From 'Brothers Grimm' to 'Stuck,' the 11 Best Picture Books of 2011

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It's that time of year, the time I turn around and start sifting through the year behind with my best-of fine tooth comb in an exercise of meta-meta-curation. Having a well-documented soft spot for children's books, I've decided to begin with my favorite 2011 treats for young readers, ranging from the classic to the quirky to the impossibly charming. Enjoy -- you might find it hard not to feel like you want to be a kid again.

1. THE FAIRY TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Register for the preservation of cultural documents, have been delighting and terrifying children since 1812, transfixing generations of parents, psychologists, and academics. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is an astounding new volume from Taschen editor Noel Daniel bringing together the best illustrations from 130 years of The Brothers Grimm with 27 of the most beloved Grimm stories, including Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty, amidst artwork by some of the most celebrated illustrators from Germany, Britain, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and the United States working between the 1820s and 1950s.

The new translation is based on the final 1857 edition of the tales, and stunning silhouettes from original publications from the 1870s and 1920s grace the tome's pages, alongside brand new silhouettes created bespoke for this remarkable new volume.

An introduction by Daniel explores the Grimms' enduring legacy, from the DNA of fairy-tale scholarship to the shadow play and shape-shifting at the heart of the stories, and a preface to each tale frames it in its historical and sociocultural context.

The Grimms' were a vital engine for a whole new caliber of artistic activity.... Suddenly, artists across the Western world could make a living illustrating books, and they found a solid foundation for new work in the heroes and princesses, talking animals, dwarfs, and witches of fairy tales. The tales were an important part of each technological advancement along the way, and the best of this visual iconography still influences artist, art directors, filmmakers, and animators today.... Even as our modes of reading continue to change with new technologies, taking a measure of the interactivity of text and image in past treasures helps us understand the changing landscape of reading in the future.

And in case you were wondering why Taschen, purveyors of high-end and often risque art and design books, are doing a children's book, they've got a thoughtful answer:

Taschen recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. We have many readers who have come of age with us and are now have their own families. These readers are interested in beautifully produced children's books that take seriously a child's exposure to stories and images with depth and historical meaning. We wanted The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm to embody our mission to create meaningful books that are timeless yet original, modern but classic.

Full review, with more images, here.

2. I LIKE CATS

Earlier this year, we featured The Night Life of Trees -- an incredible handmade book based on Indian mythology, crafted by a commune of artists, designers, and writers in South Indian independent publisher Tara Books' fair-trade workshop in Chennai. Among Tara's many other treats is the exceptonal I Like Cats -- part lovely children's picture book, part priceless showcase of work by some of the best-known tribal and folk artists from various Indian traditions. Each rich, textured page is screen-printed by hand and features a different cat. (In the vein of this week's inadvertent running theme of cats -- as a piece of Edison's marketing genius, a key to the future of computing, and now an ambassador of Indian artisanal culture.)

The simple but clever verse of author Anushka Ravishankar are part Dr. Seuss, part Blexbolex, part wholly different kind of playful poetry.

As if the book itself wasn't enough of a jewel, it comes with a frameable screenprint.

Like other Tara Books gems, I Like Cats comes in several limited-edition runs of 2000 copies, each hand-numbered on the back and featuring a different artwork on the front cover.

Original review here.

3. STUCK

Who doesn't love Oliver Jeffers, illustrator extraordinaire and maker of favorite children's books? This season, he's back with another treat: Stuck, an absurdly funny "tale of trying to solve a problem by throwing things at it."

And as with all of Jeffers' books, buried in his childlike illustrations and light-hearted storytelling is a deeper metaphor for the blessings and curses of the human condition.

In this lovely trailer, Jeffers reads the book himself:

Via Swiss Miss.

4. THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

The Phantom Tollbooth isn't merely one of the most celebrated children's books of all time, it's also one of those rare children's books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic and there's hardly a better celebration than The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition -- a magnificent volume featuring brief essays from renowned authors, educators, and artists -- including Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Jeanne Birdsall, and Mo Willems -- alongside the complete original text and illustrations of the book and the now-legendary 35th anniversary essay by Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak.

Packaged in the classic original art, stamped and debossed on the case with a transparent acetate jacket, the book is an absolute treasure to touch and to hold, exuding in a tactile way the intangible magic that fueled a half-century of heart-warming enchantment.

Here's a lovely short documentary about the book's masterminds, author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer, reminiscing about the unusual spark of their collaboration and the original creative process behind the work:

Juster's new picture book, Neville, is also out this year and absolutely delightful.

5. PEOPLE

From French illustrator Blexbolex -- whose poetic meditation on time, impermanence, and the seasons you might recall -- comes People, a continued exploration of the world that builds on Seasons. Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness, and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex's signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

People, available in English for the first time, is part Mark Laita's Created Equal, part Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar, part something entirely new and entirely delightful, certain to make you smile, make you think, and make you wish you were a snake charmer.

Original review, with trailer, here.

Images: Enchanted Lion Books.

6. EVERY THING ON IT

Shel Silverstein is one of the most beloved children's authors and illustrators of our time, his masterpiece, The Giving Tree, is one of those rare gems of children's literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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