Times change and a new generation requires a new approach to some things, but some books capture the childhood experience so well, I believe they are truly timeless. Maybe I’m wrong, but seriously, if you’ve grown up without experiencing these books, you were deprived. Go to the local library and read them. Sure, you might have people looking at you like you’re a weirdo, but if you’re really self-conscious, say you’re a teacher. If you’re really young, you can get away with saying your a babysitter. If you’re like me and you just enjoy creeping people out, say, “Nope. I just like kids books. They’re super fun!” (Be sure to take a picture of the terrified children’s librarian.)
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
This book still makes me cry, but it is too beautiful to be missed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen unconditional love described better than it is in this book.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, written by Rudyard Kipling and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Yeah, I know, some people don’t like Rudyard Kipling because he was British Imperialist swine. Whatever. Kids don’t know that. This story is fun! You don’t need to know a mongoose from a mango to enjoy it either. It just sounds really cool.
The Little Engine That Could, written by Watty Piper, Illustrated by Doris Hauman and George Hauman
Persistence pays off, especially if you happen to be an adorable steam engine.
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
This one is so amazing, no introduction is necessary. If you have a kid and introduce them to this book, the kid will eat it up.
I Can Read! Books
I don’t really know what else to call these books. I feel like a bad children’s writer here because this is a much younger group than the one I deal with. Anyway, these are books that a kid can usually handle on her own, but they still like to have an adult around. Oh yeah, and they have cute pictures.
Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
Roll with that jelly roll; add dust to the living room. Get literal with your bad self!
The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
These books teach kids all of Life’s most important lessons: if a cat with headgear comes to your home and shows you a good time you don’t narc on him; trying new things is good even if you could get food poisoning; anyone who doesn’t promote conservation is a poopie head. Really, what more do you need to know?
Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
Friendship! It’s awesome, especially between amphibians.
Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit written by Julius Lester, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Cute fluffy bunnies in an Aesop’s Fable world. Awesome! Okay, if you’re the adult helping a kid with these, you’ll notice some underlying themes that are less awesome, but don’t worry, the child will be more enlightened for it. I mean, hey, it worked for me.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Also known as: any child who can’t sing the blues and misbehaves deserves to be made into stew. Okay, maybe not, but it’s kind of preachy. Still, the illustrations are so precious.
The Whipping Boy written by Sid Fleishman and illustrated by Peter Sis
This is one of those books that is hard to describe in a way that makes people go: Oh, I really want to read that! It’s very depressing, but it’s so good. Also, as a kid, I really liked it even though it’s twisted. Basically, it’s about an orphan who serves as the “whipping boy” to Prince Brat as in he gets beaten for everything The Brat does. Stinks, right? Well, yeah, but the story is terrific and, as MLK said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Yeah, I know, some people think C.S. Lewis was a crazy Christian extremist. You’re probably right. You have to be pretty weird to be a writer. Still, these books are so---much--fun!
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Yes, the same person who wrote Holes. These books are hilarious. If you help a little one read these, make sure you both take a bathroom break before getting started.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Again, total hilarity. In fact, I recommend the whole “Fudge” series. It’s a little sad because the little brother, Fudge, is really annoying, but he steals the show because he’s also ridiculously cute.
Ribsy by Beverly Cleary
I love dogs, so for me, this was a must-read as a child and I thought it was amazing. My mom swears by the Ramona and Beezus books, but if you’re having trouble getting into Beverly Cleary, Ribsy is truly awesome.
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Okay, I want to get this out of the way up front: Ribsy excepted, things don’t usually turn out well for dogs in dog stories and this is a dog story. That’s as close as I’ll get to a spoiler alert. A little boy saves up and mail orders two bloodhound puppies and the doggies turn out to be angels with floppy ears. It’s a touching story, but the best thing about this book is the beautiful writing.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer (illustrator)
This book is probably as close as you will ever want your child to get to an acid trip. It’s really, really weird, but it’s also funny, interesting and totally unique.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Poor Roald Dahl is so often misunderstood. At some point, his daughter was upset with him, wrote a nasty article or gave a nasty interview (I don’t remember which) and a lot of people thought that a man who had a child who hated him so much must have been horrible. Well, maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but I can tell you that most people under 30 will tell you their parents were horrid. Of course, if you share all these books with your kids, they’ll think you’re amazing, but Mr. Dahl didn’t have all these at his disposal at the time. Anyway, his sense of humor is a bit dark, but you know what, the kiddies love this book. Take that however you like. Maybe kids are just kind of mean, but it’s fun to think of a snobby twit turning into a blueberry. . . . Well, it is.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
By today’s standards, this is middle grade. When I was a kid, this was young adult. I have no idea why. I don’t think anyone gets naked or swears, but I guess a teen girl running around in a cormorant feather skirt is racey. For anyone who didn’t grow up in south-central California, this historical novel is about the a Chumash girl who missed the boat full of missionaries and her family from Anacapa Island to the mission in Santa Barbara. Such horror: all alone with her brother on their home island instead of becoming a slave and catching TB with everyone else.
The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants by Anna Brashares
Friendship is amazing and it’s even more amazing when you spend your first summer ever apart from your best friends. This story is too sweet to be missed.
Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
Okay, I didn’t read this when I was a teen, but I would have been invincible if I did. It’s so funny!
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
This book is amazing. Once you start reading it, you won’t be able to put it down. I don’t care how old you are. Trust me, I’ve run this by some extremely fussy readers and everyone agrees. Chris Crutcher is a child psychologist and he uses his insight and compassion for children and adolescents to provide an insight into the world of a teen boy who wants to save his best friend, and himself, from a monster in their community.
I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier
Have you ever had the feeling your family was keeping something from you? Have you ever thought that what they were keeping from you could cost you your life? If you’re the character in this book, you could be right.
Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
I’m not exactly sure why I’m short-listing this one because I read it very recently, but I think that there’s a lot here that kids from broken homes can relate to. If you have teens in your life who have been let down by the adults who should have been there for them, this is a wonderful adventure/love story where the kids play on their strengths and come out on top in the end. Again, this is another one that’s hard for anyone to put down.
Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
100 Selected Poems e.e. cummings (teens and up)
Ariel by Sylvia Plath (again, teens and up---she did commit suicide by sticking her head in an oven and that could be hard to explain to a young child)
The Random House Book of Poetry for Children by Jack Prelutsky (compiler) and Arnold Lobel (illustrator)
This anthology includes a terrific selection of child-friendly poems by just about every famous American and British poet out there. If you want to introduce your child to poetry, this is a terrific way to do it.