February 20, 2017

Tina's Top 100 (Or So) Children's Titles

A few days ago, I wrote about the BBC Book List, a catalog of 100 books for teens and/or adults that someone at the BBC deems "important." Though the criteria by which they were chosen remain a mystery, as do the BBC's reasons for believing it "knows best" in terms of good literature, the compilation was nonetheless thought-provoking. And writing about which BBC books I've read got me thinking about something else: What would be on my list - particularly for younger kids - were I to come up with one?

As I've mentioned before, I believe in giving kids choice, so I have never mandated that my children read particular titles. But I have spent an entire generation's worth of time with children and young people - teaching in government schools for nine years and now, for the past 15, raising and home-educating my daughters and also caring during a large chunk of that time for others' young children in my home to supplement our income. Thus, while I don't consider myself a "literature expert" - and I know there's a lot of wonderful children's literature of which I'm not aware - it's fair to say that I have at least been steeped in children's books for a good portion of my life. So I have seen a lot, and I developed strong convictions about what I considered appropriate for my children and the others in my care.

I frequented our public library for years, filling our "book basket" each month with wonderful titles recommended in the teachers' manuals of the homeschool curriculum I used at the time. But I'm also a children's book "junkie," devoting whole walls throughout our home to shelves for literature we own. To this day, I'm always on the lookout for more.

Even so, I am picky. I love quality picture books - those with both beautiful illustrations and good writing. But, with both picture and chapter books, I gravitated toward "substance" and classics...and newer books I felt might be modern classics. Plus, I made sure that what we had available generally supported - or at least did not blatantly contradict - our family's faith and worldview perspective. So you wouldn't find a lot of what I consider to be the children's lit version of "pulp fiction" because, simply put and - and to quote the 19th century educator Charlotte Mason - I didn't (and still don't) want my children spending their time on twaddle.

Thus, everything that made its way onto our shelves is decent material. The titles I suggest were the ones to which my kids gravitated for both read-alouds and independent reading - a mix of picture and chapter books, a variety of genres and subject matter, in a range roughly appropriate for ages three through about 10 or 11.

And it's actually quite a bit more than 100. That's because a few authors are so prolific and wonderful that we own a bunch of their works, but I couldn't see listing just one each among so many great titles - or eliminating some great books in order to list my seven Cynthia Rylant selections separately, for example. But it's my list so I can do that.

Of course, you may or may not agree with my choices - and, again, I claim no special status as a "guru" of children's literature so you're perfectly welcome to your opinions. But if you don't like mine, you'll have to make your own list because this one stands as-is...for now. :^)

******

GENERAL / CONTEMPORARY FICTION

1. Abuela - Arthur Dorros (Picture Book - P)
A sweet tale - complete with Spanish language vocabulary - about an adventure undertaken by a girl and her grandma

2. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day - Judith Viorst (P)
Poor Alexander is beleagured with the "traumas" of childhood in this book - and the couple of sequels in which he is also the protagonist. It really helped my kids see the lighter side of their own bad days.

3. Because of Winn-Dixie - Kate DiCamillo (Chapter Book - C)
This is a gem in terms of contemporary fiction! The protagonist is simply a normal girl, nothing near the snotty, worldly kids found in so much of current children's literature. She has very real problems, but very real support as well. And - added bonus - the movie adaptation is nearly as good as the book.

4. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson (C)
A story of redemption that will make you cry

5. Billy and Blaze books - C.W. Anderson (P)
I remember reading some of these as kid, and they're still around - nice adventure stories.

6. Blueberries for Sal - Robert McCloskey (P)
A classic, as are other McCloskey titles (Make Way for Ducklings comes to mind)

7. The Boxcar Children series - Gertrude C. Warner (C)
The protagonists of this wholesome mystery-adventure series are four orphaned children. If your child likes the first, you can easily find more in the set.

8. The Button Box - Margarette S. Reid (P)
A boy explores his grandma's button box. This book encouraged us to create our own button box, which was fun and educational (for sorting activities, for example).

9. Cam Jansen books - David Adler (C)
My older daughter loved these simple mystery books. And the more I read of children's literature, the more I discovered you probably can't go wrong with any David Adler books.

10. Capyboppy - Bill Peet (C)
Did you ever buy a new car and suddenly see models just like it everywhere you looked? That happened to us after my younger daughter read this book - about a rainforest animal called a capybara. None of us had ever heard of it before but, suddenly, before we knew it, we were seeing and hearing about capybaras at every turn! It's a delightful story...even if you never hear about capys again.

