March 2 is Dr. Seuss’s birthday, as well as “Read Across America” Day. Young children in schools across the country will hear a lot of encouragement to read books, but few will be given guidance on how to find the worthwhile ones or recognize the equivalent of literary dust bunnies. Many, in fact, will probably be handed volumes that are plain-out terrible. This is unfair to kids.
Some adults get very angry at people who claim that not all books are worthwhile. However, just imagine how infuriating it would be if reading material for adults were selected in the same way many of us choose books for kids.
If you fought too much with your wife, your mother-in-law would give you a novel about a husband who spends the first three-quarters of the story shouting and swearing at his bride until he experiences an epiphany and remodels his behavior. The illustrations would be colorful but rather ugly.
If you enjoyed a book that happened to feature dogs, your wife would go to the library and check out seven more titles about dogs and insist you try them all because they are also about dogs. Several would be written in rhyming verse that does not scan. You would also have an English teacher who assigned poems about depression and asked you to analyze the reason the poet chose each piece of punctuation.
No adult deserves this kind of treatment. Neither does any child in America. Would we harass them to “eat food!” or “say stuff!” with the same indiscriminate enthusiasm? Presumably not.
Yet human beings do need books. The question of which books children should read is hugely important. C. S. Lewis argued that we should cultivate “fertile and generous” emotions. That is, human beings need to be taught to feel love for what is good and beautiful and to feel distaste for what is bad.
Our affections must be ordered correctly if our intellects are going to have any chance at controlling our lazier, baser inclinations. Reading the right stories—both fiction and non-fiction—allows human beings to witness the richness of yearning for goodness, truth, and beauty. In other words, good books teach us to love the right things.
This principle is true even for the youngest readers. The picture books we pull out before bedtime are shaping our children’s outlook and affections. They are also already influencing the likelihood that our children will be intellectually and emotionally prepared to read great literature as they grow up.
We Need to Invest in Home Libraries
Instead of simply and indiscriminately telling kids to “read,” parents can do something much better. We can offer our children truly beautiful books by building family libraries. If we didn’t keep comfortable furniture in our homes, we would spend less time sitting there together. Similarly, when we make it easy to grab excellent books throughout the day, we communicate that reading is an expected and normal part of life.
Our collections need not be huge. We should be investing in books that are worth reading many times. It only makes sense to encourage re-reading by ensuring that our children aren’t overwhelmed by the distraction of excessive quantity. What matters is that the books we choose are morally, artistically, emotionally, and factually good.
The poetry should scan. The art should be top-notch. The language should be rich and well-chosen, filled with vocabulary that will expand our kids’ love for English. Non-fiction should bring its topic alive with a good narrative instead of training kids to expect factoids. These books are shaping our children’s attention span, which means they shouldn’t all be quick and easy reads. In fact, some should probably be illustrated in black and white.
Acquiring books need not be hugely expensive. Second-hand stores and library sales are often rich treasure troves. Check out this wonderful site to look for sales in your area. Grandparents often want gift ideas, too, and may love buying classics they remember reading to you.
Selecting and curating my family’s personal library is one of my favorite pastimes. Actually, it’s a bit of an obsession; and my husband is never surprised when I ask to pop into Goodwill on our rare date nights so that I can check the book section. Once we are there, it takes me a while to shop, but fortunately he is a patient man.
At the end of this article, I list some picture books that sit on my family’s shelves. First, though, here are several categories of books I look for. They may sound pedantic, but I’m looking for books that address meaningful themes without being heavy-handed or preachy.
After all, goodness, truth, and beauty are real. They resonate with human beings of all ages. They make good stories.
Three Types of Stories Young Children Need
1. Children Need Stories about Happy, Functional Families
Adults benefit from reading about troubled individuals who find redemption. Children, however, are still forming their basic sense of what is normal. They need books that uphold the foundations of their moral world. Tales of warm, loving, functional, intact families witness to virtue as found in daily life.
A huge part of any child’s identity and sense of security is tied up with what it means to be their parents’ child. This is a good thing. Healthy human beings define themselves in part through relationships with family, neighbors, culture, country, and God; and small children learn about the entire list by beginning with “family.”
Even though our kids will soon realize just how flawed their parents really are, they still need to know that the concept of parenthood is good and true: a gift well worth trying to live out. It is the foundation of a functional society.
Unfortunately, mainstream values aren’t very good at supporting functional, intact families. This is reflected in the picture books that get published. I’m not talking merely about the books that attack traditional families in obvious ways—those are easy to avoid. Others teach hyper-individualism in a more subtle style.
