15 of the most beautifully illustrated children’s books for young and grown readers

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Photo: Sanne Vliegenthart

While researching the most gorgeously illustrated books for adults and children, I realised just how many beautiful children’s books there are – and how valuable they are for adults and children alike to retreat into.

As Katherine Rundell shares in her wonderfully titled essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise:

“When you read children’s books, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal.”

Many of the best children’s books speak of hope, love, beauty, exploration, and courage.

And, with stunning illustrations like those in the books I’ve collected below, they offer a comforting moment of rest away from our busy world – as well as a reminder that you absolutely can find art in children’s books.

Here’s my collection of some of the most beautifully illustrated children’s books of all time, including some of the best new children’s books for 2022.

The most beautiful children’s books of all time

1. Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin (2022)

Watercress, the stunning Caldecott Medal Winner for 2022, is a thought-provoking and beautiful story of a first-generation girl coming to terms with, and ultimately celebrating, her Chinese heritage.

Author Andrea Wang calls this moving, autobiographical story “both an apology and a love letter to my parents,” offering a bittersweet and delicate look at shared history, identity, and memories.

As one of the best illustrated children’s books for 2022, Watercress is sure to become a classic.

2. Becoming a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery and Rebecca Green (2020)

It’s no secret how much I love How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery.

I’ve recommended this heartwarming and tender book time and time again in the last few years: it’s one of the most soothing books I’ve found to boost my spirits and restore my faith in the beauty and goodness in the world.

Like Sy’s memoir, this uplifting companion book for readers young and grown is similarly adorned with gorgeous illustrations by Rebecca Green.

In the pages of Becoming a Good Creature you uncover a wholesome, inspiring, and friendly guide for readers who wish to be better creatures in the world.

3. The Snail with the Right Heart by Maria Popova and Ping Zhu (2021)

This beautiful children’s book is a collaboration between Maria Popova, the curious mind behind The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings), and illustrator Ping Zhu.

With wonderfully bold illustrations, the book is an introduction to evolution, a celebration of the beauty of uniqueness, and a story of time and chance, love and death, and the finite and infinite.

4. Lore of the Wild: Folklore and Wisdom from Nature by Claire Cock-Starkey (2021)

Lore of the Wild is an enchanting treasure trove of natural folklore and wild wisdom from around the world.

I bought myself the hardcover edition last year for peaceful evening reading, while also looking forward to the chance to learn more about the ancient wisdom and folktales from familiar and unfamiliar corners of Earth.

With vibrant colour and spellbinding illustrations, it’s a joy to read at storytime.

5. What is Love? by Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis (2021)

“What is love?” a young boy asks. “I can’t answer that,” his grandmother says. So the boy goes out into the world to find out, asking each person he meets. They all offer a unique answer, but none of them seem exactly right.

Is love really a fish, like the fisherman claims? What about applause, as the actor says? Could love in fact be something closer to home?

Accompanied by uplifting illustrations by Caldecott Honor-winning artist Carson Ellis, this heartwarming modern fable is a treat for children, parents, grandparents, and other readers who stumble upon its tender wisdom.

6. The Wanderer by Peter Van den Ende (2020)

This beautiful monochrome children’s book is the enigmatic, engrossing, and wordless story of one little paper boat’s journey across the ocean.

The boat may be all alone, but as it passes reefs and between icebergs, through schools of fish, and next to sea monsters, it has the chance to wonder at the enchanting world above and below the waves.

As a storm brews, the little boat must find the strength to save itself as the waves build and the winds blow.

And so it does, offering all readers an inspiring reminder of their own strength in this quietly powerful story about weathering life’s ups and downs.

7. What is a River? by Monika Vaicenavičienė (2021)

What is a river? That’s the question explored by Monika Vaicenavičienė, Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller, in this gorgeous children’s book about interconnectedness in our shared world.

With poetic grace and encyclopedic insights, Vaicenavičienė explores the many things a river can be: among others, a journey, a meeting place, a smell, a reflection, a mystery, and refreshment.

8. The Bear in the Stars by Alexis Snell (2020)

The Bear in the Stars is a stunningly illustrated and lyrical book – a poignant yet inspiring fable about the environment, loss, new beginnings, and the transformative power of kindness.

