Skip to content


My essential children’s library

School is out this week, and I am thinking toward next week: annual spring cleaning. Our spring cleaning usually happens in the summer and is largely a culling of clothing the kids have outgrown, homeschooling materials we don’t need and will pass on to others, and books.

Yes, my family is part of the rare set of humans who have: a) remodeled their whole upstairs after discussing the need for more bookshelves, and b) bought a house in large part because of the copious bookshelf space in the kitchen.

Despite our feeling that you can never have too many books, when you have kids who love to read, you can have too many books. Books they hated and will never read again, books they bought at their school book fair (hosted by a not-to-be-mentioned publisher of generally cheap and disposable literature), books someone gave them that they will never be interested in.

But there are some books that will stay on our shelves no matter what. I decided to write up a list of these books, the ones I brought with me from childhood as well as the ones we’ve discovered since. My personal list of desert island children’s literature, so to speak.

Personally, I love the old Alice woodcuts and wouldn’t buy a book with modern illustrations!

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

I will admit, this book will always come first for me. I read this book over and over as a child and as a teen. There is nothing else like it in terms of the effect the tale had on our culture, the inventiveness of the language, and the incredible imagination married with observations of the real world.

Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling

This list was inspired a few minutes ago by my standing in front of my son’s bookshelves, musing about how worn out his copies are. He and his sister have read these books to shreds. And the most wonderful thing about these books is that they squeaked in right before the age of i-devices changed children forever. They are perhaps our last, innocent look at childhood before the iPad, the child without Google, the child who has to invent his own games and solve his own problems.

The New Way Things Work by David MacAulay

I wasn’t familiar with MacAulay before a friend bought the original version of this book for my son. This is the book that answers questions about the stuff we use every day in depth and with humor. Really, you could buy any of MacAulay’s books—his books Castle, City, Cathedral, The Way We Workand many others do the same for more specific subjects. When I was a child we had the Time/Life series of books about the world, and this is like a modern take on those (which don’t make my list because, alas, our kids do have Google and Time/Life seems so quaint now).

The collected works of Dr. Seuss

Go ahead, splurge and get them all. Dr. Seuss was born when Theodor Geisel was issued the challenge of writing a children’s book with only the most common 50 words that a first-grader can read. He wrote The Cat in the Hat. Most of us would have written Dick and Jane Do Something Really Boring! Seuss’s books are so amazing because with so little he creates drama, tension, and irony, something often lacking in children’s early readers. Throw away the Bob books—read Seuss over and over!

The lines between good and bad, dark and light, friend and wild beast are all blurred in Sendak’s work.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Like Seuss, Sendak never worried about corrupting young minds—he knew that young minds love the dark and mysterious parts of life. Like Seuss and MacAulay, the illustrations are also a huge part of the story. Can you imagine someone issuing Where the Wild Things Are with new illustrations? How could any artist improve on Sendak’s dark and silly, scary and cute world?

Books about my part of the world

This, of course, would change with each reader’s location. I think having books set in and about the environment your children are growing up in is a wonderful part of the reading life. When I was a child, I don’t remember a single book covering anything remotely like the place I grew up in. But since I have been raising my children on California’s Central Coast, we have collected both fiction and nonfiction about our area. If you’re a local here, check out my book list of children’s books set in our area. We also have multiple books on redwood forests, a local mushroom guide, several books about the ecology of our seashore, and Tom Killion’s wonderful woodcuts.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis

I found it fascinating to reread these books as an adult once my kids were ready for them. I had such intense, vivid recollections from the books and had read them multiple times as a child. As adults, both my husband and I found them disappointing, hardly the brilliant tales we remembered. But our children adored them. Just like me, my daughter went through a period where she read and reread them. I guess just as the children can’t go to Narnia once they were grown up, my grown-up self just can’t access the magic anymore. But they clearly still speak to kids.

Little House on the Prairie and sequels by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My adult enjoyment of these books is tempered by what I have read about Wilder and her manipulative daughter. But ignore all that—the Little House series, with all of its distortions and rose-colored glasses, is a deeply important part of American culture. I think all children should read these books, but somehow they seem to be most important to girls of a certain age. I was sure, when I was a girl, that I’d been born into the wrong time. I longed to get up with Laura on icy mornings, stoking up the fire and trudging to the well. Laura has been a trusted friend to American children for so many generations because her stories are so appealing, and so much a part of the history of this country.

My First series by DK

Encyclopedias for the toddler set—these books are wonderful to look at with small children. They are apparently not publishing the one my son loved the most. Simply called My First Word Book, it featured pictures of most of the things that a small child might encounter in daily life, arranged by category. We referred to this book as “the datz book” because whenever he saw something he liked, he would point at it and say “datz!” He did a lot of pointing with these books.

If you’d like to see other book lists I’ve written, click here!


This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop—click here to read other great blogs about summer reading.

This month, we focus on Summer Reading. Summer gives many of us extra opportunities for reading… the fiction we love but don’t usually have time for, the non-fiction that we wish we had time to study during the year, or the boundless free time to read on the beach, at the cabin, or on the boat… or in your own living room. Don’t miss the special reading (and Lego!) nook, or the struggle some kids have with reading. Summer Reading is more than just a school reading list.

Posted in Parenting.

Tagged with , .


One Response

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Margaret P says

    my children are now 16 and 19 but I remember reading to or having them read by themselves many of these books.



Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.