Sharon July 4th, 2011
Note: Back in 2007, I started a series meant to list 100 of the best children’s books for the kinds of values most of us are planning to transmit to our kids. I only did half of it, and I’ve meant to come back to it for years, but forgot until a friend reminded me about it. Four years later, my kids are that much older (they were 7, 5, 3 and 1 when I drafted it) and it seems a good time to expand my list and revise it. So here is a revised and expanded version of the first half of the list, with the second half coming! You can tell I have more books now .
I began collecting good kids books for my children when I was pregnant with Eli, usually bought used at library and yard sales, and I’ve continued. This is the first half of the list, covering books for young children. The first portion of the list is for baby and very young child books, the second half picture books for kids under 7 who can handle more complex stories. The next post, coming shortly, will include children’s chapter books and young adult books.
Notes on this list – this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of good children’s books, but rather a selection of books that besides being well written and entertaining, also offer important messages that children don’t often hear in our culture. Things like “growing and making things yourself is important and valuable work” and “Cooperation and kindness are more important than consumption” or “Poverty is not bad.” I’m not interested in books that are simply moralistic, however, but fun, readable, beautiful books that also teach children what their parents value. Children need lots of books, and they don’t always have to be perfect in every way – all of us read some books whose messages are ambiguous that were also valuable in other ways. But it is important for our children to be able to imagine the world we’d like them to live in, and books are an important part of that.
The age ranges here are approximate – use your best judgement. The ideal situation is for parents to read books to their children, or to read them concurrently with older children, and thus be able to discuss them together. I’ve noted when there are issues parents might want to discuss with the children – sometimes older books that are otherwise valuable have troubling racial or cultural messages, and many contemporary children’s books have strongly vegetarian messages that families that raise animals for food might be uncomfortable with. I have tried to include a mix of urban and rural images, although images of people growing food and making objects tend to be biased towards the country. In general, we recognize (and hope you will too) that no book is perfect, but that these are good and important books for children. Whenever possible, I have prioritized books with images of non-white families and children in them as well, and positive, non-stereotypical images of boys and girls, men and women. I wasn’t able to keep it to 100, though – I had to let the list creep up to 150 .
Simple Books for Very Little People
These are book for children 4 and under – simple language, lots of pictures, simple, quiet stories, potential for interaction. The best of them are enjoyable for older siblings as well.
1. _Big Momma Makes the World_ written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, this creation story has an essential twist – the creator is a mother with a little baby on her arm and a pile of domestic labor to care for. In a society that devalues women’s work, this is a wonderful, funny antidote “Making a world was a lot of work,/what with the laundry piling up/and the dishes needing doing…” No better way to start the re-valuation of domestic labor than this.
2. _The Little Red Hen_ by Jerry Pinkney -This is, of course, the classic work ethic story, made magical with Jerry Pinkney’s gorgeous illustrations.
3. _Joy_ by Joyce Carol Thomas An African-American grandmother and grandson enjoy nature together in every season. Lyrical, lovely text with intergenerational images.
4. _A Little Bit of Soul Food_ by Amy Wilson Sanger. This book and the 6 others (among them _Let’s Nosh_ and _Yum Yum Dim Sum_) introduce and celebrate traditional cultural foods to very young children. Funny lyrics and funky quilted visuals.
5. _It is the Wind_ by Ferida Wolff. A little boy identifies the sounds of the night with many soothing repetitions. There are comparatively few African American children in most books with rural scenes and this is a pleasant exception.
6. _Tomorrow’s Alphabet_ by George Shannon. This wonderful book gets young children thinking about where things come from. So todays milk is tomorrows (C) Cheese, and today’s campfire is tomorrow’s (E) embers. Donald Crews illustrated it, so what else is there to say?
7. _Pancakes, Pancakes_ by Eric Carle. Generally, I’m not a big fan of Eric Carle’s books, but this is an exception. Young Jack wants pancakes for breakfast, but his mother is busy, and he has to help – he takes the wheat to the mill, collects the egg, and gets the jam from the cellar. The steps in making a pancake – including the invisible steps often left out (thresh grain, etc…) are illustrated.
