Very few books are as perfect as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. That classic tale of naughtiness combines slightly unsettling images with an imaginative adventure story and a comforting return home for Max at the end. It’s a delicious, bittersweet puff of a tale, with an undercurrent of menace, just as it should be.
Here’s what I like in a book for kids ages 3 to 5: an economy of words that starts the story in the middle or at least in some wonderful, surprising place; incredible illustrations from an artistic point of view; and a clever storyline with some emotional truth to it. Children, like adults, need books that help them work through their concerns, feel brave and scared at the same time, and lift their spirits. Is this too much to ask? I don’t think so.
It makes such a difference, as I’ve mentioned, having wonderful stuff to read rather than plowing through a pile of mediocre pablum produced for younger kids as a way to inaugurate them into a Disneyfied, Dora-land marketing juggernaut. The point is that the books you choose should show your kids all the amazing things that books can do — and that you should not merely endure your time spent reading with your child, you should be delighted by it.
So I’ve pulled together a list of books (and authors) I’ve stumbled across that deliver nicely in a least some of these areas. As you’ll notice, I’m fond of gorgeous illustrations and simple but surprising stories. I tried to include a mix of well-known (read: blindingly obvious) books or authors with a few of our own discoveries, so that the list is a cheat sheet for folks new to the world of kiddie lit as well as those with more familiarity (none of the links are commissioned):
- Dr. Seuss (duh)
- Margaret Wise Brown
- Eric Carle
- Ezra Jack Keats
- Jan Brett
- Kevin Henkes
- Robert McKloskey
- Leo Lionni
- Richard Scarry
For the Youngest Set (0-2 years)
- Mother Goose (some traditional forms of this include bits that are dated or odd)
- Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers: One of the cutest books ever. I still choke up at the end. Every. Time.
- Good Night Gorilla, by Peggy Rathman: An insomniac gorilla liberates the zoo.
- Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell: Baby owls think a lot. And miss their mommy.
- The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats: This quiet classic still casts a magical spell.
- Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson: The original draw-a-world adventure.
- A Splendid Friend, Indeed, by Suzanne Bloom: Who hasn’t been annoyed by an intrusive goose at one time or another?
- The Midnight Farm, by Reeve Lindberg and Susan Jeffers: A lovely late-night tour of a farm and all the sleeping animals.
- You Are My I Love You, by Maryann Cusimano Love: A love poem to a child.
- Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes: The moon is a bowl of milk.
- First the Egg, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger: Cut-outs create a narrative about the origins of life.
- Honey, Honey, Lion or The Umbrella, by Jan Brett: Two vividly drawn tales featuring a wide array of wonderfully exotic animals.
- Books by Eric Carle: His wonderful illustrations lift up the simplest stories.
- Gossie, by Olivier Dunrea: The Gossie books are both succinct and sweet.
- Hopper Hunts for Spring, by Marcus Pfister: Soft focus watercolors, a bunny and a bear looking for a new friend.
- Where’s the Cat? by Stella Blackstone: Maya adored this bright and funky book with its hidden, playful cat.
- Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ball, by Vicki Churchill and Charles Fuge: So no one can see me/because I’m so small. The whole series of wombat books by these two is adorable.
- Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown: No matter where you hide, mom will always come for you.
- The Story about Ping, by Marjorie Flack: Turns out it’s better to be spanked than lost (or eaten!).
- Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McKloskey: Kuplink, kuplunk, will those ducklings find their way?
- Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney: Nutbrown Hare Sr. and Jr. compete to see who loves each other more.
- The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton: A little house gets urban anxiety, and a steam shovel saves itself from the scrapheap in these two stories of modernity and change.
- Stone Soup, by Marcia Brown: The art of making nothing into something-soup.
- Frederick, by Leo Lionni: A poet among mice keeps them warm in winter.
- The Poky Little Puppy, by Janette Sebring Lowrey: Tumble bumbling along, but no dessert for naughty puppies!
- Corduroy, by Don Freeman: The legendary teddy bear comes home.
- The Woodcutter’s Coat, by Ferida Wolff: Maya adores the ridiculous illustrations in this healing journey that a coat takes.
- Puff the Magic Dragon, by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton: The words of the song, with fantastical illustrations to match its bittersweet tune.
