The 20 Best Children’s Books . . . according to my children, so far
by Mr. Sheehy
An easy way to measure the pleasure in my life is to ask me how much I’ve been reading lately. It’s not a perfect measure, of course. I’d be quite happy if I’d spent a week hiking and camping without a single book, for example, but in general the measure holds accurately because I always aspire to read more. When I am reading, I am thinking about the book of the moment during my idle times, times that aren’t actually idle because it is then that I frequently gain insight or a new perspective, or just savor some lingering imagery or narrative.
I am not a literature professor whose job involves reading widely, however, so I do not have the pleasure of reading all the time, and I often enter reading deserts. I used to be discouraged by these stretches when my personal reading becomes limited, stretches that usually involve exhaustion, so that even my reading of the Bible becomes cursory. Oh, it is then I long for time to read and read well!
Then earlier this year it occurred to me that I actually have few of these times anymore, because though I am exhausted, and though I am reading little from my list labeled “Want to read,” I am reading large amounts. In fact, I read and reread books at an alarming rate-children’s books, but books nonetheless.
Madeleine L’Engle is the one who stated so clearly that a good children’s writer does not do anything substantially different when writing a book for children than she does when writing a book for adults. When asked if writing for children was different, she replied that it most assuredly was not: “The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction, and they hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Dostoyevsky” (L’Engle 427).
I agree with her (though I also point out that understanding children is essential if one is to communicate to them clearly), and I thoroughly enjoy my children’s books, which is why I thought I’d share my children’s 20 favorite books, as a snapshot of our lives, and as a formal commendation of these books as literature that children enjoy.
These are books that our children most enjoy, not necessarily my children’s books that I most enjoy. I regret to report, for example, that My Lucky Day did not make the list, a book with a wonderful ironic twist that my children like, but not nearly as much as I. Nor does Rikki Tikki Tavi appear here; though Eldest enjoyed it, she did not relish it to the degree I do.
Our children are still young (Eldest is 4 ½) and count as pre-readers, so these books have a few common traits. One is that they all have pictures of some kind. There is something for children to see on the page that they can comprehend and absorb. The other thing about these stories is that they are not all early-readers books. Children are smart, and at this age they are capable of comprehending much more than they can read, so we do not choose books according to whether they might be able to read them. Here again I’ll turn to the words of others to express better what I mean, this time to Ivan Southall: “When as a writer I address myself to children’s literature . . . I address myself to literature; and when I address myself to children I address myself to equals” (qtd. in Ryken 428).
Without further ado, I present the Sheehy children’s top 20 books as of 2008, presented within categories, not in ranks.
The Hat – This book contains a wealth of things for children to “read” beyond the text. They can practice inferential reading and detective skills by tracking the pictures on the sides and tops, and if they aren’t interested in doing that, they can just enjoy the story of a poor hedgehog who has managed to stick a sock to his head. My girls love the different animals and Eldest likes to discover which item of clothing has disappeared from the clothesline each time we turn the page.
Apple Farmer Annie – Astoundingly simple, this story details a day in the life of Annie’s apple farm. But with interesting pictures of things my kids know and can identify, and with a female as the owner of the apple farm, my girls latched onto this book. We spent a good stretch of time talking about how they could get their own apple farms when they grow up, a thought I particularly enjoyed.
The Classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales – While not technically a picture book, this over-sized story book is what got Eldest hooked on fairy tales, and more broadly, stories. It’s big and it has story upon story in it. The biggest obsessions early on were “Snow White” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” but “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel” have earned honored spots.
Classics (Suess and Suess-ish)
The Cat in the Hat – I know this is classic, but I love that we’re reading the same copy I read when I was little, minus the cover. My girls requested this book before bed every night for three straight weeks and showed little sign of tiring. The thing I like about the way Suess repeats words and phrases in this book is that he doesn’t repeat refrains, he mixes up the same words to say different things, so you don’t feel like you’re reading the same book three times in a row.
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – This one is a plotless wonder, which is helpful when we have only five minutes to read and can’t enjoy the entire book. I can say to Smiles that we have time to read three pages, and she’ll pick three favorite pages and we enjoy the imaginary worlds in those small sections.
Go, Dog Go! – Both of our girls have this book memorized, and it wins the prize as the most alluded-to book in our collection. They allude to it and I allude to it, and not until they’re teenagers will they think I’m a total dweeb for occasionally telling a toddler, “That’s an allusion.”
Robert the Rose Horse – This one wins the day for its gigantic sneezes, which are particularly fun with two year-olds.
