Some of the best illustrations aren't realistic, at least not in the way the Digital Age generation has come to define realism (i.e., as perfect photographic replication). And we're not promoting Modern Art, either: far be if from us to prefer squiggles or big shapeless color patches to depictions of actual landscapes and people. What we are promoting is the exercise of the artist's art and skills, not simply as an imitator, but as a revelator and interpreter of facts.
This emphasis on artistic creativity has largely informed our selection of historical picture books. Do all of the d'Aulaire illustrations perfectly resemble key figures and events of the past? Not at all, but they do consistently capture the spirit of American history and historical figures, portraying each as they were perceived and not necessarily how they actually were. Purists may balk at this approach, but rest assured that the textual content of these books is accurate and trustworthy.
Which brings us to one of the essential aspects of history study: interpretation. If it's pure authenticity you want, photographs will do just fine, whether of individuals, places, artifacts, or buildings. But facts are only one side of history, and as far as one's worldview goes, probably not even the most important part. Not that you can do without them, but learning to read the facts and interpret them is the only reason learning about the past is a worthwhile endeavor.
Good historical picture books can help you cultivate this skill, especially when teaching younger students who aren't ready to make abstract connections between seemingly disparate facts. For instance, a picture book about the American Civil War could simply depict images of battle....or, the artist could use dark colors and heavy strokes to show both the evils of warfare as well as the deep racial themes and animosities shared by both sides throughout the War Between the States.
Some of our favorite books of the latter kind are those by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire. Each of these volumes is dedicated to an important American historical figure like Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Leif Erickson, and each is well-known for its lovely lithograph prints. The accompanying text is poetic and accessible, offering a child's-eye view of people history has generally turned into mythic characters.
In a similar vein, though with cartoon-y illustrations, the Jean Fritz books are perennially popular, and justly so. These are a little more fact- and text-heavy, though still written in story form, and often focus on the more eccentric elements of famous peoples' personalities. Many of the figures covered in this series are heroes of the American War for Independence, and make excellent supplements to a study of the Colonial and New Nation eras.
A newer series from Banner of Truth Trust is destined to be among our favorites: the Heroes of the Faith books by Sinclair B. Ferguson, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian. Each book covers a covers an important church father (Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Irenaeus) and is illustrated with somewhat stylized full-color pictures. Kids are introduced to famous saints, as well as to their basic ideas and significance, all in a format they'll welcome.
There are so many other excellent historical picture books we'd like to introduce you to, but it's probably easier for us and you to just let you browse our collection. For the most part, only narrative histories (history in story form) have made their way into this category, though there are a few exceptions. The important thing to remember is that it's never too early to introduce kids to the study of the past, and when they're particularly interested in pictures is as good a time as any to start.