If a picture is really worth a thousand words, then you read the equivalent of War & Peace in board books every night. It’s no secret that kids go for big, bright, visual stories. And, fortunately for you, these award-winning picture books are 99 percent word-free and a lot more fun than Tolstoy.
It also provides a great opportunity for you to put your creative stamp on things. Let the illustrators provide the brilliant artwork, universal themes, and general plot — you fill in the details. Of course, even toddlers who can barely say their ABCs know that you’re improvising most of it — but at least you’re enthusiastic.
Ball by Mary Sullivan
The 2014 Theodor Seuss Geisel honoree is either a cute story about a dog searching for a friend to play with — or the existential fear that human beings and animals share. (Probably the former.) And yes, technically this isn’t a “wordless” book, because the word “ball” appears on every page. But who are you, a mathematician? Kids will recognize the ennui man’s best friend gets as he searches for someone to play fetch with. It’s the same look your pet gives when he’s licking his balls.
Ages: 4 – 7
Ball by Mary Sullivan ($10)
Journey / Quest / Return by Aaron Becker
Journey, Quest and Return is a trilogy that wordlessly depicts a bored and lonely girl’s search for adventure and the magical realm she escapes to find it. Aaron Becker’s Caldecott-winning illustrations look like a Tolkien dreamscapes … or, more relevant to you, an area of Westeros that they’re saving for season 7.
Ages: 4 – 8
Journey / Quest / Return by Aaron Becker ($10-$12)
Tuesday by David Wiesner
Known for giving flight to wingless creatures and objects, David Wiesner’s classic, Tuesday, sold half a million companies and won a Caldecott Medal in 1991. It got a major reprint in 2011 enhancing the original watercolors, but keeping the absurd and supernatural pictures of frogs flying on lillypads. Man, the 90s were weird.
Ages: 4 – 7
Tuesday by David Wiesner ($15)
The Lion and The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
It’s the retelling of the Aesop Fable tale of the mouse who takes a thorn out of the lions paw — or something like that. What you need to know is that illustrator Jerry Pinkney is kind of the Serena Williams of picture book awards, winning a slew of Caldecott Honor Medals, 5 Coretta Scott King Awards, 4 Coretta Scott King Honors, and 5 New York Times Best Illustrated Book awards. Basically, it’s not his fault if your kid doesn’t marvel this artistic interpretation.
Ages 1 – 8
The Lion and The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney ($12)
Bluebird by Bob Staake
Using simple geometric shapes in a comic book panel format, illustrator Bob Staake put together a real stomach-punch of a children’s book about a bullied young boy and his unlikely and selfless bird friend. Spoiler: After an awesome day of hanging out, the bird dies throwing itself in front of a stick hurled at the boy. Can you imagine the survivor’s guilt this boy is going to have?
Ages: 4 – 8
Bluebird by Bob Staake ($15)
Where’s Walrus? And Penguin by Stephen Savage
File this book to the goofy, best-friend hijinks category. Pals walrus and penguin lead their zoo keeper on a costume-filled caper as they try to blend in with other humans in scenes from around the city. Fortunately, in the end, the zoo keeper shows some restraint and doesn’t shoot walrus or penguin.
Ages: 3 – 5
Where’s Walrus? And Penguin by Stephen Savage ($17)
Unspoken: A Story From The Underground Railroad by Henry Cole
It might be a stretch to introduce this book without historical context of what the Underground Railroad was, but this story about a young girl who finds a runaway slave hiding in her family’s barn still has an unambiguous lesson. It’s never too early to introduce concepts of trust, integrity, and empathy.
Ages: 4 – 8
Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole ($14)
The Only Child by Guojing
Named one of the best children’s books for 2015 by the New York Times Book Review, The Only Child soft pencil drawings give it a graphic novel quality. The plot is revolves around a little girl’s bus trip to visit her grandmother, and how that turns into a strange Alice in Wonderland-type journey home. Hey grandma, are you sure those were Werther’s Originals candies?
Ages: 5 – 9
The Only Child by Guojing ($14)
The Girl And The Bicycle by Mark Pett
Mark Pett uses a throwback cartoon style to teach a simple lesson about earning the things you want. In this story, a little girl works her ass off to buy a new bicycle only to find out it’s gone by the time she raises the cash. The book could have ended there (because that’s how capitalism works) but there’s a twist that reveals how generosity works. Sure, it’s heartwarming, but has nobody in this story heard of layaway?
Ages: 5 – 8
The Girl And The Bicycle by Mark Pett ($14)
Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman
Caldecott-winning author-illustrator Barbara Lehman puts the mystery and secrets of museums front and center when a boy on a school trip starts transcending the exhibits, walking into paintings, and pictures of mazes. Just warn your kid this is only a story, and if they really touch a 17th century Rembrandt, their grandchildren’s children will still be paying off the damage bill.
Ages: 4 – 7
Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman ($17)