The best picture books you can pore over for hours

Anne Lambelet Author Of Maria the Matador
By Anne Lambelet

The Books I Picked & Why

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery

By Graeme Base

Book cover of The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery

Why this book?

Really anything by Graeme Base could go on this list. He’s a master of packing exquisite detail into every bit of a picture, but The Eleventh Hour particularly holds a special place in my heart. As a child I spent hours searching every page, decoding musical notes, ciphers, and hieroglyphics, unraveling both visual and verbal riddles trying to figure out “whodunit”. I even roped my parents into helping me find the clues, and I feel like they were just as enthralled as I was. The beautiful illustrations and rhyming verse would make this a fun story on its own, but the hidden mystery embedded in every page makes this book a masterpiece. 

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Rivers: A Visual History from River to Sea

By Peter Goes

Book cover of Rivers: A Visual History from River to Sea

Why this book?

Again, Peter Goes could have multiple books here if this list were longer, but if I have to pick just one, it’ll be Rivers. Non-fiction books usually pack in a lot more information than fictional stories so you usually have to spend more time with them to absorb everything, but the thing that makes Rivers so special amongst non-fiction books is the presentation of information. Facts and legends flow across heavily illustrated maps, in and out of animals, architecture, mythological figures, and cultural vignettes. Each bit of imagery and text corresponds to the path of the river, mirroring its meandering journey across the page.

It’s a lot to process, but Goes’s graphic illustrative style and limited color palette prevent compositions from feeling too busy and overwhelming. Every time I come back to this book, I notice something new or learn a fact that I missed before. I don’t think looking at it will ever get old. 

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The Arrival

By Shaun Tan

Book cover of The Arrival

Why this book?

Like non-fiction picture books, wordless picture books also inherently demand spending a little more time with the illustrations. Every visual detail has the potential of adding another layer of understanding to the story, and no story is more layered in its detail than Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Tan’s pictures don’t depict what the immigrant experience looks like so much as how I imagine it feels. Everything the main character encounters in his new home seems confusing and spectacular and strange, and when other immigrants share their own journeys with him, the worlds they came from look just as spectacular and alien.

Yet, through Tan’s expressive, intricate illustrations the viewer can still decipher the truth of the emotions behind the whimsical imagery. The way I experience this book has evolved as I’ve grown up, but I love that it’s only gotten richer over time. As a child, it captured my imagination, but now it captures my heart. 

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The Jolly Postman: Or Other People's Letters

By Allan Ahlberg, Janet Ahlberg

Book cover of The Jolly Postman: Or Other People's Letters

Why this book?

There are so many wonderful, interactive pop-up books out there that kids could pore over for hours (Dragonology, Pirateology, and Wizardology all come to mind immediately) so I can’t quite put my finger on why, as a child, this book ended up being the pop-up book that I spent the most time with. The lilting verse of the story makes the narrative flow quickly and effortlessly, and every piece of mail has a new set of puns and fairytale references that are accessible to children but make adults laugh too.

I think the part I loved most though is that it felt like looking at real mail. I felt like I was handling actual fairy tale characters’ actual letters, postcards, and catalogue advertisements. Sometimes I skipped the story entirely, just dumped out the letters, and played postman myself, and for sparking that level of engagement, I have to include The Jolly Postman on my list. 

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By Kit Williams

Book cover of Masquerade

Why this book?

I’m not necessarily including Masquerade because of its objective quality as a picture book. It’s the concept behind it that really captures my imagination. Similar to The Eleventh Hour, each illustration has a seek-and-find element as well as several embedded puzzles and codes. If you put all the clues together, they solve a mystery. However, unlike The Eleventh Hour, Masquerade’s mystery wasn’t originally relegated to the pages of a book. The solution revealed the location of a real-life buried treasure. You read that correctly. Author-illustrator, Kit Williams, actually went out in secret and buried a jeweled, golden hare at a location in Britain known only to him.

Since this book was published a few decades ago, the hare has already been found, but I think Masquerade still deserves to be on this list. Williams’s illustrations are beautiful in their own right, and his ambitious idea inspired an entire genre of “armchair treasure hunt” books. The treasures of some of them are still, to this day, waiting to be found. 

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