Most children’s literature experts talk about “classic” books and building a “classic library.” Of course, no one has a definitive list of books because each generation has different tastes and interests and engaging new books are published every year. What we can agree on are the qualities that define classic books: they are books that create a compelling connection to reading because of their high quality in terms of the rich language and/or pictures that tell the story, the popular appeal to children and their parents, and the fact that they have met the “test of time.” These are some of our favorites that we think are a good blend of older classics that remain in print because of their popularity and some that are relatively new, but have really caught on with today’s young families.
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (2004)
Toddler Trixie accompanies her Dad on a trip to the Laundromat. By mistake, Daddy tosses her favorite stuffed bunny into the wash as well. Parents relate to trying to understand their child in the midst of a toddler meltdown; kids love the pictures of Trixie and playful baby talk. The words and illustrations work together to create a humorous, recognizable, and satisfying tale.
Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathman (2000)
Gorilla’s story is told almost entirely through pictures as he pickpockets the zoo-keeper’s keys, following behind him and unlocking the cages of each animal as the keeper says goodnight. Unaware that the animals are traipsing behind him, the zookeeper trudges home to go to bed. There are very few words in this book, but a wealth of details (such as a tiny mouse and a pink balloon) that draw the eyes of observant children as they follow the story.
No, David by David Shannon (1998 )
There’s no doubt about it—David is a naughty boy, bouncing from one mischievous deed to the next. Toddlers find his “badness” delightful, and seem particularly drawn to the illustrations. Adults, on the other hand, tend to find the images of David’s big head and maniacal grinning mouth a bit creepy. You’ll get over your qualms as you see the fun your child has as David’s mother—from off-stage—yells, “No, David!” or “Come back, David!” or “No, No, David” at his many shenanigans.
The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood (1997)
The simple story of a little mouse who loves strawberries—and needs to hide his fruit from a strawberry-loving bear—is a gem, much loved by little ones. The text is engaging, but it is the illustrations that draw and hold readers’ attention as the little mouse attempts to save his strawberry from the hungry bear. But is there really a bear—or is the crafty person reading the story trying to trick the mouse into sharing his strawberry?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969)
When a caterpillar hatches from his egg, he is very hungry. We follow him as he munches his way through a variety of snacks on each of the seven days of the week. As he eats these foods–and the pages of the book itself—children learn about the miraculous transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Toddlers love the brightly colored pictures and enjoy chanting the phrases on repeated readings.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1963)
During the night, snow has blanketed the city. A little boy named Peter wakes up to discover a new landscape in his neighborhood and has a series of snowy-day adventures; he plays with the designs he can make with his footprints, creates a snow angel, and tries to save his very first snowball. The artwork is vivid and striking, a combination of watercolors, collage, and cut-outs. Children see the snowy day through Peter’s eyes, and enter into the magic of simple, yet wonder-filled experiences.
Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman (1961)
This is truly a “primary” book, from colors to words. But it’s full of dogs! What’s not to love? And what dogs! They are cartoon-like, with intriguing expressions and body postures. These brightly colored canines also go over and under, ride in cars, and go to parties. The pictures match the words on the page, showing what the dogs are doing: like “one dog going in,” or “two dogs coming out.” The repetition of the words is catchy and children just love it.
One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. (1960)
Dr. Seuss is known and loved for his silly, clever rhymes and interesting creatures. One Fish, Two Fish is a wonderful introduction to his work, and preview of the kinds of characters and language children will (hopefully) meet when they hear and read other Seuss books. Children delight in the playfulness with rhymes and sounds, as well as the matching pictures. Although the vocabulary is limited, there is a lot of variety in each little poem.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1943)
There’s something magical about this book, a soothing and charming story in poem form of a young rabbit’s bedtime ritual. In a cozy bedroom, the little rabbit says good night to everything in the room. The illustrations are bright and colorful, and hide many details that young children love to look for: a hidden mouse, the dollhouse with lights on, and pictures on the wall. We consider it a “must have” book, based on the young children in our lives.
Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kundhardt (1940)
We have found this “touch and feel” book to be irresistible as a first book for babies. Originally published in 1940, Pat the Bunny has since become one of the all-time best-selling children’s books. It still holds charm for babies as they chew on the sturdy cardboard pages, look at the simple illustrations, and try “patting” the soft fur of the bunny and feeling Daddy’s “scratchy” sandpaper beard, or play peek-a-book with Paul and Judy. If you encountered this book as a child, it is a delight to rediscover its charm with the next generation.
If you’re getting started building a classic library for your child (or a child in your life), here’s some interesting further reading: “Children’s Literature at the Education & Social Science Library”. At this site, the authors recommend sources of information about classic children’s books, as well as articles and suggestions about what to consider when building a classic library.