The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) was the first picture book by American author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who himself admits astonishment at the book’s immediate success. This was helped by reviews in America-wide publications. Such attention has always been unusual for children’s stories, and perhaps says something about how this story appeals to all ages. Like Australia’s Shaun Tan, the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg work as coffee table displays, and you could easily hang these illustrations on a wall as fine art.

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Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne

Have you ever wanted to go back and redo old work? A Walk In The Park is one of Anthony Browne’s earliest picture books — his second published after Through The Magic Mirror. Twenty years later (in 1998), Browne decided to redo this book in postmodern style. Now it is called Voices In The Park. In the earlier title, postmodern elements are nascently evident. Look closely and you’ll find minor elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The earlier version has a single voice. The updated book contains four separate voices in first person and is far more surreal.

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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Burglar Bill cover

Burglar Bill is a picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, first published in 1977. There are a number of picture books about burglars who break into houses at night, one of a child’s greatest fears going to sleep. Burglars can be found all across children’s literature. (Enid Blyton loved burglars.)

Be sure to examine the pictures in this one as there are plenty of visual gags. I love that Burglar Bill hangs a mugshot of himself on the wall.

I believe Burglar Bill has been hugely influential on the comical burglar stories that came after, notably:

Children’s comedy cartoons often include an intruder episode as well:

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Amos and Boris by William Steig

Some picture books have an Aesop fable at their base. Amos and Boris is one such picture book, written and illustrated by William Steig (1971). Amos and Boris is also a romance in the style of Nicholas Sparks. (Sorry, Nick Sparks doesn’t like it when his books are called romances, so let’s use his word: love tragedy.)

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Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham 1977

Come Away From The Water, Shirley is a 1977 picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller, John Burningham. A number of adult readers talk about the “two different stories” going on in this book.

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Danny The Champion Of The World by Roald Dahl

Archibald Thorburn, naturalist illustrator - Pheasants

As an English speaking child of the 80s I grew up on a heavy diet of Roald Dahl. Danny The Champion Of The World (1975) stands out in my adult memory my favourite Dahl story, perhaps only bested by the frisson of horror left by The Witches (in which I actually examined my J2 teacher, thinking she might be a witch. Fortunately she didn’t wear gloves, which absolved her.)

I have now, finally, revisited Danny The Champion Of The World as an adult, despite this being one of my favourite childhood reads. Why ‘finally’? I’m loathe to further promote Dahl’s work on the Internet, partly because an entire cottage industry has popped up around the man and the mythology, with teacher resources available, schools full of class sets of his books. My own child’s primary teachers are still teaching Roald Dahl, despite there being many, many better options for a class study.

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Fly Homer Fly by Bill Peet

fly homer fly cover

Fly Homer Fly is a 1969 picture book written and illustrated by Bill Peet who died in 2002 after a long career at Disney and in children’s books. At 64 pages, Fly Homer Fly is a lengthy picture books by modern standards. Modern picture books tend to be 32 pages, under 400 words, and read in about ten minutes. I really do think there’s still room for longer picture books such as this one in the world. Instead, it seems children old enough to sustain attention through a 64 page picture book are encouraged to read chapter books.

Fly Homer Fly written illustrated by Bill Peet (1969)
Fly Homer Fly written illustrated by Bill Peet (1969)
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Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970)

“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by William Steig, published by Windmill Books, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1969. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. Steig wrote picture books in a comically melodramatic way, which is one way of appealing to the dual audience of children and adult co-readers. Here’s a useful thing about melodrama: The audience can know it’s melodrama but still be moved.

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Meal One by Cutler and Oxenbury

Meal One by Ivor Cutler

Meal One is a picture book written by Ivor Cutler, Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, first published 1971.

I maintain you can tell if a picture book illustrator has a background in costume or set design. Likewise, you can tell if they have an animation background or a graphic design background. You can tell if they have kids in their lives and you can tell if they are an established ‘humorist’.

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was a humorist who, like Spike Milligan, created many things for adult enjoyment and sometimes also for kids. Like Julia Donaldson he was a singer and songwriter, though he did not challenge himself with rhyme in this particular story. (There’s often no need.)

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