11. Eric Carle books (P)
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
  • From Head to Toe
  • A House for a Hermit Crab
  • Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?
  • Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?
  • Rooster's Off to See the World
  • The Tiny Seed
  • The Very Busy Spider
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • The Very Lonely Firefly
  • The Very Quiet Cricket
What can I say other than Eric Carle is Eric Carle? His stuff is simply wonderful! We especially liked his "very -- insect" series here. Later my daughters loved to read these to the girls for whom I babysat.

12. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom - Bill Martin Jr. (P)
An ABC pattern book with a great rhythm

13. Charlotte's Web - E.B. White (C)
An all-time children's classic, pure and simple

14. Christina Katerina and the Box - Patricia Lee Gauch (P)
This is another title I read as a child. As an adult, I was clearly the mom in the story, and my girls were Christina Katerina! If you have a creative child who makes the most of the boxes in which his or her toys come, you'll love this.

15. Clementine - Sara Pennypacker (C)
I like that Clementine is a high-energy girl who sometimes gets into trouble - that's reality - without being sassy on purpose. There are sequels to this original, though we haven't yet read them.

16. Corduroy books - Don Freeman (P)
I don't like everything Freeman writes, but this series about a young girl's favorite stuffed animal is sweet.

17. Dr. Seuss books (P)
  • And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street
  • Dr. Seuss' ABCs
  • Green Eggs and Ham
  • Oh, the Thinks You Can Think
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
Of course, I had to include Ted Geisel - and we actually have at least 20 of his books. As a representative sample, these are the ones we read and enjoyed the most.

18. Encore for Eleanor - Bill Peet (P)
This is a tale about an elephant who must make a transition - and how she discovers a talent she never knew she had.

19. Everybody Bakes Bread / Everybody Cooks Rice - Norah Dooley (P)
These two books are among those I consider quality learning books hidden within fiction. In each one, the protagonist visits her neighbors and learns about different cultures' versions of bread or rice in the process. And recipes are included at the end of each story!

20. Frances books - Russell Hoban (P)
There are several titles in the Frances series - all very cute tales that teach gentle lessons about life.

21. The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein (P)
Another one whose message may make you cry

22. Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild! - Mem Fox (P)
Do you try very hard to avoid yelling at your child...but sometimes do anyway? If so, you'll love this book. It is just reality and will make you and your child smile.

23. A House is a House for Me - Mary Ann Hoberman (P)
I read this book just for fun...and also as an introduction to the concept of habitats.

24. Kevin Henkes books (P)
  • Chyrsanthemum
  • Jessica
  • Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse
  • Sheila Rae the Brave
  • A Weekend with Wendell
We loved Kevin Henkes books! They're delightful and hilarious and instructive all at the same time.

25. I Love My Daddy / I Love My Mommy - Scharlotte Rich (C)
Each book has four simple stories demonstrating love between a child and mother or father - great bedtime stories.

26. Ladybug Girl / Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy - David Soman (P)
These are perfect books for encouraging children's imaginations - cute stories that communicate the beauty of pretending.

27. The Littles - John Peterson (C)
There are several in this series as well. They are about the adventures of a family of little people who live in the walls of a house owned by the Bigs.

28. Miss Suzy - Miriam Young (P)
This was actually my husband's favorite book as a child, and I was able a few years ago to get him a new copy as a gift. He immediately introduced it - the story of the travails of a little gray squirrel - to our daughters, and they loved it, too.

29. Mrs. McTats and Her Houseful of Cats - Alyssa S. Capucilli (P)
A great rhyming alphabet book

30. Owl Babies - Martin Waddell (P)
This book - the story of three young owls waiting for their mother to return from an evening hunt - was one of the sweetest we ever read!

31. Petunia - Roger Duvoisin (P)
This one has a couple of very important lessons - the value of literacy, the dangers of pride, and the folly of listening to fools - wrapped up in an engaging story about a silly goose.

32. Put Me in the Zoo - Robert Lopshire (P)
Written in the tradition of Dr. Seuss, this is about a leopard who can do amazing things with his spots - another I remember from my childhood.

33. The Rainbow Fish - Marcus Pfister (P)
I really like the lessons of friendship and sharing in this one.

34. Ramona books - Beverly Cleary (C)
There are at least eight titles in the Beezus and Ramona series. As with Clementine and Because of Winn-Dixie, I appreciate that, though Ramona is a normal little girl, she is not sassy or disrespectful. 

35. Sadie and the Snowman Allen Morgan (P)
The story of how a little girl keeps her snowman "alive" all winter...and beyond

36. Say Hola to Spanish - Susan M. Elya (P)
This is a really fun book that introduces a lot of simple Spanish vocabulary under the guise of rhymes. My daughters remember the words because of the rhyme.