Fish Out of Water – A good plot climax is always fun with a passionate child, and there are few more passionate than Eldest. I also admit to being a bit of a dramatist when reading children’s stories, often treating them like auditions for a book-on-tape company, and I milk the climaxes for every ounce of emotional peak I can squeeze out of them. Will Otto survive? I don’t know! Read it to find out!
Books for youngins
Goodnight Moon – Though both our girls love this book, it was clearly Smiles’s first reading love. She’d grab it and pour over it all by herself, and when we’d ask her if she wanted to read a book, she’d hunt down Goodnight Moon and come running with it. Particularly enjoyable is that when Grampa reads it he always asks Smiles to find the “Little Mouse Guy,” a title we found amusing when Grampa said it, but adorable when 20-month old Smiles said it.
Frog and Toad Are Friends – As I said at the beginning, this is my kids’ list, not mine. Frog and Toad is an I Can Read Book, following the formula of the Little Bear books that Maurice Sendak illustrated (very basic story where not much happens and words are repeated a lot, then there’s an amusing little joke at the end). In my mind, and so far my children’s as well, the Frog and Toad stories are more interesting texts than Little Bear. For a couple weeks Smiles would request Frog and Toad’s story “The Button” every day before her nap. Soon, unsurprisingly, she had it memorized. Madeleine L’Engle is right about approaching children’s literature with skill and talent, but that doesn’t mean without simplicity. Children as young as two sure like it when they can follow the story and remember it.
Puppies Are Like That – I can’t say whether Eldest liked this book because it was interesting or because Daddy would bark differently for every dog on every page, thus eliminating the need for the words.
Charlotte‘s Web – I pulled this book off the shelf out of curiosity when Eldest had yet to hit four. It seemed to me that she had the attention span for it if the story would catch her, and the pictures seemed to pop up every couple pages, so it seemed possible. What I did not realize was how much she’d like it. We consumed every moment with reading and finished it in one weekend. Don’t underestimate your kids.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Knowing that Eldest could handle such a book if it caught her, my wife read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to her before her rests. Eldest’s rests don’t involve sleeping, so as she begged to hear more each day, my wife willingly gave up the time to continue reading. In a little more than a week, they’d moved through this one. At dinner each night I had the pleasure of hearing Eldest recap the day’s reading. It was cool.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – My wife told this story to Eldest one morning when Eldest was asking for stories, and I took the cue and ran to the library for Roald Dahl’s book. The illustrations were fun, the text was crazy, and though Eldest missed some of Willy Wonka’s more subtle witticisms, she loved the extremes of the imagination this book gave her: “You know what Mommy? They crashed through the roof with the elevator!”
Seven Silly Eaters – We get these book bags from the library and they’re fun because you can happen upon books you’d never think to touch on your own. The bags are themed, and one was all about food. Seven Silly Eaters is about a family whose kids are all picky eaters that eventually do something nice for their mother. It has got to be the best written rhyming kids’ book I’ve encountered. The girls loved the story’s zaniness (like a child who will eat only freshly squeezed pink lemonade) and they adored the pictures, which were clear but full of extra-text details they could obsess over. By the time we returned this book, Eldest had memorized the names of the seven children and their favorite foods.
The Jabberwocky – I stumbled upon an illustrated version of Lewis Carroll’s poem while playing with the girls at the library and we read it repeatedly until Eldest was jumping up and stabbing me as she shouted along, “and through and through the vorpal blade went snicker snack!” An uncle was visiting at the time and when he read it he pronounced correctly many of the words that I had botched, but by then Eldest was so familiar with my reading that she wouldn’t let him switch it. Oops.
Anything Cinderella – With two girls this is bound to happen. They will read anything with Cinderella in it, whether it’s the oversized Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a non-Disney version of the story, a rhyming version in a Princess Fairy Tales board book, a Golden Books version of the Disney story, the entry in the Disney Storybook Collection, or the seemingly full length “Egad this is so long I need a water-break” version that Disney published some time ago. Buying the movie for them did not help this obsession, but it’s fun, and I don’t regret it at all.
The Nutcracker – Eldest is a little ballerina, and Smiles surely will be when she becomes old enough. Last year we rented the Nutcracker from the library and Eldest loved it. She even had Clara come to our house as her first imaginary friend (it was tragic the day Clara and the Nutcracker Prince’s parents died and the two had to live at our house. Thankfully, they were somehow alive the next day). Thus, she was primed to love the little telling of the story that Grammy picked up somewhere.
