Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying, and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83.
I personally love to share classic books of my childhood with my children. Nothing delights me more than when a book that I loved as a child becomes a favorite of my kids. It makes me wonder why some classic books don’t survive the test of time, while some do. And it’s also fun to see how new books become “classics-in-the-making.”
As I look over this list of my favorite old-fashioned books from my childhood — a stack of books that every grandchild, should I ever be lucky enough to have any will receive — I put in my 2 cents as to why these books continue to resonate with kids today. What books did I miss? And why do you think these books and others still endure?
And a farewell to Maurice Sendak, but we will always remember you and celebrate your work! Thank you for creating childhood memories!
Best Classic Books for Kids
10. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
In the forty years since Max first cried “Let the wild rumpus start,” Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book has become one of the most highly acclaimed and best-loved children’s books of all time. Now, in celebration of this special anniversary, introduce a new generation to Max’s imaginative journey to Where the Wild Things Are.
I think every child can relate to getting into trouble and being sent on a time out but not every child possesses the imagination to turn punishment into delight, and so Maurice Sendak gives every child the ability to see the cup as half full. My favorite part in the whole world is when Max returns to find his dinner waiting … and it was still hot.
9. Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans
A Caldecott Honor Book Nothing frightens Madeline–not tigers, not mice, not even getting sick. To Madeline, a trip to the hospital is a grand adventure. A true classic, Madeline continues to enchant readers more than sixty years after its first publication.
Being the smallest and the bravest is what my kids relate to as two of my children are small for their age. It took a long time for me to realize that Madeline is in an orphanage because hers seemed like a kind of exclusive school that took daily field trips.
8. Curious George by H. A. Rey
“This is George. He lived in Africa. he was a good little monkey, and always very curious.”
With these words, H.A. and Margret Rey introduced the world to Curious George, and the world has loved him ever since. The tales of this cheerful and resilient little hero have kept generations of readers enthralled and entertained. This lavish 70th Anniversary edition includes an introduction by Leonard S. Marcus, Publisher’s Perspective by Anita Silvey, retrospective essay by Dee Jones with a photographic album of Margaret and H. A. Rey, and the seven original tales of Curious George: Curious George, Curious George Gets a Medal, Curious George Flies a Kite, Curious George Rides a Bike, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, Curious George Takes a Job, and Curious George Learns the Alphabet. This volume also includes two audio CDs with recordings of the seven stories–more than one hour of storytelling!
The Complete Adventures of Curious George will be treasured by George’s many fans, young and old.
When my son broke his arm and required surgery to place three pins near his growth plate, we spent the night at Mass General Hospital together. Even though Curious George Goes to the Hospital was written decades ago, and George had a different ailment, it was amazing how similar our experiences were! George’s indefatigable curiosity that gets him constantly in trouble is, I think, a safe way for kids to explore their own inner naughty child from the safety of an anthropomorphic monkey.
7. Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel
Frog and Toad are always there for each other — just as best friends should be. From sledding in winter to eating ice cream on hot summer days, these two friends have fun together the whole year round!
There is just something so comforting about Frog and Toad’s opposites-attract friendship. No matter what happens to Toad, you know that it will come out alright in the end. I think the simplicity of their friendship mirrors friendships that kids have in preschool and early childhood before things get complicated.
6. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
“Unless someone like you…cares a whole awful lot…nothing is going to get better…It’s not.”
Long before saving the earth became a global concern, Dr. Seuss, speaking through his character the Lorax, warned against mindless progress and the danger it posed to the earth’s natural beauty.
“The big, colorful pictures and the fun images, word plays, and rhymes make this an amusing exposition of the ecology crisis.”—School Library Journal.
My youngest really took to this book which we read as an iPad ebook. I’m glad because his message is more important than ever.
5. All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Meet the All-of-a-Kind Family — Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie — who live with their parents in New York City at the turn of the century.
Together they share adventures that find them searching for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor and visiting with the peddlers in Papa’s shop on rainy days. The girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises.
But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!
No one really writes chapter books like this series anymore. It’s practically plotless with short stories that depict the day in the life of a Jewish family living in the Lower Eastside of New York City at the turn of the century. The stories are short and nonsequential which makes it a perfect bedtime storybook. My girls loved learning how much a penny buys back then! The American Girl doll Rebecca Rubin is based on this chapter book series.
4. Swimmy by Leo Lionni
Deep in the sea, there lives a happy school of little fish. Their watery world is full of wonders, but there is also danger, and the little fish are afraid to come out of hiding . . . until Swimmy comes along. Swimmy shows his friends how—with ingenuity and teamwork—they can overcome any danger. With its graceful text and stunning artwork, this Caldecott Honor Book deserves a place on every child’s shelf.
Lionni isn’t afraid to stand out and his stories all have a quirky unpredictability that I really like. In the opening pages of Swimmy, we learn that he’s different from his brothers and sisters because he’s dark when they are red. He’s a fast swimmer too. Good thing, because a big fish comes and eats everyone. Only Swimmy escapes. Despite his traumatized condition, he is able to appreciate the wonders of the ocean world. When he meets another school similar to his own, he joins them. Being different never seems to be an issue which is so different from most picture books which go on and on and really belabor that point. Instead, it’s brain versus brawn. Swimmy hatches a plan to keep them all safe.
3. Be Nice to Spiders! by Margaret Bloy Graham
When Billy left his pet spider, Helen, at the Zoo, the animals suddenly became happy and contented. The lions snoozed all day long, the elephants enjoyed their baths, and the zebras ate their hay in peace — all because Helen was spinning webs and catching flies.
But one day Helen’s webs were swept away. The Keeper had the cages cleaned for the Mayor’s inspection tour. Soon the flies were back again and the animals were miserable once more. But not for long…
Children will be fascinated and amused by the way Helen solved the problem and won a permanent place of honor for herself in the Zoo.
Margaret Bloy Graham’s pictures match the wit and charm of her delightful story.
We catch the spiders in our house and set them outside despite my oldest, Music Lovers, fear of creepy crawlies. I just think it’s good karma not to kill unnecessarily and this story helps to illustrate my point in a way a child can relate to. Spiders are good!
2. Frances books by Russel and Lillian Hoban
In honor of Frances’s 50th anniversary, this box includes three of the most beloved Frances titles—Bread and Jam for Frances, Best Friends for Frances, and A Bargain for Frances—now in I Can Read editions!
I don’t think there are many other picture book authors that depict sibling and frenemy relationships so accurately and humorously. Husband and wife team Russel and Lillian Hoban have a knack for making the ups and downs of childhood into scenarios that still ring true whether it’s ten years or ten thousand years from when they first wrote these books.
1. Little Bear series by Elsa Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
To celebrate Little Bear’s thirty-fifth anniversary, three paperback editions in the series—Little Bear, Father Bear Comes Home, and Little Bear’s Visit—have been slipcased in a boxed gift set for a whole new generation of children.
There is a sweetness and innocence of a bygone era that makes this series endure. It helps too, that Maurice Sendak is the illustrator.
p.s. And a few more favorites:
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