Best children's books from the last 100 years
Best children's books from the last 100 years
A formative and downright essential part of youth, children’s books fuel childhood imagination and education alike. It could even be said that, as adults, most of us still reflect fondly upon the titles that moved and inspired us when we were young. In turn, we share these books with our own children, preserving a tradition as old as storytelling itself. Consequently, the books and stories are renewed in terms of impact, so they remain as fresh now as they were when they first debuted. That’s the magic of children’s literature.
Who would know what makes for the best children’s books better than our nation’s librarians? Indeed, between their passion for the written word and constant exposure to young readers, librarians might very well be the foremost authority for what’s hot and what’s not in the juvenile section. That brings us to our list of 100 great children’s books from the last 100 years, as picked by librarians. Using an article from the New York Public Library as our source, Stacker sorted the titles according to publication year. The result is a list that’s both nostalgic and relevant at once, with books that mean as much to us in retrospect as they do to our children moving forward. May you discover these titles all over again so that your kids might discover them for the first time.
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Author: A. A. Milne
In a true testament to the power of great characters, illustrations, and narratives, A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” is as iconic today as it was nearly 100 years ago. Set in England’s Ashdown Forest, the book portrays a lovable, anthropomorphic bear with a craving for honey. Many of the story’s characters are based on stuffed animals and toys owned by Milne’s own son, who happened to be named Christopher Robin (another one of the book’s main characters). The majority of those toys are on display at the New York Public Library.
Millions of Cats
Author: Wanda Gág
In the late 1920s, American artist Wanda Gág’s eye-catching work caught the attention of a local editor, who then asked Gág to author and illustrate a children’s book. The result was “Millions of Cats,” about an old man and woman who literally inspire a massive cat fight while deciding which furry critter to take home. Featuring an iconic rhyming verse that begins with “Cats here, cats there, Cats and kittens everywhere,” this is one of the few picture books to win a Newbery Honor. It’s also the oldest American picture book still in print.
The Story of Ferdinand
Author: Munro Leaf
As classic now as it was upon its 1936 debut, “The Story of Ferdinand” involves a sheepish bull who’d rather sit and smell flowers than engage in bullfights. Written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, the book’s central story was completed in about forty minutes flat. Initial sales were sluggish, but word caught on by 1938, when the book began selling 3000 copies a week, knocking "Gone With the Wind" off the top of the bestseller list. Expanding upon the story’s simple premise was a 2017 animated movie adaptation.
Author: J R.R. Tolkien
A prequel to the famous Lord of the Rings Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (or “There and Back Again”) introduced readers to an extensive fantasy world complete with its own language and iconography. In the book, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins embarks on a quest to slay an evil dragon named Smaug. When writing the timeless tale, Tolkien drew upon a variety of influences, including Icelandic linguistics and Norse folklore. The result is a saga that’s still hooking readers to this day, not to mention inspiring blockbuster films. It all started here.
Mr. Popper's Penguins
Author: Richard and Florence Atwater
Fans of “101 Dalmatians” should definitely check out the similarly themed “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” It tells the story of a house painter who takes in a male and a female penguin, and soon finds himself surrounded on all sides by plump, aquatic birds. If you don’t feel like reading the book, you can always stream the 2011 film starring Jim Carrey as Mr. Popper, though it is a loose adaptation.
Author: Ludwig Bemelmans
Written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939’s “Madeline” is about a small but daring young girl who lives in a Catholic boarding school in France. One of the book’s most memorable segments involves the young protagonist being rushed to the hospital to have her appendix taken out. As it turns out, that sequence was inspired by the author’s own experiences while recuperating from a car accident in the hospital. (A girl in the same room was undergoing appendix surgery.) The book would ultimately spawn its own franchise, including multiple sequels, an animated TV series, and a 1998 live action film.
Make Way for Ducklings
Author: Robert McCloskey
Winner of the Caldecott Medal, Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” tells the story of two mallard ducks who decide to raise their children in the middle of a Boston park. The book makes for essential bedtime reading and therefore plays a significant role in youth development all over the world. As a token of their appreciation, readers of all ages used to send McCloskey pictures of ducks crossing the street on a frequent basis.
Author: Margret and H. A. Rey
Few picture book characters are more iconic than “Curious George,” an orphaned brown monkey who takes up residence with the Man in the Yellow Hat, and gets into all sorts of trouble. The book was written and illustrated by the husband and wife team of Margret and H.A. Rey, though Margret’s name was left off original first edition copies. Before settling down to write the Curious George series, the Reys were bouncing around the globe to escape the Nazis during WWII. It was an experience that perhaps infused the work with a genuine sense of adventure.
The Little House
Author: Virginia Lee Burton
Atop a small hill in the countryside sits a small, anthropomorphic house that’s truly built to last, though she begins to wither as urban roads and skyscrapers pop up around her. So goes the premise for Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House.” The book was based on the author’s own experiences growing up in a similarly sturdy, small house. In 1952, Disney adapted the book into a short film of the same name. The short featured cartoon skyscrapers that would reappear in the 1989 classic film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
The Little Prince
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Before creating “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was an aviator who once crashed his plane in the desert, with the experience leaving quite an impression. In his subsequent book, a stranded pilot similarly crashes in the desert, where he encounters a little boy from a distant planet. Excluding religious works, this is the most translated book of all time.
