Ten Classic Books for Younger Children

Recently New Zealand news website Stuff published a list of Fifty Books Every Kid Should Read By Age Twelve. While I can’t help but question whether some of these books are really suitable for pre-teens, as someone who loves books and loves working with children here is my own offering of ten classic books for reading aloud to younger children, aged from around three to seven. Some of these books appear on the original list; others do not. All have been road-tested on real children and pass the most critical test of all: the kids enjoy hearing them, and thus are encouraged into the love of reading which paves the way to becoming life-long readers. I’ve arranged them in rough order from simplest to most complex.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle. This is the book I gave to my brother’s eldest child the day she was born. Not only is it a simple, charming tale with wonderfully bright illustrations (the ability to perceive subtle shades and colours is not present at birth but rather develops in the early years of life), it’s also hugely educational; the story is based around the life-cycle of a butterfly and includes counting to five, the days of the week, the names of various common fruits, and a message about healthy eating. Most importantly, though, like all the books on this list it’s been road-tested and proven a favourite.

Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney. It’s a truism that children are incredibly open with their feelings, and that the thing they need from their parents more than anything else is to know that they are loved. That bond between Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare (presumably, although not explicitly stated to be, father and son) is affirmed time and again on every page of McBratney’s book, culminating in the promise that ‘I love you right up to the moon and back’. Awww!

Peepo! By Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This one was recommended by one of my local librarians (who see rather a lot of me), and is an exploration of an ordinary day as seen through the eyes of a baby. Although written in 1981 the illustrations suggest a much earlier setting – perhaps the 1940s – and are incredibly detailed, making this more than any other book on this list a story for looking at every bit as much as it is a story for listening to.

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.  ‘The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.’ Thus begins a journey into the imagination of a small boy who sails away to the place where the wild things are… only to return home at last to the place where somebody loves him best of all, and find his supper waiting for him. “Movies are good, books are better” is something children often hear from me when the subject arises, and this is, in my opinion, no exception.

Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy, by Lynley Dodd. If you only track down one New Zealand children’s classic then this, the first in the Hairy Maclary series written and illustrated by former schoolteacher Lynley Dodd, should be it. The story bounces along with an easy rhythm and rhyme, perfect not only for engaging younger children but also for developing language skills as we meet Hairy Maclary and some of his friends, Hercules Morse (as big as a horse), Bottomley Potts (all covered in spots), Muffin McLay (like a bundle of hay), Bitzer Maloney (all skinny and boney) and Schnitzel von Krumm (with a very low tum), and encounter the fearsome Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town!

Hairy Maclary illustration
Hairy Maclary and his friends.

Don’t Push the Button! By Bill Cotter. It’s a huge call to label any book a classic, especially one that was only published in (late) 2013, but I’ve read a lot of books to a lot of kids, and believe me when I say that I have never seen children react to any book the way they react to this one. The story is simple: the main (and only) character, Larry, speaks directly to the children, welcoming them to his book and explaining that there is only one rule – don’t push the button! Of course, it isn’t long before Larry, who wants to push the button as much as the children do, encourages them to do exactly that, and merry mayhem, in the form of lots of Larrys, ensues. I’ve borrowed this book from the local library three or four times, and renewed it on more than one occasion. The kids beg me to read it to them, or to let them read it to themselves, and I have to warn them before I return it in order to avoid tears. So, yeah, I’m calling it: this one’s a classic.

Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. For some reason it is nearly always The Cat in the Hat which is singled out as ‘the’ Dr. Seuss book, but I actually like this one more and find that kids enjoy it too. And by ‘kids enjoy it too’ I mean ‘a friend’s kid, at aged six, insisted on reading this book to me, and read it very well even though at that age it was a real struggle.’ I subsequently learned from his mum that a few weeks earlier he had picked it up off the shelf and spent over half an hour patiently decoding words that were then at the very limit of his reading ability simply because he loved it so much. Now that’s a recommendation. Also, kids are notoriously picky eaters and anything which encourages them to give new and different foods a go is probably a good thing.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. My aunt once lamented to me that the more recent editions attempt to simplify the original language, and that as a result the reference to the lettuces having a ‘soporific’ effect on Peter has been changed. To my mind, this is a pity as advanced language skills are unlikely to be enhanced by endless simplification. First published over a hundred years ago, this is definitely a confirmed classic. (parental bonus: for bunnies, lettuce is a bit more than just a soporific – wee Peter was stoned out of his gourd).

Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines’. Strong-willed and mischievous little Madeline is no fairytale princess, and one can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for her teacher, Miss Clavel, who never seems to lose patience with her most troublesome charge. It is probably worth noting that the ‘house’ in question appears to be a private boarding school, not uncommon at the time (the book was written in 1939), rather than an orphanage.

Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne (and its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner). Not the saccharine and slightly-silly Disney version, but the original English gem, first published in 1926. Many of the characters are based on toys owned by Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, and Winnie the Pooh himself was named after a Canadian black bear which had been gifted to London Zoo by Canadian Lieutenant Harry Colebourne when he left England at the end of WWI. In fact, there is a great deal about the books which is rooted in the reality of the author and his family, and it is perhaps this which allowed Milne to portray so faithfully the childish intersection between reality and the world of the imagination. Humble, caring, and sometimes very clever in spite of being ‘a bear of very little brain’, it’s no wonder that Pooh has become a firm favourite with generations of children.

What have I missed? What must-read children’s book would you recommend?

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