A Mom-Author Picks Her Favorite Children’s Books
Friends are great, but sometimes their book suggestions are a bit off course. If you're looking for some good book recommendations for your little one's bookshelf, Elyssa Friedland — author of Love and Miss Communication (out May 12) — is here to help.
I'm a mother of three small children — ages 7 (big guy), 5 (middle girl), and 20 months (little guy) — and an author. I'm often asked if I would ever attempt a children's book, given that I have a big crew of little people at home and I obviously love to write. The answer is no, even though my oldest suggested we coauthor a book (he ditched me three pages in for an episode of The Haunted Hathaways).
The respect I have for children's authors is infinite. My forthcoming novel is 370 pages, while the average length of what I read to my kids at night is probably 25. That said, the ability of these writers to tap into their curious, developing brains and make them laugh and ask questions about the world within a short space and with such simple phrases is more than I could easily accomplish any day. Of course the illustrations are key as well, and I'm often amazed by the way the barest sketches set my brood's imaginations in motion. When a children's book is done well, the reader can't help but smile along and feel like a kid again.
I won't name names, but not all books for young ones are created equal, and we all know a bad book when we see it. Old stereotypes, clichés, bad grammar, a rehashed storyline: these are things that make me cringe, and those books have a way of "going missing" from our shelves, leading my kids to believe somewhere in our neighborhood resides a very sneaky book thief.
Kids love repetition and often want to hear the same book night after night. If this is the case in your house, I'm here to make your bedtime routine much more entertaining with a roundup of my favorite children's books. Some old, some new, some short, some long – but all winners! This list is geared for ages 0-8ish (actually more like 0-80, because they are so good).
The Mr. Men and Little Miss Books
Give your kids a surreptitious vocabulary lesson with the adorable Mr. and Miss series, created by the late Roger Hargreaves. Each books tells the tale of a character who is very something: lazy, cheerful, naughty, greedy, nosey. You get the idea. And these characters go off on adventures and often meet up with each other. I promise your kids will love when Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong spend some time together. The books, often sold as sets, are pint-sized lesson-teachers and work equally well for my big guy and middle girl.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Pretty much anything by Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda) is a winner, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Charlie and Chocolate Factory. It’s a long chapter book, but I found my then-4-year-old was able to follow the plot with a bit of explanation. Most of you are familiar with the sweet tale of a poor child named Charlie who is lucky enough to find a Golden Ticket in his candy bar, letting him take an unforgettable tour of the elusive and eccentric Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Our family celebrated finishing the book (the longest one my kids had ever read) by watching the movie. We chose the Johnny Depp version, though I think the Gene Wilder may have the edge.
Spoon (and the “sequel,” Chopsticks)
Who doesn’t love a good pun? Amy Krouse Rosenthal knows how to make the most of them in her lovable book, Spoon, about a utensil who doesn’t realize how good he has it (or how well-rounded he is – hey-o!). It teaches kids about jealousy and taking a moment to appreciate the many things for which they should be grateful. The illustrations are playful and easily relatable for children. Spoon is shown “diving” into a bowl of ice cream, one of many great illustrations by Scott Magoon. It’s best suited for my middle girl, because the big guy is very hung up on “chapters” now, but even he can’t stop himself from smiling when he hears it. Chopsticks, the sequel, teaches kids about learning to do things on their own (since chopsticks only work together) and it’s equally precious.
Elephant and Piggie Series
If there was one children’s author I could invite over for a home-cooked meal in exchange for picking his brain, it would have to be Mo Willems. The creator of the brilliant Elephant and Piggie books, as well as Knuffle Bunny and the Pigeon books, Willems started his career at Sesame Street and has continued to make kids laugh with the tales of a very cautious elephant named Gerald and his fun-loving friend, Piggie. In one book, these two plan an elaborate road trip only to realize neither of them has a car. In another, Elephant is tormented about whether to share his ice cream with Piggie until his cone falls on the floor just as Piggie shows up with ice cream for Elephant. Genius, my friends, pure genius. Willems has won three Caldecott Honors, two Geisel Medals, six Emmy Awards, four Geisel Honors, a Helen Hayes nomination. They don’t just give those things away!
Where Is Baby’s Belly Button?
Flap-flipping never gets old for babies, does it? Karen Katz has your baby or toddler covered with her collection of cheerfully illustrated and easy-to-flip picture books for the littlest set. One cautionary note: we have a lot of torn Karen Katz books in our house. Apparently flapping is a delicate art, and when we read these books to our youngest now (recycled from two older siblings) there’s a lot of:
“Where are baby’s ears? Right there, staring back at you, because your big sister ripped off the earmuffs like four years ago.” They also come in cute, holiday editions; you’ll be flipping and flapping for Easter eggs, dreidels, etc.
