The 15 Best Picture Book Characters of All Time
There are many famous and beloved picture book characters out there who had a big impact on our lives growing up. They were all a big part of many people’s childhoods - like reliable friends you can visit anytime you want. But how would you go about ranking the very best picture book characters of all?
It’s a very different matter than listing your favorite picture books. We previously wrote about our favorite picture books of all time, and, while there may be some overlap, a great picture book is not guaranteed to have an all-time beloved character in it.
It’s also very important to note that our list of the best picture book characters is not the same thing as a list of the most iconic characters. Just because the Very Hungry Caterpillar is the most famous caterpillar in the universe doesn’t make him a particularly interesting fellow.
The final distinction that needs to be made is that our favorite characters aren’t the same thing as the most famous picture book series. Apologies to Max and Ruby, Curious George, Corduroy, Little Critter, Clifford, The Berenstain Bears, Spot, and several other famous classic characters who didn’t quite make the list. We love them all, but being well-known and in lots of books is not a useful predictor for this list. But, to be fair, that mischievous rabbit Max and that goofy Papa Bear were awfully close to making the cut.
It’s not that we don’t love all of those great books, it’s just that we have a much more personal attachment to the characters on this list. All of our favorite characters stand out to us in a very special way. Some are great role models that embody great wisdom, and others have stand-out personalities that are particularly engaging and endearing. And some characters are simply so original and so creative - they make an impression that’s very hard to forget.
Disclosure: Some of the links to book titles are affiliate links. These links will lead you to view the books’ listings where they are available to purchase.
15. The Dark
Created by Lemony Snicket
Featured in The Dark
Lemony Snicket’s The Dark is definitely one of the scariest picture books of all time. And you can thank the amazing combination of Jon Klassen’s creepy illustrations and Snicket’s ingenious personification of the dark. That’s right, the dark is actually a character in this book, and it’s one of the best of all time.
The dark is one of my favorite characters of all time for many reasons - chief among them how downright terrifying it is. The book tackles an important and popular topic for kids - being afraid of the dark. That’s always a winning theme as far as I’m concerned, but The Dark has the most original approach by far. And I’d be amiss if I didn’t point out that the dark is one of my favorite characters of all time because of the opportunity to do the creepiest voice you can think of when reading aloud.
For a closer look at The Dark, make sure to read our featured article.
Created by Glenn Ringtved
Featured in Cry, Heart, But Never Break
Death has been personified in art many times before, but Death in Cry, Heart But Never Break is the most memorable version for me. It’s certainly one of the best books for helping kids deal with death and grief, and a big part of that is because of how Death is portrayed. And I absolutely adore how the kids in this story try to trick Death and get him to keep drinking coffee downstairs instead of visiting their grandmother.
But Death is not a malicious character. If anything there is a kindness to him as he tries to soothe the pain of the children whose grandmother is dying. Death tells them all a beautiful, philosophical tale about the relationship between happiness and sadness. I always very highly recommend this book - and it’s because Death is so memorable.
13. Father Badger
Created by Russell Hoban
Featured in Bedtime for Frances, Bread and Jam for Frances, etc.
We are very big fans of all of the Frances the Badger books by Russell Hoban. And her father is a very significant reason for that love. These books are just so incredibly funny. And, undeniably, his shining moment is found in Bedtime for Frances. His dry wit is on full display in that book. And it provides some of the very best dialogue in children’s literature as far as I’m concerned.
But, underneath the dry wit that he probably uses to help himself deal with Frances’ energy, you’ll also find a great deal of patience and love in Father Badger. Like a good loving dad, I love the way he acquiesces to some of Frances’ childlike ideas around bedtime - and how he helps soothe her fears too. But the real highlight of the book is the funny speech he gives after Frances wakes him up for the last time. He calmly adds in just enough serious dad-ness for Frances to know she better go to sleep for real.
For more about Bedtime for Frances, make sure to read our article about the best bedtime story ever.
12. The Bear with the Hat
Created by Jon Klassen
Featured in I Want My Hat Back
The bear in I Want My Hat Back will go down in history as one of the best picture book characters ever. This book was a Caldecott winner for a very good reason. The illustrations by Jon Klassen - particularly the use of eyes - are absolutely genius. Honestly the story would almost work just as well without any words at all, and that’s a testament to the hilarious personality infused into the bear through the dry facial expressions alone.
