Finding a memorable picture book, especially those great bedtime picture books with amazing art...you know those beautiful books that tell stories just as great as, or sometimes even better than, the words in the story, can be challenging. There are thousands of books out there, but many are not jewels or even diamonds in the rough. I did, however, find some memorable surprises this year in new and old picture books with amazingly beautiful illustrations and wanted to share my discoveries, as well as explain why the art can be just as important as the story.
So get ready for some of the best bedtime picture books for imagination that have been kid-tested and mother-approved. But first…picture book illustrations.
Why the Illustration Artwork is so Important
Illustration art in a picture book can make the difference between a memorable book and one that fades quickly away. My first favorite picture book was all about the art. In fact, I don’t remember the story, but I know the story based on the artwork. To this day, I can see those beautiful charcoal drawings in my head anytime I want. It left that much of an impression on me.
This first school-age memory of a picture book was first grade, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the reading rug, staring up at my teacher, Ms. Ansley, with my pig tails, most likely tied in ribbons, tilted back as I stared up at the book she read and held out for us see: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.
This 1942 Caldecott winning book, both written and illustrated by McCloskey, was published in 1941, but more than three decades later, it was still considered a ‘must read’ in our primary school.
But it was the art that I found a must. I was fascinated with this world beyond mine created in the charcoal drawings of this book: This sweet duck family in this place called Boston.
Until then, I’d never imagined anyplace outside my little town. I daydreamed about that book for days and imagined myself in Boston, and wondered what city life must be like for ducks, and for people! I checked that book out of the library as fast as I could and remember just sitting and flipping through those beautiful drawings over and over.
Though beautifully illustrated in its own right, it no longer makes its way onto the ‘must read’ list as other up and coming picture books have taken its place. So it goes, as each decade or two a few new winners push aside a few of the old timers. But all these decades later, I still look for that ‘wow’ feeling when looking through new picture books...and they have some big shoes to fill!
Though Make Way for Ducklings will forever hold a special place in my heart, there really are so many great picture books out there that even I admit, deserve to push aside this classic...although please be gentle as you do. And maybe don’t push...just casually slide or lovingly stack it near the back for now. But remember to get it out every now and then and dreamily reminisce.
So where to begin? That’s an impossible task. There are too many amazing picture books. Instead of beginning, let’s just jump in and find some good artwork in a few books I had the pleasure of reading with the little ones in my life in 2020. And speaking of 2020, let’s just be thankful our children could escape into these lovely stories as they probably needed that as much as we grownups did.
The Best Bedtime Picture Books for the Imagination
I’ve never been big on graphic novels. It just wasn’t something my children were into growing up, nor I as a teacher. But being a science educator, I wasn’t super concerned about them. If it helped kids read and their parents and Language Arts teacher all approved, who was I to argue them down. Little did I know, I was sooo missing out on some really great illustrations (and stories too).
Originally written for older children, this style worked it’s way down to younger children’s books. And science teacher or not, I now had to face this style with grace as a certain four year old in our family insisted this graphic novel style picture book was our next great bedtime book: Lift by author Minh Le and illustrator Dan Santat.
Combining the traditional picture book format with the graphic novel style, Dan Santat’s illustrations with Mihn Le’s story were not what I expected. The illustrations by Santat captured the emotions of the main character, Iris, and her family in a way that words could not. I found myself stifling funny laughs as I could completely relate with the illustrated expressions of Iris’ parents throughout the book, especially after she pushed ALL the elevator buttons.
But this isn’t a wordless picture book. Le seems to have a knack for telling a great story using an economy of words. Combined with Santat’s illustrations, it’s the perfect formula for imagination.
So, we read this story, Lift, about a girl who becomes jealous of her baby brother when he usurps her at the elevator button pushing. She then finds a broken button from 'their' elevator and tapes it onto her bedroom wall near her closet only to find out pushing it will take her on amazing journeys. She later discovers that sharing her magical journey with someone she loves, like her little brother, was more fun than going on the journey alone. Once we finished reading, I watched as that certain four year old slowly flipped back through, studying each page’s illustrations as if it were a master painting on display in a museum.
She was enamored with the story but even more with the pictures, and the lesser words allowed her to develop her own version of what it was like to travel through space as an astronaut or as an explorer in a jungle or as a traveler through a snowy mountain pass.
Out of all the books this year, I have to say Lift was our favorite and most requested at bedtime. And afterwards, there always had to be another flip thru, only this time without the story aloud. I loved seeing her little imagination work and hear the questions and comments she made, and I highly recommend this book!
Here are a few more of our favorite picture books, most new but some not, that we discovered this year for bedtime, including one for older children!
More Best Bedtime Picture Books
A Wave of Stars by Dolores Brown (Author) and Sonja Wimmer (Illustrator) is a dreamy story about what happens when sea animals look at a moon bow. I found this book engaging and so pretty, but better for older children (who don’t need the story to end each night and enjoy a little suspense).
If I Couldn’t Be Anne by Kallie George (Author) and Geneviève Godbout (Illustrator), is a great choice for your littlest ones ready for picture book bedtime stories. A fun book too as your observant little ones will start to notice something different that shouldn't be with the turn of the pages!
A Story About Afiyah by James Berry (Author) and Anna Cunha (Illustrator), the second most requested book in our house at bedtime this year: a beautiful story in words and pictures, but another book where the art was appreciated by dozens and dozens of flip-throughs.
Granny’s Clan: A Tale of Wild Orcas by Dr. Sally Hodson (Author) and Ann Jones (Illustrator) is a few years old, but has such dreamy, beautiful ocean illustrations about the real members of the Pacific Northwest’s Clan of Orca Pods and their dear matriarch, Granny, that it became a repeat reader too. This book will be especially endearing to your budding Marine Biologists.
Goodnight Anne by Kallie George (Author) and Geneviève Godbout (Illustrator), an award winning bedtime story with dreamy artwork as Anne dreams her garden and its inhabitants a wish of a good night's sleep.
Time Flies by Eric Rohmann, an oldie, but wow, what a beautiful goodie! This one has stood the test of time in my household from my daughters to now their children. This wordless picture book is breathtaking and kids, especially your dinosaur lovers, will love the story they can tell on their own from the art.
Just Because by Mac Barnett (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (Illustrator), a winner of the Best Illustrated Children's Book Awards and a nice book to cuddle with and have little 'but why' answers to some great questions for good dreams.
Stories of the Night by Kitty Crowther, a book with three bedtime stories and beautiful, dreamy illustrations that look even dreamier under a low light for bedtime.
Pick a few out and try them. Both you and your little ones will have great memories of beautiful books at bedtime. Sweet Dreams!
Written by Laura Lowe
Laura is a professional educator with degrees in Environmental Science, as well as Education, with decades of experience working with children and the environment. She’s also an avid crafter, lover of storytelling and books, novice hobby farmer, mom to three daughters and six grandchildren under the age of seven. She enjoys every second she can spending time with her husband, children and grandchildren.
More about Laura and Alder and Alouette, here.