Here are twenty-five of our favorite picture books. These books should be on everyone’s shelves. Many are old books and have withstood the test of time. Children loved them in the 1950s and they love them today. Some are newer but have an enduring quality and the necessary combination of a great story and wonderful illustrations. Choose a couple great picture books and start building your home library today.
Hardback versus paperback books
Most of the books we own are paperback books. I hunt them down at thrift stores and garage sales. If I cannot find a used version and must buy a new copy, then the price is usually my chief concern. Therefore, I consistently choose paperbacks for most of my books.
However, a few books in your library deserve to be hardcover. They are books that will be read and re-read. You’ll want to keep these books around for your grandchildren or pass them when your children have homes of their own. In that case, you should invest in a hardcover book. If you buy one book at a time – for Christmas or birthdays – the cost won’t bury you and in time you’ll have a nice collection of classics.
A word about my list
I created this list of twenty-five titles we think ought to be on everyone’s shelves a number of years ago, back when we still read picture books every day. But as soon as I made a list, my kids thought of an exception or two (or ten). Somebody likes Five Little Monkeys or Frog and Toad. Then I remember Eloise Wilkin and certainly, she deserves a mention. Dr. Seuss goes without saying. Think of Babar and Lois Lenski books. I could go on with “but” and “what about.” Instead, consider this just a starting point. After all, we have over 100 books on our picture bookshelf. We dare not mention the “school” shelves and my wish list.
These are arranged, very approximately, from short to long. Books for the toddler at the beginning and books for patient listeners at the end. The last books are quite long, even if they are “picture” books. Never be afraid of old books; our tastes, in books as in all else, are cultivated. Cultivate an appreciation for the best.
Books for the youngest listeners
1. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. Also by the same author: If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Pig a Pancake. We tried several of her newer books and did not care for those quite as well.
2. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Does every child love this book? I think so! One of my favorite memories is of our daughter at eighteen months demanding “nigh nigh boon.” Over and over. Thankfully, this is such a well-written book, you can read it a thousand times and not get tired of it. Finding the mouse on every page is also a delight. It’s also available as a board book if you are reading it with a toddler. Another classic by the same author: The Runaway Bunny.
3. Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown. Another great book by the same author. A quiet story, which is to say, not much happens. But little ones delight in animals and farm life.
4. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I definitely had to link to the board book version of this story. As the caterpillar eats its way through the book, little fingers will want to poke through the holes. Only cardboard can withstand repeated hands-on readings of this favorite.
Books for little listeners
5. Corduroy by Don Freeman. Corduroy’s missing a button on his overalls, but all along he was really missing home. You’ll delight in reading this to toddlers, then having it read to you once they learn to read. Also try the follow-up volume, A Pocket for Corduroy.
6. Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? by Nancy White Carlstrom. Catchy rhymes walk you through a day at home with Jesse Bear and his mom. Then dad comes home to dinner and Jesse Bear gets ready for bed. Other books by this author were disappointing, but this one is a favorite.
7. The Itsy Bitsy Spider by Iza Trapani. These are extended nursery rhymes meaning the fun goes on and on. The verse you’re familiar with is on the first page, then new verses are added on subsequent pages to create a storyline. Be ready to sing. That’s the perfect way to enjoy this book with your kids. We loved many of Iza Trapani’s books: Baa, Baa Black Sheep, I’m a Little Teapot, Row Row Row Your Boat, How Much is That Doggie In the Window, Shoo Fly! or others. Check your library and read as many of these as you can.
8. Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. Laugh out loud funny. Harry is a white dog with black spots who hates baths. After a series of adventures, he’s a black dog with white spots and unrecognizable to his family. The recolored illustrations are charming and vintage 50’s. If you enjoy this one also try No Roses for Harry and Harry By the Sea.
9. Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. A New England farmer prepares items to sell in town, makes his picturesque journey to sell his wares, then travels home to start the cycle all over again. This book is great for both history and literature. Plus pleasure. The illustrations by Barbara Cooney are amazing! Of course, anything by Cooney is amazing.
10. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. As long as I am gushing over Barbara Cooney I may as well throw this one in. Miss Rumphius travels the world then comes home again and scatters lupine seeds to make the world more beautiful. Honestly, I probably loved this one more than the kids.
11. Curious George by H.A. Rey. Please be discerning and only choose the original books by Rey. The books based on the TV series fall short of the originals. Also by Rey, Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys.
12. Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobokina. The subtitle says it all: “A tale of a peddler, some monkeys, and their monkey business.”
13. The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack. First published in 1933 and still a marvelous book.
Books for patient listeners
14. The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Yes, please buy the original. “I think I can!”
16. The Year at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen. A year in the life of the people and animals at Maple Hill Farm. The companion book, Our Animal Friends, introduces readers to the habits and quirky personalities of the animals who live on the farm.
17. The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward. You’ll laugh when the bear is in the kitchen, I promise.
18. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. You probably live under a rock if you’re unfamiliar with this 1942 Caldecott Medal winner. Gorgeous brown and white illustrations and a charming story make this a winner. But the book doesn’t take itself too seriously. Kids will laugh at the ducklings’ rhyming names or the hilarious policeman who helps the ducklings cross the street. This is a must-have for every bookshelf!
19. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. Little Sal goes to pick blueberries with her mother – plink, plank, plunk – and gets mixed up with the bears on the side of the mountain. We love this one as much as Make Way for Ducklings.
20. A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefert. We originally bought this title for our study of World War II history, but the story is so delightful it became a regular favorite. This book reminds me of Pelle’s New Suit by Elsa Beskow, one of my childhood favorites. Elsa Beskow is a Swedish author and illustrator; sometimes called the Beatrix Potter of Scandinavia. Her books aren’t all in print, but this one, in particular, is well worth tracking down if you’re able.
21. Peter Rabbit and any others by Beatrix Potter. Accept no so-called “improvements” on the originals! Beatrix Potter intended her books to be small, child-sized volumes. One drawback of “Treasury” versions is that the design layout and size, so important to Beatrix Potter, are lost. Potter’s art is genuine art. I read reviews complaining about the absence of pictures and I suppose those are parents looking for garish books that mimic the cartoon shows their children watch. Cultivate a taste for the excellent in your children.
We read these from the time my kids were toddlers and never had any trouble keeping the children’s attention. My trouble-making son listened to The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit a thousand times. Then one day I found him in the yard “smoking” rabbit tobacco – which is to say my four-year-old plucked a lavender stalk and stuck it in his mouth. Don’t underestimate the books your children can understand and enjoy. Never spend money on a re-told tale or abridged version. Beatrix Potter’s books are a delight.
23. The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. A book all about valuing things that last.
24. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton, again. Mike Mulligan is particularly appealing to the young boys in your life. I hope you are an expressive reader because you can have fun with this one.
25. Finally, Katy and the Big Snow by Burton. These receive three separate mentions because we have read these books more than any others on our shelves.
Build your home library
We check out and read all kinds of books from the public library. But I like to fill our home library with amazing books that we never get tired of reading. A home full of learners should have books kids will love to read. Not just school books, but books of all sorts. Begin building your home library. Fill it with the very best books. Then snuggle on the couch and read them!