They portray fictional families in which the children’s whims and desires clearly rule the home, the children are routinely wiser than the adults, and the children always find their own answers and sense of self without input from adults. I would rather communicate the idea that human beings learn from and serve each other, and that this is part of why families are a tremendous blessing; so I look for books in which children aren’t ruled by their whims.
2. Children Need Both Wisdom and Wonder Tales
American parents often use books to correct their children’s behavior. This might be fine if parents weren’t so literal-minded about it. I often hear, “My kid won’t go to bed/quarrels too much/hates spinach/won’t share/calls me names. Can anyone recommend a picture book about this?”
This is unhelpful. Research indicates that when kids read stories about relatable characters who fight before reconciling, the kids actually become more aggressive and quarrelsome. Well, duh. Children imitate the behavior they see, and the fighting is longer and more interesting than the newfound appreciation at the end.
This is where good old-fashioned wisdom tales come in. Until recent times, the characters who modeled vice and foolishness were never ones with whom children identify. They were pigs, wolves, geese, or foxes. They were intended to be laughed at and rejected right along with their bad choices. Often they got eaten up.
Wisdom tales and folktales are also filled with examples of patience, perseverance, cleverness, and kindness. Yet they are generally wry and tolerant instead of preachy. Some modern authors write in the spirit of older tales. Arnold Lobel, for instance, possessed a particular talent for portraying the well-intentioned foibles of anthropomorphized animals.
Wonder tales are also important. Kids need to imagine themselves as the maiden who saves her town from starvation, the knight who goes face-to-face with a dragon, or the sailor who navigates through any gale. They need to be reassured that reality is much bigger than the mundane and the material.
A wise parent who remarks, “I’m sure St. George wasn’t scared of eating spinach,” will probably experience much better success in altering her children’s behavior than the mom who hunts up a book about a kid who throws his spinach against the wall.
3. Children Need Stories about the Natural World
One of the perils of modern life is a disconnection from nature: i.e., from reality. The best cure is to spend plenty of time outdoors, to grow plants, and to take your children camping; but books help too. They encourage children to think more deeply about the world around them and to observe what they see in more accurate terms.
Many nature-themed picture books are illustrated as if every inch of wood and stream contain about 200 animals. These don’t give children realistic expectations about what they will find on a nature walk. I prefer stories that focus on one particular plant, animal, or topic and that encourage children to learn about it in-depth. My children seem to prefer this kind of book also.
The Books We Have At Our House
This isn’t a perfect list-to-end-all-lists. It’s influenced by my quirks and tastes, my children’s personalities, and the titles I happened to find at library sales. However, I’m ready to vouch for all these books as ones my family loves.
Board Books for Babies and Very Young Toddlers
I’m not a fan of reading board books to tiny babies. With my firstborn, it made me feel silly, because all he wanted to do was eat them. I’d rather read hymns, poems, or other high-quality adult material aloud. I enjoy it, and the baby hears some rich language.
However, between the ages of one and two, my kiddos begin to be interested in reading their board books. At first, we simply learn to turn the pages in the correct order while pointing to objects in the pictures. Slowly they become capable of listening to the story. My 24-month old gets a book before bed and has realized that it is in his best interest to spin the process out as long as possible.
- Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury. This multicultural book is one of our top favorites for tiny readers.
- Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. I know some parents hate this book, and I admit it’s weird; but something about the illustrations and the drawn-out bedtime ritual has mesmerized all of my little ones.
- Opposites. by Sandra Boynton. Boynton’s best books are fun because they always include some element of the unexpected. We also own and enjoy But Not the Hippopotamus and a few others.
- Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell. This one is simple, classic, and includes flaps to lift. What more could one ask?
- ZooBorns, by Andrew Bleiman. Every toddler needs a book with photos of animals. This is the one we happen to own, but it’s pretty interchangeable with other equivalent titles.
- Moby Dick, by Jack Wang. In general, I hate abbreviated classics, and in general I avoid board books that are obviously aimed at the adult instead of the child. Yet somehow, my toddlers have found the Cozy Classics series compelling. Who knows why? They’re so fun to look at I don’t mind. We have an older edition of this title as well as two others in the series.
- Pippo Gets Lost, by Helen Oxenbury. My children have all enjoyed stories about Tom and Pippo.
- I Am a Bunny, by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry. I probably like this one just because it’s cute, but it’s also a good choice for tiny readers with short attention spans. This one also fits in the same category.
