Our Most-Loved Children’s Books

When they first enter Liko’s playroom, new friends always remark upon how many books he has. Indeed, his playroom looks like the children’s nook in a small-town public library.

But here’s the thing: Properly speaking, most of those books don’t belong to him—more than half belong to my wife. She’s been building a collection of children’s books since college, just because she loves them.

As a result of her combination of passion and discernment, the books on our shelves range across broad swathes of time and culture, and each has some quality that sets it apart. It’s hard to describe, what that quality is, but you know it when you see it.

And after years of reading books like these, I can now really spot the absence of this quality in other children’s books; too many of them these days treat kids like dumb adults or passive consumers. In fact, preschoolers are learning at a rate that far exceeds grown-up learning, and I think the best of these books capture the sense of wonderment that comes with that.

I don’t have my wife’s refined taste, but, for me, the first test of a book’s quality is, of course, Liko’s enjoyment of it. The next test is how often I can stand reading the thing—the very best books are a genuine pleasure for adults to read and can even reward repeat readings. You begin to appreciate the poetry and interplay of the words and pictures, and, if you’re lucky, you can even start to see the story through your child’s eyes. (Of course, everything has a limit…sometimes I even hide Curious George just before bedtime…don’t tell Liko, please…)

I asked my wife to write up a list of her “most loved” (as she says) children’s books. After much debate and pencil-chewing, she narrowed it down to twenty eight:

1. On Christmas Eve, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Beni Montresor (1938)

2. The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Remy Charlip (1938)

3. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1947)

4. The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs (1978)

5. Madeline series, by Ludwig Bemelmans

6. Summertime Waltz, by Nina Payne, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2005)

7. Sunday Morning, by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Hilary Knight (1968)

8. I am a Bunny, by Ole Rison, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1963)

9. Egon, by Larry Bograd, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1980)

10. Mole and the Baby Bird, by Marjorie Newman, illustrated by Patrick Benson (2002)

11. Goodnight Gorilla, by Peggy Rathermann (1994)

12. Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel

13. Little Bear series, by Else Holmelund Minark, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

14. The Tomten and the Fox, adapted by Astrid Lindgren from a poem by Karl-Erik Forsslund, illustrated by Harold Wiberg (1966)

15. Little Old Big Beard and Big Young Little Beard, by Remy Charlip, illustrated by Remy Charlip and Tamara Rettenmund (2003)

16. Curious George series, by H.A. Rey

17. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1962)

18. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

19. More, More, More Said the Baby: Three Love Stories, by Vera B. Williams (1990)

20. What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? By Richard van Camp, illustrated by George Littlechild (1998)

21. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, by Chris Raschka (1992)

22. Art, by Karen Salmansohn, illustrated by Brian Stauffer (2003)

23. The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas (1986)

24. Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say (1993)

25. Play, Mozart, Play! by Peter Sis (2006)

26. The Year I Didn’t Go to School, by Giselle Potter (2002)

27. Three Cheers for Catherine the Great, by Cari Best, illustrated by Giselle Potter (1999)

28. Flotsam, by David Wiesner (2005)

And here’s a composite of her favorite and Liko’s favorite authors:

1. Margaret Wise Brown
2. Maurice Sendak
3. Vera B. Williams
4. Chris Raschka
5. Patricia Palocco
6. Allen Say
7. Peter Sis
8. Giselle Potter
9. David Wiesner

I would also like to humbly put in a good word for Robert McCloskey. He’s famed for Make Way for Ducklings, but I prefer many of his other books, especially Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine.

One odd thing I notice about this list is that it actually does include many books that depict men and fathers. This is unusual. It’s an empirical fact that fathers are comparatively rare in children’s books–when economist David A. Anderson and psychologist Mykol Hamilton studied 200 children’s books, they found that fathers appeared about half as often as mothers. In addition, mothers were ten times more likely to be depicted taking care of babies than fathers and twice as likely to be seen nurturing older children.

No surprise there, of course. But have we seen any progress since the late, great twentieth century? Next week, in time for father’s day, I’ll post a list of children’s books that depict dads as co-parents and primary caregivers, and I’ll look forward to reading your own suggestions.

[This is a slightly expanded version of a post to Daddy Dialectic.]

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