1,001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up is an impressively comprehensive – well, let’s face it, dauntingly comprehensive – guide to the best children’s books out there. We’d all like to share author Julia Eccleshare’s zeal, but to get us started we wanted to isolate ten of the best from her gigantic list – and not just the classics we already can recite by heart. New additions to your child’s bookshelves or not, here’s the tip of what we promise to be an enormously rewarding iceberg. – Andrea Zimmerman
Written and Illustrated by Rod Campbell
Nationality: Scottish born, 1945
Publisher: Abelard-Schuman, UK
Theme: Classics, Animal stories, Family, Rhyming stories
Dear Zoo kick-started the revolution in innovative British children’s books with its sturdy lift-the-flap format. Seemingly simple, it has proved a classic literary design and has spawned hundreds of imitators. The book is constructed so that young audiences engage on a physical level as well as an imaginative one. The text is repetitive yet varied with humor. It uses literary devices such as alliteration, repeating phrases, and rhymes.
Although Campbell’s stories are simple and clearly plotted, they do not talk down to even the youngest reader. Instead, they smile along with him or her. Children can enjoy Dear Zoo throughout their early years, its simple and friendly denouement being greeted with cries of joy and satisfaction every time.
The story is quickly told. A child writes to the zoo for a pet. The zoo sends a series of unsuitable animals, each of whom is revealed behind sturdily constructed paper flaps in the form of crates and packing cases. They are drawn with bold black outlines and bright colors on white backgrounds.
All the animals have been sent back for different reasons: too scary, too heavy, too fierce. Happily, the last one is perfect, so it can be kept. In mixing the everyday with fantasy, Campbell speaks to children as if he were in the room with them. How many children must have asked for an elephant of their own after returning from the zoo? And what excuses have adults given? Here is that experience, distilled into a classic, lift-the-flap book.
Written and Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Nationality: English born, 1938
Publisher: Walker Books, UK
Theme: Family, Friendship, Rhyming Stories
Tickle, Tickle is a delightful book that adults, babies and young children love. In it a happy, fun-loving group of multiracial babies are all shown playing together and enjoying the simplest aspects of everyday life. Alongside the warm, friendly text, it features a minimalist illustrative style – simple faces and shapes created by a strong outline filled in with bold color – that Oxenbury developed and for which she has become known worldwide.
Helen Oxenbury has been described as the “grande dame” of babies’ picture books. A prolific children’s illustrator and writer, she is perhaps best known as a leading pioneer of the board book in the 1980’s, an interest that was jump-started by having to entertain one of her young children when they were ill. Oxenbury’s intuitive understanding of babies and children helped her gravitate toward picture books, further encouraged by being married to successful children’s author and illustrator, John Burningham.
In Tickle, Tickle, the images of the toddlers loom large on the uncluttered pages, placing them right at the heart of the action and further underlining Oxenbury’s fascination with every detail of their behavior. The few words take a rhyming form that works superbly with the images.
Oxenbury has been much-praised for having an illustrative style that aims to talk directly to – and never down to – babies and toddlers, and for its subtle comedy that engages adults just as much as it does children.
Written by Kathleen Lines and Illustrated by Harold Jones
Nationality: English, born 1902 (author); English, born 1904 (illustrator)
Publisher: Oxford University Press, UK
Theme: Nursery Rhymes, Poetry
Every small child needs a book of nursery rhymes. These traditional little poems have lasted for centuries and yet still have resonance and meaning for today’s children. There are learned books of annotated nursery rhymes, explaining every quirky word, but small children respond to the rhythm and zany surrealism of “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” “Humpty Dumpty,” and “Hey Diddle Diddle.” Nursery rhymes can be spoken or sung or acted out with gestures – but they only truly come alive when they are appropriately illustrated.
Kathleen Lines was a children’s book specialist who gathered together this comprehensive collection of nursery rhymes, but the distinctive, limpid, delicately detailed illustrations of award-winning artist Harold Jones make Lavender’s Blue a book that should be on every nursery shelf. He adds an extra dimension to each rhyme – when the cradle falls in “Hush-a-bye, Baby,” four angels catch it by each rocker while the baby peers out with interest. When Daddy goes off hunting in “Bye, baby Bunting,” Mother and baby are there on the doorstep to see him trudge off while two rabbits scamper undetected in the foreground. “Oranges and Lemons” (the original version) is illustrated with a magnificent double-spread of all the church spires of London Town, with two little bell ringers clanging their bells with gusto.
There is such an abundant variety of gorgeous color spreads that any child exposed to this book will have an art education in itself. This magical world is safe, soothing, and endlessly stimulating. It is a book to last a lifetime.
Written and Illustrated by Pat Hutchins
Nationality: English born, 1942
Publisher: Bodley Head, UK; Macmillan, USA
Award: A.L.A. Notable Children’s Book
Theme: Animal stories, Friendship, Classics
Rosie’s Walk remains fresh and delightful for every new generation of children who discover it. This book contains every single element that goes into making a perfect picture book.
