Each year, a new crop of children’s books hits the shelves, promising to enrich the lives of both parents and the kids that read them. But every parent has at least a few books that they dread, either because the content or the pictures are boring, irritating, or just plain uninspired.
Fortunately, 2018 delivered a rich class of illustrated books. We combed through them to find the best picture books centered on cities, architecture, and design. These are books that visually delight while also focusing on place, both the physically built environment and the communities we create.
Some of our favorite new books focus on transportation, others are about neighborhoods and how kids interact in their communities. There are quite a few architecture-centered board books for the infant crowd, and we can’t stop swooning over the pictures from award-winning illustrators. All would make great gifts for future Curbed readers.
Behold, the 17 best new books for young urbanists—and their design-savvy parents.
Love books? Adults, be sure to peruse our list of 101 books about where and how we live for more grownup gift ideas. And if you’re traveling to cities with your kiddos, don’t miss Curbed’s maps of the best family activities in Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Austin, and New York City.
Brick: Who Found Herself in Architecture by Joshua David Stein and Julia Rothman
Immerse kids in a fresh perspective with this story of a young brick that sets out to find her place in the world. Intricate architectural line art by Julia Rothman accompanies sweet words by Joshua David Stein; the result is a global building tour that feels both expansive and personal at the same time.
Florette by Anna Walker
It doesn’t get much more beautiful than Anna Walker’s latest book, Florette. Gorgeously illustrated in watercolor, Walker’s book tells the story of a garden-loving little girl who struggles to acclimate after she moves into a new city. This tale of friendship and resilience will warm the hearts of kids from two to 102.
National Parks of the USA by Kate Siber and Chris Turnham
Loving where you live isn’t just about cities, it’s also about appreciating the natural environment. That’s why we can’t get enough of this informative take on the National Park System from Colorado-based journalist Kate Siber. Best for kiddos aged 8-11, the book tours 21 of our majestic national parks and provides a plethora of maps and fascinating animal and fauna facts. This is an outstanding science book with poster-worthy illustrations.
Door by Jihyeon Lee
Wordless picture books captivate imaginations and rely on pitch-perfect illustrations to great effect. Door is no exception. This New York Times editors’ choice book follows a boy who finds a key to a long-unopened door and begins a journey into an unexpected world. For fans of Lee’s debut book, Pool, this is a must-buy.
Islandborn by Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa
Bold hues and mixed-media illustrations complement a well-rounded story of an immigrant child wondering where she fits in the world. The young protagonist, Lola, gradually learns more about her heritage, and this knowledge brings to life the vibrant culture and history of her neighborhood. The book is also available in Spanish.
Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave by Jessica Hische
Design-minded parents, this one’s for you. A brilliant typographer and designer, author-illustrator Jessica Hische creates a picture book full of uplifting messages. It’s a lesson in positive thinking that encourages kids to do their best and honor their true selves.
The Great New York Subway Map by Emiliano Ponzi
We love all things transportation-related here at Curbed, so it’s no wonder that The Great New York Subway Map by Emiliano Ponzi made our list. Published by the Museum of Modern Art in association with the New York Transit Museum, the book tells the story of how the NYC subway map was created in 1972. It’s a beautiful and well-done introduction to graphic design and mass transit.
Baby’s First Eames: From Art Deco to Zaha Hadid by Julie Merberg
It can be hard to find a good board book, especially one that translates adult-worthy topics into picture form. But Baby’s First Eames makes it look easy thanks to sleek illustrations and a healthy dose of whimsy. Forget the normal A to Z kids book, Merberg’s masterpiece highlights an array of modern design icons, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to Noguchi sculptures. Consider it essential infant reading for all up-and-coming architects and designers.
Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark and Madeline Kloepper
Sometimes a trip around your neighborhood can open up a whole new world. That’s the premise for this beautifully illustrated book written for kids aged two to seven. Grow your child’s natural curiosity with a story about how an ordinary walk can transform into an extraordinary adventure—if you only pay attention to the small things.
Whose Boat? by Toni Buzzeo and Tom Froese
Another excellent board book from well-known children’s author Toni Buzzeo, Whose Boat? takes sea-minded kiddos on an accurate tour of different aquatic vessels. For urbanites who travel frequently by ferry—hello there, New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco—this will be a welcome addition to your child’s library.
A History of Pictures for Children: From Cafe Paintings to Computer Drawings by David Hockney, Martin Gayford, and Rose Blake
Older elementary and middle school kids will pause to enjoy the detailed illustrations in this meticulously written art history book. But it’s the accessible information that makes A History of Pictures for Children most successful, as Hockney and Gayford explore how art and the human experience have transformed from cave paintings to video games.
Los Angeles Is by Elisa Parhad and Alexander Vidal
This pretty board book is as chic as Los Angeles itself, complete with palm trees and taco trucks and a healthy does of style. Consider it a primer to everything the City of Angels has to offer, and an introductory book for SoCal toddlers prepped to learn all of the city’s quirks.
House: First Words Board Books by Michael Slack
Grab this set of five miniature board books and get ready to entertain future architects. Each book focuses on a different room inside a modern house: the living room, bathroom, kitchen, garage, and bedroom. Everyday objects and beginning vocabulary are elevated with gorgeous illustrations; this set makes an affordable, stylish gift.
The People Awards by Lily Murray and Ana Albero
The places we live are only as good as the people that live there, so we love this civic-minded book from author Lily Murray and award-winning artist Ana Albero. The People Awards celebrates 50 famous people who made history and changed the world for the better, including Olaudah Equiano, Simon Bolivar, Marie Curie and more.
Hello, New York! (Hello, Big City!) by Christopher Franceschelli and Géraldine Cosneau
Bestselling author Christopher Franceschelli debuts a board board about one of the most visited cities in the world: New York City. Budding cartographers will appreciate the simple map at the book’s beginning, and playful die-cuts let kiddos peek into windows and under bridges. Franceschelli also has another board book in the series called Hello, Paris!.
I Am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds
This community-minded book is a hopeful meditation on the amazing and challenging aspects of being human. The simple, compassionate message is supplemented by colorful illustrations that help kids understand the abstract—but incredibly important—concept of empathy.
A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith
Uniquely illustrated with soft colors, this book explores the imaginative qualities of an abandoned house. Lyrical words and an attention to detail bring the story of two children to life as they piece together clues from those who have come before.