Illustrated books are the combination of words and art on the page. The best illustrations enhance the text and help the reader understand the narrative. Sometimes the art inside books can be so powerful that is takes on a life of its own, which is the case with John Tenniel's illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
These influential illustrated books are listed in chronological order. We include world famous artists, specialist book illustrators, pioneers from the Golden Age of Illustration, children's picture books, a diary, alphabet books, and much more.
40 influential illustrated books in chronological order
Hortus Eystettensis by Basilius Besler
Basilius Besler (1561-1629) was a Nuremberg apothecary and botanist. This is a botanical book depicting plants that was first published in 1613. It has 367 full-page copper engravings with about three plants on each page. Hortus Eystettensis changed botanical art overnight with its detail and beauty.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience written & illustrated by William Blake
William Blake was a pioneering polymath – a poet, artist, printmaker, and engraver. He created the first artists’ books where text and artwork are entwined, starting a tradition that continues in publishing to this day.
The Songs of Innocence were published in 1789, and he produced a combined version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1794. His illustrations are literally wrapped around the words.
The Birds of America by John James Audubon
This illustrated book, published as a series between 1827 and 1838, is important for its scale and value as a collectable object. It features 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints of birds, several of which are now extinct. A copy of The Birds of America sold for $8.8 million (about £7.7 million) at auction. The original edition is called a double elephant folio, and was printed on paper measuring 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide.
Der Struwwelpeter by written & illustrated by Heinrich Hoffmann
Der Struwwelpeter is an 1845 German children's book that has 10 illustrated stories about children. Each one is a moral tale that shows that what happens after bad behavior… and it isn’t good. It wasn’t until the third edition that the book was renamed Der Struwwelpeter (shaggy-haired Peter), the name of the ungroomed character in the first story.
Don Quixote illustrated by Gustave Doré
When Gustave Doré provided more than 200 illustrations for an 1860 French edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, he shaped how readers imagined the errant knight and his faithful page, Sancho Panza. Doré was a prolific book illustrator and also provided art for Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, The Raven, and many other famous works. His style is instantly recognisable. Watch our video about Doré's London illustrations.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by John Tenniel
We can all picture Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat thanks to John Tenniel’s drawings for Lewis Carroll’s children’s story published in 1865. These images are ingrained in popular culture – even people who have never read the book recognize the imagery. This is probably the most important illustrated book ever published because of its longevity and sheer impact on our world from bedtime reading to Hollywood. Numerous other illustrators have provided art for this book.
Under the Window: Pictures & Rhymes for Children written & illustrated by Kate Greenaway
Published in 1879, Kate Greenaway's first children's picture book, Under the Window, created a new style of illustration featuring pristine children in an idyllic country world. Its success launched her career and more than 150 books followed. Kate Greenaway produced an annual almanac from 1883 to 1895 as well as numerous greeting cards and bookplates.
Household Stories from Grimm illustrated by Walter Crane
Walter Crane (1845-1915) was a prolific children’s book illustrator in the 19th century. We could have chosen any number of other titles illustrated by him. His use of motifs was widely copied – a huge figure in the Arts and Crafts movement whose influential spread to ceramics, wallpapers and other decorative arts. Stories from Grimm from 1882 is a great place to start.
Salomé illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations in Le Morte D’arthur (published in 1893) made him famous but his sexualised artwork for Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé, made him notorious in 1894. His black ink drawings are grotesque, decadent, and erotic. In just six years of work before his death from Tuberculosis, Aubrey Beardsley became a key figure in British art.
An Alphabet written & illustrated by William Nicholson
Growing up, we all read alphabet books but William Nicholson’s Alphabet book from 1897 is an ABC book like no other. A talented artist, illustrator and printmaker, Nicholson used simple woodcuts and minimal text to show the good, bad and ugly of Victorian society.
