The books that are read to us as children stay with us for a myriad of reasons. Maybe the story taught you a valuable lesson or sparked your imagination once upon a time. Maybe the smell of its binding or the colorful pages still connects you to a person or place.
We may live in a highly digital world, but you still have that same precious opportunity to set aside your iPad or Kindle and, instead, fill your child’s home library with the best children’s books of the past and present. It’s through these tangible, illustrated stories that you can cultivate their love of reading and make lasting memories. Not to mention, reading aloud to young children (yes, even infants) is beneficial to their cognitive development.
Below, we curated a list of 20 of the best children’s books to add to your little reader’s shelf, highlighting beloved, classic stories that have stood the test of time, as well as some of the influential stories that have been published within the last few years.
1. The Little Engine That Could
Originally published in 1930, The Little Engine That Could is a story beloved by generations that teaches the importance of resilience. While technically marketed as a book for toddlers, the story of a little blue engine tasked with delivering toys to children on the other side of the mountain is one that parents can revisit with young elementary school children experiencing self-doubt.
2. Charlotte’s Web
Few books illustrate the importance and precious nature of true friendship like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The sweet relationship between a piglet named Wilbur and Charlotte, a spider spinning masterful webs from the roof of farmer Zuckerman’s barn, teaches young readers to have an open mind and an open heart because the most tender friendships can develop from the most unlikely of pairings. Beyond friendship, Charlotte’s Web is a story about love and loss, about working with others to meet a common goal, and, of course, the magical world of farm life, and the animals who make it so.
3. A Wrinkle In Time
Introduce your child to the fantastical world of science fiction with Madeleine’s L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. The story will take you and your young reader on a wild ride through space and time. Together, you’ll come across unearthly creatures and join Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace, and first crush Calvin O’Keefe in a series of unusual, otherworldly events in an attempt to save the siblings’ scientist father — and the universe, if they’re lucky.
4. The World Needs Who You Were Made to Be
It is our responsibility as parents to teach and remind our children that being exactly who they are is not only enough, but a gift to the world. In her latest children’s book, The World Needs Who You Were Made To Be, best-selling author Joanna Gaines (yes, Mrs. Fixer Upper herself), and illustrator Julianna Swaney teamed up to do just that via rhythmic writing and bright illustrations that are sure to stay with your little one long after you’ve closed the book.
5. Hair Love
NFL fans, this one is for you. Former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry originally penned Hair Love as a short animated film in 2017. In 2019, the film was picked up by Sony Pictures animation and won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The book is based on the award-winning film and tells the story of love between a black father and his daughter, Zuri, whose beautiful, all-natural curly, kinky coils need styling for a special event.
Though Cherry has no children of his own, according to an interview in The New York Times, the author and filmmaker wanted to see a black family represented in animation, and to put a positive spin on the reputation of black fathers. “Black fathers get one of the worst raps in terms of stereotypes — we’re deadbeats, we’re not around,” he told the outlet. “The people I know are extremely involved in their kids’ lives.”
6. Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing
How do you practice mindfulness? Just as it’s never too late to develop a practice, it’s never too early to introduce mindfulness practices into your child’s daily routine. In their book Alphabreaths, co-authors Christopher Willard, PsyD, and Daniele Rechtschaffen, MA offer simple, age-appropriate breathing techniques to help children better connect to themselves, to others, and understand how they’re feeling at any given moment. It’s an adorable introduction to the basics of mindfulness and how to express gratitude, all while simultaneously enhancing their understanding of the alphabet.
7. Kindness Is My Superpower
Schoolteacher and children’s book author, Alicia Ortego penned Kindness Is My Superpower with hopes to instill kindness in the hearts of a wider audience of all ages. Featuring pages of peaceful, poetic rhymes and colorful illustrations, Ortego’s story about a little boy named Lucas who makes an honest effort to cultivate kindness, good manners, and positive behavior in every aspect of life is sure to stay with your little one. But not only do Ortego’s words encourage readers to follow Lucas’ lead, they also make it very clear that it’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you can admit, accept, and apologize for them.
8. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Everyone has bad days, even (maybe especially) children. Alexander knew it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day from the moment he woke up and was met with one trial and tribulation after another, like tripping over his skateboard and having to eat lima beans for dinner. From Alexander’s point of view, kids will feel less alone on their off days, moody days, and yes, the terrible ones, too.
9. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners
It is imperative that we introduce our children to the stories of people from all different races and backgrounds, and that includes those of Asian-Americans. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho is a story of a little Asian girl who notices her big, round eyes look a little differently than those of her peers. She and her family have “eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea, crinkle into crescent moons, and are filled with stories of the past and hope for the future,” eyes that, through the course of the story, she comes to love and celebrate.
10. Ambitious Girl
Too often, strong women are unfairly described as “too assertive,” or “too ambitious,” “bossy,” and “too proud.” Through her children’s book, Ambitious Girl, Meena Harris literally re-writes the narrative and teaches young women that while women in the past, present, and future, have been and will continue to be faced with challenges, we can always strive to redefine, reframe, and reclaim the words that are meant to knock (and keep) them down. Your little one will rise above, and Ambitious Girl can help them along the way.
11. Brown Bear, Brown Bear What do You See?
This 1967 picture book features vibrant illustrations of animals written in a question-and-answer format, encouraging participation from the audience. It’s a great anytime story for young toddlers who are just beginning to talk and make relative connections with their surroundings.
12. Runaway Bunny
In her first children’s book, Margaret Wise Brown tells a classic story that visualizes the power of unconditional love for a parent and child through two rabbits. When a boy bunny decides he wants to run away and be on his own, his mother promises to follow him wherever he goes. He takes on a number of different imaginary disguises to outrun his mother, but she finds him every time. Children with separation anxieties will be comforted by the mother’s ability to find him each time and parents with children of all ages will choke up, relating to this mother’s unwavering pursuit to find her son, regardless of his mistakes.
This book tells the story of a teddy bear for sale at a department store named Corduroy, who comes to life to find his missing button, and eventually finds a new home with a young girl named Lisa and her family. The story has a subtle moral undertone, too; Author Don Freeman highlights the contrast between luxury consumerism versus the simple things in life like family, making it a nice children’s book for the three to five age group.
14. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
Numeroff’s classic is a circular tale following the adventure of a young boy after he gives a mooching mouse a cookie. The illustrations were rendered by Felicia Bond, and have been acclaimed for attention to detail.
15. Goodnight Moon
This children’s picture book has been a bedtime story classic since first published in 1947. With exuberant illustrations by Clement Hurd, the book follows a boy through his bedtime ritual, saying goodnight to an array of different items in his home, including his room and a red balloon. It’s part story, part lullaby for children, and adult art lovers will continue to be inspired by Hurd’s fauvist-inspired illustrations.
16. Love You Forever
This one’s a bit of a tear-jerker, and while it’s deceptively simple, it’s also one of the most moving stories of all time. Brought to life by Sheila McGraw’s poignant illustrations, the story follows the relationship between a mother and her son, following them through life’s stages. Each page shows the mother cradling the son from infancy to adulthood. At the end of the book, the grown-up boy is pictured cradling his elderly mother in his arms (pass the tissues, please).
Through the story of Stellaluna, an orphaned fruit bat raised by birds, readers learn about uniqueness, individuality, and making friends with those who are different than us. The 1994 children’s book is animated with compelling, lifelike illustrations and engaging yet warm dialogue that will resonate well with kindergartners through third-graders.
18. Where The Wild Things Are
One of the more popular titles in the kid-lit canon, Where The Wild Things Are was adapted into a wildly popular feature film in 2009. The story follows a young boy who is sent to bed without dinner after dressing up in his wolf costume and misbehaving. His room magically transforms into a jungle-like setting, paralleling his imaginations about such a place. When he becomes homesick, he finds himself back home with dinner waiting for him. A classic story with an engaging plot and underlying the-grass-isn’t-always-greener theme. A must-read for the youngsters pre-k and up.
19. The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle’s story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has been regarded as one of the most iconic children’s books of all time. Readers follow a young caterpillar eating his way through the week, chomping down an apple, two pears, and a variety of other foods while also learning about colors and numbers throughout his food-filled journey.
20. Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
One of Dr. Seuss‘s most beloved works, Oh The Places You’ll Go, is an animated self-help book of sorts, that’s full of wisdom for all ages. While it’s been grouped in with the “kids” genre as one of the best children’s books ever, it also is a great gift for college grads, twenty-somethings in a quarter-life crisis, or anyone who needs a reminder that while life’s journey often presents us with steep hurdles, “you can steer yourself any direction you choose.”