The phrase “The Golden Age of Picture Books” might conjure images of the great green room or an angry boy in a white wolf suit, yet, according to children’s book professionals who gathered for a panel in Manhattan on March 4, the golden age in question is actually happening right now. The speakers were: David Caplan, v-p and creative director, Hachette Book Group; Paula Wiseman, v-p and publisher, Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster; Mario Russo, children’s book editor, New York Times; and Kirsten Hall, literary and art agent, Catbird Productions. The event was moderated by Nancy Hall, v-p, American Book Producers Association, which sponsored the discussion.

Equipped with slides of their favorite picture books of 2014, the panelists launched into an enriching discussion of why they believe we are in the midst of creative renaissance for picture books. Russo’s first selection was Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti’s Hansel & Gretel (Toon Graphics), which she believes “broadened the context” of the fairy tale and “enlarged the way a story can be told.” The book, she said, also speaks to a growing trend in children’s literature: a renewed appreciation for the book as a beautiful physical object.

From a revival of a familiar story to a nonfiction book about a little-known figure, another of Russo’s favorite books of 2014 was The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans). She was particularly taken with the story because of the way it takes a figure who is “not someone you think of as a hero,” and presents a story about pursuing one’s passions with intrigue and emotion. As a picture book biography, Russo believes that it also represents the trend for nonfiction stories that are geared toward a slightly older audience and may meet the standards of the Common Core.

Next, Russo chose The Storm Whale by Benjie Davies (Holt), a book with artwork that she said contains tremendous “subtleties and emotional resonance.” Russo described the story as inhabiting a space of slightly skewed realism: “there’s a magical aura” to the work, she said. Her last two selections were Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam) by Matt de La Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson, and, honoring her colleague on the panel, Kirsten Hall’s The Jacket, illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova (Enchanted Lion). Her admiration for de La Peña’s picture book stems from the subtle power of its message about overcoming hard times. She sees it as a book that casually reflects the great diversity of our world. On The Jacket, Russo noted its high production values and the story’s “meta-book” aspect, or integration of the book itself as a character.

Before turning to her own selections from the golden year of 2014, Hall shared that her inspiration for writing The Jacket came from her love of books as a child: “I felt feelings for my books,” she said. Her aim was to help instill in children the recognition that “books are objects to protect and cherish.”

Referencing its “noteworthy and interesting panoramic format,” Hall shared Fox’s Garden by Princesse Camcam, part of Enchanted Lion’s Stories Without Words series. Switching gears, Hall presented I Am Jazz, co-written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (Dial), which is based on Jennings’s childhood struggle with gender identity. It’s a story that widens the scope of diversity in children’s books, Hall said, promoting “tolerance and appreciation” in an accessible format.

Hall called Argentinian author-illustrator Liniers’s What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story (Groundwood) a book that represents “another kind of diversity,” in terms of tone and subject matter. It’s a story that dares to “validate nightmares and doesn’t wrap up neatly,” she said. In the end, the child protagonist doesn’t find an easy solution to his night terrors, but rather “must learn to cope with being afraid.” From Big Picture Press, Hall shared the oversize Animalium (Welcome to The Museum) by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott, which features collections of objects as though presented in a gallery and is skewed toward a slightly older range of readers, and Sophie Blackall’s The Baby Tree (Penguin/Paulsen), which she described as “a successful, age-appropriate, and fun” book about reproduction, featuring a boy who is fed up with hearing from adults “hurried, half-truths” about where babies come from. It’s a topic that, admittedly, Hall has struggled with teaching her own sons.

“Have you read it to them?” Nancy Hall interjected, explaining to the audience, that, in the interest of full disclosure, she’s Kirsten’s mother. “And guess who got to tell her sons the facts of life?” she joked.

Wiseman selected several books from the S&S/Wiseman imprint. She describes Raúl Colón’s wordless book, Draw!, as being about the boundary-less potential of art and imagination. Meghan McCarthy’s Earmuffs for Everyone, about the invention of the earmuff, is another nonfiction book that “speaks to the Common Core.” It’s a story that explores the “facets of invention” and how one thread of history can unspool to reveal so much more than first anticipated. Wiseman next shared Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton. Starring a chicken character that experiences an identity crisis because she has human arms, Wiseman called it “the ultimate diversity book,” because it features an individual who feels different, but learns to embrace her individuality.

From 2013, Wiseman presented the “non-linear” and “very cinematic” meta-book: Do Not Open This Book! Its sequel, Open This Book! releases in October; Wiseman noted the upcoming title’s black jacket, which is a design aesthetic that wouldn’t have been permitted 10 years ago. The cover speaks to how this is a “time of creativity and experimenting” in the picture book field.

Finally, Wiseman shared Etsy artist Jorey Hurley’s Nest, which uses “Zen-like art to tell the life cycle of a robin.”

Coming from Little, Brown in July, Caplan spoke about debut author-artist Elise Parsley’s If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t!, saying that the book offers a gratifying “unified vision” of a “rambunctious female character who knows that bringing an alligator to school isn’t a good idea, but she does it anyway. Caplan’s favorite Little, Brown titles from last year were Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, which uses design elements to explore themes of conventionality verses individuality; and Patrick McDonnell’s A Perfectly Messed-up Story, which “breaks down the narrative wall” between reader and character. Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora offers what Caplan called a “hilarious and adorable” storyline, about a wolf who is adopted by a family of bunnies. Finally, he shared Dan Santat’s Caldecott Medal-winning The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend, which “on the surface is about a cute, marshmallowy character,” yet contains “so many different layers of subtext” that by the end, it amounts to being a work of “mind-blowing” existentialism.

The panelists agreed that this age of innovation may be attributed to the expansion of social media channels and the abundance of creative influences. Previously, agents and publishers might have primarily reached out to international authors and illustrators at the Bologna Book Fair, but now social media has enabled them to connect more seamlessly from home, expanding the potential for collaboration and move diversity of content and content-creators. The American picture book aesthetic has evolved to become more accepting of darker, more sophisticated stories with additional layers of meaning and narrative threads. Hall noted Death, Duck, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (Gecko) as a prime example of a darkly themed book that has been published here in translation in recent years, and Russo mentioned The Flat Rabbit (Owlbooks) by Bardur Oskarsson, which she believes shares some tonal and thematic similarities with a predecessor, Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird. For Hall, darker picture books that address challenging topics such as death not only expand the notion of what is acceptable for kids to be reading, but these books can serve as springboards for adults to converse with their children: “they are an invitation to adults” as well, she said.