I have been an elementary teacher for the last 36 years, and over those years I have read thousands of children’s books. Some of these books have been great, some have been good, and some have been real stinkers.
The great books are timeless, some of them being the same books that my parents read to me almost 60 years ago when I was a child. These are also the books that I read to my own children 25 years ago, and will most likely be books that I will read to my grandchildren someday. These are the “go-to” books that I, and many other elementary teachers use in the classroom every year.
Before I divulge what I feel are the crème de la crème in children’s literature I want to explain what I use as my criteria for what I think makes a picture book great: how engaging it is. It needs to be engaging to both children and the adults who will be reading the book to the children until the children are ready to read independently. By engaging, I mean that the books draw the readers in, capture their interest, and keep them involved until the very end. This includes both the illustrations as well as the text, if there is text. Remember, there are some wordless picture books that are fantastic!
One way in which I judge whether or not the text in a book is engaging is by how I feel about reading the book over and over again. We all know that once a child finds a book that s/he loves, that book is requested daily (nightly) for maybe years. If I dread having to read a book for the umpteenth time then I do not rate this book as engaging. As far as the illustrations go, I give a little more slack. Art, after all, is very subjective, and what I find delightful to the eye another person may not.
Following are five of some of my all-time favorite children’s books.
Look! Look! Look! by Tana Hoban
This is a wonderful book that has no words, but is full of beautiful photographs. There are cut-out pages that give us just a peek of the photograph on the next page. For example, for the guitar, the cut-out shows only the close-up view of guitar strings, then you turn the page and it shows you more of the guitar, and then on the next page there is a photograph of a man playing the guitar. Each item has a series of three pages in this sequence. My sons and my students would love to try and guess what the object is before turning the page, turning it into a game. Of course, once they have read the book a few times they know what is coming, but it makes them feel “smart” knowing what the object is before seeing the photograph in its entirety.
It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw
“Sometimes it looked like Spilt Milk. But it wasn’t Spilt Milk.” This is how the book begins, and the pattern continues throughout the book, giving children a chance to guess what the shapes are on each page. At the end we discover that all of the shapes really aren’t Spilt Milk, but clouds! The illustrations are simple white shapes on a blue background, but sometimes less is more. My students loved this book because they enjoyed guessing what the shapes were. And once they had the book read to them a few times then they could “read” it. This was also one of those books where you could read the first part of the sentence and leave out the last word, giving children a chance to fill it in themselves. I love the simplicity and beauty of this book, and enjoyed sharing it with my students.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert
This book tops my list as one of my all-time favorite children’s books. I can tell you as an adult who has read this book hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of times, I still enjoy reading it out loud to my students. The text has a sing-song quality to it that makes it sound like a jump rope rhyme. The lower-case alphabet enjoys a race to the top of a coconut tree, where they become too heavy for the tree and all drop to the ground. Their parents (the upper-case alphabet letters) come running to comfort and patch up their little ones. I love the way the authors describe the various injuries to the letters: “m is looped, n is stooped, o is twisted, alley-oop!” If you haven’t already read this with your child you will definitely want to! And I guarantee you will both be chanting along with the book as you read it over and over again, for years. And for an extra treat you can watch the animated musical version of the book on youtube here: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.
Dr. Seuss’s ABC by Dr. Seuss
I read this book to my two younger sisters back in the 60s, to my sons in the 80s and to my kindergarten students in the 90s. When I put the story on my iPads for my English Language Learners last year it shocked me that I could still recite the book word for word. As we all know, the text in Dr. Seuss books usually rhyme, with a catchy rhythm that makes them fun to read out loud. I have always loved this particular Dr. Seuss books because of the alliteration, which helps kids learn beginning sounds. The illustrations are also wonderful, but of course we all know that.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
The feminist in me jumps for joy whenever I read this book to my sons or my students. This book is a twist on the ubiquitous dragon and princess story. Prince Ronald and Princess Elizabeth plan on getting married when the dragon kidnaps the prince and destroys the princess’ castle. Her clothes are burned so she uses a paper bag to cover herself, and then promptly goes in search of her prince to rescue him. After successfully tricking the dragon and freeing Prince Ronald, her fiancé looks at a burned and messy princess and tells her to come back when she “looks more like a princess.” I rejoice every time I get to the ending when Princess Elizabeth indignantly tells Ronald that he is a bum and doesn’t need him and then dances off happily into the sunset alone.