It’s easy to imagine Bear as a simple, gentle, giant. The short, basic sentences make it easy to believe that Bear is a simple creature with modest desires. He just wants his pointy red hat to be happy. I particularly enjoy the existential crisis he seems to have when he lays down and stares at the sky in the middle of the book. And he’s instantly a very endearing character because of it. And who can ever forget the hilarious dark humor he gives us at the end of the story.
11. Ferdinand the Bull
Created by Munro Leaf
Featured in The Story of Ferdinand
Ferdinand is a good role model for all of us. It’s one of the best picture books for celebrating who you are. He simply doesn’t want to fight like the other bulls. He wants to lie in the grass and smell the flowers. This book was published in 1936 and I think it’s more timely today than it ever was. Kids honestly need to be reminded to follow their dreams, be themselves, and do what makes them happy more than ever before.
It’s definitely a tragedy how Ferdinand is taken to the bullfights in spite of his own gentle disposition. But that just goes to show how powerful an impact this character makes on you. And what a spectacular metaphor for life this book is. Ferdinand is without a doubt one of the most memorable and important characters in kids lit.
Created by Maurice Sendak
Featured in Where the Wild Things Are
Max in his wolf suit is one of the most iconic images in the history of children’s literature. As a dad, I truly appreciate this nod to the importance of awesome pajamas for kids. I absolutely love everything about it. I love that it starts with a fight with his mom, and then he puts on his wolf hood and deals with a rampage of emotions. And I love his wild and wonderful imagination.
And then by the end he slides off his wolf hood, finds his warm meal, and turns back into a calm, sleepy boy. As a character Max really embodies a lot of beautiful childhood emotions and memories during his adventure with the Wild Things, and he’s an icon for a very good reason.
Created by Matt de la Peña
Featured in Last Stop on Market Street
Last Stop on Market Street is definitely one of the very best books for teaching life lessons to kids. And Nana has the honor of delivering perhaps the best one-liner in the history of children’s literature. When her grandson asks her about a blind man on the bus - “How come that man can’t see?” - she responds with the best answer anyone has ever answered a question with:
“Boy, what do you know about seeing?”
Nana drops an awful lot of nuggets of wisdom in Last Stop on Market Street. She’s incredibly wise and kind - and she always knows just what to say as she tries to teach her grandson about being grateful for what you have in life. Nana is absolutely brought to life in these pages. I feel like I know her personally - and I’m lucky to know her.
8. Amos McGee
Created by Philip Stead
Featured in A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Amos McGee knows what friendship is all about. He’s an incredible role model when it comes to teaching selflessness, and we should all be so lucky to make friends as loyal and true as he has. He visits his animal friends in the zoo every single day, and has a special routine with each and every one of them. And when he’s too sick to come in, the animals love him so much they come to visit him at his home.
Interestingly enough, part of what endears Amos McGee to me so much doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that he has these cute animal friends. I’m very interested in the subtle details that fill out his character. I personally interpret his character as a kind, lonely, old bachelor or widower who completely lives for his job - and his animal friends at the zoo are in fact his only friends. It really brings to life how noticeably touched he is when his friends actually visit him at home. It’s very hard not to love this man.
For more about A Sick Day for Amos McGee, make sure to read our featured article.
Created by Sara O’Leary
Featured in This is Sadie
This is Sadie is a book full to the brim with childhood magic. And Sadie is just about the very best role model I could ever imagine for my kids. She is the embodiment of childlike wonder. Her imagination is rich and incredibly active. She turns cardboard boxes into giant ships for sailing, and she makes friends with the characters in her books.
Sadie talks to her dresses and she climbs trees - and she even does her best to stay quiet in the morning because grown-ups need their sleep. There is literally nothing not to like about this amazing girl.
And I love sharing her with our kids, because there are a lot of secrets to the meaning of life in this book. Sadie doesn’t think days are long enough, because there are “so many things to make and do and be.” And we should all be so lucky to hold onto that kind of excitement about life.
Created by Mac Barnett
Featured in Extra Yarn
Extra Yarn is my personal favorite picture book of all time. I think this collaboration between Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen has reached perfection. And Annabelle is the primary reason that this entire story is so endearing. Her relentless pursuit of what she loves is admirable. Even when the evil Archduke offers her millions of dollars for her magic box of yarn, she doesn’t budge.
