Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015

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Last Stop on Market Street

Last Stop on Market Street - picture book cover
Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson - Best Illustrated Children's Book sof 2015. G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin


My Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015 list is my eighth annual list of personal favorites. Unlike other awards programs with set rules, I just read as many children's books as possible and select the ones I consider the best. 

Last Stop on Market Street - Summary

In words and pictures, Last Stop on Market Street celebrates the beauty and diversity of life in the city, emphasizing the importance of really looking for the positive in this story of C.J. and his grandmother's bus ride to the soup kitchen at the last stop on Market Street. Young C.J is not happy as he and his grandmother leave church on Sunday morning and discover it's raining. He's unhappy they have to wait for the bus in the rain while his friend Colby gets to ride home in a car.  C.J. is also not happy about the bus trip itself.

For every complaint, his grandmother points out something positive he needs to look at and enjoy. When a blind man gets on the bus, C.J. wants to know why he can't see, but his grandmother tells him, "Some people watch the world with their ears" and the blind man says, "Their noses, too," mentioning Nana's perfume. When big boys get on the bus with iPods and C.J. says he wishes he had one, Nana points out that the man sitting across from them has a guitar, which he begins to play. Then, "the rhythm lifted C.J. out of the bus, out of the busy city...and the sound gave him the feeling of magic."

When they get off the bus and C.J complains about the dirt and grafitti-covered buildings, his grandmother points out the rainbow in the sky. By the time they arrive at the soup kitchen, C.J.'s attitude has changed, and he's is happy to be there. Both the vibrancy and the grittiness of the city are portrayed in the words by Matt de la Peña and the illustrations by Christian Robinson. 

The illustrations, created with acrylic paint and collage, along with a little digital manipulation, are brimming with lots of bright colors, texture and action.  The point that if you really look you can find beauty everywhere is quietly made. It's also nice to see a book about city life for a diverse group of people of limited means that is not depressing but celebratory. I recommend Last Stop on Market Street for ages 4 to 8. 

(G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin, 2015. ISBN: 9780399257742)

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The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Photo of the cover of the book The Marvels by Brian Selznick
The Marvels, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. Scholastic

The Marvels - Summary

Unlike the other books on this list, The Marvels, by author and illustrator Brian Selznick, is a middle grade picture book / novel. Selznick first utilized his picture book / novel format for The Invention of Hugo Cabret for which he won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration and greatly expanded peoples' perceptions of what a picture book is.

The Marvels begins in 1766 and ends in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Starting in 1766 with the story of The Marvels theatrical family through the generations told through hundreds of pages of Selznick's dense pencil illustrations alone, a second story that of a runaway boy, begins in 1990 in words alone until the two stories come together in a surprising ending. To learn more about this story of drama, adventure, family and the power of stories, .

(Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2015. ISBN: 9780545448680)

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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The Grasshopper & the Ants

The Grasshopper & the Ants by Jerry Pinkney - Picture Book Cover
The Grasshopper & the Ants by Jerry Pinkney - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Little, Brown and Company

The Grasshopper & the Ants - Summary

The Grasshopper & the Ants is the third retelling of one of Aesop's Fables by author and Illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for his picture book The Lion and the Mouse and whose The Tortoise & the Hare is on my Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2013 list. Not only has Pinkney enhanced the story of the grasshopper and the ants by making the grasshopper a one-man band and the ants generous enough to invite the grasshopper in out of the cold, he still gets the moral of the story across, "Don't put off for tomorrow what you can do today."

What makes the book so special are Jerry Pinkney's lush watercolor and pencil illustrations. From the endpapers bursting with foliage and ants at work to the grasshopper performing, the illustrations are alive with color, humor and detail.  Even better, the story and illustrations cover all of the seasons of the year. While I think 4 to 8 year olds will enjoy the book, I also think older children and adults will also enjoy The Grasshopper & the Ants.

(Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2015. ISBN: 9780316400817)

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Lenny & Lucy

Lenny & Lucy - picture book cover
Lenny & Lucy - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Roaring Brook Press/ A Neal Porter Book, cover art by by Erin E. Stead

Lenny & Lucy - Summary

In their third collaboration, Philip C. Stead and illustrator Erin E. Stead have once again created an exceptional book. Their first, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration and their second, , is on my Best Illustrated Books of 2012 list, along with Phillip C. Stead's .

