How Do I Evaluate
the Illustrations in Picture Books?
by Pamela Little
This issue, I’m offering two different kinds of tools to help you choose well-illustrated picture books so you can make the most of your limited book budget: evaluation criteria to use when you have the book in your hand, and print and electronic lists of recommended books. You can also consult this issue’s The Wire for a whirlwind education on high-quality art in children’s books.
- Do the visual elements of the art complement the text? Note the effect of the kinds of lines and shapes that are used, the distinctive feeling conveyed by the texture, and the mood of the colors chosen.
- Do the individual pictures add up to a cohesive book? You should expect to see continuity in the use of visual elements and a logical sequence in the illustrations, so that natural progression from one page to the next provides a sense of overall unity.
- Do the illustrations amplify the information in the text? Quality illustrations usually add detail to and interpret the text so that the story becomes more than the sum of its words. The illustrations should help the reader anticipate how the story unfolds and reaches its climax. For instance, the composition of an illustration should focus attention on the most important elements of the scene, while the colors project or enhance the mood conveyed by the text.
- Do the illustrations convincingly delineate and develop the characters? At the very least, illustrations should avoid stereotypes of race and gender. Readers should expect characters who act and speak differently in the text to look different from each other in the illustrations. Ideally, the illustration of a character should be similar to the picture you would conjure in your mind’s eye from reading the text alone.
- Has the artist conveyed a sense of the place and culture from which the story emerges? Illustrations should be accurate in their historical, cultural, and geographical detail.
Lists of Recommended Picture Books
You can find lists of recommended picture books both online and in print.
The Horn Book Guide Online
This searchable database of over 50,000 Horn Book reviews is available for a limited free trial. A one-year subscription costs $55 for individuals and $150 for institutions.
Children's Picture Book Database at Miami University
This free keyword-searchable database of over 4,000 picture books includes abstracts, subject classifications, and web links.
100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know
You could do worse than to start your collection with these 100 classic books recommended by the New York Public Library.
These books that recommend children’s books are available for purchase at the links given below and may also be available at your public library.
The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2004 edition
The Children’s Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education offers one of the most comprehensive annotated book lists for children. The 600 books, listed by age and by category, were chosen from over 4,000 titles.
Valerie & Walter's Best Books for Children, 2nd ed., by Walter M. Mayes and Valerie Lewis
Valerie Lewis, owner of Hicklebee’s children’s bookstore, and Walter M. Mayes, a.k.a Walter the Giant Storyteller, have updated their witty, useful guide to include over 2,000 new titles.
From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books by Kathleen T. Horning
This book, an invaluable resource for all professionals who want to go beyond their own personal response in selecting books for their program libraries, provides criteria for evaluating picture books.
What Makes a Good Illustrated Book?
In a 1992 Booklist interview, Hazel Rochman asked Maurice Sendak, "What makes a good illustrated book?" His response:
The illustrations don’t simply prosaically echo the verse. . . The only thing you can do is to use the verse as a springboard for personal interpretation, so that what you offer is surprise, at best as surprising, as amusing or serious, as the verse, but at the very least a counterpoint, an interpretation, a variation of the verse.