The best picture books aren't just for children. Illustrators create imaginative, character-filled artwork to bring stories to life for readers of all ages. Picture books can also spark the reader's imagination and allow them to enter the world the author has created, holding their attention to the very end.
Illustrations treat the the reader to extra detail not found in the text, giving more context to the story. Soaking up all of this bonus material is what makes children crave the same story again and again – and it keeps adults interested when reading that one book over and over again. In this rundown, we've selected the best picture books you need to pay attention to, old and new, and included options for all ages, across a range of topics.
If you want more picture book ideas, there are plenty over on our post rounding up the best children's books, or if you want to try your hand at illustrating your own book, check out our pick of the best how to draw tutorials on the web.
01. Goodnight Moon
This old favourite remains the best picture book for babies
Publisher: Two Hoots | Author: Margaret Wise Brown | Illustrator: Clement Hurd | Pages: 32 | ISBN-10: 9781509831975 | ISBN-13: 978-1509831975 | Best for: under 3 years
Goodnight Moon allows us a private peek into the bedtime routine of a young bunny rabbit as he says goodnight to everything in his cosy room. This classic book will hypnotise the youngest of children with its rhythmic poetry and striking illustrations, and the board book edition is perfect for little hands.
With pages that alternate from brightly coloured to black and white (colour choices that are perfect for babies), the books' colour palette makes bedtime feel safe and warm, with some slight shadowing that hints at night time. The ink drawings on the black and white pages zoom in on specific parts of the room so you can explore the features in more detail. It's a charming book that's guaranteed to have little ones yawning by the last page.
02. Paper Dolls
Go on a delightful adventure with the best picture book for toddlers
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books | Author: Julia Donaldson | Illustrator: Rebecca Cobb | Pages: 32 | ISBN-10: 9781447220145 | ISBN-13: 978-1447220145 | Best for: 2-5 years
We had to include a Julia Donaldson book in this list, and Paper Dolls is wonderfully illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. A little girl and her mother make a string of paper dolls and take us along on an adventure laced with sentimental messages about the importance of memories. Cobb has a delicate, whimsical illustrative style that's a departure from the boldness of Donaldson's collaborations with Axel Scheffler. Her pictures bring the imagination of the little girl to life and are full of detail that toddlers (and older children) love to explore. At the end of the story, you feel you've been let in on the secret of child's play; it feels joyful, bittersweet and surprisingly intimate.
03. Alice in Wonderland
This reimagining of a classic tale is the best picture book for older children
Publisher: Walker Books | Author: Lewis Carroll | Illustrator: Anthony Browne | Pages: 128 | ISBN-10: 9781406361575 | ISBN-13: 978-1406361575 | Best for: 7-12 years
Ex-children's laureate Anthony Browne celebrated the topsy-turvy world found down the rabbit hole when he lent his unmistakable style to the classic book Alice In Wonderland in 2015. Known for his surreal approach, Browne is unafraid to let the darkness and confusion of Alice's adventures sing out with bold, sometimes grotesque, imagery that reimagines beloved characters and scenes. Browne tried to stray from the formidable influence of past Alice illustrator Sir John Tenniel, and we especially love his Mad Hatter. Instead of a signature tall hat, Browne's Hatter has lots of hats, stacked on top of each other. This is a fascinating read that will be most appreciated by older children and adults.
The best picture book about friendship is a collaboration of great illustrators
Publisher: Alison Green Books | Author: Alison Green | Illustrator: Various | Pages: 48 | ISBN-10: 1407194569 | ISBN-13: 978-1407194561 | Best for: 3-8 years
Kind is a brand new book that showcases 38 top illustrators whose styles you are sure to recognise from their work on some of the best children's books (think Quentin Blake and Lauren Child to get an idea of the calibre). The book invites you to imagine a world where everyone is kind, all of the time, with each illustration depicting that premise in different ways. The different illustrative styles are celebrated using minimal writing, usually just a sentence or two. The types of kindness pictured vary from small acts such as opening a door for someone to showing kindness to people from other countries by learning a few words in their language. It's a profound book that'll resonate with both children and adults.
05. Planetarium: Welcome to the Museum
The best picture book about space is an immersive visual treat
Publisher: Big Picture Press | Author: Raman Prinja | Illustrator: Chris Wormell | Pages: 112 | ISBN-10: 1787411575 | ISBN-13: 978-1787411579 | Best for: all ages
One of a series of science-themed books that includes Dinosaurium and Botanicum, this one, Planetarium: Welcome to the Museum, is published in association with London's Science Museum. It's an impressively-sized hardback book packed full of mesmerising illustrations that depict all aspects of space, from our solar system to the universe beyond. Illustrator Chris Wormell has fulfilled every criteria with his artwork. He dazzles us with sweeping views of galaxies, then changes gear for the precision needed for scientific diagrams. It's like watching the universe on an HD screen of the highest spec. And the text from Professor Raman Prinja is suitably expert too, comprehensive and approachable enough for children and adults. Though if you did want a simpler one, it does come in a junior version.
06. Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos
Learn about the life of Kahlo in the best picture book about animals
Publisher: North South Books | Author: Monica Brown | Illustrator: John Parra | Pages: 40 | ISBN-10: 9780735842694 | ISBN-13: 978-0735842694 | Best for: 4-8 years
This stunning book about renowned artist Frida Kahlo has won multiple awards. Monica Brown uses the animals that inspired Kahlo to tell the artist's story in Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos, showing us how she embodied characteristics from her much-loved pets – two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a black cat, and a fawn. This book is as much of a celebration of animals and Mexican culture as it is of Kahlo herself. John Parra's vibrant illustrations are tied to Kahlo's artistic style providing an immersive first look at one of the world's most influential artists.
07. The Chamber of Secrets
The best Harry Potter picture book
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's Books | Author: JK Rowling | Illustrator: Jim Kay | Pages: 272 | ISBN-10: 9781408845653 | ISBN-13: 978-1408845653 | Best for: all ages
These glossy hardbacks illustrated by Jim Kay are a whole new way to experience Harry Potter. Kay is about to release number four out of the seven Potter books, and uses paint, pencil and digital art to breathe new life into the fantasy series. It was tough to choose a favourite, but we've gone for The Chamber of Secrets. The variety of technique and style is impressive, the dark plot is celebrated with eerie images and scenes that occur in dark places are printed on black paper. There's a particularly special double page imagining of the phoenix and a mesmerising double page of neon digital graphic art that blew us away.
08. Where's Warhol?
Have educational fun with the best picture book about art history
Publisher: Laurence King Publishing | Author: Catherine Ingham | Illustrator: Andrew Rae | Pages: 40 | ISBN-10: 1780677448 | ISBN-13: 978-1780677446 | Best for: all ages
Where's Wally is reborn for the art crowd in this super-fun picture book, Where's Warhol? sees Andy Warhol catapulted into different eras as he visits art of the past. He's hidden in scenes depicting 12 iconic moments from art history ranging from Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel to Studio 54. Each picture serves as a who's who of the period, with famous faces littering the crowds. With amusing and well-crafted detail that was carefully created from archival research, this is an engaging and informative whistle stop tour through art history.
09. The Jolly Christmas Postman
The best Christmas picture book is a twist on an original
Publisher: Puffin | Author: Janet and Allan Ahlberg | Pages: 52 | ISBN-10: 0141340118 | ISBN-13: 978-0141340111 | Best for: 3-7 years
The Jolly Christmas Postman has letters for all your favourite fairytale characters on Christmas eve. The format of The Jolly Postman books lend themselves to excitement (kids love opening a letter), and adding in the wonder of Christmas amps it up a level. The reader can visit the home of the Three Bears and Cinderella and open the actual letters and cards sent to them. With so many characters to spot in the captivating illustrations, and so much detail in the post itself, this book will keep small (and bigger) ones busy for hours. Just be careful with the littlest of readers as the envelopes are easy to rip.
Explore different cultures with the best picture book about people
Publisher: Walker Books | Author: Carson Ellis | Pages: 40 | ISBN-10: 9781406365795 | ISBN-13: 978-1406365795 | Best for: 3-7 years
What does home mean to you? A caravan? An igloo? A shoe? In Home, Carson Ellis explores the many imaginative possibilities of where home could be through her precise style that seems simple but holds delightful detail. Some of her images come straight from real life, like the urban grit in the city scene, whereas others such as a pirate ship are more at home in a storybook. Her distinctive artistic style, though, is consistent throughout. Rich in colour and thought provoking, this book is a great basis for discussion about how different people live.
11. Sea Prayer
This moving poem is the best picture book for adults
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing | Author: Khaled Hosseini | Illustrator: Dan Williams | Pages: 48 | ISBN-10: 1526602717 | ISBN-13: 978-1526602718 | Best for: Adults
This beautifully illustrated book, Sea Prayer, is based on the tragic real-life death of a refugee child that made international news. A father sits with his sleeping son on the evening before they take a boat across the sea to search for a new home. Part prayer, part reflection, the father talks of his life in his beautiful home country of Syria and laments all they'll be leaving behind. The poem is brief but leaves a lasting impact, while the watercolour illustrations are evocative and serve to make the father's words even more moving. This is a book you'll want to return to again and again.