CS Lewis once said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty.” Basically—if a grown adult can’t stomach a children’s book, why should a child be expected to?
Charlotte Mason was a pioneer in children’s education during the 19th century, and she coined the term “twaddle.” Its definition is simple: Dumbed-down literature; absence of meaning.
I think both kids and adults should invest their precious reading time in quality books—books with a fantastic story, that you want to read again and again, that stay with you after you’ve finished them. And frankly, there’s a lot of twaddle out there in the world of children’s literature.
My children are very young, so I’m up to my elbows in early childhood literature. These are my top 10 favorite books for the preschool age, and all twaddle-free. (Edited to add: A decade later, I read this list and still agree. I’ve made a few changes, but not many.)
Madeline (and the other original Madeline books)
by Ludwig Bemelmans
The Madeline books have a great cadence of words—a great introduction to poetry, and the illustrations are delightful. What kid doesn’t want to live in an old house in Paris that is covered in vines?
Bread & Jam for Frances (and all the Frances books)
by Russell Hoban
Frances is a lovable badger with a wild imagination, excellent song-writing skills, and a bag full of tricks. These books subtly teach skills like being a good friend, eating what’s in front of you, and knowing when you’re being scammed.
by Munro Leaf
I loved this story as a kid, and my kids love it now. Ferdinand is a laid-back, gentle bull who’s been recruited for a Spanish bullfight.
Frog and Toad are Friends (and all the Frog and Toad books)
by Arnold Lobel
I adore this pair of amphibians. You’ll laugh along with your children at Frog and Toad’s sense of logic, and you’ll love their close-knit friendship. Edit: I’d argue these short stories continue on well into the older elementary age, too. Its self-deprecating humor is better understood.
George and Martha (all the stories)
by James Marshall
A hilarious duo of hippos who have more personality than common sense. Adults get a kick out of them, too. Totally endearing.
by Robert McCloskey
A classic tale of a pair of ducks living in Boston. This story has enthralled generations of children.
Blueberries for Sal
by Robert McCloskey
Yep, by the same author—this book is one of MY personal favorites (not just out of the children’s literature category). I could stare at these illustrations all day.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (and all the If You Give… books)
by Laura Numeroff
My mother-in-law gave us this treasury for Christmas, and we’ve read it almost daily since. (Edit: Six years later, and we still read it about weekly. Our favorite is the Moose one.) The stories are well-told, the illustrations are hilarious, and I can honestly say I don’t tire from reading these stories.
by Crockett Johnson
We’ve officially worn the cover off this bite-sized book. One of the most ingenious ways to tell a story—everyone could relate to this tale of imagination.
by Gene Zion
A sweet dog gets dirty and the kids no longer recognize him. What preschooler can’t relate to getting filthy?
by Virginia Lee Burton
Katy is a snowplow who must rescue her small town from impending doom. Drama, a superhero to the rescue, brilliant illustrations—we like this one even more than Mike Mulligan by the same author.
This list originally included the original Winnie the Pooh (B&N, Indie) by A.A. Milne, but as my kids have aged, I’d now include this classic with a list of books for older kids. We read this as a read-aloud when my older ones were 9 and 6, and the humor was much better appreciated (especially by the older one). I think this book is mislabeled as one for littles. Read it when they’re older—you’ll love it, too.
I also recommend the resource Honey For a Child’s Heart (B&N, Indie) by Gladys Hunt. Now in its fourth edition, this book is a must-have for parents who want a trusted guide for quality literature. It’s chock-full of annotated lists of books for ages 0 to 14.
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