20 Children’s Books Every Kid Should Read

Last week Time published its 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time, and a companion list, The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time. As the children’s book buyer for an independent bookstore and reviewer of children’s fiction, several of my friends, family members and colleagues posted the link to my Facebook wall almost simultaneously. I sighed as I dragged my cursor over to the link, knowing full well what awaited me, a little thread of sadness knotting in my stomach.

It’s the same knot I get as a bookseller when I encounter a particular kind of adult customer who is looking to buy a book for a child: their eyes are darting nervously about my section of the store, they’re picking up books and putting them down without really looking at them, they are babes lost in a realm long forgotten to them.

“Where are your classics?” they ask, a little sheepishly. I try to speak quickly as I walk them to the long table near the window, laden with time-worn favorites:

“Is there someone in particular you’re shopping for? Boy or girl? You know, there are some wonderful new authors and illustrators I could show you.”

“…Umm…”

“This book won the Caldecott Medal this year. Have you heard of Oliver Jeffers? Lauren Child? Sean Qualls was here just last week!”

Their hands land on Madeline, a mist coming into their eyes. “Oh I loved this book when I was young.” My time is running out.

I snatch a few of my favorites from the other tables, not too many, afraid to overwhelm.

“If you liked Madeline you might also take a look at Julie Morstad. This is Sophie Blackall’s latest book, are you familiar with Ivy and Bean?”

“You know…I think I’ll just go with Madeline, it’s for my niece, I’d love to share this with her.”

I smile. “I’m sure she’ll love it.” Who could blame them?

“We’re living in a golden age of young-adult literature,” Time‘s round up began. Yes, YES! I thought, hope rising. Which made it all the more dismaying to see the same old familiar faces gathered once again to receive praise. A curmudgeon’s voice took hold in my head as I clicked through the list: The Wild Rumpus is still in vogue? Must we bid the Moon Goodnight once more? Surely piling on one more commendation will fell The Giving Tree!

As with the customer who just wants to share a fondly remembered tale from their childhood with a son, daughter or young relative, I can hardly blame Time‘s esteemed judges for their selections. And three cheers for the inclusion of the modern masterpieces I Want My Hat Back, Extra Yarn and Journey. But in the interest of widening the spotlight of our adulates, allow me to submit 20 new pictures books which in 20 years time may find themselves as dog-eared and long-loved as those onTime‘s list of venerable selections.

