Are we living in a “picture book renaissance”? A few years ago, panelists at a conference run by the American Book Producers Association seemed to agree that we are. The quality of both fiction and nonfiction picture books available today, in terms of both illustration and writing, is pretty astounding. Picture books have always been a fun genre for experimentation, but many of our best picture book authors and illustrators are now experimenting with the form itself—producing picture books that are darker, deeper, longer, and more beautiful than you might think a picture book could be.
In my opinion, this is especially true for nonfiction picture books! Below, I’ve rounded up some of my current favourites. Check out these other Book Riot posts on the topic, and let us know what yours are, too!
Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, ILLUSTRATED BY ERIC ROHMANN
The cover sold me on this book because look at that giant squid eye! It’s truly spooky. I love illustrated nonfiction picture books about animals—photos are fun, too, but illustration allows the book to show us animals we can’t capture on film (er, digital memory, I guess), just like the giant squid. In Giant Squid, Fleming and Rohmann shed some light on the mysterious, hidden life of this elusive sea creature. The book is written in a simple, poetic style that pairs well with Rohmann’s eerie underwater illustrations.
THE TRAGIC TALE of the Great Auk, WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED by Jan Thornhill
This lovely but sad book tells the story of the great auk, a flightless bird that called the North Atlantic regions home but went extinct in the mid-19th-century. Hunted for thousands of years by Inuit, Vikings, the Beothuk, and European settlers, the great auk became a collector’s item before dying out completely. Thornhill’s illustrations are done in a quasi-scientific style, which recalls field guides and old-fashioned nature illustrations, paired with a little bit of whimsy. They complement the text’s facts and figures perfectly.
Book of Bones by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sam Brewster
This striking book is subtitled “10 Record-Breaking Animals” and it will teach you (and your kids or students, of course) all about which animals have the biggest, longest, shortest, and heaviest bones. As the book was published by Phaidon, you know the illustrations will be appealing. Brewster’s illustrations strike the perfect balance between simple and detailed. Some are scientific diagrams of animal skeletons and others are just cool underwater scenes.
Animals of a Bygone Era by Maja Säfström
Säfström, a Swedish illustrator, did a beautiful job with this picture book that shares facts about long-extinct animals. Her illustrations are soft and whimsical, a style that works very well to represent animals that seem just a little bit too strange to be real (giant ground sloths, anyone?). This book is less text-heavy than the others on this list, but the illustrations will give you plenty to study as you read.
Animals Illustrated series
This illustrated nonfiction series is all about Arctic animals. (Full disclosure: I work for the publisher of this series but am recommending these books because I love them). Each book in the series is written by an Inuit Elder who shares traditional knowledge of the animal and how it was hunted and used by Inuit alongside the usual animal facts. So far, the series includes books about polar bears, walruses, muskoxen, and narwhals (pictured). Animals Illustrated: Narwhal was written by Solomon Awa and illustrated by Hwei Lim.
My Book of Birds by Geraldo Valério
The illustrations in this bird book are truly glorious. Artist Valério makes each bird look unique and appealing and just a little bit strange—a perfect style to showcase these animals that scientists think are descended from dinosaurs. The illustrations are simple and geometric and pair well with the book’s simple text, which gives readers basic facts about each type of bird.
Mabrook! A World of Muslim Weddings by Na’ima B. Robert, ILLUSTRATED BY SHIRIN ADL
This lyrical picture book explores how Muslims celebrate marriage in different countries around the world. Adl’s bright and colourful illustrations add a lot of joy to each depicted wedding celebration. The smart decision to look at how ceremonies may differ around the world (and how they stay the same) makes this book feel both inclusive and celebratory.
Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So
Have you noticed the new trend of biographies of famous people told in nonfiction picture book format? They’re everywhere (see below). This picture book is about the life of Wu Daozi, often called China’s greatest painter. The text lies somewhere on the border between fiction and nonfiction—not quite a storybook, but not quite a straight biography, either. Nevertheless, So’s evocative illustrations, inspired by calligraphy, help to bring Wu Daozi’s story to life.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Everyone loves the Notorious RBG, so of course there’s a picture book biography of her. The book goes through Ginsburg’s childhood, education, and family life as well as her ground-breaking career. In a fun twist, the story is told through various decisions that Ginsburg did not agree with—from outdated social mores to Supreme Court rulings. The book’s focus on dissenting (aka resistance) is a particularly apt theme in this era of Trump.
Little People Big Dreams series
This series of incredibly charming nonfiction picture books features biographies of famous women from Agatha Christie to Rosa Parks. These are the kind of nonfiction picture books that adults will enjoy just as much as, and maybe more than, kids. Frida Kahlo was written by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Eng Gee Fan.