Look back on your childhood for a moment. Can you still remember your favorite books and characters growing up?
For many kids, picture books were the first catalysts that sparked a lifelong pursuit of art and creativity. Children’s books were very much a part of my everyday life as a kid. Today, I look back on my friends like Madeline and Matilda. They inspired my interest in fine art and telling stories.
A good book teaches you a lot about life and the world around you. A great book changes your life and can transport you to a new world entirely. That’s why illustrations are so important in children’s books. They bring characters and settings to life, enriching and nurturing a child’s imagination.
And so, we celebrate some of the best children’s book illustrators. The ones who brought light and childlike wonder to the ever-growing genre of children’s literature. The ones you probably grew up with, too.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a list of iconic illustrators without the Beatrix Potter. She’s beloved and well-known for her books The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. They’re among the earliest books in the renaissance of children’s literature.
But there’s more to Beatrix Potter than her self-published and bestselling children’s books.
Potter’s style is defined by colorful illustrations in ink and watercolor, with a near life-like quality to how she draws flora and fauna. That’s because she was so interested in the natural sciences.
Did you know that she made significant contributions to the field of mycology? She eagerly studied and painted watercolors of mushrooms. If it weren’t for the sexism of the science academe during her time, Beatrix Potter might’ve become a renowned scientist.
We love her for Peter Rabbit, but we think her many other passions make her an empowering woman to look up to. Later on, Potter would use her earnings from her books to buy an estate. There she would become an environmental conservationist and also an award-winning sheep breeder.
Before Disney turned him into a household name, our dear Winnie the Pooh was brought to life by the great Ernest Howard Shepard. The world-famous teddy bear was modeled after Shepard's son's own toy.
Born in London to a family of artists, it was only natural for E.H. Shepard to pursue a career in art. His father was an architect and his maternal grandfather was watercolorist William Lee.
Shepard was quite a prolific painter. He received early recognition for his paintings at school and began exhibiting all over England. After serving in World War I, however, he became a cartoonist and illustrator for the satirical magazine Punch. Through a colleague, Shepard was introduced to author A.A. Milne. Thus began a timeless collaboration.
Fun fact: the iconic red shirt wasn’t in Shepard’s original illustrations—it was a later addition once Stephen Slesinger gained rights to Pooh’s merchandising in the US and Canada.
Many children discovered the light-filled wonderful world of Paris through the eyes of Ludwig Bemelmans’ main character Madeline. Personally, I don’t think I’d be this huge of a Francophile if it weren’t for his Madeline books.
Bemelmans moved to America from Austria, working at hotels in the 1920s. He quit his job at the Ritz-Carlton in New York to pursue his passion for illustration and become a cartoonist.
In 1939, he published his first Madeline book which became a huge success. During his lifetime, he published six Madeline storybooks. After he died, his grandson John Bemelmans Marciano revived the series, taking Madeline even further around the world.
Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel
Growing up, I didn’t know a single person who didn’t have a favorite children’s book written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss. You can easily recognize his quirky illustrations anywhere: just look for rounded, droopy figures in pen and ink. His rhymes—a distinct rhythm known as anapestic tetrameter—are one of a kind.
Later on, I discovered the man wasn’t actually a doctor. It was a pen name for Theodor Seuss Geisel.
We’ve come to know Dr. Seuss as a famous children’s book illustrator and author. He’s published over 60 of them after all. But he was also an editorial cartoonist during World War II. He spent his early career as an illustrator and political cartoonist for various magazines and advertising agencies.
Goodnight Moon is a classic in American picture book. It’s a visual masterpiece, to say the least. I grew up with its vibrant colors, turning the page to pictures that told stories within stories. There are so many visual nods and allegories to other classic tales and nursery rhymes that children love, like Hey Diddle Diddle and Goldilocks.
Suffice to say, author Margaret Wise Brown is nothing short of iconic, but we often overlook the man behind the vibrant green room.
The late Clement Hurd is an American artist from New York. He received a stellar artistic education, studying architecture at Yale and painting in Paris under Fernand Léger. In 1935, Hurd returned to New York to work as a commercial artist. With his wife, Edith Thatcher, he wrote and illustrated over 50 books.