See With Me Bible – The biggest problem with children’s Bible books is the useless breadth. They take a story and tell it in one page, sticking the parent or reader with lousy text and not enough picture to tell the whole story. The See With Me Bible takes a different tact, eliminating the text completely and extending the pictures so parents can tell the stories in their own words, with all the wonderful details. Both our children love this way of reading the Bible, and they especially love the story of Christ’s birth, because when we get to where Mary and Joseph are knocking on the doors of the inns looking for a place to stay, the girls knock on the book and we respond in silly voices as the innkeepers: “What? Sorry, there’s NO room, please go away!” Parents have to know their Bibles to do this, but the references are listed at the beginning of the stories, so if one forgets, one can look it up. On occasion we have taken this book to church to help us teach the four and five year-old children’s church, and the kids always beg for us to read the entire book instead of stopping after one story.
The Jesus Storybook Bible – We just received this as a Christmas present, so it shouldn’t be able to reach the top of the list already, but it’s a well-earned spot. Eldest read through about eight stories by the end of the first day (an uncle tag-teamed with me), and she hasn’t stopped. Last night at dinner we were talking about Abraham offering Isaac and Eldest was asking Mommy about how he carried the fire to the mountain. In the conversation we discussed the offering God provided, and I said God had provided a goat. Eldest said, no, it was a sheep. I countered that I didn’t think it was a sheep, though. For some reason I thought it was a goat. Mommy helped Eldest recall what a boy sheep is called, and Eldest maintained that it was a ram. I admitted a ram sounded right, and to confirm it we went to Genesis 22 for our family reading that night, reading the story about Abraham offering Isaac. We’d never read that part of Genesis as a family, (we’re currently in Luke in our family worship), but she’d discovered the story while reading with her uncle from her Jesus Storybook Bible and hadn’t forgotten a bit of it. As I had. Like I said, it’s a good book.
Months ago Smiles began sleeping with a book. It started with a flimsy, thin paper back and eventually she rotated in a few others, often more than one at time, topping out with a 10-inch hardcover. Somewhere in there she picked up this orange, pocket Gideons’ Bible and wouldn’t let it go. She calls it her “lil’ special Bible” and brings it to church, flipping through it during the length of the sermon. I’ll delay bedtime for 10 minutes searching for the thing because I know it will save time. Even still, she’ll wake up at night and cry out for help and when my wife or I get there the explanation often runs like this: “I need my lil special Bible!” And on more than one occasion our reply has been, “It’s right here, under your covers, next to you.”
I suppose it’s obvious we read a fair bit in our house, but even with this much, the girls go through reading-deserts just like their dad, times when they read less or barely at all. Occasionally this happens because we get busy with other playthings-dancing, building castles out of the living room, or especially drawing and coloring. These are good things, and it strikes me as appropriate that they push aside books in favor of their markers, glitter-glue, or even plastic high heels.
Pushing aside books does not mean they are not interested in reading, however. Given the opportunity, or the reminder, the girls will often (and I might say usually) cast down any activity in favor of reading. They may not be aware of their reading-desert, but when I offer them a drink, they eagerly clutch for it, revealing their thirst.
Yesterday at breakfast I was walking toward the table and saw Frog and Toad Are Friends lying on the kids’ bookcase. Having just written about it for this article, I was curious. I flipped it open and perused silently the first story I saw, wondering how long it would be before my children were reading it by themselves. Smiles soon interrupted me from her chair.
“Are you reading Frog and Toad?”
“Yep-I sure am.”
“Will you please read it to me?” When she asks that nicely, one can guess my response. I chose a story, opened to it, and before reading the first line, a second listener had run to the table to hear.
We do not read with our children because we want them to be smart or to read at a certain grade level by an early age. We do not read with them because reading is important, or because that’s what good parents do. We read with our children because they like it, and because we like it, and because it is something we all enjoy together.
My children are not that much different than me. When I enter my reading-deserts, I often need an outside influence to rescue me. Most often I will be involved with activities on the computer, like photo-sharing or correspondence, and I need something to alert me of what I’d really like to be doing–reading. My children are the same way. They occasionally need someone to point out to them when the opportunities to read have arisen. Like Southall said, when I’m dealing with children, “I address myself to equals”-equal in virtue and vice, it appears.
Thankfully, however, there is still one way we are not equal. When we do read, my children still need someone like me to read to their stories to them. It won’t be long before these lists are made up of books my children read without me, and until that day comes, I am going to use my influence to increase the opportunities my children have to climb into my lap to read a story with me. Hopefully, someday, when I am old and weak and my eyes are failing, they will return the favor.
Thanks for seeing what books my children love, and thanks for reading.
L’Engle, Madeleine. “Is It Good Enough for Children?” The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Ed. Leland Ryken. Wheaton: Shaw, 2002. 427-32.
Ryken, Leland, ed. The Christian Imagination : The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Wheaton: Shaw, 2002.