1. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This story, about meeting a small boy from a faraway planet, is magical. Its themes, like becoming a grown-up and finding extraordinary things in the ordinary world, are magical. All the little drawings peppered throughout are magical. It’s one of those books that’s just as worthwhile for adults to read as children, and I’m jealous of anyone who gets to discover it for the first time.
2. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
It looks like a collage and reads like the lyrics to the world’s most infectious rap song (totally appropriate for kids, of course). Just be warned that any small human you read this with will start reciting it ad nauseum.
3. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
This beautifully illustrated classic is a simple reminder that sometimes going on an adventure is the best way to appreciate what you have back home.
4. Matilda, by Roald Dahl
This list could basically be a comprehensive rundown of everything Roald Dahl ever wrote*, but Matilda holds a special place because it’s all about the power of reading and thinking for yourself. And whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a babysitter, or a sibling, chances are you’re nowhere near as reprehensible as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood or the dreaded Trunchbull, so you’ll win major points with your reading buddy by comparison.
5. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Vorst
This is a great way to talk about feelings and can help make any kid’s awful day look pretty OK by comparison. As Alexander’s mom tells him, “Some days are just like that.” Preach.
6. The Happy Hocky Family, by Lane Smith
The first time I read this book is the first time I can remember crying with laughter. It’s written as this weird meta-satire-Dick-and-Jane-y thing and includes such activities as “Chores Quiz #1: Today was Holly’s day to do the laundry. See if you can match the pocket items before and after the dryer.”
7. The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
Guaranteed to make you both cry.
8. Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein
If this deceptively simple but clever poetry doesn’t make a kid want to sit down and bang out a few rhyming couplets of their own, nothing will. Plus, the drawings are super rad.
9. Half Magic, by Edward Eager
Eager’s books are a wonderful, quiet introduction to fantasy for kids. They’re all about ordinary children whose lives are unexpectedly changed by some form of magic — in this case, it’s the discovery of a coin that grants exactly one-half of whatever is wished for.
10. The Witch Family, by Eleanor Estes
Much in the same vein, this book is about two young girls whose drawings and imaginings about witches turn out to be very real. There’s also an unbelievably delightful bumblebee named Malachi who can communicate only through spelling, so even if you’re the one reading, you can still practice together.
11. Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey
This book is especially resonant for any kid who grew up in Boston, but no matter where you come from, it’s a sweet, well-paced story of an animal family trying to make a home in a city.
12. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Joffe Numeroff
Teach your child that no matter how much they give someone, that ungrateful rodent will always want more. (JK, this classic book is actually really clever and adorable, and it spawned a whole legion of spin-offs like If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Pig a Pancake, so there’s something for every animal lover.)
13. The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
This story, about a poor Polish girl who’s teased by her classmates, will simultaneously break your heart and, if I may, restore your faith in humanity. It’s a bit like Matilda in how much it champions creativity and developing a rich inner life even as the rest of the world seems awful, but with much softer edges. You’ll want to frame every last one of the illustrations.
14. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, by Dr. Seuss
The quintessential graduation gift (whether from pre-school or a Ph.D. program): “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”
15. Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss
Again, every Seuss title could easily be on this list, but this one is especially important in re: showing picky eaters what’s up.
16. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald
She lives in an upside-down house! She has cures for everything from Won’t-Take-a-Bath* to Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys**! Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, please be the world’s grandma.
*plant radish seeds in the dirt on the kid’s skin.
**let the kid get trapped in his room by all the debris.
17. In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
There are only two things you need to know about this book, which are that 1) a little boy makes a plane out of bread dough and 2) sometimes people get mad that there’s a drawing of him naked, so use your judgment? But let me repeat, THE KID MAKES A PLANE OUT OF BREAD DOUGH AND FLIES AROUND IN IT.
18. Dominic, by William Steig
My second-grade teacher read us this book, and I loved it so much that I bought my own copy before she reached the end; I’ve since read it so many times that the cover is torn off and the pages are wrinkled from bathwater. Dominic is one of the greatest children’s book heroes of all time, this noble dog who can run a mile in two minutes and sets off around the world to have adventures, taking down a bunch of troublemakers called the Doomsday Gang in the process.
After starting as a webcomic in 2004, this insanely popular series now contains seven volumes. It’s appealing to both boys and girls and, because it’s so visual, is a surprisingly quick read.
21. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
A bedtime classic so sweet, you’ll want to fall asleep right there.
22. Goodnight iPad, by Ann Droyd
A zeitgeisty update to the orignal.
23. Ramona Quimby, Age 8, by Beverly Cleary
Ramona, with all her mistakes and worries, is still just as easy for kids to identify with now as she was when this book came out 30 years ago. The whole series is worth checking out, as is Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing series; between them, they span a variety of ages and problems.
24. Strega Nona, by Tomi de Paola
Strega Nona’s doofy helper Big Anthony causes her magic pasta pot to flood the town with pasta, so she makes him eat it all. Poetic justice at its finest.
25. Stuart Little, by E. B. White
What I always remember loving about this book is how casually it regards the fact that Stuart is a mouse; he’s just born to human parents in New York, and even though it causes them some mild shock, they rig him up a matchbox bed and a little suit and continue about their business. His adventures and his friendship with Margalo the bird are some for the ages.
26. Eloise, by Kay Thompson
There is not one person alive who does not, in some secret way, want Eloise’s life. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to ride the bannisters at the Plaza or at least have your own tiny pug named Weenie, you big liar.
27. Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans
Across the pond from Eloise, in a boarding school instead of the Plaza and with appendicitis instead of a puppy, lives her little French soulmate, Madeline.
28. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
Claudia and Jamie are the most cultured and fiscally responsible child runaways in history. They live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, solve a mystery regarding a lost Michelangelo sculpture, and live off of coins museum visitors toss into the fountain. They’re perfect.
29. The View from Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg
This luminous book, about four kids who come together to form an academic bowl team, is absolutely intended for older readers (I first had it read by my fifth-grade teacher, who also played us “Das Rheingold” on vinyl) — it’s narratively complex and contains the word “ass” as well as references to things like calligraphy — but if you have a kid or a class that will still acquiesce to be read to, this is your book, and they will love you for it.
30. The Borrowers, by Mary Norton
Tiny people doing tiny things in the big world is a topic that will never stop being fascinating.
31. Poppy, by Avi
The same holds true for tiny animals, especially when they’re trying to fight much larger animals like the still-terrifying-even-though-you-have-a-job-and-an-apartment Mr. Ocax.
32. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
This tale of hardworking people being overwhelmed by cold, unfeeling modernity will make you chuckle bitterly to yourself even as your kid asks you what the heck “diesel” even means.
33. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
Please please please don’t let them see the movie before they’ve read or heard the book; it’s so gripping (not to mention wicked fun to do all the voices), and they should have the chance to picture Narnia for themselves first.
34. Sheila Rae, the Brave, by Kevin Henkes
This is a fantastic book for siblings, as it’s about an older sister who finally has to admit that sometimes she needs her little sister’s help to get over her fear.
35. The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf
Wouldn’t we all rather smell flowers than participate in a gory bullfight? Right on, Ferdinand.
36. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
Perfect for aspiring writers, aspiring spies (say that five times fast), or any kid who’s ever felt lonely and misunderstood.
37. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
Real talk: A big reason people even have kids nowadays is so they can introduce them to Harry Potter. Entire childhoods have been built on this series.
38. Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney
Speaks for itself.