Hurd is best known for Goodnight Moon and its prequel The Runaway Bunny. But he also illustrated the poet Gertrude Stein’s first children’s book, The World is Round. It’s a beautiful tome with Clement Hurd’s blue and white illustrations printed on rose-colored paper.
Ezra Jack Keats
Ezra Jack Keats was an Austrian-American author and illustrator best known for his children’s book The Snowy Day, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. His art style comprises collage cutouts of patterned paper and fabric with accents in India ink. On his art style, Keats says, “I was like a child playing.”
Truly, this is a book that completely altered the children's book genre. Its story is simple: it follows a little boy named Peter playing in the snow. Without explicitly mentioning race or color, Keats’s masterpiece is one of the first children’s books ever to feature a person of color as its protagonist.
It’s now the most checked-out book in the history of the New York Public Library.
Keats is best known for introducing diversity and multiculturalism into popular children’s literature. There’s a prestigious award in his name, the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award. It’s given to up-and-coming children’s book authors and illustrators for promoting diversity in children's books.
The late Maurice Sendak is widely known for his critically acclaimed children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Its story follows the adventures of a little boy named Max on an island inhabited by imaginary creatures called the Wild Things.
A children’s book needn’t always be sunshine and rainbows. It’s just as important and meaningful to introduce and normalize more complex, wilder, and maybe even darker themes to children. It's a thought-provoking book that explores themes like resilience and anger, and how to master them.
The book won the Caldecott medal in 1964. Throughout his career, Sendak has received seven other Caldecott Honors.
Born to a family of Polish Jewish immigrants, Sendak himself was exposed to monsters during his early life. As a young boy, he dealt with much grief and tragedy over the deaths of his family during the Holocaust. These experiences have shaped his art.
Sendak is a notable alumnus of the Art Students League of New York. He has written other children’s books like the Little Bear series, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There.
Almost anyone can instantly recognize that big, green collaged caterpillar anywhere. It’s all thanks to Eric Carle, who wrote and illustrated The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969.
The book shows various educational themes that are bite-sized and easy for children to digest, forgive the pun. First, it introduces the different stages that turn a hungry caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. Next, it includes simple concepts like counting, the days of the week, food, and color. It’s since become a staple in children’s classrooms all over the world.
Eric Carle’s distinct style features a collage of pieces of paper painted in bright colors and cut up into simple shapes. It’s a nod to his experience as a graphic designer—cutting and pasting shapes to form images.
Carle has illustrated over 70 picture books. Some other books he’s worked on include The Grouchy Ladybug and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
In 2002, he and his wife founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts. It’s the first museum in America that promotes children's book illustration and writing, both by Carle and other iconic children’s book illustrators and writers. Some of them are on this list, too!
Last but certainly not least on this list is Sir Quentin Blake, an English cartoonist and perhaps one of the best illustrators of our time. He’s also the most prolific book illustrator we’ve mentioned.
You’ll instantly spot his iconic illustrations and quirky art style anywhere. Those pen and ink drawings are unmistakable. He’s best known for his partnership with famous author Roald Dahl. Together, they created some pretty popular stories including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, and so many more.
Crazy fact: Blake has illustrated over 300 books—and counting! With an artistic career like that, it’s no surprise that Blake has won numerous awards and titles.
In 2002, Sir Quentin Blake received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the highest award a children’s book illustrator can receive. He was also granted the title of Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres, the highest honor for non-French citizens.
Nowadays, he’s still illustrating books at the age of 89! He also makes art for public spaces like mental health and maternity centers in London and a children’s hospital in Paris. You’ll also find his illustrations decorating St. Pancras station in London.
Who’s your favorite children’s book illustrator and why?
If you want children to develop an interest in fine arts and literature at a young age, the best way is to let them read as many children’s books as they can! Personally, I owe my bookworm and artistic tendencies to all the famous children’s book illustrators and writers I grew up with.
So now, sound off in the comments! Who were your favorite children’s book illustrators growing up? What stories did you grow up with? If you were to start illustrating your own books, whose style would most inspire you? What stories will you read out to your children?
Loved this story? You’ll also love our features on art history and more in the Inspiration section of the ZenART blog!
- MEET THE AUTHOR-
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.