Author: Astrid Lindgren
Red-haired, freckled, and capable of unfathomable strength, Pippi Longstocking burst onto the scene in 1945 via Astrid Lindgren's book, and stayed relevant over the course of decades. In both books and films, the iconic character has been called a range of much longer names, including Pippilotta Rollgardinia Victualia Peppermint Longstocking and Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim's Daughter Longstocking. For obvious reasons, most folks stick with the nickname. Fueled largely by Pippi Longstocking’s popularity, Lindgren has sold 160 million copies of her books and been translated more than any other Swedish author.
Caps for Sale
Author: Esphyr Slobodkina
Based on a popular folktale, Esphyr Slobodkina’s “Caps for Sale” is about a hat salesman who has his entire inventory stolen by mischievous monkeys. The book has sold over two million copies to date, putting it right up there with some of the most beloved children’s classics. Slobodkina—who both wrote and illustrated the book—was a passionate artist. Accordingly, she continued to explore paintings and sculptures even after finding success as a children’s author.
Author: Margaret Wise Brown
When it comes to children’s storytelling, sometimes the simplest approach is the best. For proof, look no further than Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” which has a bunny saying goodnight to various objects around the house by way of rhyming verse. It's joined by Clement Hurd’s unmistakable illustrations, which are as iconic now as they were 70 years ago. This might not be the first book read to you as a child, but it’s often the first one you remember years later.
My Father's Dragon
Author: Ruth Stiles Gannett
Written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by her stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett, “My Father’s Dragon” sees a young boy named Elmer Elevator arriving at Wild Island in hopes of rescuing a baby dragon. Distinguishing this children’s book from the standard fare are a number of stunning black and white illustrations, along with a unique narrative mode—the story is told by the protagonist’s son. Not only is the book a huge hit among librarians, but it was also voted one of the “Top 100 Books for Children” by teachers in the National Education Association.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Author: C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” continues to enrapture young readers over 60 years after its publication date. Inspired by classic mythology, the story took Lewis 10 years to complete, and didn’t truly come together until the author created Aslan the Lion. Of course, once finally published, the book was a massive success. Six sequels would follow, as would a handful of movie adaptations.
Author: Sydney Taylor
As the story of five Jewish immigrant sisters growing up in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” was among the first books to expose young audiences to the breadth of Jewish culture in America. The author—who was born under the name Sarah Brenner—based many of the book’s events on her own personal experiences growing up on the Lower East Side. She would write five books in the series before passing away in 1978.
Author: Mary Norton
You might not be aware, but there are tiny people living among us like mice, borrowing things when necessary. At least, that’s the premise in Mary Norton’s classic book series “The Borrowers.” It features the Clock family, who must flee from home and find a new place to live. Inspired in part by the author’s nearsightedness (which forced her to concentrate on small objects and details), the book won Britain’s Carnegie Award for children’s literature, and later spawned numerous big screen adaptations.
Author: E.B. White
Few books render early impressions with the profundity of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” The acclaimed children’s novel takes place on a farm, where a spider named Charlotte helps keep a pig named Wilbur from being slaughtered by writing enthusiastic messages about him in her web. Inspired by a real farm, a real pig, and a real spider, the book delivers compulsive readability, and an ending that will stick with you for decades.
Harold and the Purple Crayon
Author: Crockett Johnson
A boy has the power to create entire worlds with a mere crayon in the aptly named “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson. The story has seen no shortage of big and small screen (and even stage) adaptations. Not only that, but “The Simpsons” paid tribute to the iconic character during the couch gag sequence in episode #463, “The Bob Next Door.”
The Cat in the Hat
Author: Dr. Seuss
No list of favorite children’s books is complete without Dr. Seuss, who makes his first appearance with 1957’s “The Cat in the Hat.” Easily among the famous author and illustrator’s most iconic works, the inventive book tells the story of a talking, hyperactive cat who causes all sorts of mayhem after being left in charge of two impressionable children. It’s all told in the kind of rhyming verse that only Dr. Seuss could pull off. Speaking of Dr. Seuss, not only was he not a real doctor, but he was reportedly not very fond of children. Go figure.
Green Eggs and Ham
Author: Dr. Seuss
Just three years after publishing “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss churned out another indisputable classic: “Green Eggs and Ham.” In the book, a character named Sam-I-Am tries to convince a young man named Joey to eat green eggs and ham...and that’s (famously) the entire premise. According to legend, Dr. Seuss produced the massively popular work after his publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book in under 50 words.
Go, Dog. Go!
Author: P. D. Eastman
Author and illustrator P.D. Eastman was assigned to the U.S. Army’s Film Core Unit in 1943, only to find himself answering to a man named Theodor Geisel, better known today as Dr. Seuss. Years later, Seuss would launch his Beginner Book series, and ask Eastman to participate. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Eastman, who published “Go, Dog. Go!” In 1961. The book—about a bunch of car-racing dogs on their way to a party—is simple in its delivery, but awash with clever details. Indeed, there’s more to this one than first meets the eye.
The Phantom Tollbooth
Author: Norton Juster
A bored young boy drives his car through a tollbooth and enters a magical kingdom in 1961’s “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Once there, the boy encounters all sorts of fantastic characters and situations, many of them based on puns and idioms, thereby giving the story a subtly educational edge. An unexpected success, the novel has sold over three million copies to date, and has additionally inspired a film, a play, and even an opera.