A for Artist is a self-portrait and it shows Nicholson as a humble pavement artist. B for Beggar is a family joke as it shows his brother in law and fellow artist James Pryde. For a children’s book, it’s rather dark. E for executioner was later replaced by e for earl. Watch our video about this book.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit written & illustrated by Beatrix Potter
Amazingly, no publisher would print Beatrix Potter’s story of a mischievous bunny. So she paid for the book to be printed in 1901 – it had no color illustrations. A year later Frederick Warne published the book and it was an immediate success. The story was widely pirated in the US after Warne failed to register the copyright. Board games and dolls were created shortly after the book’s publication. Much more spin-off merchandising has followed - Stars Wars owes much to Beatrix Potter.
Stories from the Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac
At 25 years old, Edmund Dulac was asked to provide illustrations for a limited edition of Arabian Nights published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1907. His 50 colour plates ensured he would become a rival to Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen in the Golden Age of British Illustration. This list could have included Dulac’s illustrated editions of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Treasure Island, which are also outstanding.
Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
East of the Sun and West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen
East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a collection of traditional Norwegian fairytales collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. Nielsen’s illustrations in this 1914 edition mark a high point in early 20th century children's literature. First editions are highly sought-after by art and book collectors alike.
The Velveteen Rabbit illustrated by William Nicholson
Long before Pixar’s Toy Story, there was The Velveteen Rabbit (or How Toys Become Real) written by Margery Williams. The story blurs the line between toys and real life as it describes a stuffed rabbit's desire to become a living being.
The book was first published in 1922 and it will be published for many more years because every child understands the importance of toys.
Winnie the Pooh illustrated by E.H. Shepard
As with Alice in Wonderland, the impact of Winnie the Pooh impact stretches beyond a character in a popular children’s book.
E.H. Shepard’s pencil drawings for A.A. Milne’s classic story, published in 1926, created the world’s most famous anthropomorphic bear (with very little brain) and the book went on to influence publishing, Disney and the soft toy business.
Shepard was an accomplished painter and also won the Military Cross for his wartime service in World War I.
Millions of Cats written & illustrated by Wanda Gag
This 1928 picture book won a Newbery award in 1929. Millions of Cats pioneered the double-page spread. Simple illustrations, a folksy style and lyrical language are key to this book’s success
The Wind in the Willows illustrated by E.H. Shepard
Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows was first published in 1908 with only a frontispiece for illustration. Famous for his Winnie the Pooh illustrations, E.H. Shepard was asked to illustrate a new edition in 1931 and his artwork took the book to greater success. It’s now impossible to think of The Wind in the Willows without Shepard’s depictions of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad (especially Toad dressed as a washerwoman).
Moby Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent
A writer, artist and an adventurer, Rockwell Kent is most famous for illustrating a 1930 version of Moby Dick, which is arguably the best-known example of Art Deco design in literature. Published in 1930 by the Lakeside Press, the three-volume limited edition (1,000 copies) sold out almost immediately. The haunting black-and-white pen and brush and ink drawings are special.
Ulysses illustrated by Henri Matisse
Matisse, being Matisse, didn’t bother to read the book (which isn’t easy to read at the best of times) and assumed it was about Homer’s Odyssey. Nevertheless, the illustrated book is highly desirable thanks to the superstar combo. Each of the 1,000 copies was signed by Matisse and 250 were also signed by Joyce.
High Street illustrated by Eric Ravilious
First published in 1938, this book describes the traditional British high street, pairing Ravilious’ artwork with text from historian J. M. Richards. High Street shows a butcher, cheesemonger, knife grinder, the oyster bar, and other shops that are no longer around. Only 2,000 copies were printed before the plates were destroyed in World War II. Copies are highly collectable.
Madeline written & illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans
The original Madeline book was published in 1939, and five more followed between 1953 and 1961. The stories were so successful that they spawned a media empire of books, TV and film. The books focus on 12 girls in a Catholic boarding school in Paris. Madeline is the smallest and bravest. The classical artwork and that determined little girl have meant that these books continue to be immensely popular.
The Szyk Haggadah illustrated by Arthur Szyk
Arthur Szyk was a Polish-born illustrator who used art as a weapon against Adolf Hitler. His 1940 Haggadah is in the style of an illuminated manuscript where the text is supplemented by decorated initials, borders and illustrations.
