Beautiful children's books for all ages

From charming picture books to longer reads and poetry, here are some of the best illustrated children's books for ages 3 – 12, introduced by illustrator Katie Hickey.

Illustrator Katie Hickey specialises in children's books, and has created work for the special edition of Eva Ibbotson's classic Journey to the River Sea and Emma Carroll's new book inspired by it, Escape to the River Sea. Here, she explores the power of illustration, followed by our pick of the most beautiful children's books.

Book illustrations are to words as dancing is to music. They accompany and enhance, and are also incredible works of art in their own right, able to convey such emotion that sometimes no words are needed at all. Illustrators can bring authors’ creations to visual life with just the tip of a paintbrush or the nib of a stylus. We create images that energise and excite, and at other times offer pause and moments of reflection and contemplation. I would say our job is to make you see things with fresh eyes, but perhaps it’s just to make you open them a little wider; to draw out your imagination and encourage all your questions.

From picture books to poetry, classics to cinematic non-fiction, below you’ll find a range of books for children made even more beautiful by their illustrations. Whether it’s Catherine Rayner’s energetic watercolour washes and scribbly pencil crayon that emulate the gruff and cragginess of a bear padding through the woods, Emily Sutton's jewel-toned palette that makes royal animals dance off the page and Henry the VIII’s robes swoosh past your legs, or my own stately jaguars that introduce each chapter of Emma Carroll’s Escape to the River Sea – enjoy the ride and enjoy the pauses.

Our pick of the most beautiful children's books

Island of Whispers

by Frances Hardinge

For ages 12+.

Emily Gravett's luscious blue ink illustrations perfectly conjure Frances Hardinge's thrilling tale of ghosts and magic. On the island of Merlank, the Dead must not be allowed to linger. The very sight of their ghosts can kill you. When young Milo is thrust into the role of Ferryman following his father’s sudden death, he is the one who must carry away the Dead. Pursued by a vengeful lord and two malignant magicians, Milo must navigate strange and perilous seas where untold threats whisper in the mist. Does he have the courage and imagination to complete his urgent mission?

Illustration from Island of Whispers
Emily Gravett

Wolf and Bear

by Kate Rolfe

For ages 3 –5.

Kate Rolfe's authentic and sensitively illustrated picture book gently introduces young children to a topic which can often be difficult to discuss. Wolf and Bear always play together, whether it’s paddling in the stream, skidding in the snow, or tumbling in the falling leaves. But sometimes Bear feels sad and wants to be alone. This is a beautiful tale of kindness and hope, exploring the topic of depression.

Greenwild: The World Behind The Door

Book cover for Greenwild: The World Behind The Door

For ages 9 – 12.

Elisa Paganelli's stunning illustrations radiate magic throughout this extraordinary fantasy book. Daisy Thistledown has escaped from boarding school and is trying to find her missing mother. Her search takes her across London and through a hidden doorway into a world bursting with plants and magic: the Greenwild. But it soon becomes clear that all is not well. Can Daisy revive the Greenwild, save our world, and solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance? A botanical genius, a boy who can talk to animals and cat with an attitude are on-hand to help. 

Illustrations from Greenwild
Elisa Paganelli

Escape to the River Sea

by Emma Carroll

For ages 9 – 12.

Katie Hickey's evocative cover and chapter openers capture the lush beauty of the rainforest and its animal inhabitants in this spectacular book inspired by Eva Ibbotson's bestselling classic Journey to the River Sea. The story follows the generation that came after Ibbotson's Maia Fielding: Rosa Sweetman, a young Kindertransport girl, is the only child left at the rambling country estate where she took refuge in 1939, and is longing to go home. But the arrival of family friend Yara Fielding starts an adventure that takes her even further away – into the Amazon, and a danger greater than she could ever have imagined.

Riversea illustration
Katie Hickey

The Little Prince

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For ages 6 – 8.

Which book to choose from illustrator, political cartoonist and former UK Children's Laureate, Chris Riddell? We've gone for the sumptuous new illustrated edition of beloved classic The Little Prince. After crash-landing in the Sahara Desert, a lonely pilot encounters a little prince who is visiting Earth from his own planet. Their strange and moving meeting illuminates many of life's universal truths, as he comes to learn what it means to be human from a child who is not. Rediscover characters such as the Coquettish Rose and the Knowledgeable Fox as depicted by a true master of his art.

Illustrations from The Little Prince
Chris Riddell

Royal Animals

by Julia Golding

For ages 6 – 8.

This full-colour hardback with red foil detailing, gold corgi endpapers and hand-painted illustrations by Emily Sutton truly is fit for a king. Animal lovers will adore this engaging history of royal animals in Britain from 1066 to the present day, resplendent with giraffes, elephants, spaniels, parrots, ravens and pelicans, and the answers to questions such as: why do the three lions on the British crest look so much like leopards? When did the first elephant set foot on British soil? And was there really a polar bear who fished in the river Thames? 

Illustrations from Royal Animals
Emily Sutton

Wild Child

by Dara McAnulty

For ages 6 – 8.

Inspirational young nature writer Dara McNulty's call to share in the joy of the natural world is made even more irresistible by Barry Falls' gorgeous illustrations. The book takes the reader on a nature walk that encourages exploration at every stage: looking out of the window, venturing out into the garden, walking in the woods, investigating heathland and wandering on the river bank. It's full of facts, advice and activities for the aspiring naturalist, with images that really do justice to the wonder of our environment. 

Illustrations from Wild Child
Barry Falls

My Heart Was a Tree

by Michael Morpurgo

For ages 6 – 8.

Sir Michael Morpurgo's love of trees beams off the page in this collection of stories and poems, and is more than matched by Yuval Zommer's beautiful, detailed illustrations. With stories from an ancient olive remembering Odysseus and Penelope, and a eucalyptus that gave shelter to a koala; from a piece of driftwood that was made into a chair, and from a tiny sapling carried by a refugee as a reminder of home, this compelling combination and words and images will amuse, move and energise families and readers of all ages to appreciate the beauty and wonder of trees.

Illustrations from My Heart was a Tree
Yuval Zommer

Five Bears

by Catherine Rayner

For ages 3 – 5.

This book about friendship and acceptance is an exquisite visual treat. We first meet Bear, who's walking along minding his own business when he meets the Other Bear, who seems a bit different to him. And then they meet another different bear, and then another, and then another, this time stuck in a tree. The Bears realise that perhaps they aren't that different after all and that, actually, they could be friends. 

Illustrations from from Five Bears
Catherine Rayner