Ornately illustrated children’s books
November 19, 2020 5:53 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a collection of stories or a chapter book with ornate, gorgeous illustrations for every page. When I was a child I read fairy tales that seemed to be illustrated with beautifully detailed paintings that brought to mind golden thread woven into each page. I’d like to get something like that for my kid this year.

- she is young but this would be for us to read together and for her to marvel at the pictures. She can read sight words but not phonetically. Probably best to avoid very scary illustrations (though I remember loving those best as a kid so maybe not)
- ideally this would not be a book with an all white set of characters. A reimagined classic is fine.
- not interested in stories that are about a young woman finding meaning through romantic love

Thanks for your recommendations!
posted by CMcG to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
If Wind in the Willows is a story that would suit, there are several recommendations in this past ask for the best illustrated edition.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:07 PM on November 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Anything by Jan Brett was a huge hit in our home.
posted by kittygrandma at 6:08 PM on November 19, 2020 [10 favorites]

Anything by William Joyce. Santa Calls would be very seasonal. I must have read my kids that book a hundred times and it's just beautiful.
posted by GuyZero at 6:38 PM on November 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

She died in 2004, but Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations were amazing and she was very prolific; see: this
posted by mollymillions at 7:00 PM on November 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

Stuff by Leo and Diane Dillon! A little less ornate but still gorgeous and rich.
posted by sprezzy at 7:14 PM on November 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

This book is not quite what you are looking for but this illustrated book of simple nature poems is truly delightful and has the vibe you are looking for, though it is not a story book. I have a copy and I adore it and it's a favorite gift to give to people.
posted by jessamyn at 7:20 PM on November 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Just popping in quickly to say you all are absolutely nailing the vibe. I’m getting lots of ideas and would love more. Thank you!
posted by CMcG at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2020

One of my all-time favorite illustrated books from my childhood was King Bidgood's in the Bathtub. It has lavish illustrations of a king in the tub who refuses to get out, and eventually ball the elegantly and fancifully dressed courtiers end up in the tub too.
posted by foodmapper at 7:34 PM on November 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

I loved Animalia and The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base when I was a kid—colorful and richly detailed illustrations.
posted by music for skeletons at 8:37 PM on November 19, 2020 [13 favorites]

I loved the Rainbow Goblins when I was a child, though it's maybe a little dark. And seconding Animalia and the 11th hour. Also books by David Wiesner.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 9:10 PM on November 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

ohmg , faith in universe is restored b/c i came here to say Graeme Base, and I see he has already been mentioned! That book had me completely transfixed as a kid, especially the page that involved.. some animal eating ice cream sundays. *heart eye emoji*
posted by elgee at 9:35 PM on November 19, 2020

I am deeply obsessed with the puzzle book Masquerade, and while she wouldn't (yet) be interested in the puzzle or the story of its solution, there's so much to look at in every illustration and they feel very magical.
posted by babelfish at 10:15 PM on November 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

Aladdin by Natee Puttapipat is a beautifully illustrated pop-up book in silhouette! It's an absolute work of art, highly recommended. In fact anything by this illustrator.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 11:38 PM on November 19, 2020

Another vote for Puttapipat's pop-ups and for the Dillons!

This is architecture and civil engineering so may be an odd carom, but while David Macaulay's Underground illustrations are not classically beautiful, they are ornate and awe-inspiring.

(I came in to suggest Gyo Fujikawa's Fairy Tales and Fables, but on checking the illustrations it appears to be animals and white people. Disappointed to find this since Fujikawa fought to include all races of babies in an earlier book.)
posted by away for regrooving at 12:21 AM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Take a look at it first to check that the trolls & skeletons & stuff won't be too scary - but I recommend The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman / illustrated by Chris Riddell.

It's a Snow White / Sleeping Beauty mash-up, with twists. The pen-and-ink illustrations (spoiler alert at that link...) are super-detailed.
posted by rd45 at 2:30 AM on November 20, 2020

The Brambly Hedge books were favorites of mine as a child, with super intricate (and adorable) illustrations on every page. A 40th anniversary collection of all the stories was just released this year.
posted by merriment at 4:13 AM on November 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Your question asks specifically about chapter books and story collections, so I'll start off with that:

• Usborne Books has a series of illustrated story collections that my kids loved. I just grabbed three of them off the shelf, and some of them are more diverse than others, but none of them are all-white. The illustrations are colorful and appealing, but lean more towards cartoony than ornate.

• The Jim Kay illustrated editions of Harry Potter are absolutely gorgeous. Be warned that, although the first books in the Harry Potter series are much less intense than the last, Kay's artwork does sometimes bring out the creepiness already inherent in book one. You might want to look at the art gallery on the publisher's web page to make sure it won't be too creepy for your daughter. (By the way, if you share my complicated feelings about JK Rowling, you might choose to buy a used copy to avoid giving her money directly.)