The Haggadah (which means ‘the telling’ in Hebrew) is a key element of the Jewish Passover holiday. Reading the book is a Jewish rite in order to learn how the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. Szyk’s edition draws parallels between repressive regimes of Nazi Germany and the ancient Egyptians.
The Little Prince written & illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was not an artist but his simple watercolours are integral to the story, which has apparently sold more than 140 million copies worldwide. There have been plays, TV, ballet, and opera adaptations. The Little Prince was first published in 1943. This children’s book is different because it addresses major themes of love and loneliness.
Goodnight Moon illustrated by Clement Hurd
Goodnight Moon, written by Margaret Wise Brown, was published in 1947 and it has been a bedtime read for millions ever since. The book was a flop at first and was slammed by the New York Public Library’s guru of children’s books, Anne Carroll Moore, for being too sentimental. However, it’s popularity steadily grew decade by decade. Parents love this book because it signals the end of the day and helps put the little ones to bed.
The Cat in the Hat written & illustrated by Dr. Seuss
This 1957 illustrated children’s book proved that learning to read didn’t have to be boring. The Cat in the Hat's text is simple and easy to follow with just 236 different words used. Seuss’ illustrations are entertaining and colourful, which became his formula for success. Published three years later, Green Eggs and Ham is even simpler, using just 50 unique words.
A Bear Called Paddington illustrated by Peggy Fortnum
Another bear book. Following in Pooh’s sticky pawprints, A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond was published in 1958. Paddington’s love of Marmalade sandwiches has carried him far and wide since then. More than 30 million copies have been sold. Once again, we see how pen-and-ink drawings can be successful.
Drawings for the Bible by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall’s illustrations for books are just one way of discovering his work. Drawings for the Bible has 24 colour lithographs and was published by a French magazine called Verve and printed in Paris from 1958-1960.
The Snowy Day written & illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
This 1962 children's picture book features a child who explores his neighbourhood after the first snow of winter. By using a Black protagonist in the racially divisive 1960s, The Snowy Day helped pave the way for more inclusive children’s books.
Where the Wild Things Are written & illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are shows the power of children’s picture books. Minimal but memorable text, and rich, powerful illustrations. It can be found in millions of home and libraries, and many people can recite the text from memory. AbeBooks has sold a signed first edition for $25,000 (about £17,330) in 2012.
The Giving Tree written & illustrated by Shel Silverstein
The Giving Tree was published in 1964 and has become one of the world’s bestselling picture books. Today, the plot is regularly debated about whether the tree is selflessly giving to a little boy, or the boy is abusing the tree by taking selfishly.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar written & illustrated by Eric Carle
Somebody probably bought a copy of this book while you were reading this article. 50 million copies sold. Is there a better picture book for the youngest readers?
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali
A landmark moment in surrealism. For more than 100 years, Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice amazed readers with its unusual plot. And then in 1969, Salvador Dali said hold my beer and took the novel’s weirdness to another level with a surreal illustrated edition for Random House's Maecenas Press.
Dali's Alice in Wonderland contains 12 woodcuts – one for each chapter – created by heliogravure, a time-consuming reproduction method similar to engraving. AbeBooks regularly sells copies for £8,000+.
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady written & illustrated by Edith Holden
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady is an amateur naturalist’s diary for 1906 where the changing seasons are shown by changes in plants and animals in the English countryside. It includes poetry, and illustrations of birds, plants and insects.
This book was not published until 1977 and became an immediate bestseller. It is a personal diary and was never intended for publication. The book shows that almost anyone can have an appreciation for nature if they just take the time to look carefully.
Edith Holden shows how one person can find amazing detail inside a humble hedgerow. Her paintings show a naturalist's eye for detail. Her poems, thoughts and observations show a keen interest in rural Britain.
Codex Seraphinianus written & illustrated by Luigi Serafini
One of the weirdest books ever published. An art book with text that you cannot understand. Grotesque and beautiful. It has a unique and unreadable alphabet and numerous illustrations that borrow from the modern age but veer into the unusual. Published in 1981, Codex Seraphinianus has a cult following.