(Just Make Sure They Don't Read #5 On Their Own!)
Ah, the sweet innocence of youth.
Our kids are amazing people. Energetic, spontaneous, and naturally curious about the world around them.
They're capable of great insights (“hey, that emperor has no clothes!”) and they are capable of great… well... whatever the opposite of insight is (“mom, can I eat this bug?”).
As adults, it's our job to guide the next generation of humans as they learn and grow. And if we do this the right way, it's a journey that will transform both them and us.
That's where our list of classic children's books will light the way.
Fortunately, we're livin' in the 21st century. Today we're a computer click away from countless books and stories from all different corners of the world. But even with all these options, there are a select few titles that will continue to withstand the test of time.
These are the classics.
These are the books every kid should know.
Nancy Drew And The Curse Of The Internet
But with so much to choose from, how do we even know where to start?
Let's face it––we are living in the golden age of information. This is a time where any of us (or our kids) can pick up a phone, a tablet, or a computer, and have access to millions of book titles.
Of course reading a physical book is a unique experience. Flipping through paper pages is calming in a way that staring at a screen just isn't.
But no matter how much you love your collection of prized leather-bound volumes...
...it can't compete with the internet.
Not for selection, anyway. When it comes to sheer availability and access to reading material, the internet age gives today's kids more power than any previous generation has ever dreamed of.
Why is this happening? If today's kids have more access than ever, what's the reason they aren't taking advantage of this abundance of riches? Well, the main reason is...
You guessed it: the internet.
The internet is both a blessing and a curse. There's simply so much online that's competing for kids' time and attention.
That's why your kids need someone to start them off in the right direction.
They need YOU.
Start ‘em Early!
There's a big risk if you're avoiding reading to your kids when they're young. Literacy is ranked as being more important to a child's success than their parents' financial fortunes. That's kind of a big deal.
You can't buy it. And if it's forgotten, well…
So let's just avoid that right away, shall we? Of course you're not gonna do that!
Fortunately, there's an easy fix. Read to your kids and start early! Sometimes people think that they shouldn't bother if their kid is too young to understand what they're talking about. But they couldn't be more wrong.
Hey Junior… How Old Are You Again?
Before you do anything, you need to remember to meet your kid wherever they are in the process of their growth. What do kids need when you read to them? Well, that depends on their age.
- Point to the words while you read
- Let your child sit in your lap
- Have a daily “story time”
- Use voices when you read
- Let your child choose the title
- Ask questions
- Answer question
- Be encouraging
- Help them pick out words
- Give your child lots of encouragement!
- Ask questions about what they like or what they think of the story
- Let your child read to you!
Just remember that every child is different. Some kids may like you reading in silly voices, while others may just want a reassuring natural voice. See how they react to your reading style, and how they respond.
Dude, That's Classic
Classic children's books are classics for a reason.
But what are those reasons, exactly? Well, my young grasshopper, I am so glad you asked...
The children's books that made it onto our list all have a few common traits. While each title is unique, there are three main qualities that tie them all together.
First up, staying power. These books have stood the test of time.
All of our titles have been around for a while. The youngest one is turning fifty years old in 2019! Not too shabby.
And yet, they resonate with kids today. Each of them can still be found at most any bookstore with a children's section, because they continue to sell.
These are the types of books that get passed from one generation to the next.
And just think, a few decades down the road, and today's kids will be reading these exact same stories to their own children. That's a powerful bond across generations.
What writer wouldn't love to see their work have that kind of staying power?
You Got That Universal Language
These books speak to our universal humanity. They've been translated into dozens of languages.
They transcend cultural and geographic boundaries.
And in doing so, they inspire our kids to do the same.
Teacher, Teacher, I Declare...
Each of these books has something important to teach.
It's not always the same thing, mind you.
But the kids who come in contact with these stories will learn lessons about friendship, love, loyalty, loss, and the all-important truth that you shouldn't into a neighbor's yard and steal all his carrots. (Okay, that last part is a little specific, but you get the gist…)
Are You Gonna Eat That?
First on our list is Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This little guy first burst onto the scene in 1969, eating his way to fame and immortality in the world of children's books.
This deceptively basic tale is a favorite among the very young set. And why not? When you're that young it's still possible to get super excited about bugs and a never-ending array of colorful fruits and vegetables. But this story holds a profound truth at its conclusion.
“I write for the child inside of me. That is always where I begin.” -Eric Carle
A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words...
With so few words, the illustrations are the most important storytelling device in this book. Carle said his mission was simplicity: “simple shapes, bright colors, and lots of white space.” Young kids can interact with the book and differentiate between the various foods because there isn't too much going on.
Caterpillar on a Mission
Toddlers may not be able to read words themselves yet, but they'll connect with the caterpillar's heroic slow and steady goal of eating all he can.