In words and illustrations that seamlessly flow together, Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead have created a book that deals with some pretty heavy issues - transition, dealing with fear, making friends - in a way that will make perfect sense to children ages 3 to 7. Peter and his father and their dog Harold are moving to a house right next to a wooden bridge that leads to the dark frightening woods.

With colors for the characters and gray tones for the setting against a white background, Erin Stead effectively underscores Peter's feelings about the move - "I think this is a terrible idea." - his fears about the woods and his bravery in facing his fears, using his imagination to come up with a solution and making a new friend. To see more of the artwork for the book, go to Lenny & Lucy illustrations.

(A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press, 2015. ISBN: 978596439320)

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Wait by Antoinette Portis - picture book cover
Wait - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Roaring Brook Press/ A Neal Porter Book, cover art by Antoinette Portis

Wait - Summary

In the picture book Wait by Antoinette Portis, a little boy and his mother hurry through the city streets on their way to the train station. While his mother keeps telling him, “Hurry!” the little boy keeps telling her to “wait" as he discovers a dog, a construction site, a man feeding the ducks, a butterfly and more things he’d like to stop and look at. In the end, there is something so spectacular that both agree they need to wait and enjoy it.

Author and illustrator Antoinette Portis used pencil, charcoal and ink to create the illustrations and then added color digitally.  Her artwork continually illustrates the push-pull action of mother and son as one wants to hurry and the other wants to wait. I recommend the book for ages 3-7. Go to Wait Slides and Book Trailer for a closer look at the illustrations.

(A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press, 2015. ISBN: 9781596439214)

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The Whisper

The Whisper - picture book cover
The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Whisper - Summary

While Pamela Zagarenski is an award-winning illustrator, The Whisper is the first book she has also written. Through her words and her wildly imaginative mixed media paintings, Zagarensk celebrates the power of reading. A little girl, a special book, and an imagination let loose add up to a story children will want to hear again and again.

The illustrations in The Whisper are so full of interest and provide so much to talk about that I recommend spending time on every page with your child discussing what you both see and what it means. The clever use of the fox in the book adds to the fun.

When a little girl who loves to read is loaned a magical book of stories by her teacher, she is delighted. However, on the way home, all of the words fall out of the book and, unbeknownst to the girl, are caught in a net by a clever fox. When she opens the book at home and discovers there are no words, just "beautiful and curious" pictures, the little girl is very disappointed. However, a whisper (the fox?) tells her to imagine her own stories and to "Remember: beginnings, middles, and ends of stories can always be changed and imagined differently." The girl has a wonderful time creating her own stories.

The next day, on her way to school, the clever fox returns the book's words to the girl and asks her to do her a favor, which the  little girl gladly does. Be sure and read the revised account of The Fox and the Grapes on the final endpaper, a most entertaining ending.

While The Whisper is a book children ages 4 to 8 will enjoy, it also provides a wonderful introduction to "reading" wordless picture books and can be used in classrooms and at home for that purpose with kids 8 to 12. Once your older children have read The Whisper, give them a wordless picture book, such as Sidewalk Flowers below, and invite them to write, or tell, the story.

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. ISBN: 9780544416864)

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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This Bridge Will Not Be Gray

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray
This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, illustrated by Tucker Nichols. McSweeney’s

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray - Summary

Unlike the other picture books on my list, This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, is just over 100 pages long and is a nonfiction book that kids 8 and older will enjoy. The story by Dave Eggers details the history of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay and why it is bright orange rather than gray. Told in an entertaining, informal manner, using only a few sentences or a paragraph or two embedded in each double-page spread, Eggers' words and the illustrations by Tucker Nichols are work together to create a story that will capture and keep readers' attention.

Except for a few simple sketches, the illustrations consist of paper cut-outs against pages of varying colors. Nichols uses paper cut-outs to create simple settings showing the location of the bridge and the stages of its construction. All of the people portrayed in the book consist of simple cut-outs of a face in profile with another color used for hair, a slit for a mouth and a round hole for an eye. Nichols has fun with color, making his people light green, bright red, gray and more. The illustrations have the texture of construction paper, which adds to their appeal. While at first glance the illustrations seem very simple, they are actually complex in color, design and placement.

Both Dave Eggers and Tucker Nichols live near the Golden Gate Bridge and their affection for the bridge is reflected in This Bridge Will Not Be Gray. The story begins with the hiring of Joseph Strauss in 1928 to build the bridge and explains why it ended up being designed with the assistance of several others. Eggers goes on to describe the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. When it came to the color of the bridge, most people thought in terms of black, white or gray.