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
Author: Ingri D'Aulaire
“D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths” introduced young readers to the wide and fantastic world of Greek mythology. In the book, author Ingri D'Aulaire takes a somewhat humorous tone while adapting legendary tales about Zeus, King Midas, and the like. Helping get the message across are striking illustrations from the author’s husband, Edgar D'Aulaire. This is just one among many folklore-based books that the husband and wife team collaborated on.
A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeleine L'Engle
Few novels can fire up imagination in young minds with the effectiveness of Madeleine L'Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” The first installment in an acclaimed series, the book follows a group of siblings as they travel through the universe in search of their missing father, encountering all sorts of creatures and adventures along the way. Due to a constant struggle to get her work published, L’Engle was ready to give up on writing just before she wrote this masterpiece. Here we are decades later, and the award-winning book endures as a quintessential fantasy for young readers. It was recently adapted into a blockbuster film starring Oprah Winfrey.
The Snowy Day
Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Ezra Jack Keats’ award-winning picture book “The Snowy Day” tells the story of a young boy named Peter who wanders through his neighborhood in the freshly fallen snow. This was among the first children’s books to include an African American protagonist in an earnest capacity, though Keats wasn’t necessarily trying to make a statement about race. Instead, the author and illustrator was arguably attempting to focus on a universal experience (i.e. walking in the snow) to which people of all creeds and colors could relate.
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue
Author: Maurice Sendak
Before unleashing “Where the Wild Things Are” upon the world, author and illustrator Maurice Sendak delivered “Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue.” The book follows its titular character, an apathetic young boy who must learn how to care the hard way. Specifically, young Pierre has a change of heart after a lion swallows him whole and spits him out. Both a cartoon and stage version of the story appeared in “Really Rosie,” the musical production (with lyrics by Carole King) based on Sendak’s works.
Author: Leo Lionni
In “Swimmy,” a school of fish is too scared of predators to come out of hiding, thereby missing out on all sorts of wonderful experiences. Helping them overcome their fears is the book’s main character, Swimmy, a brave fish who teaches everyone how to work together. Written and illustrated by Leo Lionni, the Caldecott Honor-winning book imparts upon its readers vital lessons in teamwork and courage.
Author: Peggy Parish
Inspired by her third-grade students and their struggles with vocabulary words, writer Peggy Parish created “Amelia Bedelia,” about a housekeeper who takes every instruction at face value. Hence, when asked to “dress the chicken,” Amelia quite literally dresses the chicken in tiny clothes. "Amelia Bedelia" spawned an entire series that sold millions and millions of copies. Suffice to say, Ms. Parish’s days of teaching third grade were presumably over.
Where the Wild Things Are
Author: Maurice Sendak
"Pierre" was a mere warm-up for “Where the Wild Things Are,” Maurice Sendak’s timeless classic about a young boy who's sent to bed without any supper. Soon after, his bedroom turns into a fantasy land filled with monsters, who mistake the young boy as one of their own. The book—which has sold over 19 million copies worldwide—spawned a 2009 live-action film directed by Spike Jonze. Ironically, Sendak had to fight for years to get this story past the editors at Harper & Row.
Harriet the Spy
Author: Louise Fitzhugh
In a time when Barbie represented everything women were supposed to embody, Louis Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy” was a truly refreshing—and even groundbreaking—book. It tells the story of a young, well-to-do girl named Harriet, who snoops on her classmates and neighbors, recording everything in her notebook. Ahead of its time in a number of ways, the story dismantled gender norms while simultaneously tackling themes of psychology and peer pressure. Film rights were sold almost immediately after the book’s release, but it would over three decades before a movie adaptation landed on the big screen.
Bread and Jam for Frances
Author: Russell Hoban
Ideal for beginning readers (and fussy eaters), “Bread and Jam for Frances” tells the story of a young girl who wants to eat bread and jam for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No eggs. No chicken salad. Just bread and jam. The book was written by Russell Hoban and expertly illustrated by his wife, Lillian, who originally took a somewhat subdued approach to color. In 1993, however, Lillian re-illustrated the beloved children’s book, adding more lustrous hues.
The Book of Three
Author: Lloyd Alexander
Inspired by the legend of King Arthur, Welsh folklore, and his own personal experiences as a soldier during WWII, Lloyd Alexander created “The Book of Three,” a fantasy novel that kicked off a series collectively known as The Chronicles of Prydain. In this initial installment, an aspiring hero named Taran and his followers enter a dangerous world filled with forces of evil. The story would play out over the course of five volumes and culminate with the acclaimed novel, “The High King.”
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Author: Bill Martin
A terrific resource for helping toddlers develop their word and object association skills, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" couldn’t be simpler in its delivery. That is, the picture book has a narrator asking various animals what they see, with the animals typically responding that they see another animal. Thanks to its built-in musicality and streamlined execution, the book has sold millions of copies across the world, and even spawned a few sequels.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Author: E. L. Konigsburg
Winner of the Newbery Medal, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” tells the story of two siblings who run away from home to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they uncover a mystery. While aimed at young readers, the novel employs a sophisticated narrative, making it a great story to revisit in one’s adult years. Meanwhile, the museum in which the story takes place has never forgotten the book. In fact, when author E.L. Konigsburg passed away in 2013, The Met held a private ceremony in her honor.
