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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Any other books that you loved as a kid, or that kids you know love? Add them in the comments!
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