciting once you know what all the animals are.

What Can I Be?

What Can I Be? by Ann Rand and Ingrid Fiksdahl King

This book explores various shapes and how they can become other things: a red circle could be an apple, or a lollipop, or a sunset. The book asks the reader what they might make of the shape. The illustrations are a mix of abstract and representational, and they have a doodle-like quality to them, as if made with pens and markers.

ABC Dream

ABC Dream by Kim Krans

A is for apple, sure—but also for ants, arrows, and argyle. Each letter in this book has a few things on the page that start with the letter, but nothing is labeled and there are no words, challenging you to look and figure out which things on the page share the same letter. The pen-and-ink illustrations, with touches of watercolor, are lovely and don’t look like your typical children’s ABC book. (In the back of the book, there’s a helpful index of all the things that go with each letter.)

The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener by the Fan Brothers

This picture book (not to be confused with Jonathan Auxier’s spooky novel of the same name) is about a mysterious gardener who appears one night on Grimlock Lane, transforming trees into amazing creatures. A boy named William, who lives in an orphanage, is excited to see each new animal appear—until one night he meets the Night Gardener himself. It’s a beautiful book about bringing beauty into the lives of people who may not be looking for it.

Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat and Are We There Yet? by Nina Laden and Adam McCauley

Ah, the age-old question: “Are we there yet?” Two picture books of the same title each depict a boy on a car ride to his grandma’s house, but in different ways. Dan Santat’s version becomes a time-travel journey, as the boy becomes so bored that time seems to slow to a crawl … and then move backwards. The illustrations depict the family’s car going backwards in time (with the parents in era-appropriate garb), and then moving into the future. One fun feature is the way the book actually flips upside down during the story, so that you’re turning pages backward for a portion of the book.

Nina Laden and Adam McCauley have the boy asking “Are we there yet?” on every page, while the world gets stranger and stranger. It starts off normal, as the car pulls out of the driveway, out of a residential area, and onto a highway. But then you start noticing some funny things: a worm riding on a bird, a minotaur in a field, dinosaurs in the distance. There are a lot of little recurring motifs, and it’s fun to look for those as you flip through the book.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.

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