Ramona the Pest
Author: Beverly Cleary
Fifteen years after introducing an excitable girl named Ramona Quimby in 1953’s “Beezus and Ramona,” Beverly Cleary gave the character a story all her own in 1968’s “Ramona the Pest.” In the book, Ramona starts kindergarten and lets her perennial curiosity get the best of her over, and over, and over again, causing her to be branded a “pest” by a fellow classmate. In spite of the book’s success, it would be another seven years before Cleary revisited the character in “Ramona the Brave,” which was closely followed by more books in the Ramona series. To this day, the series is cherished among young readers.
Author: Don Freeman
Long before Pixar’s “Toy Story,” there was Don Freeman’s “Corduroy,” about a stuffed bear who comes to life in a department store and searches around for a missing button. In his earlier years, Freeman was an avid musician, who accidentally left his trumpet behind on a train. The loss of his beloved instrument forced Freeman to concentrate more on writing and drawing, eventually leading him to create this timeless children’s classic. It just goes to show that sometimes our biggest mistakes pave the way for our greatest accomplishments.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Author: William Steig
In William Steig’s “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” a donkey named Sylvester thinks it’s his lucky day when he scores himself a pebble that grants wishes. Unfortunately for Sylvester, his first wish is to be turned into a giant rock, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the character. On the heels of its publication, the beloved book would go on to win numerous awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Author: Eric Carle
Eric Carle grew up under a harsh Nazi regime before finding massive success as a children’s author and illustrator. Just how much success? Try 88 million books sold and counting. His most famous work remains “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” about a voracious caterpillar who chows down on a bunch of food before becoming a beautiful butterfly. The book is not only uniquely illustrated, but further distinguished by the presence of little holes in certain pages, as if the main character ate his way through.
Frog and Toad are Friends
Author: Arnold Lobel
Written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, “Frog and Toad Are Friends” follows the adventures of two amphibious companions who exhibit a broad spectrum of human emotions and confide with one another to get through hard times. The book—which kicked off a series—is more than just a testament to the power of friendship. In fact, some experts would argue that the story is really about same-sex love, making it quite ahead of its time.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Author: Robert C. O'Brien
Years before the 1982 animated film “The Secret of NIMH,” there came Robert C. O’Brien’s “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.” Winner of the 1972 Newbery Medal, the book tells the engrossing story of a field mouse who employs the help of intelligent former labs rats in order to save her home from being destroyed by the farmer’s plow. While writing the book, the author drew upon the work of Dr. John B. Calhoun, a researcher who studied destructive patterns within mice and rat utopias, and then used those patterns to make predictions about human civilization.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Author: Judy Blume
Bestselling author Judy Blume enters the list with “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” just one of her many famous novels to feature the Hatcher family and their rambunctious son, Farley Drexel Hatcher, better known as “Fudge.” In the book, 4th grader Peter Hatcher struggles to understand why his parents are so forgiving when it comes to Fudge’s hyperactive behavior. Of course, audiences were likewise quite receptive to Fudge, prompting multiple sequels with titles like “Superfudge” and “Fudge-a-Mania.”
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Author: Judith Viorst
His name is Alexander and from the moment he wakes up, he has himself a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in this popular 1972 children’s classic from Judith Viorst. The book is so simple in its premise that when Hollywood released a live-action adaptation in 2014, the story had been stretched in numerous and significant ways. A 30-minute animated musical produced by HBO in 1990 ran truer to the source material.
George and Martha
Author: James Marshall
Two hippos named George and Martha are such close friends that they do literally everything together in James Marshall’s book “George and Martha.” The first in a popular series, the book includes a number of short stories, all built around the unbreakable bond between these two lovable, occasionally mischievous hippos. Rife with themes of friendship and loyalty, the stories are as relatable today as they were when they first debuted.
Author: Tomie dePaola
Published in 1975, Tomie dePaola’s “Strega Nona” (which translates to “Grandmother Witch”) mixes two things that nearly every child loves: magic and pasta. Specifically, the book tells the story of a friendly witch, whose helper over-uses a magic cooking pot and ends up flooding their Italian village with pasta. Capitalizing on the book’s success, the author wrote and illustrated a number of follow-ups featuring the two main characters.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears
Author: Verna Aardema
Have you ever wondered why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears? Well, author Verna Aardema (and illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon) serves up an explanation in the aptly named book, “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.” Based on a popular African legend, the richly illustrated story has a mosquito stirring a huge panic amidst the other animals, and spending the rest of his life asking humans if everyone is still mad at him. And now you know why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Author: Mildred D. Taylor
The second book in a series, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” has narrator Cassie Logan coming to grips with the African American experience in Mississippi during the Great Depression. The novel—which won the Newbery Medal—was followed by two sequels and a prequel. In 1978, the story was adapted into a TV movie starring Morgan Freeman.
Miss Nelson is Missing!
Author: Harry Allard
In the children’s picture book “Miss Nelson is Missing!” a kind teacher is consistently taken advantage of by her boisterous students, who discover just how good they had it when Miss Nelson goes missing. In her place, the world’s meanest substitute, Miss Viola Swamp, shows up to teach the class. The popular book was the first in a three-part series, the last entry being “Miss Nelson is Back.” Hopefully, her students learned to behave by that point.
