I love picture books in so many different ways: as stories, as works of art, as frolics, as meditations, and of course for the joy and fascination that they spark in my own kids. But sometimes I encounter a book that especially inspires me as a practitioner.
These are picture books that perform their dances with such mastery that I want to stand up and applaud – and then sit down again to study and learn from their moves.
Here (in no particular order) are six of the best: my current favourite master class picture books.
by Arnold Lobel
A master class in simplicity
Frog and Toad are all about understatement: deadpan dialogue, sober brown-toned pictures and quietly delivered punch-lines, with Frog playing the gracious straight man to his shambolic friend Toad.
The stories’ wit, poignancy and wonderful dialogue are especially impressive because the books are written as “easy readers” for children just beginning to read by themselves.
Most “readers” make you want to tear your own head off. But these are a master class in the weight and subtlety that simple language can carry off.
by Ursula Dubosarsky and Andrew Joyner
A master class in visual and verbal balance
Every line in this book – whether of the written or the drawn variety – is perfectly formed and performed. And better still, text and image “pass” the storytelling back and forth seamlessly. Eric and his Too Many Elephants rampage through the book, but their moves are always wonderfully choreographed in daring, assured compositions. Fabulous.
by William Steig
A master class in humanity
Doctor De Soto is a mouse and a dentist who generally refuses to treat animals dangerous to mice. But one day he and his wife make an exception for a very sore fox. The humanity of these characters – ordinary (animal) people who have great ideas, make mistakes, work together, are brave in everyday ways, and sometimes take a day off – is beautiful. Steig’s lovely drawing style embodies this humanity: a master class in the strength and character of a wobbly line.
by Oliver Jeffers
A master class in design
My favourite piece of picture book design: gorgeous page layouts combining quirky creatures, rich application of paint, landscapes of vibrating colour, clever collage and lots of visual humour and physical comedy.
I want these pictures blown up floor-to-ceiling size so I can live inside them.
by Shaun Tan
A master class in world creation
Shaun Tan is kind of superhuman. In The Arrival he creates not only a linked collection of fantastical and meaningful outer worlds, but also invites us into the fully realised inner worlds of their characters – all without a word. It’s emotionally powerful, paced like a great piece of music and spectacularly beautiful. How does he do it?
by Ludwig Bemelmans
A master class in freedom
In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines / Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… And those might be the only straight lines in the book! I love Madeline for the irrepressible spontaneity of Bemelmans’ writing and drawing style and of Madeline herself – a perfect conflating of form and content. This book reminds me of the importance of the happy accident: the magic that can happen when you let yourself doodle, daydream, riff on a catchy line, loosen up. A master class in letting go and letting rip.
A gorgeous, funny Christmas picture book from an acclaimed CBCA award-winning creator.
Rudolf the reindeer was lying in bed with a runny red nose and an ache in his head. ‘I’m sorry,’ he groaned. ‘I just can’t pull a sled. You’ll have to ask my sister Ruby instead.’
It’s the night before Christmas and Rudolf is sneezing his little red nose off. So Santa needs another reindeer to help pull the sleigh. Rudolf’s sister Ruby is a little reindeer who always finds herself in BIG trouble. Will she find a way to bring her best behaviour? Or will she bring chaos to Christmas Day?
A cheeky and charming celebration of the Christmas spirit.