The first one I read is a story you know well: Beauty and the Beast. I picked up this copy because the beast looked like a Wild Thing and the girl was only averagely beautiful, but the story was no less troublesome. I won't get into literary theory or anything else I can't explain. There's an abundance of insightful scholarship available on fairy tales without adding uninformed opinions to the conversation. But I can say fairy tales aren't exactly pleasurable reading. Not for me. I usually end up frustrated with the characters and asking questions like: "What the hell is wrong with her dad?" "How come she couldn't turn 'ugly' to suit him instead?" (A Shrek writer might have asked that one.) "Is happily ever after an elaborately layered irony?" Yet I keep coming back because there's much more to fairy tales than what's obvious on the surface (particularly fascinating is their existence to begin with and "what they can do") and because these stories have had the honor of being beautifully illustrated time and again. The artist for this edition is Alan Baker (click pictures below for larger images):
The next book in the stack was Fortunately, by Remy Charlip. How strange and unique and wonderful. The illustrations are surprising and striking and often done in full spreads. The story is an oddly poetic back and forth of fortune and misfortune with a little extra fortune at the end...but then misfortune again just around the corner. You must read it because it's funny and because you'll find comfort in knowing that someone else in the universe has ups and downs too and that with a little luck and a little skill, there's a good chance you'll end up doing alright. Or not. But we're all in the same predicament is the point. (Click here to learn about Charlip and his connection to Hugo Cabret.)
Next up, a lovely story with thoughtful, engaging, imaginative images, written and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. It's somehow quiet without being sweet and full of action without being void of character. (Ardizzone is officially my new favorite. A copy of this is on its way to my mailbox. Can't wait for its arrival.) The book pictured below is Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain, the first of many Tim books. It's hard to describe why, perhaps partly due to the blend of straightforward prose and a soft pallet, but this is one of those books not only able to stand the test of time, as it has, but which possibly has the magical combination of things that make a book last forever.
If you're interested in learning more about illustrating children's books, check out my dear alma mater, Hollins University. They've recently added a Certificate in Children's Book Illustration to the graduate program. For more info on the instructors, take a look at the work of author/illustrators Ruth Sanderson and Ashley Wolff. Hollins is a lovely place. You'll learn and make friends and wish you could go back even after you've graduated. And you'll get a degree to boot.