One day recently I walked into my office and sitting on my bright red couch were copies of 365 Penguins and Cat and Fish Go to See. Two great books that looked great together. It made me wonder if I could come up with an Essential Dozen list of books that do awesome things with black and white illustration. The criteria for the list were pretty basic: 1) Great content; and 2) Great art. As a designer this was too good a challenge to pass up, so I spent some time thinking about it and perusing my bookshelf, and finally obsessively culling through the work of my favorite illustrators. And lo and behold, I had a FABULOUS list when I was finished! These books would ordinarily never wind up on a list together, so it was fun to pull them into a collection. Each and every one is a worthy addition to any book lover’s—or design lover’s—shelf.

365 PENGUINS by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet
978-0810944602; Harry Abrams; November 2006; Ages 3-8; $17.95 HC

I wrote extensively about this wonderful book in a full review a few weeks ago, so let me just say that this is one of my favorite books of last year. It has the magic trio of great eye-popping art, fun concept, and hilarious writing.

978-0879233945; David R. Godine; October 2005; Ages 4-8; $19.95 HC
I could have chosen any of Mary Azarian’s work for this list, because her woodcuts embody the very definition of great use of positive and negative space in illustration. This book was commissioned by the Vermont Board of Education, and it depicts scenes from rural farm life in a series of 26 alphabet scenes. From Apple to Barn and Cow right through Zinnia, each illustration is a masterpiece of design and execution.

978-0939510726; Mystic Seaport Museum; July 2002; Ages 3-7; $9.95 HC

This is probably the most obscure book on this list, but it is one of my treasured favorites. With a petite 5”x 5” trim, this book features lovely black and white woodcuts of 26 different kinds of boats from around the world, one for each letter of the alphabet. This little book feels like a prize left over from a salty old captain’s sea trunk.

CAT AND FISH GO TO SEE by Joan Grant, illustrated by Neil Curtis
978-1894965392; Simply Read Books; November 2006; Ages 4-8;$16.95 HC

This book is one of the most striking examples of black and white design that has crossed my desk in quite some time. Evocative of the illustrations of M.C. Escher and the batik designs of Southeast Asia, every illustration in this book pops off the page. The story is a lovely parable of friendship between two unlikely pals who are curious about where the waves go. Their journey of discovery is a wonderful tale of friendship, adventure, and the pleasures of being true to oneself.

FIVE FOR A LITTLE ONE by Chris Raschka
978-0689845994; Athaneum; June 2006; Ages 2-5; $16.95 HC

The “five” in the title refers to senses, and the “little one” is the very cute floppy eared bunny who is at the center of this sweet tale from Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka. With bouncy rhyming text, and good use of strong ink lines and cheery color accents, this book is a perfect introduction to the concept of senses for the youngest readers.

978-0060588281; Greenwillow; March 2004; Ages 2-5; $15.99 HC
What to say about Kevin Henkes? Aside from being one of the most brilliant children’s book writers working today, he is also a genius when it comes to illustration. This gentle tale about a little kitten who mistakes the full moon for a bowl of milk won a Caldecott Medal, and deservedly so. The simplicity of the story is a part of its brilliance, as are the luminous black and white drawings with their effective use of line and shading.

LOOK, LOOK! by Peter Linethal
978-0525420286; Dutton; September 1998; Ages 1-3; $6.99 BB

The high-contrast papercut artwork in this bold board book, along with the striking use of red letters on a black and white ground make this title perfect for catching the attention of the very youngest readers. The images, like a cat stretching and flowers blooming are a surprise, and take this book out of the predictable run-of-the-mill offerings of board books for babies.

SCRIBBLES by Taro Gomi
978-0811855099; Chronicle; April 2006; All Ages; $18.95 PA

Taro Gomi is one of the most prolific illustrators on the international scene, known as much for his design of clothing and other consumer goods as for his more than 300 books for readers of all ages. This book is a magnificent 368 page invitation to creative exploration, with chunky lines and loose free flowing shapes. Part coloring book, part design study, and fun for children ages 2 to 102. Make sure you have some crayons handy.

THE RAVEN (Visions in Poetry Series) by Edgar Allen Poe, Illustrated by Ryan Price
978-1553374732; Kids Can Press; August 2006; Ages 12+; $16.95 HC

Part of the excellent Visions in Poetry Series, this handsome edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s brooding masterpiece is perfectly illustrated with Price’s shadowy dry point illustrations. The narrator’s decent into madness over the refrain “Nevermore” is a visceral, terrifying vision. I would also encourage you to check out the other titles in this series, including Jabberwocky, Casey at the Bat, The Highwayman, and the Lady of Shalott. Each poem has been given a striking illustrative reinterpretation that will appeal to YA readers.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
978-0670674244; Viking; January 1936; Ages 4-8; $17.99 HC

One of the most beloved stories of all time. Ferdinand would rather smell the roses than fight, but when he is stung by a bee, his stomping and snorting convince everyone that he is the fiercest bull around. When he is carted off to
Madrid for a bull fight, hilarity ensues. Robert Lawson’s classic black and white illustrations have been updated with some subtle watercolor washes, but they retain all the wonderful charm that have made them a favorite for countless readers since 1936.

978-0763614607; Candlewick Press; June 2001; Ages 2-5; $4.99 BB

With inventive pairings of opposites and bold expressive artwork, this book is a great introduction to the concept of color opposites for the very youngest readers. What I love about this book is the way that the black and white stripes at the edge of each spread get tighter and tighter until the last spread reveals what is black AND white—a zebra of course! Fun and playful.

978-0060572341; HarperCollins; January 2004; Ages 9-12; $17.99 HC
“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer,
A wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er,
A magic bean buyer . . . Come in . . .”

More than any other title on this list, this book holds a special place in my heart. It was my first experience of falling in love with poetry as a child, and the writing and offbeat illustrations are just as fresh today as they where when this book was first published in 1963. No good children’s book collection is complete without this infectious and brilliant anthology.

I have already stared hearing from readers about additional B&W faves that belong on an essentials list so I will add them below. The truth is, I could probably come up with another dozen! (Feel free to e-mail me your sugestions.)

  • Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
  • The Spider and the Fly by Tony diTerlizzi
  • Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClosky
  • Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky
  • Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge by H. Swift, illustrated by Lynn Ward
  • Biggest Bear by Lynn Ward


Order these books from your local independent bookstore