According to a recent New York Times article, picture books are losing popularity as over-eager yuppie parents push their toddlers toward “big-kid” alternatives. Although illustrated stories by Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Maurice Sendak have continued to receive their widespread dues, children’s publishers have been forced to decrease their overall multi-media output and, in turn, the platform for new titles. In protest of this culturally impoverishing trend, here are five stunningly illustrated children’s books that are as engrossing and educational for kids of any age as their text-only counterparts.
Combining second-hand elements of the Book of Exodus, The Giver, and, when viewed from just the right angle, The Land Before Time, Ul de Rico’s The Rainbow Goblins has all the makings of an epic folktale. The book’s sinister subtext and allegorical nuances drive a sweeping — and somewhat disturbing — story about seven goblins who feast on the colors of the rainbow, hunting down these wells of color until they’ve all but vanished from the darkly ravaged Earth. Such greed is inevitably met with a violent comeuppance, but the hauntingly realistic images that accompany this already hauntingly familiar story drive the mythological message home in a way that even Homer couldn’t match.
Paced to match the steady decline into slumber, The Napping House transforms the traditional lullaby format into a poetic incantation. A dreaming child, dozing dog, snoozing cat, and slumbering mouse each crawl into Granny’s cozy bed until a seemingly imperceptible addition — a lowly, and not entirely welcome, flea — tips the scale and wakes the whole party up. As the repetitive narrative takes on the sequential ripple effect of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Goodnight Moon, Don Wood’s complementary illustrations create a twilight haze that transitions from moody blues to brighter day-lit shades of green.
Though less well known than Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There will seem familiar to Labyrinth fans of any age. Jim Henson and George Lucas credit Sendak’s story of a little girl who must rescue her baby sister from five kidnapping goblins as the inspiration for their cult classic, but the original printed version nonetheless exceeds the subtle sexuality and morbid overtones of its cinematic counterpart (even with the help of David Bowie in spandex). Sendak’s detailed, darkly muted illustrations evoke baroque, surrealist, and 19th-century German romantic traditions that underscore the story’s nightmarish narrative.
Falling somewhere between Inception and Jack and the Beanstalk, Chris Van Allsberg’s The Sweetest Fig is a sadistic little parable that may well keep you up at night. When a fussy dentist discovers that he can make his dreams come true with the help of a magic fig, he attempts to conjure a grandiose life away from his austere apartment and loyal terrier, but ultimately falls victim to his own hubris. The story’s subtle surrealism and unsettling simplicity is complemented by van Allsberg’s rich illustrations that capture the fantasy and fallibility of the imagination.
As with most of Neil Gaiman’s work, Instructions transcends the boundaries of age appeal, drawing on universally familiar fairy tales and other-world adventures. Guided by a bushy-tailed feline, the story draws each reader through a series of encounters with ethereal places and creatures, from ghostly ferrymen to wise eagles. Like Dr. Seuss’ graduation gift staple Oh the Places You’ll Go!, the book posits itself as a kind of tongue-in-cheek guide to life — the subtitle even boasts: “Everything you’ll need to know on your journey” — through a riddle-like poem that wavers between nonsensical and informative. Charles Vess’ pencil and watercolor illustrations, however, create an addictively epic quality that trumps even Gaiman’s text.