Everyone remembers the books they loved as a kid, and especially the illustrations that brought them to life. Children’s book illustrators may work with different mediums, in different styles, and on different kinds of stories, but the best always manage to make a lasting impression on little readers - and sometimes big ones, too!
Whether you’re stocking a new book collection for a special child in your life or want to illustrate picture books yourself, here are eight incredible children’s book illustrators that we love -- and you should know.
1. Leo Lionni
Leo Lionni is a critically-acclaimed author and illustrator who held a number of art, advertising, and design-related positions in the Netherlands, United States and Italy, before becoming world-famous for the wildly successful and prolific career in children’s books. Beginning at age 50 and spanning the course of almost four decades, Lionni authored and illustrated more than 40 popular titles including the Caldecott Award-winning Inch by Inch, Frederick, Swimmy, and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. Many of his books have been translated into multiple languages and most remain in print to this day.
Lionni’s signature illustration style is characterized by his use of collage, and for the rich textures, tones, hues, and playful geometric shapes he used to help tell his fables about anthropomorphized animals, birds, and insects. According to his New York Times obituary, Lionni first turned to using collage in a desperate attempt to keep his grandchildren occupied while he accompanied them on a long train ride. Trapped without his usual art supplies, he tore up a copy of Life Magazine and created colorful shapes that he could use to illustrate his story. The children paid rapt attention, and later, Lionni drew on that experience to inform his first book Little Blue and Little Yellow.
2. Vashti Harrison
Vashti Harrison is a multi-talented author, illustrator and filmmaker whose debut children’s book Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History became a New York Times Best Seller when it was published in 2017. Based on social media posts that Harrison had created to celebrate Black History Month, Little Leaders celebrates 40 history-making African American women by introducing children to their stories while depicting each in a sweet, accessible illustration style.
Harrison says that she depicted the women with a particularly-stylized illustration style because it was important to her to show that “boldness and bravery can come in different shapes and sizes” She notes that she drew each woman with her eyes closed to suggest that leadership “can also come in the form of the quiet, shy or introverted.” She is currently working on a follow-up title, Little Leaders: Visionary Women Around the World that is scheduled to be released in November, 2018.
3. P.D. Eastman
Author-illustrator P.D. Eastman worked at Walt Disney Productions, Warner Brothers’ cartoon unit, and United Productions of America on projects like “Mr. Magoo” before he devoted his life to writing and illustrating picture books for kids. His literary career began in earnest after he was assigned to an army unit led by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Suess), and was later approached by the famous author to help write titles with him at Random House. Once there, Eastman wrote and illustrated dozens of his own books and lent illustrations to other a number of other authors’ works as well.
PD Eastman’s colorful cartoonish style has made his illustrations some of the most beloved and recognizable of all time. His titles like Go Dog Go, Are You My Mother?, The Best Nest, and Sam and the Firefly are considered genre classics. To date, Random House has sold more than 30 million copies of Eastman’s books worldwide.
4. Mitsumasa Anno
Mitsumasa Anno is a Japanese children’s book author and illustrator who is famous for telling stories in books that contain little-to-no text. Instead, they rely on visually-arresting artwork to portray not only his characters’ stories, but also higher-level math and science concepts, jokes, optical illusions and the author’s appreciation for travel and discovering foreign cultures. He’s created more than 35 popular children’s books, including Upside Downers, Anno’s Journey, Anno’s Counting House, Anno's Magic Seeds, and more.
Anno’s densely-detailed illustrations are most often pen and ink and watercolor, but sometimes feature woodcuts and collage, too. Because his work can include visual tricks, illusions, jokes, and math references, he is regularly and rightly compared to M.C. Escher. In 1984, he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest lifetime achievement honor in his field, in recognition of his “unique [gift] for communicating to both East and West” and his important, lasting contributions to children’s literature.
5. Patricia Polacco
Renowned artist Patricia Polacco has written and illustrated more than 115 books for children including The Keeping Quilt, Thunder Cake, The Blessing Cup and Rechenka’s Eggs. As a child in grade school, Polacco struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia and was illiterate until she was nearly 14. As a way to cope with her academic and social challenges, she developed an early interest in drawing, painting and sculpture; ultimately earning a degree in Fine Art and a Ph.D. in Art History. Although Polacco didn’t start writing children’s books until she was over 40 years old, Polacco relies on memories of her childhood to inspire many of her books. Growing up in an extended family of immigrants, she credits her cultural background for her propensity for storytelling. Characters based on her beloved Grandmother figure prominently in many of her more popular titles.
Polacco has used collage in some of her illustrations but tends toward soft graphite and pen-and-ink drawings. Facial features and dismal scenes are often rendered with sketchy lines and in grey scale, while saturated, flat colors are used sparingly to demarcate important objects, characters, or joyful circumstances.
6. Christian Robinson
Christian Robinson is an illustrator and animator who’s worked with The Sesame Street Workshop, Pixar Animation Studios and lent art to a number of picture books in recent years. His gorgeous illustrations for Newberry Award-winning Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, earned him critical praise when it was published in 2016. In a review from that year, the School Library Journal said that among its other endearing qualities, the book’s “radiant geometric-shaped artwork, and...authentic and enrichingly eye-opening representation of a diverse urban setting” made it a true standout among children’s publications.
A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Robinson says that he has “ the most fun by experimenting and trying all sorts of different mediums and techniques.” In The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, he worked with colored pencils, while he created the illustrations in Mac Barnett’s Leo: a Ghost Story by using a mix of collage and paint.
7. Erin Stead
Erin Stead is the acclaimed illustrator behind A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Bear Has a Story to Tell, And Then It’s Spring, and If You Want to See a Whale among others. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she frequently collaborates with her husband, children’s book author and illustrator Phillip Stead, and says the landscape of her home state is one of her strongest creative influences.
Stead’s unique and beautiful illustrations are created through a complex multi-step process that involves sketching, woodblock printing, and adding more line drawing as a final polishing step. Although she says that she was initially so intimidated by the prospect of working on children’s books that she “came to illustration a little reluctantly,” her gorgeous art has inspired millions of readers, and earned her a Caldecott Award for illustration in 2011.
8. Tomie DePaola
World-famous artist and author Tomie DePaola has written and/or illustrated more than 260 books over the last 50 years. His most popular titles include Strega Nona, Fin M’Coul, Jamie O’ Rourke and the Big Potato, and The Clown of God among others. To date, nearly 25 million copies of his books have been sold and in 2011 he was awarded the Children’s Literature Legacy Award for his lifetime of contributions to the genre.
DePaola says that most of his recent work has been created with pens, pencils, erasers, and acrylic paint, but no matter what his meidum, almost all Tomie DePaola’s illustrations employ his friendly, folksy personal style. He depicts characters in a flat, graphic way, with heavy lines and muted earth tones. Hair textures, folds in fabric, and landscapes are also rendered in outline, giving his oeuvre a remarkable consistency despite his incredibly high output.
Love another children’s book illustrator that you think should be on our list? Comment below to let us know!
If you’re feeling inspired to learn more about Illustrator Vashti Harrison and her creative process, check out her new class on Skillshare, Illustrating in Procreate: Drawing a Shareable Timelapse, now on Skillshare!