9. _Over Under In the Garden_ by Pat Schories. Both an alphabet book and a beautifully illustrated guide to plants and insect (O is for Obedient Plant and Orb Weaver), there’s also a story here – a chipmunk’s journey through a garden and his near-predation by a snake. Lovely and compelling, with plenty to find in each picture, compelling to little people and fascinating for older children too. The emphasis here is on noticing.
10. _Good Bread: A Book of Thanks_ By Brigitte Weninger and Anne Moller. A little girl and her mother bake bread, and the history of the loaf is shown in beautiful illustrations, beginning from seed, and including the growing of the wheat, hand grinding it, and an expression of thanks and hope that other children have such good bread. It is a lovely, lovely book, with a message that doesn’t require faith but lightly invokes it.
11. _To Market, To Market_ by Anne Miranda. A woman goes shopping in an urban market and keeps coming back with inconveniently alive animals who wreak havoc in her house. She resolves the difficulty by going shopping for fresh vegetables (admittedly at a supermarket, but the book is so good this is worth overlooking) and making soup for the lot. All of my children *adored* this book.
12. _A Ride on Mother’s Back_ by Emery and Durga Bernhard. Asher, my 16 month old likes to look at the pictures of children all over the world being carried by parents, siblings, grandparents in the course of their daily activities. His big brothers like the descriptions of what it is like to live in each place.
13. _Carry Me, Mama_ by Monica Devine and Pauline Paquin. The glorious paintings show a little girl coming to terms with not being carried all the time as she gets stronger and more independent.
14. _Jamberry_ by Bruce Degen. A silly fantasy about a world covered in berries, it glories in the pleasures of simple things – berrying is classic children’s work.
15. _The Farmer’s Alphabet_ by Mary Azarian. The perfect first alphabet book, friendly woodblock prints of farm animals and other things familiar to northern children in agricultural regions look out. Even babies love this book. The book was specifically created by Azarian because many alphabet books represented a world the Vermont school children she taught had never seen. All her books are wonderful, including _The Gardener’s Alphabet_.
16. _Hush Little Baby_ by Sylvia Long. Instead of Papa buying things for his baby, Mama helps here little rabbit see beautiful things in the world around him. Gorgeous illustrations.
17. _Summertime_ by George Gershwin and Co., illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Stunningly painted, a rural, obviously poor African-American family has a wonderful time enjoying the summer. I sing this song to my children frequently.
18. _The Year at Maple Hill Farm_ by Alice and Martin Provenson. This 35 year old book is still one of the best farm stories out there, with a link to seasonal cycles. It doesn’t sugar coat things – animals are (by implication) butchered and eaten, medicated and predation is included – all without being offensive or scary to anyone. This is the best of the real farm books and endlessly fascinating to children.
19. _Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type_ bu Doreen Cronin. All of Doreen Cronin’s books transmit good sustainable values from _Diary of a Worm_ “Worms are important” to _Duck for President_ “there are more important things than being in charge” but this comic paean to the power of collective bargaining is still my favorite.
20. Apple Farmer Annie/Ana Cultiva Manzanas by Monica Wellington. This simple story about a woman who grows many kinds of apples and makes and sells apple products comes in a spanish/english double sided version that my kids love. Great book, nice that it is available as bilingual text in its standard form.
21. _G is For Goat_ by Patricia Polacco. How could I not include a goat alphabet? Polacco’s trademark eastern european immigrant children play with the family goats through the alphabet!
22. _The Apple Pie That Papa Baked_ by Lauren Thompson. A variation on “The House that Jack Built” with a Pie baked by a farmer father. All the creatures on their farm comically celebrate the creation – and then get to have some.
20. _Peepo!_ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This simple book was my son’s favorite from infancy – it shows the world of urban wartime Britain from a baby’s perspective – including a family that works and plays in simple, low energy ways together.
21. _Pelle’s New Suit_ by Elsa Beskow. This old but wonderful book by Beskow not only describes where Pelle’s new suit comes from at every step of the process, but in order to gain a new suit, Pelle has to help other people make the time to do the work. Pelle helps grandmother weed her garden while she cards the wool, watches his younger sister and fills the woodbox while his mother weaves the cloth. That even within a family things take time and shared labor is an important concept to begin from.
