We are ardent book-readers and library-goers. As I read to my babies (at the moment 18 months, 3-going-on-four, and 5 [WHAT?]) I have stumbled across a few picture books that have inspired my undying love, appreciation, and even awe. I take into account both content and illustrations, because I cannot abide intentionally ugly illustrations or cartoons—and I’ve been that way ever since Cow and Chicken first aired, ostensibly marketed for my age group but abhorrent to my sensibilities.
It amused me one day, while procrastinating on more important matters, to jot down a list of my favorite kids’ books in my bullet journal, and what do you know? I happened to have ten. I don’t do Goodreads reviews for picture books, but this at least seemed like a blog post fated to happen. And who knows? It might help people looking for last-minute gift ideas! So, without further ado:
Shannon’s Top 10 Children’s Books (based on completely subjective criteria)
10. The Queen’s Progress: An Elizabethan Alphabet by Celeste Davidson Mannis, illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. If you’re into the Renaissance, castle courts, or sumptuous illustrations at all, this book will thrill you. Each page contains not only a simple rhyme based on the letter of the alphabet (“X is for xystus, / A bower of flowers. / The queen walks alone / To her ivory tower”) but also a historical blurb for older children who want to know more about Early Modern culture, so its interest factor is lasting. Far from the disjointed nature of most alphabet books, it has an overarching plot involving one of Queen Elizabeth I’s progresses, complete with subplots (assassination attempts!), recurring characters, and a little dog that can be found on every page if you look. It is beautiful in every sense.
9. The Lion Inside by Rachel Bright, illustrations by Jim Field. This is loosely based on Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse.” A mouse, being very small, travels to the top of a lion’s rock in order to learn what makes the lion so brave. There is a plot twist in which we learn that everyone has both strengths and fears, and that friendship and kindness make a happy ending. Its meter and rhyme are on-point, and it has a line of lasting relevance I love to read to my girls: “It felt like the scariest thing he could do… / But if you want things to change, you first have to change you.”
8. Can I Come, Too? by Brian Patten, illustrations by Nicola Bayley. These colored pencil illustrations are gorgeous. A mouse goes on an adventure just my girls’ speed: a calm journey full of friends to find the biggest creature in the world. Along the way she welcomes other journeyers, until they all see the biggest creature, which is (spoiler alert) a magnificently drawn whale. My kids were genuinely curious as to what the biggest creature would be and genuinely thrilled at the discovery, so this was not only educational in a moral sense (the animals are all welcoming and thankful for each other) but also educational.
7. Peanut Butter and Cupcake by Terry Border. The creative concept and art are cool, but the reason this book is one of our most battered is that I love Peanut Butter. He immediately responds to his mom’s good suggestion, he never returns rudeness for rudeness, and he never gives up, maintaining his polite and friendly question through a series of increasing disappointments. Finally, when the tides turn and all the kids who have excluded him want to play with him in the end, he welcomes them instead of returning evil for evil.
6. Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy by David Soman, illustrations by Jackie Davis. I hold it as a general rule that you can’t really go wrong with David Soman (Three Bears in a Boat is another favorite), and Ladybug Girl is probably our favorite kids’ book series. In it, Soman and Davis combine interesting problems for children, inspiration for creative play, at least one moment per book of quiet beauty, and Easter Eggs for the nerdy or literary adults reading. This is my favorite because it provides ideas for pretend play in a playground setting and illustrates well (in a way that is realistic and accessible for kids) the problems and rewards of learning to play together.
5. The Last King of Angkor Wat by Graeme Base. By now it should be obvious that I prefer books about animals, and honestly, more points if you include a tiger. Dang I love tigers. This book combines rich, detailed, and achingly beautiful illustrations with an instructive tale that reads like an Aesop’s Fable. It has adventure, a moral I can really get behind, and a cool sense of mystery, set in crumbling jungle ruins.
4. Corduroy by Don Freeman. This simple and familiar tale, which I remember from my own childhood, moves me to tears as I read it to my children. The disparity between Corduroy’s felt needs (“I think I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain”) and the real need, met by Lisa’s unconditional love (“I know I’ve always wanted a home”) illustrates for me very concisely the beauty of Christ’s love for us.
3. God’s Very Good Idea by Trillia Newbell, illustrations by Catalina Echeverri. Speaking of books that move me to tears… This book is a child’s introduction to the right way to think about race, from an author who has spent a huge portion of her life thinking about and teaching the theological implications of race. What’s more, it also uses that one facet of human sin—racism—to present clearly and powerfully our need for God’s Best Idea, the Gospel. The illustrations are full of life and add to the emotional impact.
2. The Moon Shines Down by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Linda Bleck. This book introduces children to cultures and environs all over the world. It has a few errors in meter and even fact, but these are easily corrected through on-the-fly verbal editing. There is so much to notice on each vibrant page—animal life, wardrobe, architecture—to introduce different places and cultures to my kids. And though largely informative, it’s fast-paced and gorgeous enough to hold their interest from a very young age (we usually start this one around 12 months). Note: this is dated (Margaret Wise Brown also wrote Goodnight, Moon) and America-centric (it assumes America is “my own country,” France is “over the sea”). It was also unfinished, so I don’t necessarily take offense at the fact that South America is passed over. If you don’t demand that it be a complete social studies education, which I doubt it ever tried to be, you should enjoy it too.
1. Bunny Day by Rick Walton, illustrations by Paige Miglio. Oh, how I love this book, which we discovered when Cap randomly picked it up at a used bookstore. The rhyme scheme is perfect. The family pictured is happy, busy, and affectionate. The five children are all involved and included. Each page shows the bunnies enjoying each other. The children all help their parents with chores (“Helping Father plant the seeds, / Water flowers, pull up weeds”) before their multifaceted play time (involving exercise, arts and crafts, catching grasshoppers, swinging, board games). It assumes that “Chores need doing every day”—together (which I am enthusiastically on board with)! The more we read it (we tore apart one copy with our love and had to order another online), the more Cap and I notice the illustrations’ loving attention to detail. For instance, by looking at the background family photos and knowing birth order characteristics, we have determined the oldest and youngest bunny in the family and have ascertained each bunny’s unique personality, consistent on each page. It’s not obvious, but each bunny and a clock of some sort is on every spread. Bonus: they show the mommy and daddy bunny snuggling together after the children are asleep. Oh, and I love so much about it that I forgot to tell you its premise: a gentle introduction to telling time.
Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz – spot-on delightful limerick meter, epic illustrations by Dan Santat, laugh-out-loud humor, sweet ending.
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, pictures by Jill McElmurry – I feel this one would have been on my top 10 if I had just discovered it sooner. It is a great story about kindness, with perfect meter and some clever wordplay.
All of Baby, Nose to Toes by Victoria Adler, illustrated by Hiroe Nakata – This one wins because of its cutest-ever watercolor illustrations, which exude love and joy. Nakata goes above and beyond the typical body parts book, unfolding a subtle, logical “story” throughout the sweet rhymes.
I Can Do It, Too! by Karen Baicker, illustrations by Ken Wilson-Max – If my kids had their own top 10 list, this would probably be on it. They want it EVERY TIME we see it at the library. It encourages both trying hard and familial love, so I’m okay with that!
That’s it–for now! What are some of your favorite children’s books? Now that you know my favorites, do you have any recommendations?