The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Award in 1962, and has mesmerized children since that day. A Jewish artist born in 1916, his books quietly promote healthy interactions between generations, races, boys and girls, and even people with disabilities. I love The Snowy Day, but I also love many of his other books.
Less well known than many of the books here, Barbara Cooney's most popular book is Miss Rumphius. If you have missed this one (as I did somehow until grad school), it is the story of a little girl and her life guided by her grandfather's three principles. Travel to far away places, live by the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran is a story about kids with fabulous imaginations making a world out of a hillside of mud, rocks and boxes. Eleanor tells the story of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt as an awkward, shy, and unpopular young girl. Perhaps my favorite of Cooney's illustrated books is a one a dear, dear friend gave me for my birthday, called When The Sky is Like Lace by Elinor Lander Horwitz. It's the story of what happens on bimulous nights, full of silliness and wonder, just pure magic to read aloud, with lots of details for little kids to find in the pages. And if you want a Christmas story to read on a long chilly evening, Holly and Ivy tells the story of a little orphaned girl, and a little unloved doll, and a couple without any children who all find each other and are happy when Christmas comes. It's a longer book, with full pages of Rummer Godden's beautiful text, and takes about an hour to read out loud from cover to cover.
Where the Wild Things Are is perhaps one of the most loved children's books. It's a little weird, and a little scary, but it is written and designed with incredible skill. I like his writing too, but most of these books I'm suggesting are ones he illustrated for other authors. A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss is a book of imaginative, playful definitions of everyday things such as mashed potatoes are "to give everybody enough" and the ground is "to make a garden." It's wonderful, and Sendak's pen and ink illustrations are hilarious. Nutshell Library is a set of four tiny books. I know the books are also nice (Chicken Soup with Rice, One was Johnny, etc.) but I remember especially loving how perfectly little the books were. The Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik are less picture books and more "I can read" style, but they are utterly charming. Sendak's animals are more life-like and less surreal than in some of his other books, but with no less personality. If you prefer the weird side of Sendak's illustrations, let me recommend the Christmas classic, The Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffman. The pictures are strange, even grotesque, but profoundly fitting for the strange little fairytale.
Tomie is known to many for Strega Nona, the tale of the old lady with the magic pot of pasta, but he has illustrated over 200 books in his career, many of them about Italy, folktales, stories of Saints and Bible stories, but also books for holidays and nursery rhymes. I'll share four of my favorites. The Art Lesson is a story from Tomie's early days in school, and the woes of only being allowed to draw with school crayons. It is funny, sweet, and an excellent read-aloud even for quite young children. The Clown of God is the only picture book I brought with me to The Netherlands, a book which tells a great deal about the connection between faith and work. It's a good enough story that small children (maybe 5 and up?) will get caught up in it, but deep enough that adults will keep coming back to it. Bill and Pete go down the Nile is one of my favorites from growing up, and to this day I can still remember Andrew and I chiming in with my mom as she read, "'ooooooo' said all the little crocodiles." Bill is a crocodile, and Pete is his "toothbrush" and together they save a giant diamond from the bad guy trying to steal it from the museum. The Days of the Blackbird is a Northern Italian folktale about a little girl, her sick father, and how a dove became a blackbird through kindness.