22. _When I am Old With You_ by Angela Johnson. An African-American grandson tells his grandfather of all the things they will do together “when I am old with you.” They include time spent on old fashioned skills, community building and preserving the past. The boy’s misunderstanding of age is poignant and lovely.
23. _Joseph Had a Little Overcoat_ by Simms Taback. Based on an old Jewish folktale, Joseph has a lovely overcoat, but one day it gets old and warm. What does he do about it? The cutout illustrations show it becoming a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief, a button and finally… a story about making things out of other things.
24. _Blueberries for Sal_ by Robert McCloskey. Generations of children have enjoyed this story about picking blueberries to can for winter, and what happens when bear and human mothers and children get crossed up.
-Picture Books for children from 3-7.
25. _Oxcart Man_ by Donald Hall. If I could recommend one single book for this age group, this would be it. It is a beautiful book, with lovely folk-art illustrations and the poetic language Hall is deservedly famous for (he’s a major poet). My children love this book, and can recite the text with me. In it, a 19th century farmer and his family collect “everything they had made and grown that was left over” to sell.
26. _Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story about Edna Lewis_ by Robin Gourley – based on the life of chef Edna Lewis, this book tells the story of a southern rural childhood and the cycle of the seasons in which “you never can have too much summer in a jar.”
27. _This Land is Your Land_ by Woody Guthrie. The Classic Folk song, with lovely illustrations by Kathie Jakobson. Includes the full lyric text, with its call to personal action and social justice – very timely.
28. _Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel_ by Leslie Connor. Like all of Connor’s books, and like nearly everything illustrated by the sublime Mary Azarian, this is a lovely book. “She could have had a chiming clock or a porcelain figurine, but Miss Bridie chosen a shovel back in 1856.” Miss Bridie sets out from Ireland to the new world, and her shovel is put to work at making a new life.
29. _Just Enough and Not Too Much_ by Kaethe Zemack. Simon the fiddler wants more and more…and then he doesn’t anymore (I suspect we can all identify). Simon resolves the problem by throwing a party.
30. _A Chair For My Mother_ by Vera B. Williams. A hard-working family saves and saves to buy a beautiful, comfortable chair to sit in at the end of the day. A great book, with several sequels. We also love _Cherries and Cherry Pits_ about urban dwellers who celebrate the coming of cherry season and imagine a world of abundant cherries in an urban vacant lot.
31. _Weslandia_ by Paul Fleischman – Wesley doesn’t fit in to his suburban neighborhood (where life and houses come in two models, garage on the left, garage on the right) so he decides to spend his summer developing a new staple crop and building a society around it. This story is wonderful, and my 9 year old has wanted to be Wesley for years!
32. _How Groundhog’s Garden Grew_ by Lynne Cherry. This is my favorite gardening book for children. The illustrations are stunning, including drawings of plants at every stage of development, and the story is endearing. Concepts like thinning and perennials are included. Little Groundhog learns he can’t just take food, he has to grow his own. A wonderful book.
33._Snowflake Bentley_ by Mary Azarian. I know her name appears often here, but that’s only because her books are so invaluable. This is the true story of the first man to seriously study snow crystals, and besides being a lovely book, it is also a reminder that the local is just as important and magical as the distant. The book allows children to understand that close knowledge of a single place is at least as valuable as wide knowledge.
34. _Agatha’s Feather Bed_ by Carmen Agra Deedy. Agatha operates a small shop in New York city, and spins and weaves. She tells children “Everything comes from somewhere/nothing comes from nowhere,” but forgets that this dictate applies to her as well. She orders a feather bed from a catalog, and one night, some angry, cold geese appear. Her resolution to the problem is wonderful, and the illustrations in the corner show the origins of many common items. The reminder that we cannot pretend things just come into being is essential.
35. _Cook-A-Doodle-Doo_ by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. An ambitious rooster, grandson of The Little Red Hen, famed in story, decides that he wants to learn to cook too. He has the same difficulties getting the cat, the dog and the goose to help him that his grandmother did, but fortunately, Potbellied Pig, Turtle and Iguana are there to “help.” The book provides careful and very funny instructions for cooking, and also a good reminder that mistakes happen in the kitchen. Recipe for strawberry shortcake included. My kids also like Stevens’ _Tops and Bottoms_.
