Best Books for Kids

The Most Beautifully Illustrated Children’s Books

recommended by Ella Beech

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore & Ella Beech

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The Night Before Christmas
by Clement C. Moore & Ella Beech

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What makes an illustrated book stand out? Ella Beech, the artist who has just completed a beautiful new edition of The Night Before Christmas for the Folio Society, talks us through some of her favourites.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore & Ella Beech

OUT NOW

The Night Before Christmas
by Clement C. Moore & Ella Beech

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What is considered beautiful illustration is very subjective. Before we get to the books themselves, can you tell me what you look for in a picture book? What were your criteria in selecting five beautifully illustrated and produced children’s books?

I wanted to choose books that feel beautiful as a whole. Often I will love a book for its story or I’ll love it for the illustrations — it’s really rare for me to feel a book is perfect. I love drawing and artwork, and I always have. I used to get lost in pictures as a child. The pictures were more than just pictures, I would dive into them. The five books I have chosen do the same thing for me now. In choosing them I trusted my gut.

It seems to me that the books you have picked are unique and a little off-beat rather than classically pretty. Would you say that these children’s books do something more for you than being aesthetically pleasing?

In children’s books you can have an expectation of what a book will look like, and I probably have chosen books that challenge that. Each one of the books I have chosen is a piece of artwork. You hope that they will be read again and again, that they are not just throwaway things to entertain.

I really love that there’s a market for turning books into artwork. All five books make me feel that the illustrator really enjoyed making the artwork. I feel they are all quite brave, that there’s a real exploration of the materials they use. They are mesmerising to me as an artist and I find myself getting lost in the illustrations. I really am admiring of the illustrators’ handling of materials and I think they have brilliant drawing skills. These are all books that look like they are made by hand, the sort of books that I almost imagine making, and that’s very attractive to me.

Let’s talk about your first pick, I Am the Subway by Kim Hyo-eun.

I am a fairly recent graduate from the Cambridge School of Art MA in Children’s Book Illustration, and now I teach on it as well. The course was designed by Martin Salisbury, in the belief that drawing from observation is the best foundation for being a children’s book illustrator. I Am the Subway is a brilliant example of a book that has been informed by observational drawing and how that can help you make a more original and realistic book.

There are lovely little details everywhere. Towards the end of the book, you can really sense the afternoon heat. There’s a double-page spread where the light outside is streaming in and everyone’s face is very warm; you get a sense that they’re tired at the end of the day. There’s another page where a cobbler looks chaotically happy and cosy. He is a big man who can hardly fit in his space. He is surrounded by shoes and little bits of leather and glue. You get the sense that he loves his job and that he has made the space his home as well as his workplace. There’s a little bowl of food outside where the cats are eating, showing his kindness — you don’t need words to tell you, and I love that. This is the sort of scene that I used to love as a child. You could spend hours studying and piecing together who the man in the picture is. The artwork has so many amazing, gorgeous details which give you clues about this man and his story.

I remember, as a child, that moment when I realised that everyone in the world has their own individual story in the life they are living. This book tells that beautifully. The voice is really unique: it’s from the perspective of the subway. I feel like it expresses everyone’s personal insights and the journey that they’re on with real compassion. The drawing is also beautifully rendered; you can imagine it in an art book as much as in a picture book.

This book is narrated by the Seoul subway, and that voice is very warm. I noticed that when people are busy — when they are a crowd of passengers — they have blank faces, but when the perspective shifts to individuals their faces are illustrated in detail and they get to speak in their own voices.

I think the fact that Kim Hyo-eun drew on the subway makes it feel really believable. Another thing is that this book conveys states really well. Each character has two spreads. The first shows the present where we view them on the subway, and then it shows you a scene of their day-to-day life. The two states are woven in and out beautifully. It’s a brilliantly made sequence.

Your next pick of beautifully illustrated children’s books is Little Echo by Al Rodin.

