Picture books are a creative phenomena to me. More than imagery and words, they speak in so many languages. Every child and parent knows the truth of this because our imaginations, our senses, and our minds are stirred in bountiful ways each time a book is read. And that’s a richness we all share.
That wealth of words and expression has been recognized for almost a century now in the United States. Since 1922, the American Library Association has awarded the Newbery Medal to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. But by the 1930s, many picture book authors wondered why their illustrators were not honored as well. In 1938, the Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book.
The following short list includes many of the most famous children’s authors and illustrators from the 20th century along with their less well-known works.
- Clare Turley Newbery studied art at the University of Oregon, the California School of Fine Arts, and at La Grand Chaumiere in Paris, France. She focused on portrait painting but, in 1931, she wrote and illustrated her first book for children, Herbert the Lion. Also see:
Barkis (Caldecott Honor 1939), April’s Kittens (Caldecott Honor 1941), Smudge, Pandora, Babette, Widget, Marshmallow (Caldecott Honor 1943), Mittens, Herbert the Lion, Drawing a Cat
- Ezra Jack Keats based the lives of his multiracial characters on his own childhood growing up as an immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. He worked in art his entire life, from painting murals for the WPA to drawing backgrounds for Captain Marvel comics. See:
The Snowy Day (Caldecott Medal 1963), Whistle for Willie, John Henry: An American Legend, Peter’s Chair, Keats’s Neighborhood, Pet Show!, Apt. 3, Regards to the Man in the Moon
- Marcia Brown grew up in the Great Depression and quit a teaching job to pursue her dream of writing and illustrating children’s books. She never took an art class, but during summers worked at a resort hotel in Woodstock where she studied with Judson Smith. See:
Stone Soup (Caldecott Honor 1947), Puss in Boots, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Cinderella (Caldecott Medal 1955), Once a Mouse (Caldecott Medal 1961), Shadow (Caldecott Medal 1983), 1992 Wilder Medal
- William Steig was born into an artistic family in Brooklyn, New York. He was hired as an illustrator for The New Yorker in 1930 but didn’t venture into children’s books until 1968. See:
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Caldecott Medal 1970), The Amazing Bone (Caldecott Honor 1977), Abel’s Island (Newbery Honor 1977), Doctor De Soto (Newbery Honor 1982), Brave Irene, Pete’s a Pizza
- Robert McCloskey wrote eight children’s books and illustrated ten more, often saying he wasn’t prolific because he had “to wait until it bubbles out.”
Make Way for Ducklings (Caldecott Medal 1942), Blueberries for Sal (Caldecott Honor 1949), One Morning in Maine (Caldecott Honor 1953), Time of Wonder (Caldecott Medal 1958) Once a Mouse (Caldecott Medal 1961), Lentil
- Marjorie Flack was a storyteller at heart. Thanks to Captain Kangaroo, her most well-known book was The Story About Ping, illustrated by Kurt Wiese. Also see:
Ask Mr. Bear, Angus Lost, Angus and the Ducks, Angus and the Cat, The Story about Ping, Walter the Lazy Mouse, The Boats on the River (Caldecott Honor 1947)
- Leo Politi was born in California but returned to Italy with his mother at age 7. There he worked in art and design before returning to the United States. See:
Pedro, The Angel of Olvera Street (Caldecott Honor 1947), Juanita (Caldecott Honor 1949), Song of the Swallows (Caldecott Medal 1950), A Boat for Peppe, Emmet, Saint Francis and the Animals
- Arnold Lobel studied at the Pratt Institute where he met his wife Anita Kemper. Together they created How Rooster Saved the Day (1977) and A Treeful of Pigs (1979). Also see:
Frog and Toad Are Friends (Caldecott Honor 1971), Frog and Toad Together (Newbery Honor 1971), Frog and Toad All Year, Days with Frog and Toad, Mouse Soup, Fables (Caldecott Medal 1981), On Market Street by Anita and Arnold Lobel (Caldecott Honor 1982), Ming Lo Loves the Mountain
- Tasha Tudor illustrated over 100 books among thousands of cards, calendars, and posters of original art with her trademark pencil sketches and watercolors. See:
A Tale for Easter, The County Fair, Mother Goose (Caldecott Honor 1945), The Dolls’ Christmas, First Graces, 1 Is One (Caldecott Honor 1957), A Time to Keep: The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays, The Corgiville Fair
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’d like to explore further the magical world of classic American picture books, try downloading this printable visual guide Christine has graciously provided: