Fantastical Illustrations in Picture Books

Lately, I’ve been trying to read more outside my comfort zone. I have tried to not judge a book prematurely based on its cover (I struggle with that one, to be honest). I find this kind of funny, because children judge books first and foremost by their covers.

Before readers can read on their own, a cover is what draws them in. As an adult, the books I remember most from my childhood have amazing illustrations. I was particularly interested in fairy tales and Arthurian stories (are you surprised? I know, who would have thought?), and the amazing illustrations found in some of those books have stuck with me.

I have my own children now, and they love books too. I’ve used that as an excuse to buy myself some of my favorites from my childhood, and my husband likes to surprise me with them as well.

Here are a few of my favorite fairy tales, based on language of course, but also on the incredible pictures lurking on the pages. Pick these up for any child who likes the fantastical.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Mayer, Mercer, Mayer, Mercer ...

ANNIE AND AUNT: East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Mercer Mayer is pretty popular for his Little Critter books. However, his fairy tales are absolutely stunning. The writing flows well and the illustrations are magical.
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges, Trina Schart Hyman ...

Joy Clarkson on Twitter:

I’m not sure if this was the original dragon book that started my (ongoing) love of dragons, but if it wasn’t the first, it was close. Trina Schart Hyman rightfully deserves the Caldecott Award she received for her pictures in this one. Parents, plan on reading this one aloud to youngsters at first: it’s on the wordy side.

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Michael Hague

The Reluctant Dragon | Children's Books Wiki | Fandom

Animal Kingdom needs a dark ride. | Art, Illustration

Michael Hague is one of my favorite illustrators. His Alphabears is so charming and sweet. He lent his talents to this book and it works wonderfully. I love the whimsical touch he added.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft

The Twelve Dancing Princesses - Marianna Mayer - Paperback

Twelve Dancing Princesses - Exodus Books

Isn’t that art gorgeous? I have yet to add this one to my collection, but I loved it as a child. My favorite part was actually the images of the travel through the forest back and forth from the palace. It’s so beautiful.

Merlin and the Dragons by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Li Ming

Merlin and the Dragons (Picture Puffin Books): Yolen, Jane, Ming ...

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There’s no way I could have a post about fairy tales and Arthurian stories without including one written by Jane Yolen. The illustrations by Li Ming bring this book to a new level. I’d happily frame the picture of the dragons and hang it on my wall.

Beauty and the Beast by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Mercer Mayer

Beauty and the Beast: Mayer, Marianna, Mayer, Mercer ...

Mercer Mayer, Beauty and the Beast | Beauty and the beast art ...

Are you noticing a trend? I am. Let’s just go ahead and say that any fairy tale illustrated by Mercer Mayer is going to be beautiful. I also highly suggest Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like and Sleeping Beauty.

Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zlinsky

Rumpelstiltskin] (By: Paul O. Zelinsky) [published: September ...

Paul O Zelinsky- Rumpelstiltskin

Okay, I know Rumpelstiltskin is supposed to be the villain, but I contend that everyone in this story is a little shady. Either way, I love the pictures in this version. This is another Caldecott Award winner, and with good reason.

The Kitchen Knight by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

The Kitchen Knight: A Tale of King Arthur: Margaret Hodges, Trina ...

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Last, but most certainly not least, I have another Arthurian tale illustrated by the incomparable Trina Schart Hyman. If only I had an iota of the talent she possesses. Sigh. Absolutely amazing.

What do you think? Are any of these household favorites? What amazingly illustrated fairy tales do I need to check out?

Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes by Nicky Raven and John Howe

Hardcover Beowulf : A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes Book

The exhilarating epic blazes to life — featuring illustrations by a lead artist on the LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy.

“Look into the flames and let your minds empty. . . . For this is a tale of blood and heat and ashes.”

It is a tale that has been retold countless times through the centuries — and here, in an enthralling edition illustrated by a noted Tolkien artist, the mighty Beowulf is well set to capture new legions of followers. This contemporary retelling of the ancient epic — narrated with a touch of banter by the faithful Wiglaf and featuring vividly dramatic illustrations — follows the mythic hero from his disarming of the gruesome Grendel to his sword battle with the monster’s sea hag mother to his final, fiery showdown with an avenging dragon. (taken from Amazon)
I love Beowulf. I have read a few different versions of it, as well as some novels that are inspired by this epic poem. When I found out that there is a retelling that includes illustrations by the artist John Howe, I just had to have it.

Like with any classic, there are translations and retellings. This would fall more under the “retelling” category than a full-blown new translation of the original text. It flows a little bit more like a fairy tale than like the epic itself. It’s also a bit simplified, which makes it more accessible to a broader age range. It’s a fantastic retelling, but in no way can it replace the original.

To be honest, what sold me on the book are the illustrations. Most of you know who John Howe is. For those who don’t let me give a little example of his fantasy cred: he was a concept designer for The Lord of the Rings movies (his style is very apparent in the Fell Beasts), has created cover art for many fantasy novels, worked on other movies such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his art can even be found on Magic the Gathering cards (sadly, my own Magic cards don’t have his art on them). I personally also love his art in A Diversity of Dragons. And let me tell you, his popularity is well-deserved.

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His art in Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes is phenomenal. The depth and atmosphere he brought to the book elevates it from a story to something more. It drew me in. My oldest will be reading Beowulf  (Seamus Heaney’s translation) this school year and I am going to have him also read Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes. I am positive it will deepen his appreciation for the original, as well as give him an opportunity to enjoy some stunning artwork.

I highly suggest reading this book. Actually, just buy it and add it to your collection. I guarantee you’ll want to own it.

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