Press Room

Author Picks: Matt Tavares Top Ten Picture Books for Older Readers

by awilliams

Matt Tavares is the author and illustrator of such picture books as Growing Up Pedro and Zachary’s Ball. In honor of Picture Book Month (November), he supplied us with his picks for top longer picture books. 

I like short picture books. I even like wordless picture books (In fact, I’m currently attempting to create one myself). But I also like longer picture books, and I feel like they’re getting a bad rap these days. Maybe it’s because kids are being pushed to chapter books sooner, leaving picture books for the little kids. Maybe it’s because there happen to be a slew of new authors and illustrators who are really good at making books with very few words, or no words at all (Jon Klassen, Molly Idle, Aaron Becker, and Mac Barnett, to name a few). But for whatever the reason, picture books are shorter than ever.

As an author-illustrator, I fully appreciate the brilliance of a book like Maurice Sendek’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat. There is a sort of magic trick that happens in a picture book when it’s done right, when the words and pictures work together seamlessly to tell a story.

Maybe I’m biased (I just checked online and found that Growing Up Pedro has just over 1,700 words), but I believe that the same magic trick happens in longer picture books too. Even at 1,700 words, a lot of the storytelling is still done with pictures. Sure, sometimes a 2,500 word picture book is way too long and should have been chopped in half. But sometimes 2,500 words is just the right amount of words needed to tell the story.

So I want to shine a spotlight on some of my favorite longer picture books. These are books that might take you twenty minutes to get through in a read-aloud; books that you might need to stick a bookmark in at bedtime and continue reading the next night. But they’re also books where you can slow down and take time to get to know the characters, to celebrate their triumphs and feel the full weight of their grief. These books are perfect for kids who are good enough readers to read chapter books, but still love reading picture books.

  1. MarianWhen Marian Sang, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick: This picture book biography of singer Marian Anderson has around two thousand words, which is a lot for a picture book. But to tell a person’s life story in two thousand words is no small task. So much of the story is told in Brian Selznick’s powerful, immersive illustrations, which set the tone of the book with their limited color palate and theatrical lighting. When I started writing my own picture book biographies, this is the one book I read over and over more than any other.
  1. Moonshot, by Brian Floca: I was thrilled when Floca’s masterpiece Locomotive won the Caldecott Medal a couple years ago, not just because he’s a great guy and works really hard and makes amazing books (all true), but because I really didn’t think that a 2,500-word nonfiction picture book could win the Caldecott Medal these days. I almost put Locomotive on this list, but instead I’ll include Floca’s other masterpiece, Moonshot (which also should have won a Caldecott, in my opinion). It’s so much fun to read, and he packed so much information into it, you could spend hours just poring over the details in the endpapers. (See how I didn’t count Locomotive as one of my top ten, but I still mentioned it? I am sneaky.)
  1. When Jessie Came Across the Sea, by Amy Hest, illustrated by P. J. Lynch: One of my all-time favorite picture books by one of my favorite illustrators, this book tells the story of a young Jewish girl who leaves her village to start a new life in America. It’s an epic tale, told with so much heart.
  1. ShipWe Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson: Of all the books on this list, this is the longest at over 16,500 words and 96 pages. It tells the history of Negro League Baseball in nine “innings,” so it’s almost a chapter book, but there are pictures on every spread. Nelson won a bunch of awards for this one but did not win a Caldecott. Maybe the committee just felt that other picture books were more distinguished that year, but I wonder if it’s because they decided that it just wasn’t a picture book. The text is outstanding, but the heart of the story is in Nelson’s breathtaking oil paintings and in the faces of the players. I say it’s a picture book. As an illustrator, I look at the sheer awesomeness of We Are the Ship and think, “Man, what’s a guy gotta do to win a Caldecott around here?!”
  1. Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes: This is an awesome read-aloud, a timeless classic that looks and feels like it’s been around forever. I’ve read it countless times with my kids, and never get tired of it. Candlewick Press sure does make nice books!
  1. WidoThe Widow’s Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg: When I was a junior in college, after I had decided I wanted to write and illustrate a picture book as my senior thesis, a classmate brought this book to the art building one day, and I was blown away. Early in my career, this book influenced me more than any other, because it made me realize I could illustrate my book in pencil. At the time I was working hard to get better at working in color, but my best work was black and white. And Van Allsburg’s atmospheric drawings in this book are as good as it gets.
  1. Brothers At Bat, by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno: This excellent picture book tells the true story of an all-brother baseball team, from their childhood in the 1920s right up to their visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. It can’t be easy to weave the stories of twelve brothers into one forty-page picture book that is a perfect read-aloud, but that’s what Audrey Vernick did here. And Steven Salerno’s stylized illustrations feel just right. My kids love this book, and so do I.
  1. Cathedral, by David Macaulay: David Macaulay is another one of my illustration heroes. I could have picked Castle, or any of Macaulay’s other books, really. I am amazed by all the tiny architectural details in his ink drawings. Just to sneak one more book into my top ten list, anyone interested in learning how picture books are made should check out the book Building the Book Cathedral, which lets us peek behind the curtain and really see Macaulay’s process—a fascinating look at how a cathedral is built, and how a book is built.
  1. TimeTime of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey: I almost picked Make Way for Ducklings, but everyone in Boston already knows about that.
    Time of Wonder is another masterpiece. It’s a totally different style from the monochromatic drawings of Make Way for Ducklings, with lush watercolors that capture all the wonder of summertime on the coast of Maine. A book that makes you slow down and appreciate all the details, just like the characters do.
  2. The Junkyard Wonders, by Patricia Polacco: I never really paid much attention to Patricia Polacco’s books until my daughter started checking them out of the school library every week last year. We read this one together. With a whopping 3,500 words (kudos to her editor for not chopping it in half. Or maybe she did . . .), it almost reads like a chapter book. Polacco doesn’t sugar coat her stories. These are real, intense stories, where bad stuff happens sometimes. I think that’s what draws my daughter to her books. They’re picture books, but not baby books.