A lot of people can make beautiful sketches, but when you go to colour it can easily feel a bit stiff and lifeless. In this book Al has kept his artwork really alive, it feels like it’s dancing on the page. He has got such a clever use of light, colour and composition in this book, as well as beautiful mark-making (the way that you express yourself with paint). He would have planned this carefully, and it’s such a fine balance of being free, but making something that is easy to follow, that has a clarity of image.

I like the use of colour in this book.

The colour is absolutely beautiful. It’s all in the dark and it’s got a wonderful sense of light.

The book is about a little character called Echo, a little yellow sort of mousy bear creature — who can’t find her own voice, she can only echo — and boy called Max, who is trying to find treasure in a cave, but is lost. Echo knows where the treasure is, but is too shy to talk to him, but then she has to speak to Max when he is sleeping and a bear sneaks up on him.

It’s a sweet story about friendship and finding your voice, which uses the character of Echo to show all the good things that can happen when you try being brave and speaking up. It also feels like a book of imaginative play, the sort of adventure I remember acting out with my friends as a child. The playfulness of the artwork complements the story beautifully. It looks fresh with a lightness of touch, but I know how difficult it is to achieve that looseness. It’s rich and textured in the colour and mark-making, and still very readable in terms of image. I’m in awe, and I want to know how he does it. As an illustrator, I find it a joyful celebration of painting. I think this is quite a brave book.

Your third pick of a beautifully illustrated children’s book is Up Down Inside Out by JooHee Yoon, who is known for her work with traditional printmaking techniques.

I love JooHee Yoon’s artwork. This book is made in just two colours: red and blue. And yet, she has done that clever thing that you can with print making, when you get a myriad of extra colours by combining the overlays of colours. For example, you get a very dark, almost black, colour when the blue and red are in their full strength overlaid together. Plus, she’s used textures in each colour to get different shades. You have textured red, which almost makes a pink, and textured blue that makes light blue. It’s very creative use of two colours. You could say that the artwork is quite stylised for a children’s book, but I find it very appealing, and I think I would have loved it as a child.

The way she has done the flaps is really clever, “clever simple”, as my old boss used to say. Having worked in novelty books for 20 years, often I’ll look at a novelty book and feel fussy and I’ll want to change something about it, but with this book I don’t. I think it’s brilliant.

“It’s really rare for me to feel a book is perfect”

My favourite page is an image of a cheeky thief. You can see his eyes peeking above his coat, which he is holding closed with his arm. It is also a flap, and when you open it you reveal all of the watches underneath that he’s trying to sell you. Because the artist has made lots of patterns for the watches, it feels more than two colours. She is so clever with her use of the colours along with the white space. You have to have quite clever spatial awareness in your head. As an artist who works in layers of paint colours, I know that managing the design of the layers is quite a challenge in itself, and then you have to make the artwork readable as well. JooHee Yoon does it really well so I’m very admiring of her.

Can you talk briefly about the text?

She has taken idioms like “people in glass houses should not throw stones” and turned them into single page illustrations. As an illustrator, you’re not only using materials and artwork to make images, you’re telling stories. This book is sophisticated for a child, but I can imagine children really enjoying looking at it. It probably is a book for adults and children.

Let’s move on to Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski, a pop-up book first published in 1979, which won him a second Kate Greenaway medal for children’s book illustration.

I am such a fan of Jan’s art and his illustration, but Haunted House stands out for me particularly in terms of production: it’s a really beautifully produced children’s book. I didn’t own this book as a child, but my friend did. We used to say “let’s go and look at the haunted house”, and we would seek out the special place where it was kept, take the book out and pore over it. I love the way that the voice is saying one thing and the images are totally different, so you have a sense that the words are not quite telling the whole story. That was really appealing to me as a child. And the paper engineering is amazing. I remember that feeling of getting totally immersed in this book.

I read that Pienkowski was in an air raid shelter in Warsaw in the Second World War and a soldier kept him entertained by doing paper cuts from newspaper. As an adult he founded a greeting card company, and did stage design as well. All these elements must have come together in the production of his children’s books.

