Picture This: 5 Classic Picture Books Every Child Needs to Know

One of life’s greatest pleasures is a beautiful picture book. That’s especially true when it’s the kind that can be enjoyed by children and grownups alike. Novels are great for losing yourself in words and ideas. But there’s something about combining words and ideas with gorgeous or unique illustrations that makes the picture book experience extra special.

Of all the things I love about my job as an elementary/middle school librarian, a particular favorite is that I have the opportunity to share new picture books with my young students, along with discovering new authors and illustrators. With so many wonderful books to choose from, it’s easy for the older ones to get pushed aside and forgotten. That is a mistake. It’s our duty as parents and teachers to make sure those classics don’t end up on the ash heap of picture book history.

In this post, I’m going to share with you some of those classic picture books that should stay in our read-aloud rotations and find a place on our family bookshelves. There are so many of them, one post won’t do it (I feel another continuing topic coming on). The five covered here have publication dates spanning from 1932-1963, which means all of them are older than me. This bit of information, by the way, usually causes gasps of amazement among my little story time friends.

  1. Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932). This is not the book for which Marjorie Flack is best known (think The Story About Ping or any of the Angus books featuring a playful little terrier). In this story, a little boy named Danny is looking for a birthday gift for his mother, a very wholesome picture book theme.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.

    His search takes him from one talking animal to another until he gets to Mr. Bear, who gives him the best idea of all. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Danny ends up with the simplest and best gift. It’s a sweet and very relatable story, with a subtle anti-materialism message. The book’s illustrations really stand out because of the bright colors. Many of the picture books from this era contain illustrations in more muted tones. This one uses bright pinks, greens, and yellows that really catch the eye.

  2. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrations by Robert Lawson (1936). Probably one of the best stories ever written that basically tells children “just do you.”
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.

    Big, strong Ferdinand the bull had no desire to be like all his peers and head butt his way to the great bull fighting rings of the big city. He’s the original stop-and-smell-the-flowers character. There’s a lot of political analysis that’s been done regarding this story that I won’t get into here. Just suffice to say that if Adolf Hitler hated it and Mahatma Gandhi loved it, it must be awesome. Leaf’s clever words and Lawson’s beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations combine for a charming tale.

  3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd (1947). I probably don’t have to convince anyone that children need to know Goodnight Moon. This is the quintessential picture book.
    “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon…”

    Whether in paperback, board book, or hardcover, you’ve probably owned a copy at some point in your life. The sweet illustrations, the depiction of a bedtime routine, and the soothing rhythm of the words make it a perfect bedtime story for the very young. This is one that you’ve probably read so many times you know it by heart and you secretly find that it soothes you as much as it does most children. Like most enduring books, there’s so much more to this one than meets the eye.

  4. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962). What child doesn’t love a snowy day? All that bright, white frozen fluff to run and tumble in, sled on, and roll into a snowman, along with the promise of an unexpected holiday from school! The cover itself is suitable for framing.
    Children love to wake up in Peter's world.
    Children love to wake up in Peter’s world.

    The brightly colored illustrations bring to life every child’s exuberance that bubbles up when they look out the window and see a fresh, clean, snow-covered world. They want to put on snow boots and join Peter, the imaginative little boy whose feet go through the snow with “…his toes pointing out, like this…pointing in, like that.” This picture book is more than a delightful story with brilliant illustrations. More than 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine for those who didn’t live through the heart of the Civil Rights Era that The Snowy Day was also a picture book torchbearer, being “the very first full-color picture book to feature a small black hero” (amazon.com). Peter is an every-child who most children can relate to. God bless Ezra Jack Keats for bringing us Peter in this and subsequent books, and for finally opening a door to children’s literature that is hard to believe was previously closed.

  5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963). If I’d have written this post more than four months ago, I would have put Where the Wild Things Are in the same category as Goodnight Moon – a book everyone knows and loves. However, while doing a classroom activity with my seventh-graders I was dismayed to find out that this Maurice Sendak classic may not be as widely known as it should be anymore. Many of those 12- and 13-year-old students were only familiar with Spike Jonze’s 2009 film version. I wanted to cry. But like any librarian in this predicament, I stopped the activity, got our copy of this timeless treasure, and read it to them. I did the appropriate voices and shared the beautifully bizarre illustrations. Such a wonderful story of reassurance can’t be allowed to go by the wayside.
    All children need to know they're loved, even after a wild rumpus.
    All children need to know they’re loved, even after a wild rumpus.

    All children need to know that no matter how “wild” they may be, they will always have a place where they are loved. And that supper will be waiting for them, and it will still be hot. And if that previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you, then you need to stop what you’re doing and read Where the Wild Things Are.

I hope this list gives you some titles to look for the next time you’re browsing your local bookstore or perusing the stacks at your public library. If you have special memories of any of these titles, please share them in the comments section.

Until next time, keep reading!

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