The 10 winners of The New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award are chosen each year by a rotating panel of three expert judges.
On the 2023 panel were Sean Qualls, an award-winning illustrator of many acclaimed picture books; Maria Popova, a cultural critic and picture book author; and Christopher Lassen, a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library.
Children’s book publishers were invited to submit up to 10 picture books (per imprint) published this year in the United States. The judges made their selections from the nearly 800 books we received, by authors and illustrators around the world, purely on the basis of artistic merit.
Rock, Rosetta, Rock! Roll, Rosetta, Roll!
Presenting Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock & Roll
Written by Tonya Bolden. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
We meet the godmother of rock ’n’ roll as a little girl dwarfed by her big guitar — a guitar that seems to be attached not to her body but to her very soul as she sings her way from Cotton Plant, Ark., to the world stage and into the world’s heart, kindling in a generation of musicians the spark of a revolution that still burns bright today. Christie’s extraordinary sense of color — the warm colors of the South, the bright colors of Rosetta’s vivacious spirit, the muted primary colors of a bygone world that was the childhood of our world — carries the story. Radiating from the art is the joy Rosetta brought to her music: the defiant joy by which she rose from the limitations of her time and place to shape the soul of the future. — Maria Popova
At the Drop of a Cat
Written by Élise Fontenaille. Illustrated by Violeta Lópiz. Translated from the French by Karin Snelson and Emilie Robert Wong.
Unable to read or write, having fled “a terrible war” in his youth, Luis connects with his grandson, “the apple of his pie,” in the only way he knows how: through the language of birds, the beauty of nature and an eclectic group of skills (gardening, drawing, cooking). Lópiz’s lush, verdant and empathetic art depicts both their shared interests and the differences that separate them. As grandson and grandfather grow closer, Lópiz gradually pulls back the thick vegetation, creating space for them to show each other their true selves, and show readers something all of us are searching for: a purely human connection. — Christopher Lassen
We Are Starlings:
Inside the Mesmerizing Magic of a Murmuration
Written by Donna Jo Napoli and Robert Furrow. Illustrated by Marc Martin.
A murmuration of starlings — swarm intelligence at its most majestic, emergence incarnate — takes flight against a breathtaking watercolor sky. In the tradition of Rachel Carson’s writings about the sea, the story is told from the perspective of the animals. Soft yet striking, Martin’s illustrations play masterfully with our sense of scale. We zoom from close-ups of individual birds to the full sweep of the murmuration, swirling across a four-page gatefold that conveys the astonishing grandeur of these small, fragile creatures constellating into something immense and powerful, greater than the sum of its parts — one of the living wonders of this Earth. — M.P.
The Young Teacher and the Great Serpent
Written by Irene Vasco. Illustrated by Juan Palomino. Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel.
In this story set deep in a rainforest, an enthusiastic teacher with a suitcase full of books becomes the student. Palomino’s art evokes various types of printmaking techniques, as well as the beauty and mystery of the Amazon. Vivid colors illuminate nighttime scenes, while rich, warm textures bring the jungle to life. The forest is depicted as not only the setting, but also a character whose grandness commands respect. — Sean Qualls
Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka
Music is something that comes through not only instruments, but also well-trained hands. In his unique tribute to the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, Raschka puts the reader in Williams’s place by showcasing only her hands on the bottom of the page, engaged with the energetic music she created over the years. In ink, oil pastel and watercolors on butter board, we see Williams’s active appendages as they play, compose, conduct and pray. Raschka captures the passage of time through her gradually elongating fingers as they dance over the keyboard and musical notes float colorfully through the air to the waiting ears of those lucky enough to hear her genius. — C.L.
As Night Falls:
Creatures That Go Wild After Dark
Written by Donna Jo Napoli. Illustrated by Felicita Sala.
Against the blue-black backdrop of night in a coastal town, a child falls asleep as other living beings come awake: Jasmine releases its scent; a cat chases a mouse; bioluminescent algae guzzles bacteria; plankton scrape up the algae; bubble-eyed fish gobble the plankton. And on it goes through bats, snakes, jackals, owls and the mighty tiger, rendered in Sala’s singular style — somewhere between midcentury illustration, Latin American mural art and the German Expressionist painting of Franz Marc, yet entirely original and irrepressibly alive. It’s a vibrant invitation to cherish and protect the dazzling biodiversity that gives the world its wonder. — M.P.
Written and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri
Salmieri starts this gentle tale of opposites with a soft descent into the everyday life of a young baby, who soon grows into a woman, a doctor, a mother and a grandmother. His use of colored pencil is simultaneously childlike and sophisticated. His narrative is micro and macro. His rendering of people, animals and objects reflects the beauty of simple things. “Before, Now” reimagines what a classic picture book can be for a new generation of children and their families. — S.Q.
How to Write a Poem
Written by Kwame Alexander and Deanna Nikaido. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
Sweet poetically combines painting, drawing and an amalgam of materials such as wood and stones in this stunning picture book about the creative process. Her bold and playful hand lettering brilliantly enhances the text, while making it more personal and friendly to young readers. Each page introduces an assortment of ever-shifting shapes, colors and characters. There is as much to discover in the richly conceived art as there is in the words about filling a “white expanse” with verse. — S.Q.
Bear Is Never Alone
Written by Marc Veerkamp. Illustrated by Jeska Verstegen. Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson.
Bear is a beloved musician in his forest and is constantly engulfed by creatures who want more from him than he’s willing to give. Verstegen’s mixed-media illustrations — mostly black-and-white with vibrant pops of red — embody the overwhelming nature of fame by shrouding Bear in a flurry of butterflies, birds and other forest animals. On later spreads, Verstegen beautifully contrasts this clutter of activity with the quiet open space to which Bear flees. It’s a skillful juxtaposition of extreme emotions and contemplation, of the sacrifices one makes for popularity and the universal need for privacy and solitude. — C.L.
Bunny & Tree
Written and illustrated by Balint Zsako
A bunny is separated from its colony, and with the help of a shape-shifting tree goes on a journey to reunite with its loved ones, discovering along the way that family comes in many different forms. Zsako’s color-saturated tale — told in nine wordless acts, plus a prologue and an epilogue, over 184 pages — is epic in scope, yet grounded in real, intimate emotion. His vivid, changing watercolor skyscapes capture not only the passage of time, but also the emotional state of his titular characters, who together demonstrate growth, courage, sacrifice and the true meaning of family and community. — C.L.