It’s really clever. Every cut in this book is used to the best effect, there’s no extraneous paper engineering in there. I’m pretty sure that it uses both sides of the wheel in lots of the illustrations. So you’ve got a dial, and you’ll have one thing printed on the outside of the circle, and then you’ll have an inner ring which has got something different printed on it. When you put holes on the page in different places it looks like magic, and I remember being blown away by that as a child.

Now I’m on the illustration side of publishing, but when I was working as a designer I always used to ask the people I worked with about their first experience of books, because we were all obsessed. I think we all had very significant reading experiences as children. I feel that the books that I loved as a child really marked me as a human.

Despite having very little text, this book tells the story in a funny way because, as you say, what’s being said is so different from what’s being shown. And the illustrations are incredibly detailed.

This book has only got six spreads, but you can spend hours reading it because it’s got all these little doors that you can open. And when you open the flaps you’ve got little dials which you can turn and the cat’s eyes rove across the page and at the end a vampire bat comes out in a big pop-up. There are all sorts of different things happening at the same time. You open a door and it creaks because it has a serrated edge. It’s funny, and again it’s clever simple. It’s perfect. The words are sparse and yet what they say is brilliant. It’s more interesting because it isn’t just saying “once upon a time in a spooky old house”.

I really love this book, it’s very special. It has flavours of In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. I found something appealing in the strangeness as a child, and I still like books that have a touch of whimsy and oddness to them. Jan is a brilliant storyteller. I used to love his Meg and Mog books as well. Now they look very dated with lots of purple and orange, but I absolutely loved them as a child.

We have come to your final pick of beautiful books for kids, A Lion in Paris by multi-award winning children’s book illustrator Beatrice Alemagna.

Beatrice Alemagna’s artwork obviously speaks to illustrators, because I know lots of illustrators love her. I think that’s because she pushes the boundaries of what’s seen as children’s book illustration. She’s experimental and isn’t afraid to be to be different. I remember finding her books quite surprising when I first saw them at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. She was memorable and really stood out amongst the illustrators.

I also chose this book because it’s such an unusual format. It’s really big, it is landscape, and you open it up vertically which creates a tall portrait book. The illustrations are shown on the bottom page, which means her illustrations are completely uninterrupted by the text, which is separate on the top page. This feels right for Beatrice’s beautiful illustrations, and I like that the illustrations are given such prominence and importance.

Is it mixed media collage?

Yes. A lot of the faces are photographs. It reminds me of some of my college projects as an art student. I used to buy 1950s ideal home magazines and cut them up and use them in my artwork.

What I also love about this book is that it’s a celebration of Paris. I grew up in London, and I could spend hours in London tourist shops looking at all the buses and maps; maybe it appeals to me as a designer. It is lovely, the way she goes around all the Paris landmarks and draws them. It ends up with the lion in the book sitting on a plinth and becoming part of Paris, that’s a really unexpected ending. She talks about her arrival in Paris and how she realised over time that the lion represents in a way all foreigners and their need to find a place to live happily, so this book has got a lovely message as well.

The text is about a lion on the grasslands that wants to find a job, love and a future. When he arrives in Paris by train he’s worried about how people will react.

Yes, the lion waited to see if he would terrify anyone. He looks a bit nervous, drinking his coffee in the café but everyone’s too busy living their own lives to notice him. It’s got a scene of him on the metro: “The lion liked to be noticed and thought it was very sad to be ignored”. It’s a nice personal story, and I think she’s brilliant at compositions. Her artwork feels very uncontrived. I remember reading in an interview that she feels she can’t do perfect perspective so decided not to worry about it and just do what comes naturally instead.

As an artist, there’s always a part of you that feels that you need to have the perfect perspective and be able to do everything skilfully to be “good”, but I think it’s when you let go of that and just let yourself be who you want to be as an illustrator that you find your voice. This book feels like it’s a celebration of finding your own individual creative voice.

What age would you say these books are for? They are all picture books, and at least two of them have flaps and other interactive features, but some of them are quite long.