Annabelle also displays a great deal of generosity, self-confidence, and spunk. I love how she knits sweaters for everyone in town - including those who are mean to her. She even makes sweaters for the animals. (And I love the cameo appearance of the bear from I Want My Hat Back.) But most of all I love how self-assured Annabelle is in her pursuit of happiness. She has a lot to teach us all.
Created by Jon J. Muth
Featured in Zen Shorts, Zen Ghosts, etc.
Stillwater the giant panda always knows just what to say. Other than Nana from Last Stop on Market Street, I can’t think of anyone else I’d ever turn to for a good dose of wisdom. He always frames his nuggets of wisdom inside stories. And he always seems to have the perfect story for every situation. He also gives off an aura of peace, leading to a very soothing feeling during each reading.
My two favorite stories from Stillwater are the story of the monk who carries the burden of a weight from something already long past in Zen Shorts, and the spine-tingling story of the lovers in Zen Ghosts. What’s great about Stillwater is that his wisdom is so practical, you can actually remember his stories and use his Zen wisdom in your own life. All courtesy of your good buddy Stillwater.
Created by Russell Hoban
Featured in Bedtime for Frances, Bread and Jam for Frances, etc.
Imagine a child who has an exhausting amount of energy. Perhaps they’re full of emotion, and imagination, and they’re quite needy for attention - but they’re still extraordinarily sweet and entirely and completely lovable. Frances the badger is the most perfect example of that child ever created. And her banter with her parents is undoubtedly the funniest dialogue you can find in picture books.
I love everything about Frances. I love her active imagination and the songs that she sings. In fact, her songs are some of my clearest memories I have from reading books as a child.
And I love the way she overreacts about everything - with some of the driest humor around. In A Baby Sister for Frances, after her mother gives her the bad news that Frances’ favorite dress hasn’t been cleaned and they don’t have raisins for her oatmeal, Frances delivers one of our favorite lines of all time:
“Well,” said Frances, “things are not very good around here anymore.”
3. The Giving Tree
Created by Shel Silverstein
Featured in The Giving Tree
No list would be complete without a picture book that makes me weep every time I try to read it. The Giving Tree itself is one of the best characters ever created because of how incredibly selfless it is as it gives itself piece by piece to the boy it loves. Its perfect example of true love is a real inspiration for everybody. And it’s a real tearjerker too, particular for parents.
If you view The Giving Tree as a loving parent that would do anything for their child, it’s easy to get choked up about the tragic inevitability of growing up and leaving behind the simplicity of childhood. This tree is one of the most tragic characters ever made. And the fact that it’s so easy to share these painful emotions with this tree makes it clear to see that you won’t soon forget this amazing character.
2. The Lorax
Created by Dr. Seuss
Featured in The Lorax
Perhaps the most important picture book role model of our times - the Lorax first appeared in 1971. But could his fight for the trees possibly be any more current or timely? It’s easy to relate to the Lorax and his depression about the destruction of the environment, and it’s hard to deny how endearing his passion makes him.
At the end of the day, the Lorax is an incredibly original character that also embodies a very important message. While speaking for the trees, he transcends “great picture book characters” and enters into another realm altogether - where I would even get a tattoo of his image because of what he stands for. And right under that I would put the important line from the Once-ler:
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
1. The Grinch
Created by Dr. Seuss
Featured in How the Grinch Stole Christmas
And that brings us to the best picture book character of all time. Seriously, who else could it possibly be but the Grinch? This original Dr. Seuss creation has transcended the wonderful picture book where he got his start - and he’s turned into a very important and magnificent staple of the Christmas season. It’s easily one of the very best Christmas books ever made. And this lovable lug is simply one of the best anti-heroes ever.
The entire mythos of The Grinch is so much larger than life it’s hard to believe it all fits into a single perfect picture book. Of course, what makes him so lovable is that his hate and his bad spirit is so over-the-top it’s hilarious. Constantly you ask yourself how anyone could be this bad, and that’s what makes him so great.
Dr. Seuss really was quite brilliant in the way he used the Grinch to deliver his message about the true meaning of Christmas, and his redemption is one of the most heartwarming endings in history. But the best part of the Grinch’s character development will always be how truly awful he must be to lie straight to little Cindy Lou Who’s face about taking her Christmas tree.
Did your favorite picture book characters make our list? Who else would you add? Let us know in the comments!