That’s Not My Car (Princess, Train, Etc…)
Time to get touchy-feely with your littlest one. The “That’s Not” book series from Usborne has something so comforting and rhythmic that all three of my crew have been totally obsessed. Each book is about five pages long and follows the same pattern – “That’s not my horse, his nose is too rough; That’s not my princess, her dress is too velvety,” inviting toddlers to touch new sensations and learn new words in a simple, repetitive way. And they are very sturdy board books, which anyone with toddlers knows is key. If you have older kids in the house, these are great books for big brothers and sisters to read to the baby and feel very proud of themselves.
Young Amelia Bedelia
I grew up loving Amelia Bedelia but didn’t really get into her until fourth grade. We attempted to read the classic stories to our children, and even our oldest was left unimpressed. He didn’t understand “dressing” the chicken or “drawing” the drapes, and my husband and I were sad that he wouldn’t experience the magic of this amazing character. Then our local librarian turned us onto “Young Amelia Bedelia,” a group of books about Amelia as a student. Our kids were much more able to relate to seeing Amelia in the classroom setting and totally got the word play this time around (glue yourself to your seat always gets a laugh).
What I love about this book is that it plays on children’s obsession with iPhones, LeapPads, and everything else electronic that is making it harder and harder for them to concentrate on a book. The premise of this book is simple. It commands the reader to “Press Here” on a colored dot and turn the page to see how it multiplied. Shaking the book will make the colors go crazy, tilting it will move the colored dots to the edges. It’s an “action book,” for lack of a better phrase, and at first I wasn’t sure my kids would buy into the idea, but they fight over pressing the pages and making the images “change” with their touch. And if Herve Tullet’s Press Here finds love in your home, buy the sequel, Mix It Up. Same idea, more fun shaking, pressing, and tapping.
The Day the Crayons Quit
Full disclosure: I think half the reason my kids love this book so much is because it has the words “underwear” and “naked.” But who cares if it gets them to sit for one of the most creative and clever books around? This fabulous book, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, tells the story of the crayons living in a box who are full of complaints for their owner, Duncan. Blue’s exhausted from coloring huge things like skies and oceans. And pink’s fuming because Duncan totally ignores her because she’s a “girl’s color.” And did I mention yellow and orange are in a fight? Well, they are, because who is the true color of the sun? (Yellow, obviously, though the author stays neutral on this.)
How do you talk to your kids about bullying? Especially when they are small and have a hard time expressing the feelings of being left out or seeing kids treat each other unkindly? You do it by reading them the awesome book One by Kathryn Otoshi. Blue is feeling pretty sad because hot-tempted Red is making him feel small. At first, Yellow, Orange, and Green aren’t doing much to help Blue, but when they join together to stand up to Red, everyone learns to get along. The colors turn into numbers and now everybody gets to “count.”
Lily the Unicorn
This picture book by Dallas Clayton isn’t as well known as some of my other suggestions, but I think it’s a real gem. Lily is a happy-go-lucky unicorn who likes to do everything. And by everything, I mean building robot cranes, designing gorilla clocks, playing the electric kazoo, befriending ostriches, you name it, and with bright illustrations for all. Roger the penguin is quite the opposite. He hates chasing rainbows, his favorite store is closed, his number one food is warm water, etc. Lily does her best to entice Roger to join her in the fun, but Roger explains that “the world is full of scary things.” It sure is, but this book helps kids take chances and try new things in a zany way.
The Donut Chef
Apparently it’s never too early to teach kids a lesson in competition and capitalism, according to author Bob Staake. In
The Donut Chef, which I actually purchased at a donut shop, two donuts shops open on the same block and they compete for customers with crazy flavors like “Peanut-Brickle Buttermilk and Gooey Cocoa-Mocha Silk” and shapes that are “starry” and “like calamari.” In the end, the donut shop that succeeds is the one that returns to its roots by selling good, old-fashioned glazed donuts. Cronut, anyone?
The Book with No Pictures
As a die-hard Office fan, I pretty much sprinted to the bookstore to buy B.J. Novak’s first children’s book. It did not disappoint. It has, as you probably gathered, no pictures, but just makes the book that much funnier. The concept is that a book can make grown-ups say the wackiest things, and we have no choice but to read what is on the page. Kids love the idea of being in control (for a change) and this book gets the job done right.
Who Was Walt Disney?
I’m geeking out a bit here, but I kind of love reading biographies with my children. After our recent trip to Disney World, we read Who Was Walt Disney? The kids were surprisingly excited to read a “nonfiction” book (it helped that the big guy had learned what that meant a month earlier in school and was keen to show off to his sister). These biographies are available for famous athletes, artists, scientists, etc. and are a nice departure from storybook land.
Greek Myths for Young Children
Snakes for hair, horses that fly, a half-man/half-bull: how could any child not be enraptured by Greek mythology? The Usborne series does a particularly good job scaling down the myths to a manageable size and scope and even I feel like I’m getting an education when I read them. The stories are best for my big guy so I try to read to him when middle and little are otherwise occupied.
Elyssa Friedland is the author of Love and Miss Communication, to be published by William Morrow on May 12. She has started several book clubs and chaired a popular author series in New York City. To see what she's reading now, visit her website at ElyssaFriedland.com.