My top seven illustrated children’s books

As a sometime illustrator myself, I am always on the hunt for children’s storybooks that have really exceptional illustrations. Good illustrations need to capture the tone and energy of the story, but in many cases they are also there to provide much of the narrative detail. The child will be immersed within the story visually as well as aurally, meaning that even very young children can pick up the book at any time and ‘read’ through the story themselves (phew, a moment of peace).

A Winged Trip by Frances Watts
A Winged Trip by Frances Watts

I have put together a list of the books that my son, Big W (rising 3) and I both love, for their artistic merit, as well as for their thrilling plotlines! Aside from a tiresome love of the absolute snooze-fest that is Thomas the Tank Engine, and a surprise passion for Angelina Ballerina – my boy has fairly discerning taste in picture books. My daughter, Baby M, is still a literary barbarian at 15 months and thinks that books are for sitting on, eating and throwing so I am not considering her tastes to be particularly valid yet.

The Snail and the Whale – Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

It is impossible when writing about children’s books to ignore the professional The snail and the whalemarriage that is Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. I could have chosen any of their collaborative works, but The Snail and the Whale has the edge I think, illustration-wise. Not only is it a well-crafted story about an unlikely friendship, but each image is full of details that you can talk about with your child, often a key element of illustrating for children.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

I am always struck by how much of the narrative is told by Helen Oxenbury’s We're going on a bear huntbeautiful watercolour illustrations. The words alone tell us very little, yet Oxenbury has developed this story’s simple sing-song framework of repetition and sounds into an epic family adventure. Joy, fear, solidarity and love are all brought to life by her imaginative interpretation of the story behind the words – and, ingeniously, she leaves the final image of the bear entirely open to the reader’s interpretation…

The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business – Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch

This is one of my personal favourites because it is funny and simple and the The Story of the Mole who new it was none of his businessillustrations are very clever – and Big W loves it because it is about poo. Wolf Erlbruch has managed to express the outrage of the little Mole differently on every page – that is really tough to do as an illustrator! The text is handwritten in this one, a seemingly minor detail that always gets the thumbs up from me; it just looks better and is less formal.

A Bit Lost – Chris Haughton

This is a long-standing favourite amongst the Watts household, to the extent BitLostthat all of the characters have developed very silly accents that are now a firmly established part of the story. Using easy to annunciate sounds (such as uh-oh), repetition and block shapes and colours Chris Haughton has developed a very distinctive style of illustration and storytelling that is engaging for both babies and toddlers (Baby M occasionally joins in with this one, instead of trying to destroy it). As a work of illustration, it’s also just really cool.

Cockatoos – Quentin Blake

Quentin Blake’s gift as an illustrator is his agility; he can express so much Cockatoosenergy, humour and detail with a few lines and colours. This story is splendidly daft, about an affected eccentric whose ten cockatoos decide to go AWOL for the day. He can’t see them, but the reader can. This story Includes counting (for the kids) and some fabulous french interiors (for the mums) – what’s not to love?

The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone – Timothy Basil Ering

A little known gem, Frog Belly Rat Bone is very quirky. The illustrations and Frog Belly Rat Bonethe text (handwritten again – yay) are reminiscent of the stories and drawings one might come up with as a child. With his scribbly, exuberant and crazy paintings Timothy Basil Ering is definitely tapping into the imaginative world of the young mind with this one. That’s what makes it so good, and why my husband and I are not bored of it yet.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K.Rowling and Jim Kay

Anyone who knows me well will know that I am deeply uncool about Harry Harry-Potter-in-cupboard-Jim-Kay-RGB-636x800Potter. I love the books and I love the films, all of which I have read/watched repeatedly. Now there is a new illustrated version, with beautiful, beautiful work by Jim Kay. Each paintings is a tightly controlled masterpiece of magic, character, detail and expression. Jim Kay takes a rembrandtian approach to light and dark and he even handmakes models of the buildings and characters to use as references for his drawings. Rest assured, the minute they are old enough I will be initiating my kids into the Harry Potter fan club with one of the new illustrated editions.


Franny Watts is an illustrator, based in Somerset. See her work at or on her Facebook page

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