The Best Picture Books of All Time
What makes a picture book good, let alone the best of all time? Like other forms of art, picture books are created to serve a wide variety of purposes. Maybe they're meant to make you laugh, or maybe they're supposed to scare you. Sometimes a story is meant to make you think, or perhaps it wants to teach you a moral.
Picture books can also stand out among the crowd and become a favorite for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe it's the beautiful illustrations, or an exciting plot, or maybe it's simply nostalgia. But, more than anything, what makes all art truly special for us is when the entire package comes together and really makes you powerfully feel something.
My favorite picture books of all time definitely fit this description. They provide me with feelings like hope, feelings like love, and feelings like terror. Sometimes they're just so imaginative they simply make us all happy. It is a parent's noble honor to help a child experience magic like this during their childhood. It is our sacred duty to help stoke the fires of their imagination. It is our privilege to introduce them to thoughts and feelings and experiences that they wouldn't typically have on a normal day.
There are many very famous books that have won many awards that don't make me feel a thing. There are also many silly best-sellers that are very good at rhyming and making babies laugh. They have their time and place and you'll still find them on our shelves at home, but you won't find them on our best-of-all-time list. The books on this list not only entertain us, but they've inspired us enough to leave a deep impression. They transport us to a world of childhood innocence and magic and give us the opportunity to provide the same gift to our children. Dad Suggests' best picture books of all time are:
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. The links of book titles and images will lead you to view the books' listings on Amazon.com.
Written and Illustrated by David Wiesner
Imagination is a very special and important part of childhood, and we should do our best to keep our own imagination alive and kicking for as long as possible. David Wiesner is often asked where he came up with the idea for frogs who can fly on Tuesday. During his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, he had this to say:
"The truth is that the imagination needs no outside stimulus. To watch children at play is to see the mind in all its uninhibited glory."
Sometimes there is no moral to the story - no rhyme or reason. Tuesday is simply a celebration of the imagination. Sometimes wordless picture books like this can actually be the very best way to inspire kids to put their imagination into top gear. It's a special thing when they realize the answers to the questions they're asking aren't on the page but in their minds. And there is no wrong answer.
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Speaking of childlike imagination - The Polar Express is our #9 best picture book. For many children, the entire Christmas mythos is one of the most exciting and magical things about childhood. Unfortunately, on the flip side, losing that belief in Santa is one of the most poignant reminders that the childhood magic is fading.
The Polar Express wraps all of those feelings into one neat little package. It certainly contains all of the exciting, mysterious elements and the beautiful illustrations that we've come to expect out of Chris Van Allsburg. And the most wonderful thing about this book is the reindeer sleigh bell that Santa gives the boy. He and his sister hear the most beautiful sound, but his parents think it's broken.
"At one time most of my friends could hear the bell. But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe."
Written and Illustrated by Jon Klassen
I Want My Hat Back came out just before my son was born, and it's a book that simply makes us happy. I'll probably always remember it as a first book for him, and it will always have that layer of nostalgia to it. Jon Klassen is certainly one of our favorite illustrators - his work is enough to elevate any collaboration to must-buy status.
The reason this book makes us so happy is because of the terrific combination of Klassen's art and some of the best deadpan humor for kids you'll ever read. Klassen's woodland creatures, with their typical blank stares, are perfect for delivering some seriously dry dialogue - and it all serves as a wonderful lesson on comedy and timing for the kids.
7. The Lorax
Written and Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
If you're a fan of a nice moral at the end of your picture books, The Lorax is the undisputed king. Books have the incredible power to communicate to children complex ideas in very digestible packages. Kids can then grapple with these ideas at their own pace and at their own level.
The Lorax does wonders for building empathy for all of the animals in the story, and, for the fans of our planet out there, The Lorax also does a heartbreakingly good job at explaining the dangers of what we're doing to Earth. And, of course, The Lorax has one of my very favorite quotes in all of literature:
"UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
It's an incredibly empowering message to share with children, and enough to bring me to tears if I think about it too much.
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Jumanji is one of those stories where I just have to sit back and marvel at the mind of the artist. Children find a jungle-themed board game with traps and pitfalls that actually come to life while you play. Nothing disappears until someone finally wins the game. How do you come up with this stuff? If anyone was somehow going to get two of their picture books into a top 10 picture books list, it had to be Chris Van Allsburg. His illustrations are always stunning and simply nobody comes up with more creative and original plots.