And here's another advantage of the physical book (sorry, Kindles). In many copies, there are actual holes taken out of the pages where the caterpillar has “eaten” his way through. Try doing that on a tablet! (On second thought, let's not give any of our kids that idea…)
Just Keep Munchin'
At the end of his journey, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. And here is the part that makes this book truly profound. It introduces young children to the concept of change, and of “phases of life.” The idea that we are all becoming something else.
That's a powerful concept to share with very young kids, but they get it. So much so that a new copy of this book is sold every thirty seconds!
Say Goodnight, Gracie!
Goodnight Moon is the second of three books by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. Along with My World and Runaway Bunny, this 1947 classic children's book forms a trilogy following the life of one bunny.
Let's Go to sleep!
This one is guaranteed to be a favorite of weary parents everywhere. Why? The story centers on bedtime. So that's pretty legit right off the bat.
Seriously, you need at least one book in your collection whose primary purpose is to help your two-year-old wind down and nod off. It's a survival skill.
Hush Little Baby, Don't Say a Word...
It's still for pretty young kids though, and the presence of the bunny rabbit has a calming effect here. The bunny names all the objects it sees as it falls asleep, helping a very young child maintain a connection with things continuing to exist even when they're out of sight.
But it also places a value on quiet and calm. Margaret Wise Brown noticed in 1947 that the lack of this was a problem for young children. What's that you say? Children's lives are too chaotic? You're shocked to learn this news?
If children needed this reminder in 1947, you can sure bet they need it today.
“A child's need for quietness is the same today as it has always been. It may be even greater, for quietness is an essential part of all awareness”
-Margaret Wise Brown
The bunny saying goodnight to each and every object is a great example of connectedness. We see how important the larger world is to our furry hero. That's still a basic enough lesson for a little child to understand, but one that many adults still forget.
It's Rabbit Season
Speaking of bunny rabbits, you remember this one, right? Peter Rabbit and his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail are all given strict orders to stay out of old farmer McGregor's vegetable garden. But as soon as mom's back is turned, into the garden runs Peter, doing exactly the opposite of what he was told
Moral of the story: listen to your mom.
Beatrix Potter may have had that in mind when she wrote (and illustrated!) this 1902 classic children's book.
But there's another even better lesson that makes itself known at the end.
Get That Lettuce!
Peter is not exactly shy about running headlong into trouble. He throws on his blue jacket (like you do, if you're a rabbit on a mission) and goes off in a mad rush to squeeze himself under Farmer McGregor's wooden gate in order to get a closer look at his vegetable patch.
Peter's a character that kids can learn from in large part because his audacity gets them invested right away.
Carrot, Meet Stick
The whole book centers around desire and punishment. It's a fairly straightforward look at what happens when you don't listen to the warnings of your family that's looking out for you. Not only does Peter not listen to his mom, he doesn't listen to his siblings either.
If that's not asking for trouble, I don't know what is.
Like Eric Carle does with Very Hungry Caterpillar, Potter manages to give us a wonderfully portrayed world, thanks to her own incredible skills as an artist.
“If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple treasures, I have done a bit of good.”
The illustrations are particularly impressive in this work, as the inking, color, and composition all blend together to create an instantly recognizable style that belongs to Potter, and conveys both the warmth of home and the boldness in Peter's adventure.
Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit...
This is a pretty short book, and a large portion of it is dedicated to Peter attempting to escape the clutches of Farmer McGregor, who will almost certainly make a stew of Peter if he catches him.
But Peter does get away in the end, by hiding in a watering pot. He returns home without his prized blue jacket, promptly catches cold, and is sent to bed by his mother. Peter spends the evening sipping chamomile tea while his siblings all munch on a hearty dinner. His appetite betrays him, but his mother does not.
The great thing about this book is that it reminds kids that they can always come home, even if they're going to need to nurse their wounded pride a little. Peter isn't exactly welcomed home with complete forgiveness; he's still in trouble. But he's also taken care of.
The takeaway? Be obedient, yes. But also know that you're not getting left behind just because you messed up.
That's a message every kid could stand to hear.
Peter's mom takes care of him when he comes back, because she loves him. That hasn't changed.
(Let's just ignore for a second the unspeakable cruelty of naming your kids things like “Flopsy”...)
Is This Your Cat?
Surely you have heard of Theodore Geisel. You just more likely know him more as “Dr. Seuss,” who wrote and illustrated numerous classic children's books. He published sixty titles in a career that spanned decades, and his stories have been adapted into both Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.
Seuss had an incredibly distinctive style, both in terms of his unconventional poetic storytelling and his memorable illustrations. He's often copied in both arenas, but never duplicated.
