Books that have become classics have to appeal to a very diverse audience: a range of kids with tastes of their own, as well as generations of adults who choose these books to share with their children. Children’s literature that stands the test of time has both good stories and strong illustrations. In the list below, we chose books and authors that your child is likely to find in her nursery and pre-school experience. We also added titles that come up again and again when we have conversations with friends and the talk turns to books that they remember from their own childhoods.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Max in his wolf suit brings to mind the world of children’s books for many adults, who love to share this book with their own children. Max’s imaginary wild rumpus with “the wild things” allows him to continue his mischief when he gets sent to bed without his supper. This wonderfully creative book has clear and simple language that children love, as well as intriguing and playful illustrations. (You might like to pair it with Last Night by Hyewon Yum. This brand-new wordless picture book is a kind of retelling of Where the Wild Things Are with a female character, and has award-winning linocut illustrations.)
The Art Lesson by Tomie de Paola
In this autobiographical story, little Tommy loves to draw with his crayons, and his family and community celebrate his art. At school, it’s a different story; his art teacher wants copies of her work rather than the innovations of the children. He finally encounters an art teacher who lets him create his own images, encouraging readers to persevere through misunderstandings and frustrations-and for families to support their children’s artistic endeavors. The text and pictures work together to create a wonderful tale, one of dePaola’s best.
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
A poetic and magical night adventure. A girl and her father head out one winter night for a long walk in the snow under the moonlight to go owling. As they walk quietly, they appreciate and enjoy the night landscape of darkness and their shared companionship. Beautiful watercolor illustrations and a lyrical text encourage re-readings.
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
When thunder signals a coming storm, a grandmother helps her granddaughter deal with her fear of storms by telling her that these are the right ingredients to make “thunder cake.” This warm recollection from the author’s childhood creates a loving story of the warmth and solace an adult can provide. Polacco’s illustrations, as always, are bright and inviting. You can even bake the Thunder Cake!
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin illustrated by Eric Carle
Eric Carle’s tissue-paper collage illustrations are perfect with Bill Martin’s predictable text, where on each page, the reader meets a new animal and can guess what that animal sees. Children love to chime in after just a few readings, chanting the words to the book and delighting to use the rhyming pattern to predict the words. Great for very young children, as well as those on the verge of reading. Colors, animals, and rhyming sounds are all reinforced to the great enjoyment of child readers, who soon pick it up on their own.
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Another story about the power of imagination. Harold takes a quiet but magical journey armed with his purple crayon, drawing everything he needs in his universe. It’s one of those books that spans the years, enjoyed by the youngest readers to their parents and grandparents who may remember the book from their childhoods. Harold looks remarkably like the little boy in Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed, which Crockett Johnson also illustrated. Children appreciate both tales–and comparing the pictures, too.
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
Sam-I-Am, another of Dr. Seuss’s strange characters, tries to entice the skeptical narrator that green eggs and ham would be delicious-in a variety of ways: in a box, with a fox, with a goat, on a boat. When the little boy finally tries them, he realizes they “are so good, so good you see” that he will eat them in all the places that Sam-I Am has suggested. Wacky rhymes that are easy for a child to remember and reread make this a real favorite. And you can easily make your own green eggs and ham- we love to use pureed herbs instead of food coloring.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond
This is one bossy little mouse! If you give him a cookie…you start a whole progression of demands, and he’s never satisfied. There’s always one more thing he needs or wants. The illustrations are full of details that children can pore over to discover cause and effect and retell their own adventures. This is the first of a series of “If You Give a. . .” books. Our current favorite is the most recent: If You Give a Cat a Cupcake. If your child likes one of these books, check out the whole series!
Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto (also available in Spanish: Que Monton de Tamales)
A story of family togetherness and holiday celebrations. In this tale, Maria feels like a big girl to be helping her older family members make the tamales. While she cooks, she can’t resist slipping on her mother’s ring. Readers empathize with the sinking-stomach feeling of losing a treasured object, and facing the consequences. The story is gently humorous and told with warmth and grace. The illustrations are terrific-bright and bold-and really capture Maria’s numerous emotions through the expressions detailed on her face.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! By Mo Willems
A newer book, but already a classic. The bus driver has to leave and turns to the reader for help in protecting the bus, warning, “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!” Through the simple text, the pigeon continues to whine and plead, flatter and cajole, to get behind the wheel. Young children can hear echoes from their own interactions and enjoy the silly and entertaining illustrations. The pigeon has become a recurring character in a series of Mo Willems’ books. (In fact, even in Mo Willems’ non-pigeon books, your child will be able to find pigeon making a cameo, like in Leonardo the Terrible Monster and Time to Say “Please.”)
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold’s real-life story quilt is the inspiration and part of the illustrations for this award-winning picture book. Eight-year-old Cassie tells the story of her imaginative flights over the city of New York in the Depression era. The title comes from the rooftop picnics her family creates atop their Harlem apartment. Though it is a “tar beach,” they feast together on fried chicken and roasted peanuts and enjoy family life as a community. The pictures are fantastic, and author is a gifted story teller.
This list is a beginning sampling; we have more suggestions listed under “Build a Classic Library” for Infants and Toddlers, since these timeless books span a wide age range.
Want more ideas and suggestions for classic books for your child’s library? Check out Children’s books: Classic reading for fans