You should read short stories because each one will give you the full narrative hit—beginning, middle and end—in double-quick time. You’ll get all—well, most of—the satisfaction of a novel, in one small package that might use up 15–20 minutes of your time.
– Short Stories and Why You Should Embrace Them, National Short Story Week
Because what’s true of short stories is true of picture books.
Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman — a Gothic horror story in picturebook form — what?!
Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin — one of those little girls who kidlit censors don’t like, because she is naughty, and doesn’t get punished!
Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs — a great ‘scribbly’ style of illustration full of movement, and the best of the stories from this author/illustrator imo
Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas — an Australian classic
The Rainbow by Gary Crew and Gregory Rogers — a quiet story illustrated with pastels that feels like it’s set in the inner suburbs of an Australian city
Tough Boris by Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown — If you only read the words you’ll only get half the story. Look at the pictures closely!
Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek — sometimes simple = popular, and this book is a prime example
Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton — an out-of-print book but I can’t for the life of me understand why. An excellent example of a catchphrase: “I want it, I like it and I’ll take it!”
Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey — kids love the humour in this book. Compare with its sequel, which isn’t quite as well-done.
Harry and Hopper by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood — a picturebook about the death of a loved dog which avoids falling into the hackneyed trap of replacing the dog with a new one, making everything better
Black Dog by Levi Pinfold — I believe this is an allegory for agoraphobia, though it says something rather disturbing about how to treat strange dogs
Chatterbox by Margaret Wild and Deborah Niland — a great readaloud
The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan — an allegory of white invasion in Australia
Eric by Shaun Tan — a wonderful story full of realistic pencil drawings about a family who hosts an unusual exchange student
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan — it’s been made into an award winning short film, too
Leaf by Stephen Michael King — a story about growing up using a tree as metaphor
The Useless Donkeys by Lydia Pender and Judith Cowell (1979) — The Benjamin Franklin Effect illustrated via a picturebook
Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French — a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But nothing much happens and that is the joke.
Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson — the unofficial Australian national anthem is actually pretty disturbing. Even as a picture book.
Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie — an underrated Australian book. McKimmie wrote, illustrated and also did the book design.
The Picturebooks Of Chris Van Allsburgh — Allsburgh illustrates in a photorealistic way and makes much use of changing perspectives
Dogger by Shirley Hughes — one of Shirley Hughes’s best stories, and we can all learn from the storytelling techniques employed here
Gorilla by Anthony Browne— an example of a postmodern picture book.
Postmodern Picturebooks: Anthony Browne — if you’d like to see ‘postmodernism’ as applied to picturebooks, this is your guy
Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell — one of my favourite picturebooks which rewards close reading of the illustrations
Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti — a distinctively dark illustrative style
Wolves by Emily Gravett — metafiction!
Cloud Tea Monkeys and Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham — a modern story created in retro style
Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr — Best-selling picturebooks have become shorter since the Mog series was created, and few illustrators are using coloured pencil in this way
The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr — a great example of the carnavalesque
Snow White as illustrated by Burkert and Hyman — Snow White has been illustrated hundreds of times but rarely in so interesting way as this
Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton and Tom Barling — for its distinctive 1970s style of illustration, despite being an older story than that
Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t by lauren child — includes a great example of the leitmotif
Wolves In The Walls — a girl of about 8 or 10 hears wolves in the walls of her house. But these wolves aren’t as scary as they might at first appear…
Loveykins by Quentin Blake — Blake’s work is better known when he pairs with an equally famous author such as Roald Dahl or David Walliams, but he has also written a number of his own stories. Is he equally good at storycrafting as he is at illustration? Let’s see…
The Enormous Crocodile — by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. I also quote from a Dahl biographer who delves into why Dahl and Blake paired so successfully.
Stickman by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler — Donaldson is masterful with rhyme and scansion but also a master of taking pieces from well-known tales and blending them into something new. I also think that sometimes Donaldson’s books get published even when they’re a bit ho-hum — she is an author with a name who can shift copies of anything. But this is one of her best so far.
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler — Donaldson makes use of mythic structure and the popular trickster archetype to create a satisfying tale based on an old Romanian one.
Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill — my daughter loved these books as a toddler (and beyond). Make sure you don’t buy the cheap versions of these books as they don’t have the flaps, and this series is ALL ABOUT THE FLAPS.