Based on your followup remark, I gather you are also open to lavishly illustrated picture books. I would second the recommendations for Graeme Base, Kit Williams, and Audrey and Don Wood. I'd also recommend anything by The Fan Brothers.
posted by yankeefog at 4:21 AM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing. Beautiful, surreal, no words. Theme may be a little dark but wonderful for provoking questions.
posted by moiraine at 5:03 AM on November 20, 2020

Lisbeth Zwerger's illustrations are dreamy fairy-tales in their own right. There are several collections she illustrated of Andersen's, Grimm's and an anthology of her best work with the accompanying stories available through the Eric Carle Bookshop.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:31 AM on November 20, 2020

I hesitate to suggest this because it may be a little too religious/traumatic (a classic combo!!), but as a child I received Maurice Sendak's illustrated version of a Grimm story called Dear Mili. It was probably the most beautiful book I had. But I think you would want to vet before sharing with your child to make sure she'd be into it...
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 6:07 AM on November 20, 2020

Hi, I am obsessed with illustrations. I love my childhood copies of the following books :

The Girl Who Cried Flowers by Jane Yolen, illustrated by David Palladini

And I am very glad you said that scary was your fave when you were little as I was the same. I will never get enough of the two books by Ed Young that remain my favorite things to look at ever. They have always thrilled and terrified me in the best way.

I think it was really great for me as a kid to have visual representations of a scary, messy world. Please consider anything by Edward Gorey, I was allowed access to his books when I was little and I am so grateful.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:18 AM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Peacock Party, a sequel to The Butterfly Ball, by Alan Aldridge

(Also, would Dinotopia count?)
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:33 AM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest Graeme Base and Dinotopia as well. I kept my childhood copies of Base's Discovery of Dragons and Dinotopia because I loved them so much. Caveat - I just flipped through Dinotopia -- it felt pretty diverse to a white kid in 1992, but to my adult 2020 eyes it's VERY (but not entirely) white, especially for a book about an island peopled by the descendants of shipwreck survivors.

If shorter picture books work for you, I'd also check out John Scieszka's fairy tale retellings illustrated by Steve Johnson. The Frog Prince Continued is the one I still have, but I remember having a Three Little Pigs and maybe one other.

In addition to the Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman has some other things that might fit -- The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is not quite a chapter book, but not a short picture book either. The edition of Stardust illustrated by Charles Vess is GORGEOUS, but I'd check it for scary stuff first. Gaiman can get pretty creepy -- in fact, I almost think his kid's stuff is creepier on average than his adult stuff.

I have a 30th anniversary edition of The Princess Bride illustrated by Michael Manomivibul -- the illustrations aren't on every page, but they are beautiful (we used one for our wedding cake).

Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons (and its follow ups) are sort of the adult version of this -- the illustrations aren't dense enough to make them a good answer to this question, but I feel like they'd be a natural evolution, or you might enjoy them on your own.
posted by natabat at 7:42 AM on November 20, 2020

I'm currently obsessed with Aaron Becker's Journey, which is part of a trilogy (I haven't seen the other two books yet) of adventure epics told only in pictures. You "read" it by telling/imagining the story of what you see in the incredible illustrations. I love it so much that I bought a limited edition print of one of the illustrations and had it framed for my (not my kid's) wall.
posted by TrixieRamble at 8:53 AM on November 20, 2020

Wimmelbooks are immersive, large-format picture books that are full of intricate visual interest--think Richard Scarry or Where's Waldo. A few of my favorites are In the Town All Year 'Round by Rotraut Susanne Berner and Anno's Journey and other Anno books by Mitsumasa Anno. This New York Times article also has some good suggestions.
posted by c lion at 10:29 AM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Hague version of East of the Sun, West of the Moon was a wonderful one I grew up with. As I recall every page is illustrated. It may be a bit too close to the "woman finding love" thing though.

Aesop's Fables illustrated by Santore is another very rich one. I can recall many of these amazing paintings vividly and the fables are still great and quite short and simple.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:09 PM on November 20, 2020

John Bauer's illustrations in Swedish Folk Tales are beautiful and highly-regarded. This remains one of my favorite children's books of all time. (I have the 1973 version) Jim Henson has said Bauer's art was the inspiration for the mystics in the Dark Crystal.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 4:51 PM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Any of the Oz series of books illustrated by the great John R. Neill. There are some gorgeous hard bound reproductions out there with all the beautiful color plates, dust jackets, etc.
posted by Toecutter at 6:44 PM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sarah Teale's Giants, illustrated by Julek Heller.

Faeries, illustrated by Brian Froud. (He's also done the pressed fairy books.)
posted by RedEmma at 11:41 AM on November 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Beth Krommes has illustrated a few children's books including some with longer stories or a collection of stories/poems.

Peter Spier's books & illustrations have stuck with me from childhood, particular his book People.

The Sea People is out of print (and expensive), but an absolute stunner if you can find it.

Barbara Cooney has only illustrated longer single-story books, as far as I know, but they're some of my favorite out there. Miss Rumphius is her most well known book, but you might find the whimsy of When the Sky Is Like Lace particularly enjoyable.
posted by Jaclyn at 2:01 PM on November 25, 2020

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