For as long as I can remember I have loved books. I can still recall that feeling of pride when I sounded out my first book. It gave my heart such a thrill! Though I could not put a finger on why at the time, it was mostly from the new sense of freedom that comes with being able to read. I grew up in a household that placed a strong emphasis on reading and the importance of good books in every age and stage of life. I loved having picture books read to me as a child, and I still remember the exhilarating feeling of joining the ranks of chapter book readers when I was older. Both of my parents read to my sisters and me continuously throughout our childhood and teenage years as well. The world that opened up to me from these countless stories was vast and wonderful. I have so many fond memories of sitting in my favorite tree reading The Hobbit, or being snuggled up next to Dad while on vacation listening to him read The Princess and the Goblin, or laying out in the prairie at our local nature center while Mom read us Little House in the Big Woods. Many of my favorite childhood memories revolve around good books.
When I became a mother, I fervently desired that my children would have that same world of books offered to them that I was given growing up. I had often heard of the developmental importance of reading to children and the many benefits it bestows. I find two benefits of reading to be especially valuable. The first is the way that reading instills the habit of attention and concentration in a world that is otherwise constantly moving to the next thing. Especially in this day and age of screens, where everything is broken down into thirty-second clips, reading teaches a child the self-discipline necessary to be able to sit through a book without being constantly distracted and the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. Like all habits, reading takes practice to build up stamina, and I have noticed that if we go even a day or two without reading, my boys lose focus faster than they previously had when we next sit down to read. On the flip side, the more we read together, the more they want to read! The other benefit I find most important about reading is the bonding that it affords to a parent and child. There are few activities that allow for as much uninterrupted personal connection as reading does. For a child, there is no replacement for the feeling of closeness when snuggling in next to Mom and listening to the cadences of her voice as you both share in the same adventure together. Just the other day my mom came to my house and read a story to my older son. As I sat on the couch next to them listening to her voice rise and fall and seeing my son’s face intently fixed on the page in front of him, it brought me back to my childhood and all those many stories that she had read to me in that same wonderful, comforting voice.
When my older son was a toddler it quickly became obvious that he was a natural born lover of stories. We soon needed a larger selection of books, and I set to work scouring the children’s section of our local library. The results were sorely disappointing. Many of the books I discovered were dull, poorly written, and/or just plain stupid. Others subtly preached that the highest ideal in life is to please and look out only for yourself. Some were blatantly offensive. I quickly discovered that finding good books is a tall task and that I wanted more for my children than just to enjoy books, but to enjoy the right books.
In a world where the importance of reading to our children is stressed immensely, little attention is given to what should be read. Rarely is it mentioned that not all children’s books are created equal. In my search for good books for my children, I tried to classify what exactly it is that makes a book good. Living books are alluded to frequently, especially in the homeschool world, and are rightly spoken of as the gold standard given when a children’s book succeeds in being what it should be. Living books help the reader connect to the content of the book through a (usually first hand) narrative instead of just listing facts. With this general idea in mind, I set about to further define attributes that make a children’s book worth reading.
First, a good children’s book sparks the child’s imagination. It will leave a child with a sense of wonder that imprints on them and makes them think about the story after it is over. It allows them to slay dragons as St. George does. It invites them to trek through rocky mountain trails as Henry and Angus do. It makes them imagine that they too could calm a fleet of upset whales by being resourceful enough to put Band-Aids on all their tales like Burt Dow does.
A good book also helps the reader see outside of his own corner of the world, step into another’s life, and see things from his point of view. Some books aim to do this by stating something trite like, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” but do not bother to give any indication of how to actually go about doing this. A good book will do this without the reader even realizing it by giving the reader a character to which they can relate who will lead them right into another life or time. A talented author will allow the reader to see life through the eyes of a character in the book so that the reader can relate to the subject of the book regardless of what it is. In Nora’s Ark by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, the main character, Wren, views the devastation of losing her family’s farm through her own childlike innocence, and the simple way she conveys her grandparents’ strength, grit, and love will not leave a dry eye. In a book like this and many others with the same heart, the reader sees outside of himself instead of turning constantly inwards as human nature is apt to do. When we can’t help but focus on our own flaws, accomplishments, wants, and needs, a good book (yes, even a good picture book written for the enjoyment of a five year old) can help pull us back out of ourselves, break that inward cycle, and inspire us to look up and see the beautiful world around us.
A good children’s book teaches virtue without doing any preaching at all. A trend I have noticed in some books at the library is the way that they talk down to a child in short, imperative commands. Phrases such as “Don’t be a bully” and “Be kind,” while being worthwhile ideas, often miss their mark because they fail to connect with the listener in a meaningful way and they tend to make a person feel defensive. Children can feel these things too. A child desires to be treated as an equal, and a good author is able to connect with the child without being condescending. A truly good story will inspire a child to want to do the right thing by showing them an example of a relatable character who faced an inward struggle and triumphed over it. I can think of no better example of this than Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories. In one of my favorites entitled Tomorrow, Toad’s house is a mess but he insists that he will clean it tomorrow and take life easy today. Frog comes over and agrees that indeed the house is a mess and that tomorrow will be a hard day for Toad. Toad then sits at the edge of his bed feeling depressed, thinking about tomorrow. Suddenly he realizes that if he does it today, he won’t have to do it tomorrow. At the end of the story he tells Frog that he no longer feels depressed and Frog asks why that is. Toad answers that it is because he has done all that work and tomorrow he will do what he wants! You would not believe how many times I have thought of this story when I have had a hard time getting off the couch. Arnold Lobel aptly understood that “You should” will have a hard time reaching the heart of a child but that “Look, he did and succeeded!” can inspire them.
A good children’s book shows the beauty of truth and order in the world. A good book points a child to a concrete truth outside of him or herself that is changeless. Many books written in the last few decades make a point of telling the reader that truth is subjective and whatever is right for that particular person is what is true. Conversely, a good book clearly delineates right from wrong. Recently I read two books with one of my sons, and the characters in both happened to encounter the same exact situation. In both stories the characters found a secret room, and in both they excitedly exclaimed that they should keep it a secret from everyone else. The first story ended with the characters lying to their mother about the room and happily playing in it secretly whenever they wanted from that day forward. The second ended with one character convincing the other that they should tell their parents right away. I thought this might go unnoticed by my four-year-old, but right away he looked up at me and said, “That is good they told their mom and dad, don’t you think, Mom?” Apparently, the subtle messages in books do not go unnoticed by young children!
Another subtly infused theme in many picture books is that of children being wiser than their parents or other authorities. The example that probably comes to every mind is the father in the Berenstain Bears stories, who is characterized as a buffoon and is constantly being taught lessons by both his wife and his children. Many books, though, do not make this as obvious, which can be even more confusing for a child than such a blatant example. A good book builds up both parents and children in their respective roles. In The Little Fur Family, a hilariously odd little book by Margaret Wise Brown, a little fur child goes off to explore the world, but at the end of the book he comes home to his parents, who sit by his bed and sing him a song. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of my boys have loved this book and asked for it repeatedly. There is something so comforting and homey in reading a book that lets a child out to explore in the world, while validating that in the end he is always safely within the boundaries of his parents’ love and protection.
Of course, there are many other attributes that make up a good children’s book as well, but I have used these ideas as a gauge as I have compiled a list of excellent picture books. My children are not school aged yet, so I have had ample time to research children’s books, and it has turned into one of my favorite hobbies. One of the best ways I have found to discover new (to us) picture books is by reading reviews on Amazon and then scrolling through the “Books you may like” recommendations. Some of the books I have included on this list are not readily available at my library, so I have used interlibrary loan frequently. I also will occasionally buy books on thriftbooks.com as well as on Amazon for special occasions. I decided to only include books on the list that I have actually read with my sons, and I know there are many wonderful books still missing. I am excited to keep reading and discovering more favorites!
A couple notes on this list of picture books:
I started compiling this list when my older son, Tanner, was about two and a half, so I missed tracking his favorite toddler books. I did still include some toddler books that my younger son, Ray, has liked. Because of this, I have only a few toddler (1-4 years) books included. I decided not to include board books, so most of the youngest recommendations on the list are either Little Golden Books or Margaret Wise Brown books that we love. The list may seem rather random because of this. I also included a few books that are quite long because Tanner has enjoyed them, so I have a few on the list that are good for older ages as well. With these disclaimers in mind, most of the list is aimed at the 3-6 year old age range. I took most of the age recommendations off Amazon, but I changed the range on a few. I’m sure there are many classics I’m missing; I forgot to save my list at one point and lost quite a few, there are many books I haven’t read or don’t own, and in some cases books weren’t a hit at our house so I didn’t include them. Please excuse the fact that this list is very much “in progress.” If you have recommendations for me or additions you think are must-haves for the list, I’d love to hear about them! Happy reading!
Carrie Holz lives in rural Faribault, MN, and is proud to be the wife of Phil and mother of Tanner (4) and Raymond (1). In her free time she enjoys trying new recipes, gardening, reading classic fiction and spending time with her family.