The Velveteen Rabbit by Marjery Williams and William Nicholson — These days the best selling picturebooks are much shorter — more like yarns with a punchline, but this is from the second Golden Age of Children’s Literature and does very much feel like it comes from an earlier age. The influence of fairytale is palpable.
A Squash And A Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler — an old woman living in the country learns a valuable life lesson with the help of a wise old man.
Jack And The Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts — not one of Donaldson’s better stories, but nicely illustrated by someone other than Axel Scheffler
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs — a wordless, carnivalesque tale
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs — It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter — a mythic structure with an appealing, misbehaving bunny
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter — similar to Peter Rabbit and with not quite the same longevity, but interesting for its range of ‘animalness’ in the characters.
Stuck by Oliver Jeffers — Technically Jeffers would be in his own ‘Irish American’ category I suppose. Stuck is a great example of what might be described as a ‘gag’ or ‘joke’ picture book which are selling really well at the moment. Others in this category are Mo Willems, Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. Now, I can’t personally think of any women writing (nor illustrating) best selling picturebooks of this category. The market is dominated entirely by youngish men. I’d really love to know why this is, but the cynic in me suspects it’s not because women aren’t funny.
This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers — an absolutely perfect example of John Truby’s storytelling steps which, for the record, are: Weakness/Need, Desire, Opponent, Plan, Battle, Self-revelation, New Equilibrium. If teaching story craft to your class, use this book. It requires less time than watching an entire movie.
Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg — a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek picture book making use of the classic mythic structure but with a baby for a hero.
Up and Up by Shirley Hughes — a wordless picture book making use of the symbolism of flight and an egg for a portal.
Piper by Emma Chichester Clark — a classic mythic journey from an established author and illustrator.
New Zealand Picturebooks
The Lion In The Meadow by Margaret Mahy — came out at about the same time as The Tiger Who Came To Tea. This was Mahy’s first publication.
Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd — Hairy Maclary is the first and best-known of this series but Scarface Claw is an excellent, relatable villain
Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd — Lynley Dodd writes about cats just as well as she writes about dogs.
Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Trace Moroney — Another NZ kidlit great takes inspiration from a Scottish folksong to create this children’s tale
Black Dog by Pamela Allen — This doesn’t appear to be one of Allen’s best selling picture books — others are far more widely known in NZ and Australia, and this is probably because picture books which are metaphors for mental illnesses are niche.
North American Picturebooks
Just Me And My Puppy by Mercer Mayer — Mercer Mayer seems to have gotten sick of this series (imho) because the later books are nothing on the earlier ones. They’re even more elaborately illustrated. This is one of the earlier ones.
The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats — Keats was one of the first picture book creators to depict children of colour and also to present the city as an interesting, non-terrible place.
Rosie’s Walk — Use this classic to teach the concept of ‘dramatic irony’, since there is a big gap between the words and the illustration here, creating an ‘ironic distance’ between illustration and text.
This Is Not My Hat by John Klassen — a good example of what’s popular in picturebooks in the 2010s — stories which are basically gags — but I don’t say this in a disparaging way.
Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky — a hilarious story, and the best abecedary I have seen. And we thought it was impossible to make a fresh ABC book! This one works far better than its sequel, about shapes. I think I know why — what do you think?
No Roses For Harry! by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham — old books could be uncomfortably femme phobic and this is a good example, but Harry is still a great character.
Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham — perhaps the most popular of the Harry books. We may have had more if the creators had remained married.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown — Why is this book such a favourite?
Mister Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams — Wise Brown is one of the few authors I’ve come across who doesn’t use traditional story structure. Or does she? She uses proxies.
The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams — A parody of the Robinsonnade.
Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by MIchaela Muntean is another Little Golden Book about a mouse character who goes on a sea adventure, though this one isn’t as effective in my opinion. It was worth taking a close look at why.
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak — Soooo much has been written about this influential book. In fact, it’s been so influential it hardly even looks special nowadays. Here I take snippets from academics and add a bit to the corpus.
Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak — a scary changeling story.
Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry Heide and Jules Feiffer — a retro picturebook from my own childhood with a surprisingly modern feel.
Olivia by Ian Falconer — a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. When the English turned her into a cartoon they moved her from NYC to the suburbs, which changes the feel of the series quite a bit.
Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer — this plot is a failure but still interesting for its use of a McGuffin
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer — is this feminist, or is it just feminist to the casual observer?
Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — a rare example of a picturebook which breaks ‘the rules’ of storytelling.
The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen — interesting for its art style and use of topology inside a house. The house is fascinating because it’s obviously not the boy’s real house (there are no parents in the story), but rather a representation of how he psychically feels about home.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle — even a simple story such as this one follows the unwritten rules of storytelling. There’s also a healthy eating message.
Duck Cakes For Sale by Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave — a Canadian story from my childhood. I don’t think it’s very well known or easy to get a hold of now.
The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg — a retro pick from 1980, with a Dr Seussish plot and simple rhyme scheme for emerging readers. A great example of a story that plays with scale.
The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese — although this is an American production, the illustrator did spend some years in China.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko — one of those obviously feminist picturebooks from the 1980s.
That Is NOT A Good Idea! by Mo Willems — children will love this because they know more than the characters do — dramatic irony! Also overturns a stereotype about weak female characters, which I love.
Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems — an ‘early reader’ series which has genuine universal appeal due to quite sophisticated humour.
Madeline And The Gypsies by Ludwig Betelmans — I’m going to put this here because Betelmans wrote the Madeline series in English while he lived in America.
Madeline In London by Ludwig Betelmans — another carnivalesque story about the red-headed little orphan
Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose by Dr Seuss — One of the earliest picturebooks about moose (which may be a bit on trend recently). This is an example of a cumulative tale and the moral is that there are limits to our kindness, in a format which teaches children, overwhelmingly, to be nothing but kind.
And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss — Geisel’s first publication success, with a rhythm inspired by the engine of a steam ship. Interesting for its ‘comic reversal’ as described by Nodelman.
I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss — Great for teaching classic mythic structure, because this story conforms perfectly.
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss — This is a blend of classic mythic structure and the carnivalesque. Notable for using only 50 different words. A typical odd-couple comedy.
Doctor De Soto by William Steig — Stieg made much use of Aesop’s animal characters and this story is a great example of miniatures in storytelling, literary dreaming and humour. A consideration of the gender roles lets us know how far we’ve come since 1982.
The Amazing Bone by William Steig — a wonderful example of an ironic Aesopian animal character and a voice which is so strong it makes up for what might be an otherwise uninspiring plot.
Boss Baby by Marla Frazee — the perfect example of humour which appeals equally to children and adults, mostly for different reasons. This is also an ensemble cast, in which both child and parents have their own self-revelation.
The Farmer And The Clown by Marla Frazee — a moving wordless picture book, with a contemporary take on the ideology of ‘found family’.
After The Fall by Dan Santat — a highly metaphorical story about overcoming anxiety, showing how a simple idea done well beats all.
The Chicken Book by Garth Williams — a simple post-war book which was more fully coloured in the 1970s.
Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton — with an apt name, Crampton wrote a post WW2 story encouraging children to stay at home rather than go out into the world.
President Squid by Aaron Reynolds and Sara Veron was not meant to be a book about Donald Trump (it was written before his nomination), but it really absolutely turned out that way.
Oliver by Birgitta Sif — a boy with stuffed toys as imaginary friends finds a playmate
Translated into English
The Magical Life Of Mr Renny by Leo Timmers — an attractively illustrated story which seems inspired by the Chinese folktale about the peasant boy whose paintings turned to real life objects after acquisition of a magical brush. What do you think of the ending?
When We Were Alone In The World by Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson — even when translated into English, the European distinctiveness shines through
The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch — scatological humour at its finest
Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Konnecke — a humorous picturebook for families who would like to teach their children critical thinking skills
Beauty and the Beast by Anne Carter and Binette Schoeder (1986) — Originally a French tale, this version is retold by an English speaker and illustrated by a German.
Which Witch’s Wand Works? by Poly Bernatene — a carnivalesque story with an interesting narrative technique
More! by Peter Schossow — an almost wordless picturebook translated from German
Frog Went A’Courtin by John Langstaff — based on the folk song, text written by a well-known musician of the 20th century.
The Magic Porridge Pot — I look at the Ladybird versions and examine food in children’s literature in the context of medieval famines
Little Red Riding Hood — This tale fascinates me because it says something so terribly bad about rape, yet bowdlerised versions of this tale abound, and suggest none of that… overtly.
