It should come as no surprise that 100 Great Children’s Picturebooks is filled to the brim with a luscious and dreamy as well as graphic and minimal collection of illustrated works that will whisk you away, whether you’re seven or 70. In his introduction, author (and creator of the UK’s first Masters program in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University) Martin Salisbury notes, “As various forms of screen media proliferate, the picturebook continues to thrive in printed form as an artefact to be shared and loved. More and more adults search second-hand bookshops and websites for first editions of picturebooks that they grew up with but have long since lost, to fulfill a need for the intimacy of physical contact with, and ownership of, something that played a crucial role in the development of a sense of self. Such is the power of the book.”
There’s something rather refreshing about Salisbury’s forthright admission about his selection process—based solely on his wow-factor. There’s no hiding the subjectivity here. Salisbury freely admits that while “there is more to a great picture book than art and design…this list of 100 picture books is based on art and design.” Yes, Curious George and Barbar appear. So do the simple, graphic color planes of I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand. Miroslav Lasek, Bruno Munari, Edward Gorey, Tomi Ungerer, Ezra Jack Keats—the list goes on. But more often than not I was taken in by writers and illustrators whose names I was learning for the first time.
Turn the first page and travel around the world and through time with pictures beginning with a rhomboid of a book published in 1910. The cover and spreads of this first-edition The Slant Book by Peter Newell show its 105 years, so much so that it’s easy to imagine the scent and feel of the aged cover and yellowed pages. “Twenty-first-century picturebooks are often preoccupied with postmodern parody and self-referentiality, as more and more books are created that feature interaction with their own physical format. It’s easy to forget that Peter Newell was doing this sort of thing more than 100 years ago.”
At first glance, I thought 100 Great Children’s Picturebooks was simply a catalog and would be a quick read. But each book’s spread contains a sidebar rich with information about the illustrator, not just the title. Take for instance Czeck illustrator Jiri Trnka’s Rikejte si se mnou [Say with me], with poems by Frantisek Hrubin. While the saturated color and sweet illustrations stopped me, I also learned from the accompanying sidebar that Trnka was an animator and puppeteer, too.
Like the author, I was charmed by Antonio Frasconi’s woodcut illustrations in See and Say: A Picturebook in Four Languages (1955), where the overprinting created subtle hues that reveal the grain of wood. I was most intrigued by the surrealist bent and wordplay in Jan Le Witt’s The Vegetabull [(956), and I marveled at Ben Shahn’s intricate line drawings in Ounce Dice Trice (1958), written by Alastair Reid. While there are picturebooks from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s—with standouts from Jon Klassen and Bernardo Carvalho—the mid-20th century work reigns supreme: a golden age when illustration often reflected the work by major contemporary artists.
Salisbury has put together a treasure trove. And not just in the visuals—the index and its lists of further reading and websites offer more to explore. Publisher Laurence King should include a label warning readers that this title is known to cause book lust.