It depends on the reading age of your child, because children have such different reading ages even if they’re the same age as each other. I would say the books I’ve chosen are for children age 5-9 or perhaps 4-9. I’ve mostly chosen books that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children. When I worked in publishing, I was really obsessed with a book being appropriate for a child and I used to feel sceptical of books that felt like they were made for an adult audience. But I’ve come full circle on that now, and I think that’s totally an appropriate market; why not have some children’s books for adults to enjoy?

You said that you would get absorbed in book illustrations when you were a child. I interviewed a preschool teacher who thinks that we tend to underestimate what children see when they look at pictures.

Yes, the children’s book illustration market often assumes that the child will only want bright colours and a cartoony style, which is a little bit patronising for children. If a child can enjoy looking at a Picasso, which I think they can, then I don’t see why they can’t enjoy being presented with something that they might need to look a bit harder at and spend some time over.

How did you end up moving from working in the publishing industry to becoming a children’s book illustrator?

Both my parents are artists, so I was brought up looking at art. A lot of the 20th-century artists were particularly influential for me. At home we were often painting and drawing and doing pottery and even carving, so it was a very creative household. I always thought I’d be an artist, and I did fine art painting for my first degree. When I graduated I realised that I couldn’t afford a studio and got a temporary job at Dorling Kindersley, and then a job at a company called Pinwheel where I was doing novelty book paper engineering — books with flaps, books with moving mechanisms, cloth books, bath books… It was a really creative outlet for me, and it captured me for a long time. I worked as a designer and art director for about 15 years.

When I got a job as head of Campbell Books, a novelty book imprint, it was a new experience for me, as I managed editors as well as designers and illustrators. I was responsible for the whole of the list of about 80 books a year, which was amazing but less hands-on creatively. I suddenly found myself in my early forties having an almost lightbulb moment of realising that I wanted to be an artist. So after over 20 years in publishing, I handed in my notice to become a children’s book illustrator. It was a really scary move.

This might sound a bit romantic, but illustration isn’t just a commercial endeavour for me, it goes much deeper. I had such meaningful connections with books as a child, I just can’t let them go. Also, my lifelong desire and intention to be an “artist” has extra meaning for me because of my 20-year detour into doing a “real job”, albeit a lovely one, so coming back to creative work feels like a true passion fulfilled. The books I have chosen in some ways reflect that. They are children’s books that feel like they are made by artists, and the pictures draw me in, in the same way as when I was a child. I feel very lucky!

The Folio Society has published a new edition of The Night Before Christmas with your artwork. How did you go about illustrating this classic?

When the art director first asked me to illustrate the book, all I could picture was the first sentence: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”. I decided that I wasn’t going to look at any of the other books because I didn’t want to copy something, even subconsciously. The main thing I wanted to do was to bring as much storytelling as I could into the poem, which is quite lyrical. It tells the story of Santa visiting the family from the perspective of the father. I thought about the children who would be reading the book and it felt right to bring the whole family into the story. As soon as I did that, the whole book came to life! I liked that although Santa doesn’t interact with the family (he doesn’t know they have seen him) he does interact with the family’s pets — a cat and a dog. That felt like it brought a bit of life and connection into the story. I also really enjoyed adding little details, like the food wrapped in foil in the kitchen, ready for the big day.

It was intimidating at first, to illustrate such an iconic poem, but as soon as I drew everyone, including Santa, they all became a little bit like family, and I found I lost myself in the work I created. It was very exciting, and a real privilege being entrusted with the project. It felt very special to work with The Folio Society, a publisher I had admired from afar for years. It still feels like a dream that I made a book with them!

The Folio Society edition of Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Ella Beech, is available exclusively from The Folio Society

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

December 20, 2023

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Ella Beech

Ella Beech

Ella Beech is an artist and illustrator living in Cambridge, UK. She is an Associate Lecturer in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University, where she did her MA. She also has a BA Hons in Fine Art, Painting. Ella worked as a children's book designer and art director for publishing companies for 20 years, and was Head of Campbell Books (Pan Macmillan) 2015-2019.