I grew up in my mom’s lap, reading and being read to; pointing at pictures, asking questions, letting the images and voices and moments and words sink into my memories, establishing themselves as pieces of my childhood, fitting together unexpectedly at different moments with soft, rounded corners, flashes of color, pangs of humor or nostalgia, and the occasional sharp edge.
I took a children’s lit class in college – signed up for it completely by accident – and I remember wondering what on earth I would possibly learn in a class about children’s literature? These stories that enchanted me as a child were cute or silly, meant to do was entertain children, nothing more. Boy, was I wrong. I learned a lot that semester from Dr. Diane Johnson, a Princeton grad and acclaimed children’s book author of Hair Dance. I learned that children’s books are not easy to write. Those books I carried with me from childhood to adulthood were labored over and painstakingly crafted, just like any other great work of literature. The words and feelings in those books I’d fallen in love with as a child nestled into the folds of my brain and heart and became a part of me.
When I had children of my own, and revisited the stories I first heard in my mother’s lap, those memories from my youth came flooding back – vivid and bright once again – and something new and wonderful happened. As a parent, I was able to see the worlds that opened for my children in the pages of these books.
I wanted to share some of our favorites with you all today. This list, much like the children’s books on it, was a labor of love. It also started as a Top 5 and ended up a Top 12…
A few of our family’s favorite children’s books (in no particular order):
- Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown and published in 1947 is a timeless classic for generations of children. In my opinion, it’s the perfect bedtime book – lyrical, soft, calming. The kids will sit with you and say goodnight to all the people and things tucked into a dark, quiet nursery.
- The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. Published 25 years before “Goodnight Moon,” “The Velveteen Rabbit” enchants children and celebrates, not just their love for their toys, but is one of the realest, most visceral illustrations of what it is to love and be loved.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’…‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Blue Baby – first loved by me and now loved by John. Definitely a top contender for “real.”
- Corduroy, by Don Freeman; First published in 1968, Corduroy is the sweet story of a little bear living in a department store, waiting for a child to pick him out and take him home. I think it speaks to every child who has a favorite stuffed toy they want to make a home for.
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Joffe Numeroff. I don’t remember this book from my childhood, despite being published in 1985. This is one I discovered when my oldest son brought it home from school. The boys love watching the little mouse making mischief as he moves from one activity to the next. As a parent, I love and appreciate watching the boy in the story get frazzled as he chases a wild creature through the house, trying to clean up one mess after another. I imagine parents everywhere relate, especially when the kids hit the refrigerator for after-school snacks.
- Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak and published in 1963. I adored this book when I was little – the switch from Max being sent to his room to a boat and back to his room, where his dinner “was still warm” was just about the craziest thing. Now, as a mother to three boys, I relate to Max trying to corral an island of wild things. My little guys love the adventure and bravery and, quite frankly, a little boy on the boat all by himself is (apparently) pretty cool.
- The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend, by Dan Santat. One of the more recent books on this list. Beekle (to those in the know 😉) was published in 2015. My mom got is as a gift for the boys and it was an instant family favorite. Beekle is the imaginary friend, waiting on the island of imaginary friends, to be picked by a child. He sees those around him going off with their new friends and he isn’t getting picked. Instead of waiting, Beekle takes matters into his own hands and sets out to find his person in “the real world.” The colors and illustrations are bright and imaginative. My kiddos love finding all sorts of cool things in the pictures. I love the lesson of setting off into the unknown and making things happen.
Bedtime should always be this peaceful and adorable.
- Grumpy Monkey, by Suzanne Lang. Another recent addition to our bookshelves, and the book world, Grumpy Monkey was published in 2018. It follows the story of Jim Panzee, who wakes up one morning not feeling like himself. He’s fine, just a little grumpy. All the animals in the forest want Jim to be happy. He goes through the motions and puts on the faces of happy, but it doesn’t help. He’s simply having a bad day and wants that to be ok. Grumpy Monkey shows that it’s ok to be grumpy, or sad, or hurt and that even though you may “feel better soon enough…[it’s okay] to be grumpy.”
- On the Night You Were Born – really anything by Nancy Tillman. Seriously, get all her books. She will make you laugh and cry and love and appreciate your babies more than you ever thought possible. This is my personal favorite – it reads in a lovely, rhythmic way – and when I read the last page to my first child, in his first month home, I wept. “Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn on the wonderful, marvelous night you were born.”
- The Wonderful Things You Will Be, by Emily Winfield Martin was published in 2015 (another recent addition!). It’s a beautiful book and should be on everyone’s baby shower gift list. Babies and children of all shapes, colors, and sizes appear on every page as the author wonders what wonderful things they will be. It celebrates kindness and creativity and adventure, even while acknowledging the days won’t always be sunny and happy. The illustrations feel vintage; the poetic writing is timeless; the values are modern and inclusive. It ticks all the boxes and hits every note.
- A Chair for My Mother, by Vera Williams was published in 1982. It’s about a girl, her mom, and grandmother (told in first person by the little girl). Their house burned down and they lose everything. The mother works in a diner and they start saving extra coins to buy a comfortable chair for the mom. A Chair for My Mother is an absolute favorite from my childhood. The images, particularly the giant jar set out for saving loose change and the overstuffed red, floral chair the family chooses, are seared into my mind. It’s a story about loss, family, hard work, and unconditional love. (Caldecott Medal winner)
“Let the wild rumpus start.” – Maurice Sendak
- Madeline, written by Ludwig Bemelmans and first published in 1939. It’s a credit to Madeline’s bold and mischievous spirit that the smallest of “twelve little girls in two straight lines” has enchanted children for 82 years. My three boys will sit down and follow Madeline’s every Parisian adventure. There isn’t a race car or octopus or pirate to be found, but Madeline is exciting and spritely and free. Believe me, they follow her eagerly.
- Over in the Meadow. I learned something new about this stunning and magical book in my research on publication dates. The book is illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats and is based on an original version by Olive A. Wadsworth, written in 1870, making this the oldest book on the list. This is another new one for me; I read it for the first time when my son brought it home from school and immediately fell in love. It’s a counting book, technically, but it’s so much more. It’s lyrical and bright and magic. This book takes me back to the early days of quarantine when we were all home. Quarantine was still an anomaly then and we reveled in the slower days and the hot sun, separating from the outside world. I could read this book tomorrow or in 50 years and it will immediately bring back the pace, rhythm, and scents of those first few weeks at home.
What children’s books do you carry with you? Which ones are your favorites? Your kids’ favorites? Share your must-haves in the comments below.