Bridge to Terabithia
Author: Katherine Paterson
First published in 1977, Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” remains such an impactful novel that readers don’t finish it as much as they recover from it. Inspired by a true life event (to say more is to give too much away), the book tells the story of two best friends who create an imaginary kingdom for themselves and learn to overcome obstacles as a result. A mainstay on “top book” lists from librarians and teachers alike, the novel won the Newbery Medal in 1978 and inspired both a 1985 TV movie and a 2007 film adaptation.
The Westing Game
Author: Ellen Raskin
Like an Agatha Christie novel for young readers, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game” involves a number of supposed heirs who must figure out who killed Sam Westing by following clues left in his will. Whoever cracks the case will win Westing’s entire $200 million dollar fortune. A true page-turner to this day, the book ranked #9 on a School Library Journal survey of the best children’s novels conducted in 2012.
Author: Donald Crews
Instead of providing a firm narrative, 1978’s “Freight Train” takes readers on an intensive tour of a working cargo train. Written and illustrated by Donald Crews, the celebrated work was named a 1979 Caldecott Honor book, and has additionally appeared on numerous “best children’s book” lists. Meanwhile, Crews gave the book a makeover with 2001’s “Inside Freight Train,” implementing slide-out door panels, among other things. Truly fulfilling the book's 21st century destiny, however, was the introduction of an interactive app based on the book.
Author: Rachel Isadora
Artist, author, and illustrator Rachel Isadora has published over 150 children’s books to date, and “Ben’s Trumpet” remains her most well-known. It tells the story of a young boy who yearns to play the trumpet, and is one day given the chance when a local jazz musician decides to take on a mentorship role. Not only did the book inspire a video adaptation, but it was even adapted into a ballet production in 2009.
The Stories Julian Tells
Author: Ann Cameron
Aimed at readers ages 5 to 9, Ann Cameron’s “The Stories Julian Tells” follows a boy named Julian, who spins tall tales and gets his younger brother to believe all sorts of crazy stories. However, for every lie told, there’s often a lesson to be learned, making the book quite popular among educators and parents. Littered throughout the book are stunning black and white illustrations by Ann Strugnell.
Author: Chris Van Allsburg
An acclaimed name in classrooms and libraries around the world, author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg pairs wildly imaginative stories with downright lush and distinctive illustrations. Among his best works is “Jumanji,” about a magical board game that comes to life and sends players on real, harrowing jungle-based adventures. The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1982, and inspired not one, but two major Hollywood films. As for the idea itself, Van Allsburg claims he thought of it after playing games like Monopoly and ending up with nothing but a stack of fake money.
A Chair For My Mother
Author: Vera B. Williams
In 1981, author and illustrator Vera B. Williams spent a month in a federal penitentiary for peaceful protest, and the year after that she published her most popular book. That book was “A Chair for My Mother,” and it’s about a girl named Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother, all of whom save up to buy a comfortable chair after their possessions are destroyed in a fire. Rosa would appear in three more books with similarly warm-hearted themes.
Ten, Nine, Eight
Author: Molly Bang
After spending time apart from her 2-year-old daughter for the first time, writer Molly Bang was inspired to write a poem. That poem would become “Ten, Nine, Eight,” an award-winning children’s picture book. Bang keeps the narrative simple by having a young girl countdown before bedtime. It’s no surprise that Barney the Dinosaur once read from the book during an episode of "Barney & Friends."
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
Author: Virginia Hamilton
Based on a series of actual folk tales, “The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales” incorporates a variety of perspectives. Compiled (and re-written) by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, the collection has garnered substantial acclaim and a Coretta Scott King Award. Not only that, but the book is occasionally used as an educational resource on college campuses.
Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose
Author: Tomie dePaola
From the creator of “Strega Nona” came “Tomie De Paola’s Mother Goose.” As one might expect, the book sees the popular author and illustrator adapting over 200 classic nursery rhymes, from Old Mother Hubbard to Little Miss Muffet and everything in between. It’s all joined by beautiful illustrations, making this book a surefire crowd pleaser among young audiences.
Author: Paul O. Zelinsky
A classic fairy tale gets an illustrative upgrade in Paul O. Zelinsky’s “Rumpelstiltskin.” Indeed, the story of a poor miller’s daughter who makes a bad deal with an imp-like creature has never looked so visually impressive. To bring the story to life, Zelinsky employed a Renaissance-style aesthetic, using oil paint and watercolors. As a result, the book is simply brimming with a genuine sense of artistry, as if every page is a painting.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale
Author: John Steptoe
Just two years before his untimely death, African American author and illustrator John Steptoe published “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale.” Inspired by African folklore, the Cinderella-esque tale centers on a man named Mufaro who brings his two daughters before the Great King. While both of Mufaro’s daughters are beautiful, one is kind-hearted and the other is ill-tempered. Which one does the Great King choose as his queen? Read to find out.
The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit
Author: Julius Lester
Famous trickster Brer Rabbit was a popular character in African American southern folklore long before he appeared in the pages of Julius Lester’s “The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit.” Nevertheless, the 1987 collection of stories introduced the clever rabbit to a receptive young audience, and earned plenty of acclaim in the process. Not only is the writing top-notch, but illustrator Jerry Pinkney won a Coretta Scott King Book Award for work on this project, later winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the same organization.