36. _A House Is a House For Me_ by Mary Ann Hoberman. This lovely poem is an invitation to think of the whole world as home to someone or something. Children are shown over and over in their own “houses” crafted of boxes and tables, as well as illustrations of world housing.
37. _Homeplace_ by Anne Shelby. This gorgeously illustrated (by Wendy Anderson Halperin) tale shows a grandmother telling her granddaughter the history of their home over the last two centuries. Each generation improves the home and adapts it to meet their needs, and the little girl learns that she too will be part of her history.
38. _The Tale I Told Sasha_ by Nancy Willard. All Nancy Willard’s books are surreal and beautiful, but this one was Eli’s favorite for many years. A little girl in a small house on a rainy day is given a yellow ball by her busy mother, and magical, Lewis Carrollesque journeys ensue in her imagination. We are told, “Our house is quiet, small and plain,/and yet its rooms run far and wide.” The capacity of imagination to transform something “plain and small” is an important message. The book is truly magical, as are David Christiana’s illustrations. Another one of hers to check out, _Pish Posh said Heironymous Bosh_ doesn’t really have anything to do with sustainability but is so terrific I have to mention it.
39. _The Boat_ by Helen Ward and Ian Andrew. In a brilliant variation on the Noah’s Ark story, an old man rescues animals, but dislikes and fears humans, who in turn fear him. When a flood occurs, a young boy enables his community to cross the barrier of fear and connect.
40. _We Gather Together_ By Wendy Pfeiffer. A history and narrative of harvest festivals all over the world. Emphasizes that harvesting food is always a time for celebration and joy.
41. _Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs_ by Tomie de Paolo. I remember my parents reading this book to me, and now I read it to my children. It resonates especially with them because their great-grandparents lived with them. Tommy loves his grandmother, who cares for his great-grandmother, who he also loves very much. This book does talk about death, and also about the obligations extended families have towards one another. Many of Paolo’s other books are suitable as well – _Quilt Story_ for example.
42. _Pumpkin Circle_ This wonderful, clever book describes the seed cycle, including the transition back to compost and saved seeds. It is exuberant and fun, and very popular in my house.
43. _The Three Questions_ by Jon Muth (based on a story by Leo Tolstoy). Nikolai wants to know how to be a good person, and he finds a variety of answers, and then discovers he has known all along. Tolstoy’s short story _The Three Questions_ is excellent reading for teenagers.
44. _The Patchwork Quilt_ by Valerie Flournoy. There’s a reason there are so many books on quilting in this list – it is one of the few popular ways of linking us to the handmade past. This is a particularly good book. Tanya’s grandmother is making a scrap quilt, and Tanya’s mother doesn’t understand why this hand made quilt is so important to Grandma. Grandma makes the quilt out of the pieces of Tanya’s life – her favorite old clothes, the fabric used to make her African princess outfit. When Grandmother becomes ill, Tanya helps finish the quilt. Light Christian religious content, but well worth it for non-Christians because of the strong images of extended families, and commitment to maintaining the past, even when they don’t necessarily have the same cultural assumptions.
45. _Horton Hatches the Egg_ by Dr. Seuss. I bet you thought I was going to go for _The Lorax_, no? But as much as I like the old truffala-guy, I think the message of Horton is equally important. Horton is a faithful, kind and nurturing guy whose courage and generosity and good parenting are rewarded in the end. And, of course, like all Dr. Seuss books, a great deal of fun to read.
46. _Let’s Eat_ by Beatrice Hollyer. This book, produced by Oxfam, is a terrific introduction to the food and the culture of other places. It gently helps children recognize that not everyone has enough, but does so in the context of showing the way everyone participates in food production all over the world. Recipes are included. _Wake Up World_ is a related book that tells about the daily lives of children everywhere.
47. _Soil_ by Christin Ditchfield. Author of five books on natural resources including ones on oil, coal and water, Ditchfield’s books are wonderful, clear-eyed introductions to science and sustainability. The book is on the complex side for younger children, but accessible and smart, and allows children to begin understanding the differences in soils and how to grow things in them.