- Mr. Lucky Straw, by Elizabeth Lane: Unexpected blessings spring from generosity of spirit.
- Christopher’s Harvest Time and Pelle’s New Suit, by Elsa Beskow: Garden plants each have their own song in this slightly affected, but daffy-enough-to-charm tale. Pelle’s ingenuity and hard work, not the sheep, earns him a new blue suit.
- Milo and the Magical Stones, by Marcus Pfister: A story with two endings that highlight the value of gratitude.
- Kaito’s Cloth, by Glenda Millard: A whimsical, poetic story of a girl and her kite.
- Mirandy and Brother Wind, by Patricia McKissack: Mirandy needs Brother Wind for a dance partner.
- The Tomten, by Astrid Lindgren: Having a Tomten protecting the farm at night brings comfort.
- Anansi and the Magic Stick, by Eric Kimmel and Janet Stevens: The Anansi stories are terrific trickster tales, and this one doesn’t disappoint.
- Annie and the Wild Animals, by Jan Brett: Annie wants a pet, not these wild creatures that keep coming around.
- The Tale of Tricky Fox, by Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock: Maya loves the sing-song taunt of Mr. Tricky, and his come-uppance too.
- Strega Nona, by Tomie de Paola: A pasta pot, a witch and a spell that won’t quit. Basically, Anansi as your Grandma.
- The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg: Gorgeous illustrations bring home a story about the real spirit of Christmas.
- Home for Christmas and Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve? by Jan Brett: Almost any book by Jan Brett is magical. These are great, as are all the rest.
- The Night Before Christmas: A Magical Paper Cut-Out Edition: A crazy-beautiful version of the classic with amazing paper cut-outs.
Celebrating Family, Culture and Connection
- Three Cheers for Catherine the Great, by Cari Best: A birthday party for a Russian Grandma shows the best present is a loving family.
- Paperwhite, by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace: A sweet story of a little girl, her neighbor, and a bulb that marks the coming of spring.
- The Palace of Stars, by Patricia Lakin: Amanda and her Uncle Max have an outing, and it’s Amanda’s treat.
- Wild Rose’s Weaving, by Ginger Churchill: Weaving together the earth and the art.
- Osa’s Pride, by Ann Grifalconi: Osa learns what’s really important about pride.
- Nonna’s Birthday Surprise, by Lidia : What could be better than a visit to a farmer’s market and teaching a gaggle of grandkids to make pasta primavera?
- Dream Carver, by Diana Cohn: Mateo has a vision for carving and painting animals that he hopes his father will like.
- Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco: The gumption needed to make a Thunder Cake is just what’s required to brave the weather. Plus a recipe for chocolate cake that uses overripe tomatoes!
- Mole Music, by David McPhail: With hard work and persistence, Mole’s music works miracles.
- Little Mouse’s Painting, by Diane Wolkstein: Intricate, colorful illustrations for a story that manages to be about both artistic perspective and friendship.
Working it Through: Funny, Thoughtful Books on Fears and Obsessions
- How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight and Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters by Jane Yolen: Startlingly vivid, edgy illustrations and rhythmic language in these books about going to bed make them keepers.
- How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, by David LaRochelle: A truly wack book about mean green bean banditos.
- Chrysanthemum and Sheila Rae the Brave by Kevin Henkes: Bravely facing down the pettiness of kids and relying on little sis to show the way.
- The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, by Julia Donaldson: Clever rhymes about a witty mouse who saves his own skin with the power of words.
- Knuffle Bunny books, by Mo Willems: This wonderful photographic-cartoon trilogy charts a child’s obsession with a stuffed bunny and her eventual letting go.
- I Love You, Stinky Face, by Lisa McCourt: Mom loves you even if you are a smelly swamp monster.
- Dreamcatcher, by Audrey Osofsky: A dreamcatcher keeps an Ojibway baby snug and safe.
Out in the World
- The Zoom trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones: Zoom the cat surfs the ocean, goes to the Arctic, and visits ancient Egypt in this gorgeous Canadian trilogy.
- The Garden of Abdul Ghasazi, by Chris Van Allsburg: A dog strays into the wrong garden, and a little boy has to muster the courage to follow.
- The Stone Wall Dragon, by Rochelle Draper: A boy takes a tour to the shore after a stone wall comes alive and becomes a friendly dragon.
- Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon: Stunning illustrations make this story about difference and identity magical.
- My Friend Rabbit, by Eric Rohmann: Rabbit always makes trouble. But he has good ideas, like stacking hippos on elephants. A clever Caldecott Honor book.
- Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen: Owling in the snow by moonlight with a girl and her dad.
- Sophy and Auntie Pearl, by Jeanne Titherington: A daft, light-hearted spree about Sophy’s flying adventures with her aunt.
- Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen: There’s a lion in the library. And he’s quite a sensitive helpmate, for a lion.
- Mossy, by Jan Brett: One of the most beautifully illustrated books ever, about a turtle with a garden on its carapace and art as imitation of nature.
- The Olivia books, by Ian Falconer: So much personality, so little time.
- The Ghost Library, by David Melling: A cartoonish romp with stories nestled inside stories that ends up teaching kids how to write their own book.
- The Empty Pot, by Demi: The empty truth trumps the most fabulous flower.
- Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney: An Independent Woman, spreading lupines.
- Merlina and the Magic Spell, by Daniel Drescher: Haunting illustrations by Drescher make this odd little book about a sorceress and her dragon memorable.
- The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder: We love every one of this series of beautifully illustrated parts of the classic books edited and drawn for preschoolers.
- Thy Friend, Obediah, by Brinton Turkle: Obediah has a new feathered friend and he’s not sure what he thinks about it. A period piece set in colonial Boston.
- Warm as Wool, by Scott Russell Sanders: This honest take on early settler life has some hard truths (and dead sheep) in it, but ends up rewarding the risk.
- William’s House, by Ginger Howard: William designs a house better suited for his family’s new home in the New World.
- Dandelions,by Eve Bunting and Greg Shed: Perhaps better for slightly older children, a story of loneliness and home-making on the wide, empty prairie.
- Flotsam, by David Wiesner: A spectacular visual tour of ocean wonders no one has ever seen before.
- The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs: A boy takes flight with his snowman friend.
- Journey, by Aaron Becker: A girl slips through a door into a new kingdom with just her magic crayon in hand, liberating a magical bird along the way.
- The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney: The classic Aesop’s fable, told vividly through images.
For Kindergartners and Up
- The Tunnel, by Anthony Browne: An edgy sibling rivalry turns into an inspired rescue. Truly creepy images in several spots.
- Blow Away Soon, by Betsy James: To deal with loss we must appease the wind.
- The Peaceable Kingdom, by Ewa Zadrynska: Animals escape from the paintings in the Brooklyn Museum. What can be done?
- Weslandia, by Paul Fleischman: Nerds rule, finally. I adore this triumphant recreation of a new micro-world of self-sufficiency in the heart of suburbia.
- Emily, by Michael Bedard: A girl dares to speak to a reclusive poet named Emily. Yes, that one.
- Klara’s New World, by Jeanette Winter: The story of a crossing to the New World by Swedish immigrants, from a young girl’s perspective. Some mature topics like death are covered.
- The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A fox who delivers a lecture on love. An evening of many sunsets. There is little better than this classic, once your child is old enough to love it like you do.
- Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne: As soon as you can get away with it, ditch the numerous fake versions of these stories and go for the real deal.
- The Evening King, by David LaRochelle: No one can get in the way of the imagination when a young boy wants to dream.
- The Three Questions, by Jon J. Muth: A gorgeous story based on Tolstoy.
- The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams: Perfection, of course.
- Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin: An amateur photographer is the first one to figure out how to photograph a snowflake and their crystalline variations.
- A Symphony of Whales, by Steve Schuch: Trapped whales and the song that sets them free.
- Sector 7, by David Wiesner: Another wordless wonder of a tale about the power of art to remake reality.
- The Brave Little Tailor, by Olga Dugina and Andrej Dugin: A fantastical version of the Grimms story about the tailor and his seven dead flies.
- Maria Molina and the Days of the Dead, by Kathleen Krull: A Mexican family celebrates the Day of the Dead with their community.
- Fu Finds the Way, by John Rocco: A tea ceremony done with purpose, flow and patience saves the day.
- Books by Graeme Base: Vivid, exquisite, animal stories that are a feast for the senses, sometimes involving a visual puzzle or two.
What are your favorites to read to your child? I can’t wait to hear, so please do share in the comments!
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