Author: Gary Paulsen
A harrowing tale of survival, Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” tells the story of a boy who’s stranded in the wilderness and armed with nothing more than a hatchet. True to his material. Paulsen foraged for his own meals and made his own clothes at a young age. In fact, the author still reportedly makes his own clothes to this day. Given the fact that his novels have sold millions of copies worldwide, we’re going assume it’s strictly a lifestyle choice.
Author: Roald Dahl
Thanks to endlessly inventive (and often crude) books like “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” author Roald Dahl was already a huge favorite among young readers by the time 1988’s “Matilda” was published. However, the story of a mistreated girl with heightened intelligence and magical powers remains one of Dahl’s most iconic works. As usual, artist Quentin Blake handles illustrative duties, lending the book an unmistakable aesthetic. In 1996, Danny DeVito directed and starred in a film adaptation.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
Author: Bill Martin
Co-written by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault and illustrated by Lois Ehlert, “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” is a bestselling alphabet book with letters that literally take on a life of their own. Specifically, all the lower-case letters fall out of a tree and get subsequently injured, needing help from all the upper-case letters. Thanks to a rhyming structure based on scat singing (an improvisational vocal technique), the book is simply bursting with musicality. Hence, it’s no wonder that Ray Charles himself narrated the audiobook, or that musician David Plummer released an album called “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Other Coconutty Songs,” featuring songs directly inspired by the book.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
Author: Jon Scieszka
Sure, you’ve heard the story of the three little pigs, but have you heard the true story of the three little pigs? If not, you owe it to yourself to visit (or revisit) Jon Scieszka’s clever children’s book, which upends virtually everything you know about the classic fairy tale, pinning much of the blame on the pigs themselves. Of course, it’s worth noting that there’s a potential bias at play. After all, the story is told from the wolf’s perspective.
Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story From China
Author: Ed Young
Speaking of reimagined fairy tales, “Lon Po Po” sees author and illustrator Ed Young adapting China’s traditional take on the story of Little Red Riding Hood for an American audience. In this version, there’s not just one, but three children taking on the angry wolf. In addition to its compelling prose, the book features no shortage of vivid illustrations by Young, who won a Caldecott Medal for his work.
Author: Faith Ringgold
Winner of numerous awards, Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach” takes place in 1939, and features a young girl who ascends to the rooftop of her apartment building in Harlem, and soon flies across the city like a bird. Before taking the form of a book, the story was part of Ringgold’s fantastic quilt series, entitled “Woman on a Bridge.” Both the book and quilt series incorporate themes of liberation through fearless flight.
Author: David Wiesner
Happy to let the illustrations do most of the talking, David Wiesner’s “Tuesday” utilizes no more than six words to get its point across. The result is a mesmerizing, unspoken journey that follows a group of frogs as they fly around on lily pads. In 2002, Paul McCartney himself would implement the work into an animated anthology film, setting immaculate visuals to music.
Author: Lois Lowry
Set in a futuristic society where pain and suffering have been supplanted by “sameness,” Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” follows a boy named Jonas, who is assigned with the task of storing memories from the time before “sameness” came to be. As Jonas uncovers more memories and more secrets, he learns that the seeming utopia in which he lives might be anything but. Published to mixed reviews, the book nevertheless won a number of awards, including the Newbery Medal, and has since appeared on many “top children’s book” lists compiled by teachers and librarians. A big screen version was in development for over 15 years before finally debuting in 2014.
Author: Allen Say
“Grandfather’s Journey” follows a man as he travels by boat from Japan to America during the first half of the 20th century. The man then travels back and forth once more, eventually settling in Japan, but still consides California one of his two homes. When the man’s grandson grows up, he takes the same journey, and understands how one person can call two places home. Thanks to Allen Say’s breathtaking illustrations, the book won a Caldecott Medal in 1994.
Meet Danitra Brown
Author: Nikki Grimes
Told through a series of poems and vivid illustrations, “Meet Danitra Brown” explores themes of friendship among two African American best friends. While guaranteed to strike a chord among African American readers, the book celebrates the joy of friendship at large. As for that poignant poetry, it comes to us from acclaimed writer Nikki Grimes, who grew up in Harlem and once claimed that books were her “survival tool.”
Pink and Say
Author: Patricia Polacco
Definitely not for the faint of heart, Patricia Polacco’s “Pink and Say” is about a wounded Civil War deserter who’s saved by a former slave-turned-soldier. What follows is a harrowing ordeal that ties in themes of oppression, racial injustice, and brutality. At the end of the book, the author informs readers that the story is based on an oral tradition within her family, and that Say was, in fact, her great-great-grandfather. It might very well be a true story, but you’ll wish it wasn’t.
The Bossy Gallito/El Gallo De Bodas: A Traditional Cuban Folktale
Author: Lucía M. González
Culled from Cuban folklore, “The Bossy Gallito/El Gallo De Bodas” tells the story of a greedy and pushy rooster who dirties his beak after eating a kernel of corn. While trying to clean his beak before an important wedding, the rooster learns important lessons about being conceited. The book is written in both Spanish and English, and filled with brilliant watercolor illustrations.