37. The Seven Silly Eaters - Mary Ann Hoberman (P)
If you have a picky eater, you'll want to read this one - so you can see that your situation really isn't all that bad!

38. William Steig books (P)
  • Brave Irene
  • Doctor DeSoto
  • Yellow & Pink
We like his style in all three that we've read, but Yellow & Pink, in particular, is simply an amazing book - a primer for even young children about the debate between creation science and evolution.

39. Tacky books - Helen Lester (P)
At first, I wasn't sure I'd like these books about a rather raucous penguin, even though they came highly recommended. But they've grown on me as I've realized that the lesson they teach is that it's okay - and even good - to be unique.

40. Too Many Tamales - Gary Soto (P)
I read lots of chapter books by Soto with my government school students, many of whom could especially relate to his Hispanic protagonists. My girls and I like this picture book because it shows - in a humorous way - the natural consequences when one chooses to break the rules.

41. The Treasure of Pelican Cove - Milly Howard (C)
My older daughter read this book, and there are other titles in the series. It's a mystery-adventure that really held her interest.

42. What! Cried Granny: An Almost Bedtime Story - Kate Lum (P)
This is a hilarious book, pure and simple! I don't want to give it away; you just have to get it.

43. Wild About Books - Judy Sierra (P)
A contemporary book in the Dr. Seuss tradition, it encourages a love of reading in a very fun way.


HISTORICAL FICTION

44. Araminta's Paint Box - Karen Ackerman (P)
I love stories that teach history through the vehicle of an engaging storyline. We first read this one when we learned about the Oregon Trail, and it's helped my girls remember the history.

45. Jan Brett books (P)
  • Annie and the Wild Animals
  • Fritz and the Beautiful Horses
  • The Hat
  • The Mitten
Of these four titles and among the other Brett books we own and have borrowed from the library, Fritz and the Beautiful Horses is our favorite in terms of storyline and message. However, one of the most amazing things about most of Brett's books is her artwork. It's gorgeous, but, beyond that, it's instructive as well...particularly in the realm of teaching children to make predictions as they read. If you don't know what I mean, pick up one of her titles and take a look.

46. Cowgirl Kate books - Erica Silverman (C)
The humor in these books is great. We really did laugh out loud when we read them.

47. Tomie de Paola books (P)
  • Clown of God
  • An Early American Christmas
  • Strega Nona books
Tomie de Paola is another who is so prolific that you could, perhaps, devote a whole shelf to his books alone. We've enjoyed many by him and own these three.

48. The Feather-Bed Journey - Paula K. Feder (P)
If you ever want to teach your pre-teen children anything about The Holocaust, start with this book! It will provide the framework for opening up a discussion about those atrocities - but keep a box of tissues on hand for yourself.

49. The Golly Sisters books - Betsy Byars (C)
These are similar to Cowgirl Kate, in that they're very funny while also providing a conceptual framework for an era of U.S. history - life on the wagon trains in this case.

50. The Josefina Story Quilt - Eleanor Coerr (C)
This is another wagon train story, but is more than that, as you can use also it to gently introduce the concept of death to a young child.

51. Leah's Pony - Elizabeth Friedrich (P)
A great introduction the The Depression era of American history - another tear-jerker

52. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and others in the Narnia series - C.S. Lewis (C)
No children's book list would be complete without the Chronicles of Narnia series! They are amazing adventure stories but also deep Christian allegories, enjoyable on multiple levels. And the recent movie adaptations - while not entirely true to the books - are well worth viewing, too.

53. The Little Princess - Frances H. Burnett (C)
Along with Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, this was one of my favorites in my later elementary years, and I read it multiple times. It's a beautiful, moving story, pure and simple.

54. Mandie books - Lois G. Leppard (C)
The many books in this series are about a young girl in Appalachia and various adventures on which she and her friends find themselves. It was my younger daughter's favorite series for  a long time.

55. Miss Rumphius - Barbara Cooney (P)
One of many beautifully-illustrated, simple stories we enjoy, this one is about the world-wide adventures of an intelligent woman whose heart nevertheless remains at home, in her native Maine.

56. My Great-Aunt Arizona - Gloria Houston (P)
Similar to Miss Rumphius, this tells the true story of the author's grandmother growing up in a very rural community at the turn of the last century.

57. Obadiah books - Brinton Turkle (P)
There are several in the series, all describing the adventures of a mischievous Quaker boy and his siblings.