  • How To
    By Julie Morstad “How to See the Wind” trails down the side of a two-page illustration of children flying kites in an overcast field. “How to watch where you’re going” instructs a sketch of a girl dancing with her shadow. Morstad’s esoteric and evocative illustrative style reaches breathtaking impact in this non-narrative musing on the way children interpret their world. Soft colors meet eerie figures with wide-set, jet black eyes in a wonder-land where common words or phrases find more poignant definition. Imaginative and haunting.
  • Dragons Love Tacos
    By Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri Dragons, the hallmark of high fantasy come in for a landing in Dragons Love Tacos, an irreverent crowd pleaser from the author/illustrator team Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri. Dragons love to crunch on tacos, just like you and me! But no matter what, make sure you don’t let them have spicy salsa, or you’re in for a sizzling surprise. Salmeiri’s distinctive illustrations give this cautionary tale a defined sense of place, its wide-eyed humans and long-necked dragons reminiscent of the strange creatures that populated earlyNickelodeon cartoons. But while a Millennial vibe may beat in the heart of this ode to tacos, the duo’s playful spirit is timeless.
  • Rules of Summer
    By Shaun Tan Similar to Morstad’s How To, Rules of Summer poses as a set of lessons, but here a story seems to connect the ponderous warnings. “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline” the first page advises before an illustration shows two brothers cowering behind a wall while an enormous red rabbit roams the streets of their city. “Never eat the last olive at a party” come next, and we see the boys withering under the ferocious glares of a flock of tuxedoed hawks, a single olive left to be eaten. Part of the early fun of Summer is trying to create your own story for this bizarre place, how action can be so absurdly related to outcome. But as the vignettes progress we watch the two boys go from partners in crime to strained, jealous, hostile. A terrible fight ensues followed by what seems like eons of silence before forgiveness is found and love remembered. That so much can be conveyed through one-line mandates speaks to Tan’s brilliance both as a storyteller and an illustrator.
  • Come On, Rain!
    By Karen Hesse and Jon J Muth In a parched and baking urban landscape, a young girl implores the sky for relief, and the result when it arrives is pure joy. Karen Hesse and Jon Muth come together to create this earthy rain-dance, perfectly portraying the swelter of a dry mid-summer’s day and the magic of a refreshing downpour. As the skies open up, all the mothers and daughters of the neighborhood come out to dance, waving their hands, “We swing our wet and wild-haired mammas ‘til we’re all laughing under trinkets of silver rain’, Hesse’s verse lilts while Muth’s long-limbed children and round-bodied mothers whirl and skip. A little moment in time that seems to capture something pure and lovely and about the mother-daughter relationship. “The Rain has made us new,” mamma says as two figures retreat into the frame, hand in hand.
  • Toy Boat
    By Randall de Sève and Loren Long Proving that board books can contain just as much drama and adventure as their larger-format counterparts, Toy Boat’s simple story and lush illustrations will sweep reader off their feet. A boy and his toy boat visit the lake every day. Made from a can, a cork, a pencil and some cloth, there’s a special, homemade magic to this vessel. The boy floats his tiny craft on the placid waters, wondering what it would feel like to sail free as he holds tight to the boat’s leash. But one day high winds rise and the boat is swept away on a suddenly ferocious sea. Stricken, the boy decides to set out after it, leading to a harrowing and thrilling chase across the roiling waves. Loren Long’s dazzling illustrations strain the very corners of the pages. Like the art of Chris Van Allsburg, the fine details of these pictures make the world come alive.
  • Rosie Revere, Engineer
    By Andrea Beaty and David Roberts With all due respect to the Pink brigade, here’s hoping Rosie Revere, Engineer elbows one or two princesses right off the bookshelf. One hardly knows what to be more excited about here: that this story features a young girl enthralled with math and invention, or the book’s overall message that failure is a key stepping stone to success, so long as you don’t give up. Colorful and sweet, this tale of creativity and perseverance will delight parents and daughters alike.
  • Dream Animals
    By Emily Winfield Martin A perfect bedtime book. Martin’s vintage-inspired illustrations of young children carried off to dream land on the backs of animal friends is soothing and enchanting. “These creatures are the reason / Dreamers get where dreamers go. Dreamland is too far to run / And sleepy feet, too slow” she rhymes, her poetic style reminiscent of the best of Shel Silverstein in its transporting simplicity. Expect to be asked to read this one night after night.
  • Lullaby (For a Black Mother)
    By Langston Hughes and Sean Qualls Qualls’ dreamy illustrations, in shades of navy and violet, are as tender as the words of Hughes’ ode. “My little dark baby, / My little earth-thing, / My little love-one, / What shall I sing / For your lullaby” Music swirls with stars in the sky above the lovely, round-faced figures, the clouds a dance floor beneath their feet. Qualls’ skill in subtly and emotion adds layers and layers of nuance to Hughes’ words, the expressions of the mother and baby both specific and universal. A bedtime poem for families to cherish together.
  • Maps
    By Aleksandra Mizielinska This is a book of maps. But this is so much more than a book of maps. Surrounding and packed in between the boarders of each featured nation, Mizielinska has given an entire portrait of the country’s history and achievements, as well as its topographical features. Gathered around and within the boarders readers will find illustrations of everything from the country’s greatest buildings, and most famous citizens, to regional delicacies and native plants and animals, and much, much more; The level of detail is wondrous. At the bookstore where I work we order it by the case and still cannot keep it in stock. A book kids and adults can pour over together, finding new details every time.
  • 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy
    By Lemony Snicket Snicket’s surreal and macabre voice burst onto the scene withA Series of Unfortunate Events, a beloved series worthy of the title “New Classic” in its own right, but his recent forays into modernist poetry for children have yielded some breathtaking results (See also Girls Standing on Lawns). In Swinster Pharmacy, two children ponder nature and existence of an entirely ordinary pharmacy that sits in a town next to theirs. Written as a list, the verses range from comical: “3. Rumors around town say there are four secrets about the Swinster Pharmacy, but no one knows what any of them are.” to indescribably moving: “22. Nothing’s perfect. The Swinster Pharmacy is not perfect. The glow of the moon on the car, there, is not perfect.” Snicket masterfully captures the odd associations and accidentally philosophical thinking of young children trying to understand their world. A book to be read again and again as different meanings emerge.
