Since 1952, we’ve convened a rotating annual panel of three expert judges who consider every illustrated children’s book published that year in the United States. In 2017, we began partnering with the New York Public Library to administer the honor now called The New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award.
The judges select the 10 winners purely on the basis of artistic merit. On the 2021 panel were Catherine Hong, a children’s literature critic; Jessica Agudelo, a youth collections librarian at the New York Public Library; and Paul O. Zelinsky, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator of many acclaimed picture books — most recently “Red and Green and Blue and White,” by Lee Wind — and a past winner of the award.
Here you’ll find images from each winning book. And here’s a look at the artists in their studios.
I Am the Subway
Written and illustrated by Kim Hyo-eun
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
The opening subway scenes suggest yet another picture book interested more in elegant design and beautiful, muted watercolor than in people or stories. But as the narrator (a subway train!) starts describing its life and the lives of its riders, gray faceless figures take on detail and luminous color — a trove of richness we had no access to when they were strangers to us. A brilliant turnaround, a great concept and an endearing book. Not to mention its elegant design and beautiful watercolor.
— Paul O. Zelinsky
Scribble, $18.99; ages 3 to 10.
The Night Walk
Written and illustrated by Marie Dorléans
Awash in nocturnal blue, Dorléans’s graphite pencil illustrations of a family of nighttime explorers evoke a luminous sense of wonder. From bedside lamps to the delicate beam of stars, hints of light punctuate each spread, cleverly directing the reader’s attention to hidden details — an owl atop a tree, a badger skulking in the grass, a pair of mice among the rocks — and reflecting the warm bond of a family.
— Jessica Agudelo
Floris, $17.95; ages 4 to 8.
Time Is a Flower
Written and illustrated by Julie Morstad
An exploration of the concept of time is a daunting premise for a children’s book, but Morstad pulls it off with panache. Her warm, friendly renderings in pencil, marker and ink distill the book’s abstract ideas — does time move slowly or quickly, in a straight line or a circle? — with ingenuity and simplicity. The judges also appreciated Morstad’s judicious use of empty space, which leaves ample room for thought.
— Catherine Ho
Tundra, $18.99; ages 3 to 7.
It Fell From the Sky
Written and illustrated by Terry Fan and Eric Fan
Step right up and gaze upon the Fan brothers’ latest surreal world, featuring a cast of stylish insects, fitted with fanciful hats, as they marvel at the sight of an unfamiliar orb. Black-and-white graphite drawings, brilliant pops of color and a fiendishly expressive spider, all scrupulously rendered, convey the feel of a silent film.
Simon & Schuster, $17.99; ages 4 to 8.
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess
Written and illustrated by Tom Gauld
This remixed fairy tale was an instant hit with our judges, who admired the way Gauld’s comics-style illustrations are simultaneously flat-out simple (its main characters are, after all, stick figures) and complex (the royal inventor’s chockablock workshop). Meticulous, diagrammatic and, yes, awfully cute, these boldly outlined, crosshatched images amplify the story’s deadpan humor and are as delightful to behold as the story’s happily-ever-after ending.
Neal Porter/Holiday House, $18.99; ages 4 to 8.
¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge
Written and illustrated by Raúl the Third
Colors by Elaine Bay
Raúl the Third’s dynamic use of panels draws attention to every corner of the page, bursting with clever detail. His vivid cartoon style is enlivened by his signature hand lettering and Elaine Bay’s palette of purple tones, creating a visually rich and utterly fun homage to border town life.
Versify, $14.99; ages 4 to 7.
While You’re Sleeping
Written by Mick Jackson
Illustrated by John Broadley
In one of the year’s most unusual-looking books, Broadley has turned a quiet meditation on nighttime, both sleepy and sleepless, into a manically pulsating graphic experience that is as rewarding as it is unexpected. With the look of elaborate colored woodcuts, the highly stylized pictures transport us to a world of their own.
Pavilion, $19.95; ages 4 to 8.
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
“Unspeakable” tells the story of the thriving Black community of Tulsa, Okla., and its destruction at the hands of racist mobs on one terrible day in 1921. To know that Cooper’s own grandfather was a member of that community, and passed down stories about the day, adds yet more dimension to the profound emotion this book elicits. Small wonder that Cooper’s exquisitely rendered faces are masterpieces of empathy. Bold in design, subtle in color, “Unspeakable” is Cooper’s last book; he died in July.
Carolrhoda, $17.99; ages 8 to 12.
Keeping the City Going
Written and illustrated by Brian Floca
Floca’s images of New York City and the essential workers who have kept the city alive throughout the Covid-19 pandemic are conjured in delicate lines and subdued watercolor hues, beautifully echoing the quiet, often unsung nature of their heroism. Refreshingly, there are no clichéd street scenes of the Big Apple here. Floca has captured an insider’s view of the transformed city with love and tenderness.
Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, $17.99; ages 4 to 8.
On the Other Side of the Forest
Written by Nadine Robert
Illustrated by Gérard DuBois
With its anthropomorphized characters dressed in knickers and its murky, moody palette, this book — about a young bunny and his father who long to know what’s on the other side of a forbidding forest — feels like a vintage gem. While the images channel some of the comforting qualities of Beatrix Potter’s, they also have unsettling and surreal qualities that recall artists like Henry Darger and Amy Cutler, lending this fable-like story a tantalizing undercurrent of darkness.
Greystone Kids, $18.95; ages 3 to 8.