The Best Children’s Books Rated by a Former Preschool Teacher

I’ve always loved children’s literature as a genre. Kids’ books display a mastery of economy – getting a lot across with a few carefully selected words and images. When I became a preschool teacher it was great to reconnect with my old favorites and share them with a new generation of readers-to-be. Not only did I get to do this but I was able to find some new classics of the genre. Here’s a list of my favorite children’s books that will make great gifts for the kids in your life, or perhaps will just be fun to read on your own.


The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a controversial picture book. It’s been criticized for being antifeminist – portraying a relationship in which the tree (female) gives up everything for the greedy demands of the boy. I’ve had lots of fights about this book with coworkers – and maintain that while they’re right, they’re wrong to keep the book out of their classrooms.

Shel Silverstein has created a book with interesting, complex, flawed characters. While many childrens’ books tend towards the saccharine and the moralistic, The Giving Tree gives children what any reader ought to expect from literature: deep, three-dimensional characters and relationships.

The boy takes, the tree gives. Neither seems to know how to love. The boy thinks only of himself and the tree ignores herself. By the time each sees what damage this has caused (the boy has grown into a crotchety old man despised by his own family, and the tree is only a stump) it’s too late. Not too late, however, to make some small amends with one another.


The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

This books doesn’t quite capture my own heart and imagination like The Giving Tree does, but it absolutely does so for kids. Sometimes an author comes around who really gets what kids are into – in this case that means colors.

Kids love colors. Perhaps because we adults always insist on asking them what their favorite color is, they have come to put a lot of emphasis on what different colors say about them and about the things around them. The Day the Crayons Quit is an epistolary narrative in which we hear about this complex relationship between kids and colors, but this time from the crayon’s point of view (directed towards the crayon box’s owner, Duncan). Does pink feel mischaracterized as a girl’s color? Does blue, Duncan’s favorite, feel exhausted from overuse?


The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

You might already know B.J. Novak from his role as Ryan on The Office. I wasn’t surprised to see he had written a children’s book. Lots of celebrities do that – but normally the results aren’t this original and funny. The book with no pictures pits the audience and the author against the person reading the story – you, because the narrator knows that the reader has to say every word on the page. It takes a lot of acting effort to read this one and pretend that you really don’t want to be reading all the silly, nonsense words on each page – but the kids will appreciate it.


Matilda by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is a supremely respectful children’s author. His chapter books, which work for kids from age 4 (if they have great attention spans) through elementary school – don’t pander to his young audience one bit. They are vivid, funny, sometimes grotesque, always charming, and occasionally quite scary. In other words, they are just as great a read for the adult as for the kids.

Matilda is my favorite because it was the first chapter book I ever read on my own as a child. Also, it has one of the greatest characters in kids’ literature: the Trunchbull – a sadistic headmistress who throws misbehaving children by their hair or else locks them in the chokey – a narrow room with nails on all the walls so that you must stand perfectly straight the whole time.

Tip: pretend to be the Trunchbull during clean-up and they’ll move a lot faster than usual.


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are is such a beautiful told and illustrated story. It shouldn’t be absent from any classroom or bookshelf. It tells the story of Max who is banished to his room one night after being “too wild” and acting disrespectful to his mother. In his room, he imagines escaping by boat into a mystic wilderness and becoming king of a band of monsters known to him only as “the wild things.” It’s a story that speaks to the so-called naughty kids – one of the main reasons I love it. It doesn’t condemn behavior, but explores it.

They made it into a decent movie directed by Spike Jonez too, but the movie is more for grown-ups who grew up on the book than for kids.


The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

The Wizard of Oz is a great chapter book to read to kids, even very young ones. It’s deceptively simple and easy to grasp – but contains a great message. After all, everything that Dorothy and her friends feel they need turns out to be something they’ve had all along. In this way, it’s a story about searching and how we might turn our searches inward rather than looking for something external to make us happy.

It’s also just a fun read. Before I read it to my class I reread the entire thing on my own and I’m not ashamed to say how much I enjoyed reconnecting with the land of Oz even as an adult.