- Lola at the Library with Mommy, by Anna McQuinn. This edition is not yet released, but it seems to be a reissue of the board book version.
- My First Real Mother Goose, by Blanche Fisher Wright. I’m a big believer in reading nursery rhymes to young children. It helps them to hear and appreciate the rhythms in the English language, prepares them to respond to poetry later, and is fun.
- Eloise Wilkin’s Poems to Read to the Very Young, by Eloise Wilkins. It’s hard to find a good volume of classic poems that little ones will enjoy. Not every family will love every poem in this volume, but overall it’s a nice choice.
Picture Books for Older Toddlers and Young Children
I’ve attempted to divide my list of picture books into two categories roughly based on age. Your child’s attention span will be the best guide, however. If your kids are clumsy at turning pages, you might want to get a few of these in board-book form so they can be enjoyed without supervision.
- Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina. The best picture books contain layers of meaning, and this one definitely does — very young children can grasp the plot, and as they get older, they may realize it has a moral, too. It was my firstborn’s first favorite “real book.”
- Alfie Gets in First, and other titles in the same series by Shirley Hughes. We love the “Alfie and Annie Rose” books. Shirley Hughes has such a gift for portraying the joys and foibles of her characters in a loving way.
- Katy and the Big Snow, The Little House, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton. Katy inspired my children to think of perseverance as something desirable, which is useful when kids are tired and you want them to climb stairs.
- Cars and Trucks and Things That Go and Best Nursery Tales Ever, by Richard Scarry. My husband grew up with the first of these titles. I grew up with the second. Our kids like both.
- The Jolly Barnyard, by Annie North Bedford. I think this book offers a rare example of embracing our opportunities for service instead of insisting we must always “chase our dreams.” A lot of other vintage Golden Books are pretty good, too. If you see an older compendium or treasury of such tales you should pick it up. We happen to have this one.
- The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. My mother-in-law likes to classify this tale as “the good Samaritan for children, but with trains.”
- Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik. The Little Bear books are cozy, happy, and relatable.
- Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, by Doreen Cronin. This is another book that works well on multiple levels.
- The Story About Ping, by Marjorie Flack. Children seem drawn to books that help them process the idea of potentially misplacing their parents before being reclaimed. The author’s Angus books are also good (not to mention hilarious).
- Bee-Bim-Bop, by Linda Sue Park. This story about a Korean family preparing dinner is filled with a wonderful energy. It’s one of my top favorites.
- Papa Small, by Lois Lenski (1951). The illustrations may seem a bit stick-figure-like, but I love the multitude of activities the family partakes in, including going to church and having to carry the crying baby out of service.
- Hedgie’s Surprise; The Owl and the Pussycat; and The Hat, by Jan Brett. Brett’s wonderful illustrations are delightful even though her many books can begin to seem repetitious. My theory is that everyone’s favorite Jan Brett books are the first two or three they happened to find.
- Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey. You absolutely should own both of these.
- Owl at Home, by Arnold Lobel. Owl is goodhearted and a little foolish. My children loved the quirky humor and found it easier to relate Owl than to the author’s Frog and Toad books, although those are good, too, and my kids enjoy them now that they are older.
- The Little Train, by Lois Lenski. The engaging, detailed text shows real respect for the ability of young children to grasp and process information.
- Albert’s Alphabet, by Leslie Tryon. If you are going to purchase an ABC book, consider this one. The protagonist’s ingenuity is charming.
- Miss Suzy, by Miriam Young. Few books portray domestic virtues as admirable and heroic. This one does. It contains brave toy soldiers, too.
- The Maggie B. by Irene Haas. My children love the imaginative adventure in this story.
- Rain School, by James Rumford. It’s good for children to realize how different life in other parts of the world can be.
- Be Nice to Spiders, by Margaret Bloy Graham. “Don’t squish spiders” is an important message.
- Pumpkin Moonshine, by Tasha Tudor. It’s hard to find a Halloween-ish book that isn’t annoying. This one is, instead, quite charming.
- Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. This is another one of those stories that is slightly odd, and only sometimes rhymes; yet it has appealed to generations of children.
- Three Little Pigs, by Paul Galdone. This story is important for cultural literacy. It also teaches children to expect try-fail-try-succeed cycles in their lives.
- The Year at Maple Farm, by Alice and Martin Provensen. Kids should have a sense of what life is like when we live in accordance with the natural seasons.
- Dr. De Soto, by William Steig. I love this story. So does my husband. So do our kids. It’s a wisdom tale, a hero tale, and a tale of marital unity all at once.