This delightful story is simple enough for the youngest child to enjoy, making it an ideal book to share with a baby, particularly because it allows plenty of room for improvisation on the part of the adult reader. Best of all, it teaches young readers the skill of picture book interpretation, because what is going on in the illustration is, in effect, a very clever and quite sophisticated joke at the expense of the villain of the piece. The story begins when Rosie the hen goes for a walk. She is oblivious to the fox chasing her, but her reader is not. We see how the fox gets one comeuppance after another in a deliciously satisfying way, and he ends up being chased out of the farmyard by a swarm of angry bees. Unaware of the chaos going on around her, Rosie gets home in time for dinner, leaving hilarious mayhem in her wake.
The text contains only thirty-one words, but adults can point things out to children, discuss the suspense, and wonder: will Rosie turn around and see the fox? The three colors in which the whole tale unfolds, orange, yellow, and olive green, are calming. The title page lays out the farmyard in one spread, so that readers are familiar with Rosie’s landscape before the story even begins. The book is a model of economy, simplicity, and beauty: a wonderful book to help a child embark on a lifetime of happy reading.
Written and Illustrated by David McKee
Nationality: English, born David McKee Owns, 1935
Publisher: Anderson Press, UK
Theme: Animal stories, Friendship
Elmer the patchwork elephant decides that the reason the other elephants laugh at him is because he is different. As David McKee tells us: “Elmer was yellow and orange and red and pink and purple and blue and green and black and white. Elmer was not elephant color.” So one morning, before anyone awakes, Elmer sneaks away and paints himself gray. Pleased with his disguise, he goes back to stand among the herd – but without Elmer to make them laugh, the elephants just stand there, still and serious.
Elmer cannot pretend to be the same as the rest of the herd for very long, however. He just can’t help being a joker. When he yells “Boo!” all the elephants tumble over with surprise. “It must be Elmer,” they declare, and sure enough, the rain washes off Elmer’s disguise. The elephants declare that this is Elmer’s best trick ever, and decide to celebrate Elmer’s Day every year by painting themselves in bright colors, while Elmer paints himself ordinary elephant gray.
Like many of McKee’s picture books, Elmer is a moral tale, dealing warmly and gently with issues of diversity and tolerance. Elmer worries that his unusualness makes the other elephants treat him differently from the way they treat one another, but he discovers that his difference is not only tolerated by the others, but relished.
This is a stunning picture book, drawn with simple, cartoon-style lines (McKee is also an animator) and vivid use of color. The flat slabs of colors making Elmer’s patchwork and the shaded gray elephants are set against a weird landscape of strange spiky plants. There are subtle atmospheric changes of color, too: the yellow dawn as Elmer sneaks off; the blues and purples as a black rain cloud covers the sky; the dark early morning sky as the other animals greet Elmer in the dense jungle, which becomes paler later in the day when he comes back, elephant color.
Up in the Tree
Written and Illustrated by Margaret Atwood
Nationality: Canadian, born 1939
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart, Canada
Honor: Order of Ontario, 1990
Theme: Rhyming stories, Animal stories
This is an odd little picture book, reminiscent of Dr. Seuss in looks and tone, but more gentle and whimsical. Renowned author Margaret Atwood wrote, illustrated, and hand-lettered this book in 1978, at a time when most publishers thought it was too much of a financial risk.
To save on printing costs, only two colors were used, so the pictures and text are all shades of red and blue and a brownish color that is created by mixing the two. All this gives the book a primitive look, like an old-fashioned hand-printed poster. Atwood’s beautiful hand-lettering dances across the page, with words picked out expressively in different colors and sizes for emphasis.
Two children live up a tree, where they can swing and crawl and dance, through changes of weather and season. They are very happy there, free to do as they please, until a pair of hungry beavers comes along and reduces their ladder to woodchips. Suddenly they are stuck to the tree, and now that their freedom to get down has been taken away, the tree no longer seems such a good place to be: “Oh moan! Oh groan! There’s no telephone!” they wail and query, “Are we stuck here FOREVER in this horrible tree?” After a whole night in the tree, an enormous masked bird comes to rescue them. The two children rejoice momentarily; then, of course, they just want to climb back up. So they nail planks on to the tree to make stairs, giving them the freedom to go up and down as they please, then happily go to sleep up there, in the company of the friendly owl.
The Story About Ping
Written by: Marjorie Flack and Illustrated by Kurt Wiese
Nationality: American, born 1897 (author); German, born 1887 (illustrator)
Publisher: Viking Press, USA
Theme: Adventure, Family, Animal stories
The Story About Ping focuses on the reassuring warmth of family life and the lonely excitement of adventuring outside it. Ping is a beautiful, yellow duck who lives with “his mother and his father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins” on “a boat with two wise eyes on the Yangtze river.” Every day the ducks go fishing, and at the end of the day they are counted back onto the boat. “Ping was always careful, very very careful not to be last, because the last duck to cross the bridge always got a spank on the back.” The story tells of how Ping becomes separated from his family when he chooses to hide on the riverbank rather than suffer a spank for being last on the boat. In his search for his family the next day, Ping watches various people going about their daily business on the river, and eventually, through the kindness of a little boy, he narrowly escapes becoming dinner for the boy’s family and finds his way back to his own family.