Tom Thumb, Thumbelina And Other Miniature Tales — This post is more about the miniature tales — including mouse tales– than about these fairytales specifically
Beauty and the Beast by Anne Carter and Binette Schoeder (1986) — My favourite version of the story. It includes notes on the history of this tale — which is not technically a fairy tale at all — in the back.
The Gingerbread Man — For a contemporary take see Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man. This is the Little Golden Book version I grew up with.
Picturebooks of the horror genre are excellent examples of what John Truby calls ‘the horror flip’, which you’ll find in the best horror stories.
The best horror stories make use of a unique structural flip. At some point there’s a flip between the human and the inhuman. At some point, the monster becomes the hero. This character who we thought was inhuman turns out to be the most humane of all and the human beings turn out to be inhumane, attacking what they don’t understand, what is different from themselves. This technique goes back to Frankenstein.
Picturebooks, by their very nature, are designed to comfort. So it is comforting for a child to learn that something they thought was terribly scary is scary only because they are unfamiliar with it.
See: What Is The Horror Genre For? for a breakdown of what horror is and is not.
Wolves by Emily Gravett — a metafictional picturebook in which a wolf in a book seems to come right off the page
The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen — a little boy lives in a big scary house with lots of staircases, a dark basement and a mysteriously busted night-light bulb
Bears In The Night by Jan and Stan Berenstain — a night-time expedition to find a mythical beast
Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell — again we have the gothic house, the scary contraptions, the aristocratic wolf
Black Dog by Levi Pinfold — the house in the middle of the snowy forest and the creepy symbolic objects make this a scene from a horror film, not to mention the massive creature peering in through the windows. Did I mention that bit?
Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry Heide and Jules Feiffer — a mixture of horror symbols and everyday anxieties make for an overall funny and reassuring book
Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd — We’ve got the symbolism of the moon, the nighttime setting, the change of character when darkness falls. This is a great gothic horror for the preschool set.
Beauty and the Beast by Anne Carter and Binette Schoeder (1986) — I’m going to add this one here, too.
Rosie’s Walk — Is the fox going to catch the hen!?
Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd — Scarface is a great villain — will the hero win out?
In a crime story we see what the criminal is up to.
Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Trace Moroney — a kidnapping by an ogre, outwitted by a wishy wee woman
Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton — a wolf dresses up as various characters in order to commit various crimes in a town
In the detective genre, we follow the character who is solving the mystery. Or, the reader is the detective.
Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek — the reader looks for a green sheep somewhere within the book
This Is Not My Hat by John Klassen — theft and murder
Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill — Finding things is the main job of a detective, no?
Self-consciously Feminist Subversions From The 1980s
Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole — like a more ridiculous (a.k.a. interesting) ancestor of the Pixar film Brave
Prince Cinders by Babette Cole — inversion doesn’t equal subversion, but it’s something I guess
Bossyboots by David Cox — An Australian story set in the Wild West (of NSW) in which bossiness is shown to have its distinct advantages
Piggybook by Anthony Browne — written when mothers started entering the workforce in large numbers but were still expected to do everything around the house
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko — an example of the ‘female myth’ form which has more recently started to take off.
Why The Black And White? — Even with colour printing down in cost some illustrators are still working in black and white. Why?
The Glance Curve — how eyes move across a page and how illustrators make the most of that knowledge
Grey — examples of picture books which use grey as their main theme, even though ‘kids love primary colours’
Shadow And Lightsource — In all artwork there are various sources of light, each with varying effects. How does it work in picturebooks?
Character Relations In Picturebooks — how characters are introduced visually, a mindmap
Taxonomy of Detail in Character Illustration — words to describe how illustrators draw people
Panoptic Art In Picture Books — artists such as Shirley Hughes usually include a panoptic scene in their picture books. This is probably an aerial, all-seeing view of a setting.
Synoptic Narrative In Picture Books — Continuous narrative is sort of like a comic book sequence but without the framing.
Progressive Narrative In Picture Books — This sort of narrative art is so common in picture books that it hardly needs naming. But if the artist shakes it up a bit they can achieve some very interesting skews.
Upside Down Knitting In Picturebooks — and other ways in which illustrators bend reality