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
Where is Baby’s Bellybutton and virtually the entire oeuvre of Karen Katz
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 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.
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.
Blueberry Girl, although, like much of Neil Gaiman’s work, this one may appeal more to me than to young children.
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
Nothing by Jon Agee is Sophie’s favorite silly book
Moomin and the Birthday Button, based on a classic Finnish fantasy
Because you’ve got to have some.
Okay, wise readers, what fabulous books have I left out? Let me know in the comments section.