Marjorie Flack’s story is satisfying to read aloud, full of rhythm and repetition, and the sights and sounds of the Yangtze. Kurt Wiese was a prolific illustrator and spent time in China as a young man. Winning critical recognition at the time, his depiction of Chinese life has been criticized for racial stereotyping. However, he tells The Story About Ping with affection and gentle humor. His pictures use the newly available lithographic techniques to bring to life the colors of the ducks, people, river, and riverbank.
Poems for the Very Young
Written by Michael Rosen and Illustrated by Bob Graham
Nationality: English, born 1946 (editor); Australian, born 1942 (illustrator)
Publisher: Kingfisher, UK
As a poet, educator, and broadcaster, Michael Rosen understands that small children like the sounds that words make and appreciate patterns such as repetition, alliteration, and rhyming. It is, as he says, a physical experience.
In this anthology for very young children, Rosen (as the editor) has chosen more than one hundred short poems, with this experience in mind. The poems are from different periods of time and from a variety of cultures; they are grouped together thematically with several poems dotted about each page. Rosen has even included some rhymes that are written by children. All of the poems are delicious to roll around on the tongue and tickle the funny bone, even for older readers and adults. Willard R. Espy’s poem, for example, opens with, “Whipper-snapper, rooty-tooty / Helter-Skelter, tutti-frutti / Have a wing-ding, silly Billy / Lickety-split, don’t shally-shilly.” Apart from such delightful nonsense rhymes, there are also thought-provoking poems, such as John Cunliffe’s “Snow Thoughts,” a meditation in four lines on the life of a snowman. It is good to see the inclusion in the anthology of a few older rhymes, such as “Little Jumping Joan” and “Up and Down,” as well as poems by illustrious authors such as A. A. Miline (“The More it snows / (Tiddely pom)”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“We built a ship upon the stairs / All Made of the back-bedroom chairs”), and Eve Merriam (“Chitchat, wigwag, rickrack, zigzag / knickknack, gewgaw, riffraff, seesaw).
Artist Bob Graham provides small self-contained illustrations, comic strips, and double-page spreads to complement the text, including a large horizontal man who has squashed his hat and a convergence of penguins. All his drawings are full of absorbing details. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a better book of poems for small children to enjoy.
Unknown or Forgotten Princesses
Written by Philippe Lechermier and Illustrated by R’becca Dautremer
Nationality: French, born 1968 (author); French, born 1971 (illustrator)
Publisher: Gautier-Languereau, France
Theme: Fantasy, Rhyming stories
Originally published as Les Princesses oubli’es ou inconnues, this album is an alternative encyclopedia featuring forty forgotten and unknown princesses. Each one is introduced over the course of two pages, in which the author presents the princesses’ family, her tastes, and her moods against the background of secrets, palace rumors, and enchanted forests.
Among the most charming princesses are Princess Esperlutte, who has a passion for reading and words ending in “-ette”; Princess Fatrasie, a chatterbox with an extraordinary talent for boring people and a penchant for difficult words; Princess Poupoupidou, tiny and sweet, who falls asleep at the sound of a lullaby; Princess Cappriciosa, a fussy young girl who is never satisfied and is known for her extravagant requests; and Princess Amn’sie, who forgets her engagements, always arrives late, and misses trains because in lieu of a good memory there is only a big black hole in her head. The last few pages contain practical guides to distinguish real princesses from fake ones and a quiz to find out to which type of princess every young female reader corresponds.
These lighthearted stories are written in rhyme, each portrait being built around specific rhyming patterns that are a delight for the ear and a constant surprise because of their humor, their impeccable structure, and the vivacity of their inventiveness. R’becca Dautremer’s illustrations are the perfect visual counterpart, thanks to the rich colors and mixed techniques of collage and watercolor.
Lost and Found
Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Nationality: Irish, born 1977
Publisher: HarperCollins, UK
Award: Nestl’ Children’s Book Prize
Theme: Friendship, Adventure
This lovable story features the same charming boy character as Oliver Jeffers’s first book, How to Catch a Star. This time the boy finds a solitary penguin at his door looking sad and lost. He decides to take the little penguin back home on his own, having first asked a bird and a bath duck for help. After a sleepless night, he finds out where the penguin comes from and, with more trials and tribulations, ends up rowing him there in a little boat: “They floated through good weather and bad, when the waves were as big as mountains.” On reaching the welcome sign to the South Pole, the boy is surprised that the penguin is still sad. He says goodbye and then realizes that the penguin was not lost at all, just lonely. He immediately trows back but does not see (as the reader and the child do) that the penguin has already left to look for the boy at the same time. Fearing that he has lost his friend for good, the boy thinks it best to head for his own home.
Jeffers’s simplistic touch always means that the plot’s meandering ways are never too mysterious, and finally the boy spots his long-lost penguin rowing an umbrella in the sea. The friends are reunited and decide to share stories of their adventure all the way back home. Jeffers is one of a handful of British contemporary illustrators whose books make a shift in the usual visual styles on the UK picture-book market. With Jeffers’s unique watercolor wash and well-referenced visual tones and styles, his fresh and mixed pallet styles offer interesting landscapes for both children and adults to enjoy.