However, a man named Irving Morrow, an architect, loved the reddish orange paint the steelworkers had used to coat the bridge as it was being built, even though it was only used to prevent the steel from rusting. Other people began to notice how nice the reddish orange bridge that was being built looked, and more and more people began talking about it. However, there had never been an orange bridge. Gray was serious; orange was frivolous.

Although he was quiet and shy, Irving Morrow felt too strongly about the color of the bridge to be quiet. He wrote letters and collected letters from others supporting an orange bridge. His persistence and the persistence of those he convinced resulted in the Golden Gate Bridge everyone knows and loves today. An entertaining story, well-told, This Bridge Will Not Be Gray is also a testament to the impact one person of conviction and persistence can have.

(McSweeney’s, 2015. 9781940450476)

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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Waiting by Kevin Henkes - picture book cover
Waiting by Kevin Henkes - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

The book jacket of Waiting introduces the story's main characters, five children's toys: a stuffed pig carrying an umbrella, a bear with a kite, a puppy sitting on a sled, a rabbit and an owl. With lots of white space, simply done artwork rendered in brown ink, watercolor and colored pencils, and straightforward text, author and illustrator Kevin Henkes lets us know that the toys are waiting.

The toys are perched on the windowsill inside looking outside. Each is waiting for something different. Four are waiting for something in particular: the moon, the rain, the wind and the snow. Each is happy when the wait is over. The rabbit just likes to look and wait. Life goes on and things may change but the waiting continues. When the five are joined by a cat toy, what she is waiting for surprises them all.

Waiting is a book I recommend as a bedtime book for ages 2 to 5. It's a quiet book, a calm book and it addresses two things kids know about - waiting and toys that come to life when they are alone. I know that when I was a child, I absolutely knew that my toys had interesting busy lives when I was not there, and I loved the idea, as do kids today.

(Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, 2015. ISBN: 9780062368430)

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Sidewalk Flowers

Sidewalk Flowers - picture book cover
Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press

Sidewalk Flowers

You may be confused when I say that Sidewalk Flowers was written by poet JonArno Lawson when it's a wordless picture book.  If there are no words, what did he write?  He wrote a story that could be totally told in illustrations and that is what illustrator Sydney Smith did, using pen and ink and watercolor, as well as some digital editing.

When I read Sidewalk Flowers, I was impressed not only with how Smith used color to focus readers' attention but also to emphasize the mindfulness of the little girl versus the distraction of her father as he walked and talked on his cell phone. When the book begins, everything is depicted in black and gray, even the people, except the little girl's red hooded jacket that makes her look like a little Red Riding Hood. The red pops against the dull gray and black, keeping us focused on the little girl.

The little girl's ability to find beauty and to share it with others is a delight as she finds sprigs of flowers growing here and there and distributes them. She leaves a small bouquet on a dead bird she finds on the sidewalk, leaves flowers for a man sleeping on a park bench and slides flowers in a dog's collar.

By the time they get through the park, her father is also paying attention to his surroundings and the pages are no longer filled with gray scenes, but there is color everywhere. When they arrive home, the little girl greets her mother and puts flowers in her hair and then gives flowers to her siblings, keeping one to put in her own hair. This is a charming story, one I recommend for all ages, from age two to teens. Older kids may enjoy writing their own story using the illustrations as their guide and you may be amazed at how differently different children interpret the same scenes.

Sidewalk Flowers won the Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Literature -Illustrated Books in Canada.

(Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2015)

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Smick! - Picture Book and Good Book for Beginning Readers

Smick! picture book cover
Smick!, illustrated by Juana Medina - Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015. Penguin

Smick! - Summary

The picture book Smick! is the story of a big ungainly puppy named Smick who becomes friends with a colorful little chick. While Smick is portrayed in a simple black outline with minimal features, with the only note of color his blue collar and yellow dog tag, Chick is a very colorful bird with bright plumage from actual flower petals.

With these two characters and a stick set against a white background, all the focus is on Smick as his unseen owner directs him to sit and fetch a stick until the dog is distracted by Chick. Medina is a master at creating movement and life with a minimum of lines.

With its brief text by Doreen Cronin, featuring lots of rhymes and wordplay, and its large, simple and humorous illustrations, created digitally by Juana Medina, along with a stick and flower petals, Smick! will delight both younger kids and beginning readers. I recommend the book for 3 to 7 or 8 year olds.

(Viking, an Imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2015. ISBN: 9780670785780)