Author: Gary Soto
From writer Gary Soto and illustrator Susan Guevara comes “Chato’s Kitchen,” about a cool gato (i.e. cat) in East L.A. who can’t believe his luck when a plump family of mice move in next door. To welcome their neighbors, Chato and his friend invite the mice over for dinner, naturally failing to mention that the invitees are in fact the main course. Meanwhile, the mice have ulterior plans of their own, in the form of a surprise guest. This was the first in a series from Soto, who’d already earned tons of acclaim for his poetry and young adult novels.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Christopher Paul Curtis’ “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963,” centers on a kind-hearted African American family from Michigan who drive to Birmingham in the midst of the civil rights movement, only to encounter horrific tragedy (and some moments of humor, too). While the award-winning book is technically classified as historical fiction, much of the story’s events are based on the author and his family’s own experiences. In 2013, the book was adapted as a TV movie for the Hallmark Channel.
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse
Author: Kevin Henkes
In “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes, a young mouse named Lilly acts up in class to the chagrin of her favorite teacher, Mr. Slinger. In response, Mr. Slinger confiscates Lilly’s most prized possession: her plastic purple purse. Not one to be denied, Lilly quickly seeks revenge and learns some important lessons along the way. Brimming with memorable artwork and palpable emotion, the book has won a wide range of awards.
Author: Louis Sachar
Equal parts mystery and comedy, Louis Sachar’s “Holes” follows young Stanley Yelnats IV, who’s wrongly convicted of theft and then sent to a juvenile correctional facility. Once there, Stanley is tasked with digging numerous holes in the desert as a form of behavior modification, though he begins to think there’s more to the assignment than mere character building. In 2003, Disney turned the book into a movie, with Sachar handling screenwriting duties.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Author: J.K. Rowling
A staple in every public and home library around the world, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” introduced readers to its titular hero, a young wizard who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, he makes close friends and mortal enemies, while learning the truth about himself and his deceased parents. When crafting the series, Rowling incorporated mythological influences and personal experiences alike. As anyone with even scant knowledge of pop culture will know, the book spawned multiple sequels, blockbuster movies, video games, LEGO sets, apps, and a theme park.
Author: Jules Feiffer
A young dog named George seems to be having an identity crisis in Jules Feiffer’s “Bark, George.” Specifically, when George’s mom asks him to bark, he meows, quacks, and moos instead. As it turns out, the dog is hosting a small bevy of livestock in his stomach. That makes for quite an interesting trip to the vet and, by extension, quite the unconventional children’s book.
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat
Author: Simms Taback
Based on a popular Yiddish song, “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat” tells the story of Jewish farmer who keeps reinventing his overcoat as it gets more worn down over time. Helping bring the story to life are a range of die-cut collages and watercolors. The book won the Caldecott Medal in 2000, and additionally earned tons of acclaim from reviewers, teachers, and librarians.
The Birchbark House
Author: Louise Erdrich
The first in a four-book series, Louise Erdrich’s “The Birchbark House” tells the story of an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas (which translates to “little frog”), starting in the year 1847. Drawing upon her own ancestry when writing the book, Erdrich fills the pages with meticulous details and vital insights into the culture. Also explored are themes of community, and how the livelihood of Omakayas and her family gets increasingly threatened by smallpox and the westward advances of ''the chimookoman'' (i.e. the white man).
Author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
A wealthy Mexican girl loses her parents and has her luxurious life turned upside in Pam Muñoz Ryan’s “Esperanza Rising.” Set in the 1930s, the book sees the title character migrating to California, where she experiences class and racial conflicts firsthand. Combining harsh realism with fairy tale archetypes, the historical fiction novel was published to wide acclaim and hailed as a milestone in multicultural literature.
Because of Winn-Dixie
Author: Kate DiCamillo
In Kate DiCamillo’s debut novel “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a young girl named Opal finds a stray dog and follows it around her small Florida town. As if by intuition, the dog brings Opal into touch with all sorts of interesting people, who soon become friends. The book won numerous awards—including a Newbery Honor—and inspired a 2005 film of the same name.
Author: Ian Falconer
Writer and illustrator Ian Falconer’s debut work “Olivia” takes readers into the life of its main character, an adorable but headstrong pig with an eye for fashion and a penchant for assorted pastimes. Falconer came upon the idea after observing his niece, for whom he initially wrote the book. Numerous sequels would follow, as would a TV series.
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Author: Mo Willems
Mo Willems' first book for children—“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”—didn’t just earn a Caldecott Honor, but won numerous awards and landed on a wide range of teacher and librarian lists. In the book, a pigeon emphatically tries to convince people it should drive the bus in the bus driver’s absence. A 2010 animated adaptation was similarly acclaimed, winning a Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video. But perhaps the greatest honor was a 2011 scientific study named directly after the book, which determined that pigeons are indeed capable of taking sophisticated travel routes.
Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book
Author: Yuyi Morales
Drawing from a well of cultural traditions, Yuyi Morales’ “Just a Minute” uses both Spanish and English to depict Grandma Beetle as she fends off a death-like figure named Senor Calavera by performing a seemingly endless series of chores. It’s all in preparation for her own birthday party, which she wants to spend with her grandchildren. Festive and familial, the book also deals with heavy, important themes like the loss of loved ones. Ultimately, however, the story is celebratory in spirit, and rife with eye-catching illustrations.
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
More than just a bestselling author, Jacqueline Woodson was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Among her legion of powerful books, you’ll find “Locomotion,” about a foster youth who learns how to express himself with the help of a mentor. Bolstered by sparse poetry, the book prompts readers to reevaluate the concept of “home.”
