Great Children’s Books

My local corporate bookstore has a large children’s book section featuring toys disguised as books, workbooks pretending to be books, and the same dozen over-hyped children’s books in seemingly endless proliferation. I don’t know why the whole range of beautiful children’s books is so hard to find, but it is hard to find great children’s literature, especially for those of us (is it most of us, now?) who live in places without great independent bookstores.

So here is my attempt to list the best children’s books I know of.

And here’s my criteria:

Great children’s books should have stories: not just words, not just labelled pictures, but stories, dammit, with a narrative arc that both kids and adults can appreciate. But the story shouldn’t be too scary, at least not in our house, where my daughter plugs her ears during the scary pages. This rule means that Richard Scarry isn’t on our bookshelf, Dora is kept to a minimum, and even Disney’s fairy tales are buried at the back of the shelf (not that I didn’t have other reasons to discourage Disney, anyway).

Great children’s books should be gorgeous in both images and words. I want poetry. I don’t mean that the stories have to rhyme; I mean that I want the writing to be lyrical and beautiful. It’s even better if meanings resonate on several levels, like poetry, rewarding multiple readings at different ages. I prefer artwork with clean lines, too: all the collaged fussiness or impressionistic painting of some children’s books doesn’t seem to register on young eyes. Maybe that’s just my kids, but that’s what I see.

I don’t desire a didactic fable in every book, but I do appreciate if the book’s underlying messages aren’t offensive, especially because my daughter has a strong tendency to repeat lines she has learned from books and to mimic whatever action she sees in books. It’s surprising to me how many famous books this rules out, from Curious George to Rainbow Fish to A Bargain for Frances.

Here’s what I do like:

BEST BOARD BOOKS for children ages 0-2

Freight Train by Donald Crews

Big Red Barn and anything else by Margaret Wise Brown, the author best-known for Good Night Moon

Where is Baby’s Bellybutton and virtually the entire oeuvre of Karen Katz

Good Night, Gorilla

Eric Carle‘s classics are good, too, along with Sandra Boynton, and — although I hate to admit it — the many baby-books featuring a mirror and a squeaky toy.

Best Books for 3-5 year Olds

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes has a fabulous message about accepting impermanence while rocking out.

The Big Orange Splot

The Whoops-a-Daisy World series: Doctor Meow’s Big Emergency and Chief Rhino to the Rescue. We are eagerly awaiting Sam Lloyd’s next one. Doctor Meow is what I would give to any child who has to go to the hospital. Chief Rhino is what I bring to every birthday party, and it is always appreciated.

You Can Do It Sam and the entire sweet Sam series by Amy Hest

The fantastic visual play of David Wiesner makes it hard to choose just one favorite, but the Caldecott honor people agree with me that Sector 7 is his greatest. My second-favorites are Tuesday and Flotsam.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Banana! by Ed Vere. How can a book with only two words in it manage to be one of the most fun to read aloud? That is part of the brilliance of this book.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Classics: Caps for Sale, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and, of course, most of Dr. Seuss.

Anything by Maurice Sendak, especially In the Night Kitchen.

Books with Good Female Role-Models

Sadly, because of the canard that boys will only read books about boys, while girls will read books about anyone, many children’s books still feature mostly boys. There is a place for The Paper Bag Princess, Cinder Edna, Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots, and other feminist twists on princess tales, but — beyond those — this list here is simply books with great stories that happen to feature women who are heroes.

Miss Rumphius has, hands-down, my favorite message in all of children’s literature, and I don’t care if lupines are an invasive species. Why Barbara Cooney is not more famous is a mystery to me, because Roxaboxen is also a well-loved favorite around here.

Sally Jean, the Bicycle Queen

Blueberry Girl, although, like much of Neil Gaiman’s work, this one may appeal more to me than to young children.

When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry

One Morning in Maine, a classic by the author better known for Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal

Jellybeans for Breakfast, although it’s out of print, and the “being bad” part needs to be revised, but it’s still, hands-down, Sophie’s favorite book. It’s the favorite book of so many people that used copies sell for $165 right now on amazon.

Books to Subtly Discourage Consumerism

Doodle Flute, although it’s also out of print. I am a huge fan of Daniel Pinkwater, in almost everything he writes.

Nothing by Jon Agee is Sophie’s favorite silly book

Moomin and the Birthday Button, based on a classic Finnish fantasy

Alphabet Books

Because you’ve got to have some.

S Went Surfing

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

Okay, wise readers, what fabulous books have I left out? Let me know in the comments section.


4 responses to “Great Children’s Books

  1. e961

    Good list. It’s tough to separate the very good books from the others.
    Consider: Tomie DePaola, Ezra Jack Keats (The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie) and one successful here in Massachusetts was Virginia Lee Burton: The Little House. These are oldies.

  2. I heart The Big Orange Splot!

  3. I am not in sufficient contact with young people to know if these books are actually still great, or if they just appeal to my sensibilities. But I was book shopping with a student last year who had never read the story of Ferdinand the Bull, and — appalled — I dragged her to the children’s section and then couldn’t resist also pushing some of these books as well.

    Leo Lionni, to me, is like Eric Carle in that he’s classic and subtle and lovely and accessible. My favorite of his oeuvre is FREDERICK, which takes the story of the ant and the grasshopper and turns it on its head, pointing out the value of the artist in society. Pity about the cliched rhyme on the final page, but lovely and sweet in almost all other aspects.

    Alphabet Books: JAZZ A-B-Z. Certainly challenging in terms of vocabulary, but good fun if read out by an adult that knows jazz, and can therefore add a lyrical interpretation to each of the poetic, rhythmic, alliterative pages that connect letter forms and phonics to actual musicians.

    Books With Good Female Role-Models: COME ON, RAIN. I love the diversity of body type in this book, as well as the implied joyful relationship between the mothers and daughters.

    Also, I do like the idea that anything Moomin can discourage consumerism, as the marketing empire build up around them is, while not prevalent in American, still significant.

  4. Anonymous

    I just stumbled upon your blog and really have been enjoying your posts, thanks! I would like to add to your list and if Sophie hasn’t read these, please tell her that an old friend from high school with two young boys (ages 6 and 3) recommended them:

    1. Library Lion
    2. Wild About Books
    3. When Dinosaurs Came with Everything
    4. Make Way for Ducklings (just love the Boston theme)
    5. The Book of CHildren’s Classics (Pig, Pig; Ferdinand; Miss Rumphius; Madeline; Corduroy; Pippi Longstockings; Fudge; Homer Price and a few others I am forgetting)
    6. A Visitor for Bear
    7. I am Going to Like Me (Jamie Lee Curtis book about self esteem and being different)
    8. How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids

    That’s all I can think about now without stealing into my sleeping childrens’ rooms and perusing the shelves.


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