58. Pioneer Cat - William H. Hooks (C)
A sweet chapter book story of a family's journey west on a wagon train

59. Roxaboxen - Alice McLerran (P)
Another celebration of children's imaginations, this one set in the Arizona desert

60. Cynthia Rylant books (P)
  • Christmas in the Country
  • Henry and Mudge books
  • The Old Woman Who Named Things
  • Mr. Putter and Tabby books
  • The Relatives Came
  • Thimbleberry Stories
  • When I Was Young in the Mountains
I love Rylant's books, many of which are based on her own childhood. She is another author whose books I buy without question because I know each one will be good.

61. The Secret Garden - Frances H. Burnett (C)
From the author of The Little Princess, this is another gem.

62. The Secret School - Avi (C)
Set at the turn of the last century in rural Colorado, my older daughter read this, and really enjoyed it. Avi is another trustworthy author.

63. Snow Treasure - Marie McSwigan (C)
I first read this with my government school students years ago. It's an adventure story, based on real events, of how a Norwegian community keeps its gold from Nazi invaders. 

64. The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo (C)
This is a book that made us say, "Wow," when we'd finished. However, I do not recommend the movie adaptation, which barely follows the book's wonderful storyline.

65. When Agnes Caws - Candace Fleming (P)
This is a fun story about a young girl who can imitate any bird call.


NON-FICTION INFORMATION AND BIOGRAPHY

66. Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books - Kay Winters (P)
We also love biographies and information books. This is a great introduction to our 16th president.

67. Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare - Diane Stanley (P)
Though it's a picture book, it's one of many on our shelves meant for older children. In fact, I read it to my high school students when introducing our Shakespeare units on Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. It will give your children a framework of understanding about an author from whom you'll likely want them to read in later years.

68. The Boy on Fairfield Street - Kathleen Krull (P)
A very well-done picture book biography of Dr. Seuss

69. Childhood of Famous Americans books (C)
We have at least half a dozen of these titles, which describe the formative years of well-known Americans. I highly recommend them as a way in which to engage children in biography and American history.

70. Count Your Way through... books - Jim Haskins (P)
Each of these books focuses on a particular country, providing interesting facts about 10 different areas of life and culture. As an added bonus, you and your child can try your hand at counting to 10 in each country's main language.

71. George Washington's Breakfast - Jean Fritz (P)
We first read this about four years ago and actually ate what Washington ate for breakfast. You'll have to read it to discover what that was!

72. George Washington's Mother - Jean Fritz (C)
This is a hilarious book that, nonetheless, provides true information about Washington's mother and childhood.

73. Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists books - Mike Venezia (P)
We have a bunch of these. Each one provides a child-appropriate biography of a famous artist and keeps a child's attention through the inclusion of hilarious, relevant cartoons.

74. Getting to Know the World's Greatest Composers books - Mike Venezia (P)
See #73, above.

75. Getting to Know the U.S. Presidents books - Mike Venezia (P)
Ibid

76. I Can Read history books (C)
We have dozens of these titles as well - on everything from the "Boston Coffee Party" (did you know there was such a thing?) to the Pony Express to The Great Depression. It's a series that makes history accessible to elementary-aged children.

77. Little House on the Prairie and others in the series - Laura Ingalls Wilder (C)
As with the Narnia books, one cannot list great children's literature without including Laura Ingalls Wilder. We own them all and read them all, including On the Banks of Plum Creek, which we read while we were on the "Laura Ingalls Tour" through Minnesota and into South Dakota.

78. A Picture Book of... books - David Adler (P)
As I mentioned earlier, David Adler is a prolific writer of children's books - and does an amazing job. This series includes biographies of famous Americans (i.e., A Picture Book of Helen Keller and A Picture Book of Thomas Edison).

79. The Pilgrims of Plimoth - Marcia Sewall (P)
We have several books about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving - and have checked out many more from the library over the years. This one is good for older kids and is interesting because it contains actual quotes from some of the Pilgrims' journals.

80. Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving - Eric Metaxas (P)
I never learned about Squanto as a child - back then, we merely learned that the Indians helped the Pilgrims without learning any details - but this book (geared for older children) is one of several great ones I've read in recent years that fills in those blanks.

81. Step into Reading history books (C)
These are very similar to the I Can Read series and are equally as good.

82. The Story of Ruby Bridges - Robert Coles (P)
A picture book version of the true story of Ruby Bridges, one of the first children to attend newly-integrated schools in the South during the Civil Rights movement

83. Young Patriots Series books (C)
This is similar to - but easier than - the Childhood of Famous Americans series.

84. Young Princesses Around the World books (C)
We have books about Cleopatra, Queen Isabel of Spain, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. They tell of the women's childhoods, providing perfect supplementation for world history studies.


