As a former children’s librarian, I’ve read a lot of picture books. Some, I return to again and again, whether for story time or for my own enjoyment (listen, while Penguin Problems doesn’t work for a large group of babies and toddlers, I love that book; it’s hilarious). Many of those books are old standards or popular new picture books that people with children in their lives — and even those without — have heard of. They’re your Jerry Pinkneys, your Eric Carles, your Anna Dewdneys, your Ellen Stoll Walshes. All of these are popular for a reason. Often, they worm their ways into children’s heads with verbal repetition or rhyming, mesmerizing rhythm, bold or interesting illustrations, or interactive elements. Adults may appreciate the book’s artistry, clever turns of phrase, great plot and character development, and even subtle nods to their readership. For this list we’ll move beyond the old standbys and discover 20 of the best picture books you’ve never heard of.
Written with children in mind, many of these picture books will also be enjoyable for adults. From humorous hijinks involving mice out to fill their bellies, to meditative and rhythmic poems about the wonders of books, to a depiction of the attempted imaginative squashing of a Navajo boy, there is a whole world in this list for readers of all ages to explore. And cats. A lot of cats. Because while there are plenty of well-known children’s books about dogs, I am partial to books about these more ill-reputed pets.
The Best Picture Books You’ve Never Heard Of
Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn
No dream is too big for Jjajja’s grandson, whose aspirations expand beyond the lush and mountainous landscape of Uganda all the way to the world outside of Earth: space. But when a rainy day sets him back, this young boy is treated to the wisdom of his grandfather, who shares the magic of the world around them. With enchanting illustrations full of light and wonder, this picture book will warm and inspire you.
Lullaby by Langston Hughes and Sean Qualls
Now as a picture book, Hughes’s poem “Lullaby” celebrates Black life and Black babies, comparing them to the greatness of the dark sky. Lullaby gently describes the night with beautiful simplicity. Perfect for bedtime, this richly-illustrated picture book doused in colors reminiscent of royalty includes additional content such as a photo of Hughes and his mother and a list of other suggested texts. Soothing and empowering, Lullaby will bring calm to readers and listeners alike.
Let’s Go! By Sarah Williamson
Tuski the elephant is on the go. With friends to pick up along the way, Tuski hops in his bright red taxi. On his journey, Tuski encounters a lemon, a pea, a blue bird, ladybugs, and more. Ripe with opportunity for practicing counting, colors, and object identification, Let’s Go! is a great choice for a range of ages since it has different levels of access points for engagement. Meanwhile, the bold and high-contrast illustrative style with limited detail makes focusing fun and easy.
Our Car by J. M. Brum and Jan Bajtlik
There are so many fun and interesting places you can go in a car! Our Car takes readers along for the ride to visit a carwash, through a storm, and more in a bright red car. With a father and son taking the trip together, Our Car offers loads of fun by way of an exciting journey and movement in the energetic illustrations. Perfect for vehicle lovers who are eager to explore the world.
Mouse Went Out to Get a Snack by Lyn Rossiter McFarland and Jim McFarland
This mouse is hungry! Lucky for our protagonist mouse, there is a feast just waiting to be devoured. Soon, the mouse is collecting the dinner of a lifetime, but danger lurks! The house cat has discovered the mouse, and it’s a race to his hole-in-the-wall home to bring back dinner. Mouse Went Out to Get a Snack is delightful, with encouragement to practice counting and food identification set snugly inside a classic cat-and-mouse tale and complete with impressive and detailed illustrations.
Strong as a Bear by Katrin Stangl
Quiet as a mouse. Strong as a bear. Proud as a peacock. There are so many ways to be. Strong as a Bear lists some of them in this picture book that connects humans, emotions, and animals in simple text. Paired with folksy illustration, this picture book is compulsively readable as the pages turn and more comparisons appear. Readers will enjoy finding themselves identifying with different states and creatures while keeping up a steady, comforting beat until the end.
Fall in Line, Holden! by Daniel V. Vandever
At school, Holden, a Navajo boy, is held to certain expectations. There are daily agendas, notions on how he ought to behave, and even limitations on how and when he should think. But with an active imagination, adhering to his school’s rules is a challenge. Everything in Holden’s life has potential — but now he must ask whether he has the potential to fall in line. And if he can, should he? Readers of all ages can enjoy this story, full of high-contrast and simple illustrations, leaving enough to the imagination that readers can enjoy the exciting journey of mental creation along with Holden.
The 5,000 Friends of Veronica Veetch by Jean Hanson and Launie Parry
It seems to Veronica’s peers that she is too highfalutin for the likes of them. After all, she has an awful lot of adventures and they sound pretty pricey and cultured! When Veronica feels her classmates shun her, she invites them over to do some world traveling and soon helps them to see that her experiences come from the magic of books. Engaging, rhythmic, and endlessly fun, The 5,000 Friends of Veronica Veetch is coupled with bright and friendly illustrations. Read this book if you want to be inspired to read even more!
Two Mrs. Gibsons by Toyomi Igus and Daryl Wells
In a jubilant observance of biracial identities, author Toyomi Igus celebrates her Japanese mother and African American grandmother in this picture book memoir. Igus notes the qualities of each important woman and considers the roles they play in her life. Simplistic in its prose, Two Mrs. Gibsons introduces lots of texture through patterned illustrations and the deeper concepts of its autobiographical story. As both a personal family narrative and one that honors the experience of embodying two different cultures, Two Mrs. Gibsons is a special book that readers can enjoy on several levels.