It’s a timely and beautiful book for readers of all ages that’s perfect for bedtime reading.

9. Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford and Anne Bannock (2021)

What an elegantly captivating book this is. Seeking an Aurora is the tender creation of New Zealand author-artist duo Elizabeth Pulford and Anne Bannock, who in this sparse and beautiful children’s book capture the spellbinding wonder and magic of the cosmos.

10. Almost Nothing, yet Everything: A Book about Water by Hiroshi Osada and Ryōji Arai (2021)

Some author-artist partnerships come together to create magic, and that couldn’t be more true with the trio of Japanese poet Hiroshi Osada, artist Ryōji Arai, and translator David Boyd.

I’ve included two of their books on this list, the first being this lovely illustrated poem, Almost Nothing, yet Everything: A Book about Water.

With lush art, evocative poetry meditating on our place in nature, and a translation that skilfully harnesses the elegance of the original Japanese, this is a refreshing and uplifting children’s book that opens our eyes to the wonders of water, life, and our universe.

11. Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada and Ryōji Arai (2020)

The second book I’ve chosen from Hiroshi Osada, Ryōji Arai, and translator David Boyd is a gorgeous celebration of light in all its forms.

Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky illuminates the wonders of the sky above us, crafting an imaginative and poetic bedtime story told by the elements.

As lightning strikes the sky, rain falls on lush green forests, and a new day blooms, this lovely book offers up an ode to calmness and turbulence, harmonizing human experience with the natural world.

12. My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huỳnh Kim Liên (2021)

What an adventure this beautiful picture story is. My First Day is an inspiring story of courage and determination for new beginnings, perfect for back-to-school reading.

In this stunning children’s book by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien, book creators living and working together in Ho Chi Minh City, the rainy season has come to the Mekong Delta.

An, a young Vietnamese boy, sets out alone for the first time in a wooden boat on “the great river, Mother Mekong”, wearing his backpack and armed with a single oar.

Although daunted by the dark unknown on his expedition – towering waves, heavy rainfall, and spooky mangrove forests – An realizes that it will all be worth it when he reaches his destination: his very first day of school.

13. The Rhythm of the Rain by Grahame Baker-Smith (2019)

In this breathtakingly beautiful picture book about the journey of water from the smallest raindrop to the deepest ocean, Issac plays in his favorite pool on the mountainside, emptying his jar of water into the pool as rain starts to fall.

Racing the sparkling streams as they tumble over waterfalls towards the vast open sea, Isaac wonders, Where will my little jar of water go now?

Lovingly crafted by the Kate Greenaway Medal winner Grahame Baker-Smith, The Rhythm of the Rain is an iridescent, otherworldly wonder of a book, layered with magic and majesty for readers of all ages to marvel at.

14. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr (1987)

Late one winter night a little girl and her father go owling, the trees standing still and the world silent around them. Whoo-whoo-whoo, calls the father, but there is no answer.

The two companions walk along wordlessly, sharing a quiet acceptance that sometimes there isn’t an owl, but sometimes there is.

In this timelessly wise and comforting children’s classic, distinguished author Jane Yolen has created a tender and poetic story that lovingly paints the companionship of a young child and her father, as well as their relationship with the natural world.

Perfectly complemented by John Schoenherr’s soft, dream-like watercolor illustrations, Owl Moon is a verbal and visual treasure to share at bedtime.

15. The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2017)

The Lost Words is the gift of an iconic collaboration between one of the greatest nature writers of our time, Robert Macfarlane, and bestselling illustrator Jackie Morris.

This beautiful book for children and adults alike is a stunning ode to the fading and forgotten words of British nature: otter, dandelion, kingfisher, bramble.

Like many of the books on this list, children’s book doesn’t seem entirely fair. It’s an exquisite book for all readers, offering a reminder of the joy of growing up close to nature, aware of the birds, flowers, plants, and phenomena of the wild planet we inhabit, wherever we are in the world.

For more enchanting books to tumble into, enjoy my curated list of the most beautiful books in the world and the most beautifully illustrated books for all ages.

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