48. _Everybody Cooks Rice_ by Norah Dooley. A little girl hunting the neighborhood for her brother visits all her neighbors and finds that from every culture, they all cook and eat rice. Nice recipes as well. There are several more in the series _Everyone Brings Noodles_ and _Everyone Bakes Bread_. A little pedantic, but good.
49. _The Errant Knight_ by Ann Tompert. In a magical world, a noble knight sets out to serve his king, willing to fight dragons and slay giants if necessary. He does not want to be an errant knight, but one who concentrates on serving his ruler. But on his journey to his king, he keeps encountering people in need – a lost child, a church in need of rebuilding, a serf who needs freeing…the knight keeps doing good deeds until he grows old, never reaching his king. Until, one day, at the end of his life he arrives to see his king, ashamed that he never made it to the king’s side to serve him. But the king raises him up and lets him know that each time he served someone in need, he also served their rulers.
50. _Home Place_ by Crescent Dragonwagon (not to be confused with _Homeplace_, also on this list). A little girl and her parents out hiking find the evidence of a family – and a way of life – in an old homestead. The child is left with a visceral experience – and a sense that something has been lost.
51. _Why Do I Have to Make My Bed? Or, a History of Messy Rooms_ by Wade Bradford. A child asks his mother why he has to make his bed. Ultimately, the answer is the classic Mom answer – because I said so. But before we get to that answer we are reminded that children in every generation in history have complained about their chores – kids from the stone age to the modern one are shown doing their chores. I think my favorite is the Viking Girl who complains “I already stoked the fire for the sword maker. I dusted off the sacred blowing horn. I even picked up the broken spears and patched up Father’s war wounds!” The book is laugh-out-loud funny, but also a good reminder that responsibilities are a universal part of childhood.
52._ The Gardener_ by Sarah Stewart. Set during the Great Depression, this epistolary picture book tells the story of Lydia Grace who goes to live in New York City with her Uncle Jim because her parents and Grandmother can’t care for her. Uncle Jim is kind, but rarely smiles – worn down by the Depression. Lydia Grace brings her gardening talent to the city and makes the most of things. Not at all soppy, but delicate and beautiful.
53. _The Trees of the Dancing Goats_ by Patricia Polacco. A Jewish family living in rural Michigan faces an epidemic in their community over the holidays of Christmas and Chanukah. They respond to their neighbor’s need with food, care and mutual celebrations – an important and compelling story of community across cultural lines.
54. _Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai_ by Claire Nivola. Gorgeously illustrated, this story of the founding of the Green Belt Movement and the emergence of a human scale environmental restoration movement is both empowering and gorgeous.
55. _Some Kind of Love_ by Traci Dant. A sequence of poems about a family reunion, it is a reminder that for family’s sake many things can be endured and even enjoyed. The extended family crowds in together because being together is worth so much.
56. _Elizabeti’s Doll_ by Stephanie Stuve Bodeen. Elizabeti has a baby brother, and wants to care for her own baby, but she has no doll, so she finds a rock and names it “Eva.” Elizabeti takes good care of Eva, who matters deeply to her. A good story for children with rooms full of toys.
57. _The Birds of Killingworth_ by Robert D. San Souci This tale of Colonial Connecticut tells the story of what happens if one destroys one element of an ecosystem. Based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
58. _A River Ran Wild_ by Lynne Cherry. A gorgeously illustrated story of the Nashua River Watershed, its history, pollution and efforts at restoration.
59. _Here Comes Darrell_ by Leda Schubert and Mary Azarian. Darrell is so busy helping out his neighbors in all the seasons of the year that sometimes he neglects his own work – but his neighbors are there for him too.
60. _On Meadowview Street_ by Henry Cole. My children adore this story of a little girl who moves to a newly built development named after a Meadow that isn’t there. Gradually, however, she makes one, persuading her father to get rid of his lawn mower, and transforming the place into a true meadow view.
61. _The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough_ by Katie Smith Milway. Based on the real work in Honduras of Don Elias Sanchez, the story talks about how a schoolteacher helps a community avoid debt, grow more and become food secure.