Cat Got Your Tongue?
As with Peter Rabbit, this book is all about mischief. The book starts with two children, Sally and her brother, looking outdoors on a rainy day. Soon a large talking cat appears, and demands that they play games with him. Disaster ensues.
Hmmm, Something's Fishy...
The children are notably without their mother, who has gone out. The lone voice of reason is a fish in a fish bowl, but he is ignored. Sorry, buddy…
Oh, Dear, Look At the Mess You Made
In the end, the Cat realizes his mistake, and is forced to leave. When mom returns, she asks if the children have done anything while she was away. The book ends there, leaving it up to the reader to imagine what they would have done in this scenario.
“Think and wonder. Wonder and think.”
- Dr. Seuss
Seuss' book is brilliant because it doesn't tell the reader what the answer is. It forces the child to think about what choice they would have made if something like that had happened to them.
On Three... Draw!
The 1955 classic children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon is delightfully whimsical adventure, and its success launched author Crockett Johnson's career that saw six sequels.
The story centers around the young Harold, who creates an entire world around himself, using only a purple crayon.
Side note: I've gotta get me one of those. Seriously, Harold draws himself a moon, a boat, a path that ultimately leads him home where he can go to sleep...
Anybody know where can I buy one of these things?
Born to the Purple
Harold's crayon can create anything out of thin air. The implications of this are obvious.
Get kids thinking about what they would create if they had a magic purple crayon of their own. Get their imaginations working, so that by the time they do have more agency in adulthood, they're already thinking about how best to use it.
In the end? Harold realizes that home is where he wants to be. So he draws that, too.
One BIG word of advice: don't let your kids read this classic children's book on their own, and if you do, MAKE SURE TO HIDE THE ART SUPPLIES. Otherwise, you may come home to a purple house!
Don't say you weren't warned.
The thought that their power and imaginations are directly linked is a wonderful discovery for young kids. The sequels go on to show Harold on numerous adventures, but that core idea is introduced in the very first book.
Wild Thing! You Make My Heart Sing!
The last book in our series is the delightful Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Like many other authors on this list, Sendak wrote and illustrated his own work. Talk about a talented roster! No wonder these are classics.
These Walls Can't Contain Me
The story centers around young Max, who gets in trouble with his mother (another common theme, it seems). Max is on the losing end of this fight, I'm afraid. He gets sent to his room without supper.
“There must be more to life than having everything.”
- Maurice Sendak
Max does what anyone would do: he runs away from home in a boat that shows up just for him. Soon he's carried off to a land where giant monsters called the "Wild Things" roam and dance and make mischief.
What's remarkable about Sendak's work is how skillfully he jumps back and forth between relying on his words and relying on his pictures to tell a story. The first few pages of the book (as well as the last) primarily rely on words.
But the middle of the story (where Max is on the island with his magical monster friends) has a long stretch told just in pictures. The changes in style highlight the shifting between the world of reality and the world of fantasy.
I Gotta Go Home...
In the end, like Peter Rabbit, Max returns home to a loving mother. And the world of the fantasy dissolves. But while Peter Rabbit is almost a warning against the perils of straying too far from safety, Where the Wild Things Are is a love letter to the unknown.
The moral here for our young readers?
Go on. See what's out there.
Sendak was much more interested in exploring and adventure than he was in people who played it safe.
Wild thing... I think I love you.
Fortunately, you don't have to look too hard to find a place that carries classic children's books. There are great shops all over the place.
Bookshop and Storytelling Lab in Brooklyn, or Children's Book World in Los Angeles. Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis. Open Books in Chicago even runs a literacy program that has donated thousands of books to young readers over the years, making this one store that's definitely worth supporting.
Not near any of those? This page lists a store for every state in the country, and other great options abound.
In addition, if e-books are more your style, Kindle and digital sales have revolutionized the publishing industry. In 2013, e-book sales were just under 13% of the market. Today it's over 25%, and it continues to grow.
It may never take the place of the printed word, but on the plus side, you can shop for books in the middle of winter without putting on your coat.
And don't forget these crucial things:
What you put in your mind is like what you put in your body. You don't want your kids eating a diet of pure fast food, do you? So give them healthy brain food, while you're at it, and snag some good quality reading!
Aside from our list, some other great classic children's books include The Giving Tree, Curious George, and Winnie the Pooh.
Maybe your kids are a little older? Try Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte's Web, or A Wrinkle in Time.
Get 'em Talking
Guide and encourage your kids in their reading. Talk to them about their books. Ask them lots of questions about what they understood, but also what they think about it.
You Can Do It
And lastly, as your kids get older, they'll want to read more on their own. Don't be too disappointed if they sometimes want to try by themselves. That's great! That means you did your job. Way to go, you!