Is It a Mermaid? by Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa
Benji and Bel have come upon a dugong on a beach, but the Dugong insists she’s a mermaid. With all the right qualities like a tail and the ability to sing, the Dugong is sure she can convince Benji and Bel that she is a mermaid as they traverse the beaches of the Philippines. With self-assurance, confidence, and conviction, the Dugong believes Benji and Bel will come around. Ideal for a lesson on respect, Is It a Mermaid? blends mythology into a humorous story with textured illustrations.
Kitten’s Autumn by Eugenie Fernandes
With curiosity nudging her out of the bounds of her farm, Kitten explores the broader world in the season of fall. There, she discovers caterpillars, chipmunks, and more friends-to-be-made. Young readers will enjoy seeking the charm of Kitten’s world, finding elements particular to autumn. Built from rhyming couplets, the story offers fun rhythmic enjoyment alongside incredible mixed media illustration that leaves room for hours of examination for kids and adults inspired by Kitten’s curiosity.
Melena’s Jubilee: The Story of a Fresh Start by Zetta Elliott and Aaron Boyd
With a new outlook, Melena starts her day off with a commitment to behaving differently. Melena will avoid bickering with her brother, be charitable, share, and more. With a focus on how to live life in the spirit of jubilee, including what kids can do, Melena’s Jubilee celebrates the notion of jubilee and further informs readers with an author’s note on the concept. Mixed media illustrations combine simple and more detailed images, creating a visually interesting book along with the importance of the premise.
Good Morning, Grumple by Victoria Allenby and Manon Gauthier
Not everyone is a morning person, and that is especially true for Grumples. Grumples hate mornings. Told in verse, Good Morning, Grumple is the story of one such child as Grumple’s mother tries some gentle coaxing to get Grumple up and going for the day. Grumple and his mother’s special bond comes through in this difficult morning, illustrated with a layered collage style and an adorable creature of new invention. With Good Morning, Grumple to look forward to, getting up in the morning won’t be so hard.
Bright Sky, Starry City by Uma Krishnaswami and Aimée Sicuro
Tonight is very special — Saturn and Mars will be visible together in the night sky. And what’s more, Phoebe gets to help her dad with the telescopes on the sidewalk. The only threat to their perfect night: city lights. And then the rain comes. It seems that Phoebe won’t get to see Saturn and Mars after all, until the storm brings a power outage before sweeping out of the city. With darkness all around, maybe Phoebe’s dream isn’t lost after all. With magical and charming illustrations, this story also comes with an educational afterword with information about outer space to inspire young readers.
Still My Grandma by Veronique Van Den Abeele and Claude K. Dubois
Camille loves her grandmother. They have such special times together between sleepovers, baking, and other fun activities. But something has changed. Suddenly, Grandma doesn’t remember Camille’s name. Then, she loses her shoes. While Camille isn’t ready to give up, after she learns her grandmother is sick with a disease called Alzheimer’s, she sets herself on a mission to continue carrying on their shared activities in a way that works for them both. A beautiful book on a sensitive and difficult topic, Still My Grandma features similarly gentle art and an unforgettable sense of kindness and warmth.
Something to Do by David Lucas
The two bears of Something to Do might have nothing to do, but they fortunately have their imaginations. On a journey of inventiveness and ingenuity, these bears are at a loss of how to spend their time until they encounter a stick and begin to draw out creative fantasies to share. With a simple narrative and minimal text, Something to Do pairs its story with a simple art style to help bring out the reader’s imagination alongside their two new bear friends. This one will leave you with a cozy feeling and plenty of ideas of what to do the next time there’s nothing to do.
My Cat Copies Me by Yoon-duck Kwon
Being shy and timid can be difficult, but it can be easier with a friend. When one little girl feels overwhelmed by the world, her trusty cat is there to encourage exploration and pushing boundaries. Kwon employs limited prose to great effect and quietly celebrates gentle growth in My Cat Copies Me’s young main character. Coupled with charming and colorful illustrations full of movement, this picture book leaves readers with confidence mixed with comfort.
I Love Cats! by Sue Stainton and Bob Staake
Fat cats, skinny cats, fluffy cats, bald cats, serious cats, silly cats, and all cats in between, the narrator of I Love Cats! loves them all. While readers explore different kinds of cats throughout the spirited prose, they are also treated to similarly varied illustrations of the many cats discussed. Bold and packed to the edge of each page, the art of I Love Cats! is extraordinarily bold and colorful, giving readers plenty to look at as they take in each unique cat.
Jazzy Miz Mozetta by Brenda C. Roberts and Frank Morrison
Miz Mozetta may not look like she’s up for a party, but the kids of her neighborhood won’t know what hit them. Intending to go out and enjoy the moon, Miz Mozetta is struck by the kids’ music and, even when her friends won’t join her, Miz Mozetta is ready to hit the dance floor, inspiring a trip down Memory Lane. Detailed and deep illustrations bring excitement and movement to each page in this book that will leave you with a song in your heart.
Phoenix Song by Tutu Dutta and Martina Peluso
Arohan may want a guitar more than anything for his birthday, but he is left with a bamboo flute from his grandmother. Known as a xiao, this flute, however, is more than just a flute. Now, Arohan has the opportunity to discover the myths and magic behind the instrument, especially after his brothers go missing and it seems Arohan is the only one who can find them and bring them home. With a slightly haunting illustrative style, Arohan’s mythical story comes to life in Phoenix Song.
Want more picture books to enjoy? Check out this list of picture books for adults. Wondering which picture books are must-reads for 2021? Visit our selection of 25 must-read picture books for children. And if you want more under the radar gems, check out more of the best books you’ve never heard of.