62. _From Dawn to Dusk_ by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. Kinsey-Warnock’s brothers ask who would want to farm in cold, snowy, muddy rural Vermont? Who would want to work so hard? They can’t wait to leave…or can they?
63. _The Ugly Vegetables_ by Grace Lin. A girl is uncomfortable that her garden is different than the gardens of their neighbors – but the outcome, the wonderful asian vegetable soup that results draws in everyone in the neighborhood.
64. _Charlie and Lola: I Will Not Ever Eat a Tomato_ by Lauren Child. A very funny look at picky eating, and at the power of humor to covercome it. Not surprisingly, Lola is willing to consider eating an alien ball from Jupiter, even if she would never, ever, ever eat a tomato.
65. _Henry Hikes to Fitchburg_ by D. B. Johnson – building on Henry David Thoreau’s writings, the _Henry_ books use stunning illustrations and beautiful, direct stories to transmit Thoreau’s basic message – in this case, that when you figure out the true cost of things, they aren’t always what you think they are. _Henry’s Mountain_, _Henry Works_ and _Henry’s Night_ among others are also equally wonderful.
66. _Castle on Hester Street_ by Linda Heller – A classic immigrant story, Grandpa can’t resist making their shared past into a wild fairy tale complete with flying goats and streets paved with gold. Grandma tells her Granddaughter the truth about hard work and a great deal of challenge, but joy as well. The two stories join together beautifully, and show how they can be simultaneously true and untrue.
67. _A Day’s Work_ by Eve Bunting. Francisco’s Abuelo has just arrived from Mexico, and they really need his income. Francisco lies to get him a day’s work, telling the man who hires him that he a gardener, when in fact, he has never gardened. Abuelo is appalled when he finds out about the lie, after he has pulled up a field’s work of planting, and he and Francisco make it right. This leads to “more than a day’s work” but it isn’t heavy handed – both the adults in the story show absolute integrity and value for hard work.
68. _Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life_ by Jan Reynolds. My kids were fascinated when we told them that my husband and I had spent our honeymoon studying rice agriculture on Java and Bali – this is the story of Bali’s reclamation of their sustainable agricultural past. Well worth a read.
69._Tight Times_ by Barbara Shook Hazen. A middle-class family is financially up against the wall and just barely holding on. A little boy doesn’t fully understand why he can’t have a pet. The story is truly well told and moving – everyone does the best they can.
70. _No Eat Not Food_ by Rick Sanger. An alien arrives and a nice little girl offers to share her junk food, but the alien only eats food – real food. A very funny and clever way to teach kids about what is healthy, what isn’t and where food comes from.
71. _Changes_ by Anthony Browne. Joseph Kaye has been told that things are about to change, and he keeps seeing changes in his world. Brilliantly illustrated, his world transforms in fascinating and slightly scary ways beneath his eyes. He’s deeply reassured when he realizes that the changes coming are really a little sister. This book is a really good way to get kids talking about their fears about change of all kind. The outcomes aren’t always as benign as new siblings, but the book’s illustrations are both comic and show the inner world of the ways that children fail to understand the adult world. A good book to use in conversations with kids about the ways the world might change.
72. _Mama Panya’s Pancakes_ by Mary Chamberlin. Adika and his mother are taking their money to market to buy the ingredients for pancakes. Exuberant Adika can’t resist asking everyone to join them for food. Understandably, Mama Panya is worried about there being enough to go around – but no guest arrives empty handed.
73. _Home_ by Jeannie Baker – When Tracy is born, her home is a decaying urban space, but her community steps in to restore it – and through the windows of Tracy’s room, she can see her neighbors actively working to build greenspace, alleviate poverty and attend to one another.
74. _A Child’s Calendar_ by John Updike. Lovely poems (the one about November is particularly wonderful) beyond the usual “Around the Year” sort by Updike, combine with Trina Schart Hyman’s multi-racial families as they go through a Northeastern year. A lovely, lovely book.
75. Uno’s Garden by Graeme Base. Brought to a beautiful place by the charm of its landscape and rich biological diversity, this complex counting book sees humans increase and creatures disappear. As the world is emptied of beauty and life by human development, it is eventually abandoned and restored for humans and other creatures. Very, very timely and of course, wonderfully illustrated.
- 365 Books