  • On A Beam of Light
    By Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky When asked, “name five historical figures you wish you could have dinner with,” Albert Einstein is invariably at the table. For his genius certainly, but he was also a man of wit, a man of philosophy, a man aware of his own shortcomings and mis-steps. In On a Beam of Light, we meet young Albert, an eccentric boy, even a little odd, whose mind is filled with questions about the world around him: what mysterious force creates the warmth of sunlight? By what rules does his bike go flying down the hill, filling him with joy? A tender portrait of a small boy whose ideas would one day crack open the universe, Lightencourages creativity, originality, and wonder.
  • The Dot
    By Peter H. Reynolds Even for children, the uber-imaginative among us, the blank white page can hold a lot of intimidation. Art class is over, but Vashti is still staring at her empty canvas, angry and convinced that she just isn’t an artist. With a little push from her teacher, Vashti jabs her paper with a marker, a frustrated little splotch of ink welling up in its center. But this dot is just the beginning, as Vashti learns that “art” doesn’t have to mean painting the Mona Lisa. Allowing yourself to just follow your creativity, wherever it leads can lead to remarkable things. A lesson we could all use from time to time in letting go of your own self-judgements so inspiration can shine, The Dot makes artists of us all.
  • Have You Seen My Dragon?
    Have You Seen My Dragon? By Steve Light An eye-popper of a counting book, Steve Light’s Have You Seen My Dragon follows a little boy through New York City as he tries to find his missing pet. Black and white line drawings, punctuated with bursts of color perfectly capture the beauty and chaos of the city, both in fine detail and wide panorama. Young readers will love spotting the sneaky dragon on each page as the wandering boy prompts them to count the purple busses and tasty hot dogs. With little surprises on every page, Dragon will be combed again and again long after they’ve mastered those 1-2-3s.
  • The Name Jar
    By Yangsook Choi A thoughtful and relatable story about a Korean girl’s first days attending an American elementary school, The Name Jar will resonate both with children from diverse backgrounds, and with anyone who has every felt anxious about fitting in to a new environment. Having just left her home country, Unhei is worried about attending an American elementary school. How will anyone grow to like her if they can’t even pronounce her name? So on the first day of school, Unhei tells her classmates that she has not yet chosen a name for herself. Eager to help, her classmates fill a jar with suggestions: Laura, Amanda Suzy, Unhei tries them all, but none are quite right. On decision day, the jar of names mysteriously goes missing. With the encouragement of all her new friends, Unhei instead decides to keep the name she was born with, and teaches her classmates its pronunciation. A warm, lovely story about acceptance and honoring our cultures.
  • On the Wing
    By David Elliott and Becca Stadtlander Orioles and humming birds, flamingos and crows, birds both common an exotic are made majestic in this poetic aviary. Alternating between silly and sublime, Elliots rhymes lend a kind of music to Stadtlander’s illustrations, which manage to be as precise as a field guide, yet elegant and artful. Whimsical and informative, the autumnal, nostalgic tone of On The Wing makes for a timeless favorite.
  • Once Upon an Alphabet
    By Oliver Jeffers For those of us who have known and adored Oliver Jeffers and his squiggly little figures for some time, the arrival of this glowingly red volume felt like a landmark event. It’s very weight, thickness and vibrancy declare it to be a book that will be passed down from generation to generation, growing faded with each new set of hands who learn from it and love it. In Jeffers’ last published work, The Day The Crayons Quit we saw his knack for revealing the private lives and struggles of inanimate objects. In Alphabet he continues in a similar spirit, giving us a short story for each letter of the alphabet: An Astronaut afraid of heights, a Bridge Burned down, Jeffers’ quirky and wonderful styling animates the alphabet like never before.
  • A Lion in Paris
    By Beatrice Alemagna Why is it that some of the best children’s stories are steeped in melancholy? Cast in a subdued color palate, A Lion in Paris follows a lion who tires of the ennui of life in the savanna and travels to Paris in search of excitement. While he may have been king of the grasslands, in Paris he is swallowed by the hustle and bustle, just another face in the crowd. The city splendor grows dim as loneliness takes hold. But as with many before him, in time the lion finds joy in himself as he walks the streets of Paris alone. Formatted horizontally, Alemagna’s combination of sketch and collage portrays the many moods and tempos of the city. Somber, yet playful and sweet, A Lion in Paris stands proudly as a philosophical emotional complex work for children.
  • Looking at Lincoln
    By Maira Kalman Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a Maira Kalman illustration, a flamingo-pink road always beneath your feet? Kalman’s jubilant yet sophisticated art is wonderfully suited to the picture book format, and Looking at Lincoln finds it dressing up one of our most beloved historical figures in a brand new suit. A young girl locks eyes with a portrait of old Honest Abe and finds herself enthralled, and determines to learn more about this commanding figure. From his humble log cabin beginnings to his tragic death, Kalman punctuates the monumental acts of the man with the quirks and anecdotes that made him human. As much a pleasure to read as it is to simple gaze upon, Looking at Lincoln delivers spark and personality.
  • Julia, Child
    By Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad A work of fiction inspired by the life of famed chef Julia Child, Julia, Child introduces us to two young friends, Julia and Simca, who love cooking and can’t understand why adults are always in such a hurry. Determined to never grow into one of those older people who have no time to savor life’s pleasures, the two concoct a giant feast that will keep them young and joyful forever. Julie Morstad can do no wrong, and mixed with Maclear’s musings on who these women might have been as girls, Julia, Child cooks up some real magic.
  • A Perfectly Messed-Up Story
    By Patrick McDonnell On a blue-sky day, little Louis goes skipping through the flower-speckled meadow, tra-la-la-ing his little heart out. Then out of nowhere: SPLAT! A giant gob of jelly plops down in the middle of his two-dimensional word. All Louis wanted was for this story, his story to be perfect, and now you’ve gone and ruined it! Patrick McDonnell’s innovative multimedia (is jam a medium?) work about embracing imperfection is a beautiful, funny, creative mess.
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