My Name is Yoon
Author: Helen Recorvits
A young Korean immigrant struggles to integrate into American society in Helen Recorvits’ “My Name is Yoon.” Further distinguishing the work are a number of unforgettable illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska. On the heels of its publication, the book was awarded Children’s Book of the Year by the Bank Street College of Education.
Where is the Green Sheep?
Author: Mem Fox
In Mem Fox’s award-winning book (with illustrations by Judy Horacek), there’s a blue sheep, red sheep, and even a bed sheep, but where is the green sheep? By keeping the green sheep out of sight, the author uses a simple premise in order to build suspense. In other words, your child won’t stop flipping the pages until he or she finds that green sheep.
Author: Shaun Tan
In Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel “The Arrival,” a lonely immigrant father sets out to find work in order to support his family. By infusing photorealistic illustrations with surrealist flourishes and progressive color schemes, the book relays a striking range of moods and narratives, all without using a single word.
Author: Mitali Perkins
In “Rickshaw Girl” by Mitali Perkins, a young girl in a Bangladesh village helps support her family by painting decorations on rickshaws. Set in a patriarchal society, the book explores themes of gender roles, poverty, and bravery, with a protagonist who must initially pretend to be a boy in order to get work. Drawing from the author’s own ancestry, the book furthermore exposes readers to the culture and language of Bangladesh.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Author: Brian Selznick
Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” is a voluminous historical fiction novel that incorporates the real life and work of film pioneer Georges Méliès (the man behind 1902’s "A Trip to the Moon"). In the book, an orphaned clock keeper—who lives in the walls of a Paris train station—uncovers a message from his deceased father. That kicks off a compelling mystery involving stolen keys and automatons (i.e. mechanical wind-up figures), ending with a truly clever twist. In 2011, a film adaptation from Martin Scorsese hit theaters.
The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
In “The Graveyard Book,” prolific author Neil Gaiman weaves a dark, fantastic tale about a boy who’s raised by ghosts after his parents are murdered. Gaiman first came upon the idea as early as 1985, when he watched his 2-year-old son “pedaling his BMX around a graveyard,” noting how at ease his son seemed in such macabre surroundings. The resulting book wouldn’t come to fruition until decades later, going on to win a slew of awards.
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
In her Seeds of America series, author Laurie Halse Anderson explores American history through the lens of slavery, focusing on the experiences of a girl named Isabel. Kicking off the trilogy was 2008’s “Chains,” which takes place during the Revolutionary War, and sees Isabel and her sister fighting for their freedom after the promise of emancipation is taken away from them. While technically fiction, the series is littered with historical events. Anderson won the Margaret A. Edwards Award from American Library Association in 2009.
The Lion and the Mouse
Author: Jerry Pinkney
Acclaimed illustrator Jerry Pinkney lets the graphics do all the talking in “The Lion and the Mouse,” which features no words whatsoever. Based on a classic fable, the book tells the story of a lion who decides at the last second to spare the life of a mouse, only to have his own life later saved by that very same critter. Emanating with visual allure and striking distinction, the book was awarded the Caldecott Medal.
When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
The life of a young Manhattanite named Miranda spirals out of control in Rebecca Stead’s gripping novel “When You Reach Me.” Incorporating elements of science fiction and mystery alike, Stead arrived upon the idea after being reminded of an erratic man she used to pass every day while growing up in New York City. In preparation for the novel, she read Madeleine L'Engle's “A Wrinkle in Time” multiple times. That preparation duly paid off, as Stead’s novel has appeared on many bestseller lists and won numerous awards.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Author: Philip Christian Stead
Advocating kindness to all creatures big and small, “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” involves a zookeeper who enjoys a healthy and loving friendship with numerous animals, so much so that they come to visit him when he’s feeling sick. Philip Stead wrote the book and his wife Erin illustrated. Both the story and illustrations have a vintage quality to them, lending the book a truly timeless aura. Winner of the Caldecott Medal, the book was additionally listed as one of the best illustrated children’s books of 2010 by the New York Times.
Big Red Lollipop
Author: Rukhsana Khan
Sibling rivalry always makes for good storytelling, and Rukhsana Khan’s “Big Red Lollipop” is no exception. In the book, a young girl named Rubina is forced to take her younger sister, Sana, to a birthday party, where Sana proceeds to steal Rubina’s party favor, a big red lollipop. It’s a relatable premise filled with clever twists and turns, and brought vividly to life by way of artist Sophie Blackall’s stunning illustrations.
One Crazy Summer
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Winner of multiple awards, “One Crazy Summer” takes place in 1968, and involves three sisters from Brooklyn who visit their mother in Oakland. Set during the height of the civil rights movement, the book accordingly deals with themes of black pride and racial injustice. However, in spite of the heavy themes, author Rita Williams-Garcia manages to squeeze in plenty of humor, which enhances the story’s broad appeal. Two sequels would follow, both winning the Coretta Scott King Award.
Starry River of the Sky
Author: Grace Lin
A companion to Grace Lin’s award-winning novels “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” and “When the Sea Turned to Silver,” “Starry River of the Sky” tells the story of a remote village filled with strange inhabitants. Just how strange? When the moon goes missing from the sky, only one person seems to notice. However, after a mysterious woman with a knack for storytelling arrives in the village, a great transformation occurs. Pairing classic Chinese folklore with breathtaking illustrations, this book is not one to be missed.