‘Picture books, in all their astonishing diversity, offer children (and often their parents) a first proper encounter with art,’ says Joanna Carey who chooses her top ten Kate Greenaway Medal winners. ‘Children are natural page turners and learning to read pictures and to see them in sequence is a vital part of their development. Picture books are accessible at all levels of understanding but though easy to share, they can be difficult to categorise. Wisely, the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration doesn’t divide things up into ‘age-groups’ so it’s a pleasure to be able choose favourites from right across the board.’
Tim All Alone (winner 1956)
Edward Ardizzone, Frances Lincoln, 48pp, 978 1 8450 7546 0, £10.99 hbk
With his mercurial line and wash technique, Ardizzone’s atmospheric combination of colour composition and scale perfectly expresses the shock, surprise and loneliness of a small boy who arrives back at his seaside home after a long journey to find his parents gone and the door locked. With minimal facial expression, but eloquent body language, you know exactly how Tim is feeling. Small, vulnerable but determined he daringly sets off all alone on a heroic, dangerous sea journey to find his mother and father. A very moving story, with some desperately exciting illustrations – and because it dates from1957 it’s made all the more thrilling by the absence of today’s obligatory ‘health and safety’ issues.
Brian Wildsmith’s ABC (winner 1962)
Brian Wildsmith, Oxford. OP.
Brian Wildsmith was one of the artists who breathed new life into picture books in the 1960s. Trained as a painter, he was unaware of the constraints and conventions that surrounded picture book art – and he just followed his instinct. Inspired not just by the liberating spirit of that period but also by new developments in printing techniques that allowed ever brighter explosions of colour in picture books, his work was startlingly original – and very influential. His ABC book has a painterly feel, with brush strokes so vivid, so fresh, so tactile and inviting, it was said that children had to be restrained from licking them.
Borka (winner 1963)
John Burningham, Red Fox, 32pp, 978 0 0994 0067 7, £5.99 pbk
Borka is an unfortunate little goose: born without feathers, she is unable to live a normal life – she can’t swim, can’t fly and can’t join in with the others. Her mother knits her a vest to keep warm and yes that is funny, but this big-hearted, very moving story goes from the ridiculous to the sublime when with the help of good friends, Borka manages to finds her place in life. Burningham’s skills both as a painter and former poster designer are evident in these bold beautiful illustrations.
Mr Gumpy’s Outing (winner 1970)
John Burningham, Red Fox, 32pp, 978 0 0994 0879 6, £5.99 pbk
Mr Gumpy agrees to take a motley crew of children and animals for a ride in his boat on condition that they behave themselves. They don’t of course and they all end up in the water. But nothing can dampen their spirits on this idyllic afternoon. Burningham’s airy cross-hatching and scribble textured drawings capture the very essence of the English countryside in summer and its inhabitants and the inevitable tea party that follows.
The Kingdom Under the Sea (winner 1971)
Joan Aiken, ill. Jan Pienkowski, Cape, 128pp, 978 0 8575 5009 5, £12.99 hbk
With unusually satisfying page design, Pienkowski’s excitingly theatrical silhouettes entice the reader into the mystery, magic and imagination of Joan Aiken’s marvellous retellings of traditional European Folk tales. The narrative element of the finely drawn silhouettes is further enhanced by the swirling colours of the marbled backgrounds.
Dogger (winner 1977)
Shirley Hughes, Red Fox, 32pp, 978 1 8623 0805 3, £5.99 pbk
Shirley Hughes has a lifelong ‘sketchbook habit’, sketching from behind trees or in alcoves, behind pillars, through windows, she misses nothing and the children in her drawings have a robust reality, affectionately observed and rewardingly rich in detail even in the busiest crowd scenes. Dogger is about a little boy’s distress when his favourite toy is lost, and how he finally tracks it down at a jumble sale. Hughes’s enchanting kind of realism is becoming increasingly rare.
Mister Magnolia (winner 1980)
Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 32pp, 978 1 8623 0807 7, £5.99 pbk
A much loved, genuinely heart warming story about a colourful eccentric who lives life to the full in spite of having only one boot. As ever, Blake’s freewheeling pen and ink drawings have a crazy joie de vivre, but his easy understanding (and slight reorganisation) of human anatomy gives his characters a certain authority, and however impossible their antics, you can always believe in them.
War Boy (winner 1989)
Michael Foreman, Pavilion, 96pp, 978 1 8436 5087 4, £9.99 pbk
Early on in this unusual autobiographical memoir the scene is set with some ravishingly beautiful watercolours showing the night sky during a bombing raid. In addition there are intricate line drawings of humble village homes, diagrams of incendiary bombs, blustery seascapes with barrage balloons, empty beaches and sinister gun emplacements .There are soldiers on leave, family get-togethers and children electrified by the presence of such things as tanks, Yanks and doodlebugs; and there’s the artist’s mum, valiantly keeping the local shop going. This is a brilliantly engaging child’s eye view of wartime, combining with such ease examples of beautiful artwork with diagrams, advertisements and all manner of documentary material.
I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato (winner 2000)
Lauren Child, Orchard, 32pp, 978 1 8461 6886 4, £6.99 pbk
With her now very familiar scrawly images drawn with swooping black outlines and collages that include photographs, scraps of fabric, wallpaper, twirling typography, spaceships, peas, and of course tomatoes, Child assembles her spreads on the computer screen and within a flattened perspective arranges the components with a mischievous wit and cunning simplicity which, although it may have baffled some traditionalists, is still instantly embraced and understood by children.
The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (winner 2007)
Mini Grey, Red Fox, 32pp, 978 0 0994 7576 7, £5.99 pbk
This wickedly funny interpretation of Hey Diddle Diddle is magnificently illustrated with a veritable avalanche of very witty, polished, sequential pictures, which move at a tremendous pace to tell a story in which the dish and the spoon star as runaway lovers. Romantic, exciting and perfectly structured, it is presented with great panache and ends teasingly with a new beginning. Brilliant.
Joanna Carey is a former Children’s Books Editor of the Guardian.