10 Great Books for Small Children, and What Makes Them Great

Nearly four years into this whole parenting thing, I have no great unified theory of parenting. I do have a theory about kids books, though. To me, there is no failed literary experiment or abstruse academic text so baffling as the children’s book written by someone who has apparently never read a book to a child. What’s interesting about these books is that if you describe them they often don’t sound so terrible, but trying to read them you have no choice but to change the words. The words don’t track, don’t fit the story, don’t fit the pictures. They’re invariably overwritten. I’ve never gone along with the whole kill-all-the-adjectives and adverbs thing, but it’s really true for picture books.

With this lovely Ben Lerner LRB piece in mind, about (among other things) how the existence of Really Bad Poetry can help us think about what good poetry is, I’ve been thinking about what these baffling books can tell us about what makes a great book for little kids. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a good picture book aspires to the condition of poetry. That is, it has to use some combination of the things that make poetry poetry: condensed and/or heightened language, attention to rhythm, rhyme or sound, repetition and variation, attention to how words are presented on the page. With picture books of course that means not only arrangement and typeface but how the pictures interact with the words. A bad or mediocre picture book often reads like the author had an idea, often seemingly based on something they liked as a kid, wrote it up in excruciating detail, then had someone draw some related pictures.

So here are ten picture books that have given me a lot of pleasure, and that my son also loves. (There are lots of so-so books that kids love that can drive parents crazy with enough repetition; there are lots of crappy ones that can’t hold a kid’s attention; the really good ones appeal to both.)

Some of these are pretty well known but I tried to included some less known ones, or somewhat lesser known ones by well known authors.

In no particular order:

1) Harold’s Fairy Tale, by Crockett Johnson (1956).

One of many follow-ups to the also wonderful Harold and the Purple Crayon.  An epitome of words and pictures synthesis, as Harold draws the world as the words create it. Lore Segal, best writing teacher I ever had once told a story about sharing a hallway with Malamud who told her he was writing a story about a runner, which was very hard, because he had to make the world he ran through. That’s what these books are about. For me, Fairy Tale is even better than the original because its story, about how creating an imaginary king and imaginary gardens, is so wittingly subversive. So imagine my delight to find out Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk) was a big old commie who wrote cartoons for the New Masses. The books are funny too. (An interesting thing I’ve learned is that a lot of children’s book authors and illustrators had really fascinating lives.)

2) In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (1970)

I didn’t know this one as a kid, but I’ve come to love it even more than Where the Wild Things Are.  It’s mysterious without the fake whimsy of so many kids books, the pictures and typeface are gorgeous and unexpected. And the story: waking in the night, diving into the milk, soaring through the room: it’s like a more benevolent illustrated version of Freud.

3) If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead (2013)

Just a gorgeous book that lets the wonder of the world be wonder: no anthropomorphized whales telling jokes, no preaching about saving them. Just gorgeous pictures and colors and writing that could stand on its own as a poem with one of my favorite little poetry tricks of negation: “you’ll have to just ignore the roses/and all their pink/and all their sweet/and all their wild and their waving. . .

4) Cars and Trucks and Things that Go by Richard Scarry (1974)

A favorite of mine from childhood, and Scarry has earned his place as my son’s favorite author for close to a year now. To me no other author for small kids builds a world the way he does, with recurring characters and sight gags, and it’s a pretty subversive world at that: order is not always restored, Dingo never learns to drive. I wish I lived in Busytown.

5) Bob and Otto by Robert Bruel, illustrated by Nick Bruel.

Can a caterpillar and a worm be friends? Lots of popular books like Are You My Mother have a kind of same-with-same underlying message; this is a nice counter to that without any preaching. This was the first book my son memorized and “read” to us and probably the most obscure one on the list: apparently Bruel Sr. wrote his whole life but never published a book until his son put this out after he died. Lots of kids books have a personal story behind it they can’t live up to – this one does.

6) Someone is Eating the Sun by Ruth Sonneborn, illustrated by Eric Gurney. 1974.

Another childhood favorite of mine I pushed on my son and that he luckily loved as much as I did. Like a lot of these books it has a bit of a fantastical element (talking animals) but basically lives in this world and shows something about the real world – in this case, about eclipses – something a lot of super “whimsical” chaotic kids books could learn from. After we read it my son started using pennies to show how eclipses work. Apparently it’s out of print – if any children’s book people are reading this, please get on it!

7) Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina (1940)

Another beautiful book by a writer with a fascinating life story: she studied art in China, where her family moved from Russia, and was a pioneering abstract artist. She got involved with children’s books after meeting Margaret Wise Brown.  (While she didn’t make this list, Brown’s non-Goodnight Moon books are worth checking out). Slobodkina’s artistic chops show in the gorgeous cut-out based pictures in this book. Like many of the ones on this list, it’s also gently subversive: drawing on the Yiddish-ness of the folktale it’s based on, things are basically resolved but the peddler still hasn’t sold any caps. (The whole thing is a brilliant analogy for teaching and parenting also, but this post is already long enough.)

8) Five Trucks by Brian Floca (2014)

More evidence that there’s more wonder in the world around us than the ginned up imagination of what adults think kids will find “magical.”  Full disclosure: if you have a certain kind of preschooler and read them this book be prepared to spend a lot of time building airplane trucks with Legos and looking out the window at the airport. (I, of course, never get tired of doing these things. Just saying.)

9) Frederick by Leo Lionni (1967)

Lionni is another accomplished artist with ties to the Left, Lionni has a ton of gorgeous books but I’m partial to this one, about dreams and the material world and what it means to be useful.

10) Frog and Toad books, by Arnold Lobel (1970-1979)

Because it’s too hard to pick just one, and what is a list like that without a cheat? The first “chapter books” of a kind he’s really taken to. Toad is delightfully grumpy and nothing ever works out for him, and I love him to pieces, never more than when he decides he can’t do anything because his list of what to do that day has blown away. The epitome of “it’s getting dusty in here” moving kid’s book that’s as poignant for the grown ups as fun for the kids.

Would love to hear favorites from other parents and teachers!


  1. A Guy says:

    Thanks for these! I just ordered all 10! My favorite is Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. More haunting than most, I think. But I’ve only read so far to other people’s children, which may change my filter….

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