In English literature, the active publication of children’s books was a recent activity, as the concept of childhood is relatively new. Late 19th and early 20th centuries were considered as the golden age of children’s literature.
Aesop (B.C. 620~564) ‘s fable is probably the most famous traditional literature for children. These stories were transcended as the oral tradition. Most of these stories contained moral and religious messages.
Picture books are considered as one genre of children’s literature. The 20th century has observed many great authors and illustrators. In this article, the best authors of picture books in the modern & contemporary era are introduced. These authors were also preeminent illustrators.
Please note that Ian Falconer (1959~) and Karma Wilson (1970~) were also strong contenders. Ian Falconer was the author of the famous Oliva series, and Karma Wilson has authored popular books on animals. I will introduce her books in the near future.
Dr. Seuss (1904~1991)
By far, Dr. Seuss is the most popular and loved author of all time. His real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, and he was a German descent. He has written more than 60 books. He was an author, political cartoonist, illustrator, poet, animator, screenwriter, and filmmaker. As he was active during the World Wars, he suffered from anti-German prejudice.
He entered Oxford University to get a Ph.D. in English literature, but he left for the U.S. before earning the degree. In a lot of his books, imaginative power radiates. In 1956, Dartmouth awarded an honorary doctorate to him.
- The Cat in the Hat (1957, 10 million copies sold)
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957)
- Green Eggs and Ham (1960, 8 million copies sold) Remarkable rhymes continue throughout the book. Over 8 million copies were sold.
- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960)
- Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963)
- The Lorax (1971)
- Oh, the places You’ll go! (1990)
The main characters in a lot of his books were animals. He emphasized rhymes with simple words. For example, Green Eggs and Ham used only 50 words. It is a surprising fact because there are a lot of sentences in the book.
Many characters in his books have unique names using everyday words such as Thing One, Thing Two, Sam-I-Am, Once-ler, etc. He even created some popular characters such as Grinch and Pete the Cat.
He used watercolor a lot. His illustrations showed a unique style through ample use of ink or pen & acrylic. Often, they were exaggerating and hilarious. Readers can observe the detailed caricature-like illustrations. In 1995, a book which analyzed his illustration style, The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, was published posthumously.
More than 650 million copies of his books were sold worldwide.
Eric Carle (1929~ )
After born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929, he moved to Germany with his family when he was six years old. He was conscripted to the German army when he was 15 years old. (source). After returning to NewYork in 1952, he was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
His books were written in plain language, and even very young children could understand his books. A lot of animals appeared in his books. He is the only author who is still alive among the top five. I wish him a long and healthy life.
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear (1967, Illustrator)
- The very hungry caterpillar (1969)
- The Tiny Seed (1970)
- The Grouchy Ladybug (1977)
- The Very Busy Spider (1984)
- From Head to Toe (1997)
Eric Carle loves nature, and the main characters in his books were often animals. He had a deep understanding of children. He tried to make the story as simple as possible so that even a 3-year-old child can understand the story.
For drawing, he used the technique of collage. It is creating a picture by gluing together cut pieces of paper. This link explains how the caterpillar in The Very Hungry Caterpillar was created with the collage technique.
More than 145 million copied were sold worldwide as if 2019.
Ezra Jack Keats (1916~1983)
He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a Polish Jewish immigrant family. His birth name was Jacob Ezra Katz. When he grew up, he had a problem of finding a job because he was Jewish. Then, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats because it sounds less like Jewish. Even when he was very young, he showed exceptional talents in fine arts. His father was worried about him becoming a starving artist.
He was selected as the best five for his roles in introducing multi-culturalism in children’s literature. There were 23 books he has both authored and illustrated. The Snowy Day, which was introduced in one of my articles, was the biggest hit. In total, he has authored and illustrated more than 85 books for children.
Ezra loved children all over the world. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation was founded after he died. The following short video introduces the life of Ezra Jack Keats.
- The Snowy Day (1962)
- Whistle for Willy (1964)
- Peter’s Chair (1967)
- Googles! (1969)
He developed the character of Peter, a young African child. His dedication to introducing multi-culturalism in Children’s literature as the main character can never be over-emphasized.
He used the technique of collage. Once he mentioned, “With The Snowy Day I started all over again. My use of collage developed naturally. I used a bit of paper here and there and immediately saw new colors, patterns, and relationships forming. When I finished the book, I myself was startled!”(Source)
In the following video, Ezra Keats himself briefly explained what he drew when he was young.
The Snowy Day was sold more than 6 million copies in North America alone.
Maurice Sendak (1928~2012)
Born to Polish-Jewish parents, many family members of his died during the Holocaust. Where the wild things are, which was introduced in my previous article, has been considered as the best children’s book by many authorities such as Time magazine and School Library Journal.
Interestingly, Sendak once mentioned in an interview that he did not even know if there were children’s books when he was young, as shown below.
- Where the wild things are (1963): First picture book he both wrote and illustrated.
- In the Night Kitchen (1970): he loved comic books, so he intentionally made it like a comic book.
- Outside Over There (1981): beautiful and fine-tuned pictures. Different style from Where the wild things are.
Sendak mentioned that “I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation…. You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true.” As can be learned from the quote, he treated children as an equally qualified being instead of an inferior entity. His philosophy can be found in a lot of his books.
Sendak has received a lot of harsh criticism. Publishers Weekly called Where the Wild Things are as “a pointless and confusing story”. (source)
Where the Wild Things are are often considered as a controversial classic. Similarly, In the Night Kitchen was banned due to the nudity of a boy. People who were used to traditional fairy tales probably thought that Sendak’s dark illustration might seem frightening and controversial to children. But, Sendak did not care much about social taboo. For him, imagination was the most crucial element in children’s literature, and he kept publishing more books.
His books contain rich illustrations. A lot of times, a skewed version of reality (surrealism) was contained in his books. His books, such as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, will remind readers of fantasy, surrealism, and dreams. Flamboyant usage of colors, light, and shadow was another main characteristic of his illustration.
Where the Wild things are was sold over 20 million copies worldwide in 32 languages.
Shel Silverstein (1930~1999)
He was well known as a poet, but he was also a great illustrator. His books show simple and unique illustrations. His interest and career path were not limited to poems and drawings. He was a songwriter and singer. He even won a Grammy Award in 1969 by the song, “A boy named Sue”, which was sung by Johnny Cash.
His cartoons were published in Playboy magazine from 1956~1990’s. His books, drawings, and poems can be found on his website, http://www.shelsilverstein.com/.
- Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back (1963)
- The Giving Tree (1964)
- A Giraffe and a Half (1964)
- Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974): encourages imagination
- A Light In the Attic (1981): a collection of poems and drawings
- Runny Babbit (2005, posthumously)
- Every thing On It (2011, posthumously)
Shel Silverstein was widely known as a poet. A lot of his books are the collection of poems. The content of The Giving Tree, as introduced in one of my articles, is also concise and poetic.
In a lot of his books, he used no color. Most illustrations are created with only a pen.
More than 35 million copies of his books were sold in the U.S only, and there have been 46 foreign editions.