- The Biggest Bear, by Lynn Ward. Another wonderful classic.
- The Funny Thing, by Wanda Gag. Is this story too weird? I hope you don’t think so. We don’t.
- Rum Pum Pum, by Maggie Duff. The blackbird hero in this folktale is so very plucky and energetic that one can’t help rooting for him.
- Something from Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman. In this book, a grandfather repeatedly makes something new from something old. It’s one of my husband’s favorites.
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and The Tale of Jeremy Fisher are an essential part of any child’s library. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is also good, but seems to appeal to a slightly older child. With Beatrix Potter, don’t buy a “treasury” or compendium—look for the little individual volumes printed on good paper that let you enjoy the beautiful watercolor illustrations as they are designed to be viewed. Do not, of course, pollute your children’s library with some sort of adaptation or anything with re-worked drawings.
- God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It, by Erdmann Neumeister and Jonathan Mayer. This book illustrates the text of the classic baptismal hymn with pictures that tell their own story about the life of a Christian. It’s very well-done.
- Aesop’s Fables, illustrated by Milo Winter. Aesop’s fables have been a staple of education for centuries, and Martin Luther thought children should know them.
- The Story Bible or 120 Bible Stories, depending on your children’s comprehension level. The former is told in simpler language and the latter will “age-up” to older kids and adults. Both are faithful to the scriptural version of each story.
- You should own some sort of Mother Goose volume with attractive illustrations. We’ve cycled through a few. You should also own some sort of reasonably good children’s volume of poetry. We have this one. Here’s another lovely choice.
Picture Books for the Slightly Older (non-toddler) Child
- Dogger, by Shirley Hughes. When Dave loses his stuffed animal, his big sister truly comes to the rescue.
- John Deere, That’s Who! by Tracy Maurer. Not all picture-book biographies genuinely appeal to children, but this one does; and my son relished learning about the man who invented a better plow.
- Henry’s Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine. This is a story of courage. My children also found it a compelling introduction to the evils of American slavery.
- Stone Soup, by Marcia Brown. Another classic folk tale with a timeless message.
- Anatole and Anatole and the Cat, by Eve Titus. These books are hilarious but also surprisingly touching. I love that Anatole, although a mouse, possesses a sense of honor. Note: Not all the other sequels are well-written.
- Petunia and Petunia’s Christmas, by Roger Duvoisin. At my house we like quirky humor, especially if it is accompanied by gentle wisdom.
- The Mole Family’s Christmas, by Russel Hoban. Perseverance, family unity, Christmas, and warm but quirky humor: this book has it all.
- How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, by Bill Peet. I grew up laughing over Bill Peet books. This is one of his best.
- Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain, by Edward Ardizzone. Tim is brave and resourceful. He also has adventures any little boy would love to imagine.
- Saint George and the Dragon and The Kitchen Knight, by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman. These titles make for a great introduction to the idea of knightly valor. Tell your boys to be knights instead of bullies.
- Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel, by Paul O Zelinsky. If you aren’t used to reading fairy tales to your kids, you might find aspects of these stories challenging, but kids tend to be surprisingly matter-of-fact about plots that scare adults. The illustrations are extremely lovely.
- The First Marathon: The Legend of Pheidippides, by Susan Reynolds. Pheidippides offers a wonderful example of courage.
- D’Aulaire biographies like this one. These biographies are not always P.C., and they are not all in print, but they are extremely engaging and memorable.
Nature Books for Kids
We collect two main types of nature books. We look for story-like narratives that allow kids to learn about a particular topic in-depth, and we also keep nature guides around so that they can look up the creatures they find.
- Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, by Ruth Heller. You might be surprised to learn how many animals lay eggs.
- Inky’s Amazing Escape: How a Very Smart Octopus Found His Way Home, by Sy Montgomery. This is a well-told, true story that includes fascinating facts about octopus habits.
- Cactus Hotel, by Brenda Guiberson. Not every book has a cactus for a protagonist.
- Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes, by Nicola Davies. This is highly engaging and the illustrations are lovely.
- The Usborne Flip Flap Body Book, by Alastair Smith. This is for quite young kids and uses very simple language.
- Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints, by Millicent E. Selsam. My kids responded well to the idea that nature is filled with clues for young detectives to find.
- The Smithsonian “Backyard” Series. Each book in this series follows a particular kind of animal and provides excellent detail about its life.
- Golden Nature Guides (we have this one about insects, as well as the rest in the series). We have a variety of nature guides, but the Golden Ones are favorites.