He is certainly the master of the mysterious - almost ominous - in children's literature. It's certainly why I get so much enjoyment out of his books. This is exactly the kind of pure imagination that is an absolute pleasure to share with children.
Written and Illustrated by Shel Silverstein
I guarantee you, I will 100% cry every time I try to read The Giving Tree out loud. I guess that means it's pretty good. This is the definitive book on true love. But it's also the heart-wrenching story of growing up - losing your childhood innocence and wonder - and losing sight of the things that make you happy and have meaning. Deep concepts for children to be sure, but they can grapple with this one at their own pace.
I honestly can't think of a better way to describe love than this tree stump that's genuinely happy to still be able to give her boy something after she’s given all she has.
Written by Philip C. Stead and Illustrated by Erin E. Stead
This one is an instant classic. Philip and Erin Stead always create such beautiful books. The illustrations alone can leave a lasting impression on you. A Sick Day for Amos McGee is a feel-good story about friendship, love, and dedication. Amos McGee gives off an aura of kindness and a simple life. You get the impression he follows the exact same routine every day - with a smile on his face. Without it ever being explicitly said, you also get the impression that the animals in the zoo are not only his best friends, but perhaps his only friends.
I think much of the charm comes from this fact, because, in essence, he could be a very lonely, old man living by himself - but his friendship with the animals at the zoo is so powerful. This makes it so incredibly touching and heartwarming when they come to his house to visit him when he is sick. The very personal relationships that he has with each and every one of his friends is very endearing (I particularly like his chess games with the elephant). Amos McGee is that role model you need for teaching the meaning of life.
Written by Russell Hoban and Illustrated by Garth Williams
Bedtime for Frances came in at #3 on our Top 13 Scary Picture Books list as well. Bread and Jam for Frances may typically get more love on lists like these, but it's Bedtime for Frances that will always have a special place in my heart. Frances has an active imagination and finds many things to be scared of at bedtime. She's in and out of her bedroom all evening telling her parents the next thing she imagines is out to get her.
"There is a giant in my room. May I watch television?"
Because of the wonderful pictures, I vividly remember feeling the same sense of dread that Frances was feeling as a child. What elevates this book to one of the best ever, is that it's also genuinely touching and seriously, legitimately funny. Even as a kid I could tell that the dialogue between Frances and her parents was hilarious. The ability to teach children clever, dry humor like this should not be undervalued. As far as I'm concerned, this is THE bedtime book.
For a closer look at our love for this book, make sure to read our full article.
Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Where the Wild Things Are is the most extraordinary adventure ever packed into the length of a classic picture book. Found inside are some of the most memorable lines in children's literature - "Let the wild rumpus start!" and "I'll eat you up I love you so". The magic that can be found in this book by children (and former children) should never be taken for granted. Children will, and should, put themselves into Max's shoes as they sit and wonder - "what if?"
Your bedroom turns into a jungle. You go off to who-knows-where on a boat ride, in your pajamas, without your parents. You discover a magical land full of scary monsters. That's quite intimidating, and it's no surprise this book also made our list of the top 13 scary picture books of all time too. But Where the Wild Things Are is far more than a scary book. It's a book about imagination, and love, and human nature. Sendak once said that childhood is a tricky business. If parents pay close enough attention to Max's story, they might even remember what it feels like to be a child themselves.
1. Extra yarn
Written by Mac Barnett and Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Extra Yarn is perfect. It's pure magic and happiness. It truly feels like it's a famous fairy tale of good vs. evil that's been around for hundreds of years, but it was born in 2012 from the imagination of Mac Barnett. Barnett was inspired by a picture drawn years before by Jon Klassen of a girl and her dog in matching sweaters. Extra Yarn has a perfect, innocent, child protagonist - Annabelle. She is politely rebellious to norms and expectations. She responds to darkness and negativity with generosity and kindness. She is a wonderful role model for following your dreams and living a happy life full of magic.
And there is a perfectly evil antagonist as well - the archduke - who wants to buy her magic box of never-ending yarn and will stop at nothing to get it. The illustrations and the playful writing will make you smile, and the story will warm your heart. Somehow this wonderful book manages to explore some of deepest truths about what's truly important in life, and the beauty of childhood magic - and it's perfect.
For a closer look at Extra Yarn, make sure to read our full article.
Those are the picture books nearest and dearest to our hearts. What do you think? Those are our top 10, but what are yours? Please let us know if we missed any of your family's favorite picture books in the comments!