SCIENCE

85. All Aboard Science Readers series (C)
My older daughter, in particular, loved science books. These gave her independent access to a lot of concepts, especially about animals.

86. Backyard Books "Are You a ...?" series - Judy Allen (P)
This is a clever series in which the author teaches about insect anatomy and physiology by placing the reader in the role of the bug in question.

87. Bobbie Kalman books (P)
  • habitat series (The Antarctic Habitat, The Arctic Habitat, Backyard Habitats, A Desert Habitat, A Forest Habitat, A Grassland Habitat, A Rainforest Habitat, A Savanna Habitat, Underground Habitats, Water Habitats, A Wetland Habitat)
  • The Science of Living Things: What Is the Animal Kingdom?
  • The Science of Living Things: What Is a Living Thing?
  • The Science of Living Things: What Is a Plant?
I discovered Kalman in my quest for age-appropriate material about habitats and ecology. She presents a lot of useful information in accessible ways and includes beautiful photography to illustrate her points.

88. Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science series (P)
These are probably the best-ever science books for elementary-aged children! Written about almost any conceivable scientific concept, they make sometimes complicated material accessible and enjoyable. We own dozens, and I think they're better than almost any science textbook up until at least the age of 10.

89. The Magic School Bus books - Joanna Cole (P)
I find these books overly "busy" - they contain lots of "sidebars" in addition to the main storylines - but my girls enjoyed them and gleaned a lot of science from them.

90. Stellaluna - Janell Cannon (P)
One of our favorite books ever, we even had a little stuffed animal version of Stellaluna, the protagonist! This is another in which learning is cleverly disguised within a good story, this time about a fruit bat who is separated from her mother.

91. Sunflower House - Eve Bunting (P)
A fun little story that will teach your children some botany - but be prepared for them to beg you for their own sunflower house

92. A Tree Is Nice - Janice M. Udry (P)
This is another oldie but goodie - definitely for the younger set, but sweet and instructive.


CHRISTIAN

93. 3 in 1: A Picture of God - Joanne Marxhausen (P)
Ever wonder how to explain the very abstract concept of the The Trinity to a concrete-thinking elementary-aged child? This book does a great job of it using an apple as the object lesson.

94. Angela and the Baby Jesus - Frank McCourt (P)
The true story of author McCourt's mother's encounter with the Baby Jesus statue in her Irish church

95. Easter in the Garden - Pamela Kennedy (P)
One of the best-written and most beautifully illustrated picture books about the Easter story we've read

96. Egermeier's Bible Story Book - Elsie E. Egermeier (C)
This was our read-aloud story Bible for several years, and it is a gem! I was thrilled with the depth and breadth of biblical knowledge this book gave to my daughters. And when we finished, we moved on to another excellent adaptation, The Child's Story Bible by Catherine Vos. 

97. God Gave Us... books - Lisa T. Bergren (P)
Bergren has written several of these delightful books: God Gave Us YouGod Gave Us TwoGod Gave Us Heaven, and God Gave Us Christmas, each one a celebration of family members' love each other and for God as their Creator.

98. Mad Maddie Maxwell - Stacie K.B. Maslyn (P)
This delightful book tells the story of Maddie, who overreacts and makes assumptions about her siblings but then is helped through the situation by a kind older sister.

99. Miss Fannie's Hat - Jan Karon (P)
Bring out the tissue for this one, too! It is a simple but profound story of an old woman and her hat collection. You must get this book!

100. My Birthday, Jesus' Birthday - Holly Davis (P)
This sweet book explains the Christmas story by comparing the events leading up to and just after Jesus' birth to corresponding events in a modern child's life. It helps make the biblical concepts accessible to children.

******

So there you have it - my 100 (or so) favorite kids' books! I know I've left out a lot of good ones - even from our own home library, let alone others we've only borrowed or about which we don't even know. But I think having "too many" quality children's books is a great problem to have!

In closing, I feel compelled to note that, sadly, a good many children's literature publishers have chosen to correlate to common core. "Correlation" doesn't mean book content was changed, but it does mean the publisher endorses common core and may have also written "common core correlation guides" typically used by classroom teachers. Because I do not want to send a message that I support common core, I've taken to buying my literature used - I can get new and almost-new books for great prices - so that the original publishers do not make profit from me. And I also purpose to buy editions published before 2010 if at all possible to avoid any potential common core-related content changes. I personally find it very irksome that even literature is not "safe" from common core, but it's better to know and decipher one's own convictions about it than to be in the dark.

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