This elite group of picture books was chosen on the strength of the story and the illustrations together. There are plenty of books with great illustrations and a so-so story, or a fantastic story with illustrations that are on the boring side, but I was looking for the total package.
In reverse order, my top 5 picks:
5. Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, written and illustrated by Mark Teague.
Ike LaRue has been shipped off to a deluxe boarding school for dogs to learn better manners (such as not eating the chicken pot pie off the table). The story is told in snarky letters from Ike to his owner, Mrs. LaRue, in which he paints a dire picture of his life that doesn't quite match up with what we see in the illustrations.
As you can see in the example below, Ike is actually dining in a hilariously upscale restaurant with waiter service and "floor-dropped table scraps" on the menu, while his imaginary experience includes a domineering prison guard pointing out that howling, biting, scratching, growling, slobbering, barking and especially second helpings are NOT ALLOWED.
4. Officer Buckle and Gloria, written and illustrated by Peggy Rathman.
Officer Buckle gives school children the most boring safety presentations in the world, until the day he brings the new police dog Gloria with him. Turns out that Gloria is an accomplished actress and enlivens the programs quite a bit. Just not when Officer Buckle can see her.
Gloria isn't the cutest fictional dog in the world, but the illustrations are bold and bright and the safety tips on the endpapers are a must read (e.g., "don't play in the microwave").
3. Martha Blah Blah, written and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh.
Martha the dog is a great communicator (aren't all dogs?), but when she eats the right kind of alphabet soup - Granny's - the letters go up to her brain and she can speak words. This turns out to be incredibly useful for ordering meat from the butcher or making special requests for dinner. Unfortunately, a new Granny takes over the soup company and cuts out half the alphabet letters to increase profits. Martha suddenly loses her way with words, and goes on a mission to restore "every letter in every can."
Martha's personality leaps of the page, and is enhanced by clever illustrations that reward repeat views (Alf the "A" maker has arrows, anchors and alligators on his curtains.) Also in this series: Martha Speaks, Martha Calling, and Martha and Skits.
1. Moe the Dog in Tropical Paradise, written by Diane Staley, illustrated by Elise Primavera.
Primavera's illustrations are full of hidden "extras" - Moe and Arlene work at Frozen Cow Ice Cream, Moe's attic is full of dusty dog paraphernalia like a Lassie lunch box and copies of Benjie and Old Yeller. Hands down my favorite dog picture book.
Did I omit your favorite? Leave a comment!