Picture Books to Inspire Kids’ Artwork

by Lindsay Barrett

Kids gravitate toward tasks they feel confident completing, and for many, this impacts the types of artwork they’re willing to attempt. My kids’ collections of masterpieces over the years reveal several phases in their artistic journeys, including my oldest son’s treasure-map obsession, my middle son’s pumpkin period, and my toddler’s months-long exploration of the color brown. In the classroom, I’ve seen many art trends go viral; one kid models a cool rainbow or toilet paper-tube sculpture, and similar work soon spills out of every cubby.

My absolute favorite way to urge kids to expand their artistic repertoires is to encourage modeling artwork after picture book illustrators’ work. Children naturally tune into the visual elements in books — often noticing features adults miss. Because it’s made for kids, imitating picture book artwork can feel more attainable than other art forms.

There are countless museum-worthy picture books out there, but here are eight illustrated books particularly perfect for nudging kids to experiment and create.

  • A Narwhal and Jelly Book Series

    by Ben Clanton

    For kids who think artwork has to be detailed to be effective, the minimalist line-drawn characters in this series are perfect for convincing them otherwise. The images convey tons of emotion using simple adjustments, like wiggly lines instead of straight ones for Jelly’s tentacles, or a halo of dashed lines around a character’s body to signify exuberance or anger. Give each child a sheet of paper with six comic-book style boxes and a fine-tip black marker, and they’ll eagerly attempt their own graphic vignettes.

  • Stuck

    by Oliver Jeffers

    There comes a time in every young artist’s life when the green marker for tree leaves dries up, the black pencil for the road goes missing, or a toddler sibling mixes all the watercolors into brown mud. Oliver Jeffers’s illustrations in Stuck prove that an unconventional color scheme can be a design statement. Tree foliage can be pink, blue — or muddy brown — and look totally intentional. Moreover, Jeffers shows kids they don’t have to painstakingly color surfaces to represent them; a quick crayon swirl can be a grassy knoll, and a scribble of gray can provide a platform for characters. Instead of lamenting an incomplete set of art materials, challenge kids to use what they have to create something unique.

  • I Can Only Draw Worms

    by Will Mabbitt

    This title is for all the kids who “can only draw ______.” Rather than letting a lack of artistic confidence be limiting, this title embraces it and ends up constituting its own type of art. A creative, deadpan storyline accompanies the simple illustrations that are truly only of worms. Encourage kids to draw what they can, then tell or write a story to go with it.

  • Mister Seahorse

    by Eric Carle

    There are perhaps no illustrations early childhood classrooms love to study more than the painted collages of Eric Carle. The rainbow watercolor patterns in Mister Seahorse are particularly enticing to emulate. Have kids drip various watercolors on coffee filters, dry, and cut into shapes for collage pieces. They can imitate the paint flourishes and splatters that finish off each underwater page, too!

  • My Dog Is As Smelly As Dirty Socks: And Other Funny Family Portraits

    by Hanoch Piven

    A young girl draws a family portrait for a school assignment, but she’s not satisfied. She reworks her portraits using paint and found items. The varied trinkets add both panache and meaning: Mommy is “as soft as the softest fluff,” and Baby Brother is “as sweet as candy” (but also “as loud as a whistle”). Clean out your junk drawer and empower children to create their own unique portraits. If actual items are unwieldy to glue, take a photo of the entire array and print it in color for a child to cut out items and use them as paper collage pieces.

  • The Day the Crayons Came Home

    by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

    This title and its predecessor, The Day the Crayons Quit, are bookshelf staples for home and the classroom. While both titles encourage kids to explore color, the final spread of The Day the Crayons Came Home — in which Duncan creates a detail-laden cardboard Crayon Fort for misfit crayons — provides an invitation for out-of-the-box design thinking. Collect a pile of recycled materials (and, of course, crayons) and let kids’ imaginations do the rest.

  • Hello Seasons! Series

    by Shelley Rotner

    If the 4,218 selfies of my kids’ nostrils on my phone are any indication, kids these days are pretty comfortable working a camera. Not all children make the connection between taking photos and the photos in books, though. Shelley Rotner’s Hello Seasons! series is full of photos of diverse kids delighting in outdoor fun, as well as gorgeous closeups of natural items. It’s fun to imagine her taking the photos, and they serve as perfect inspiration for kids to pose in or take their own to create a photo-essay homage to a favorite season or outdoor setting.

  • The Book Boat’s In

    by Cynthia Cotton, illustrated by Frané Lessac

    Frané Lessac is one of my kids’ favorite illustrators to study and imitate. Her rich paintings present a lofty goal, but even if children’s artwork doesn’t turn out looking anything like hers, her work encourages adding small details and filling a page with color. This title helps kids notice artistic techniques, like how to use darker shaded lines on top of a light shade to create planks on a floor or veins on a leaf, and how to add interest to a scene by including periphery items in the background or foreground.