Picture books are rather underrated these days, but no one can deny the magic of flipping through pages of brightly colored illustrations. Many picture books also carry an important message meant to provide a lesson to its readers, so children get more out of the story than just beautiful drawings. Most of the books on this list have also been awarded the Caldecott Medal, a special honor for excellence in the field of children’s picture books. All of these books are most appropriate for children aged 2-6.
1) Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Published in 1963, this book tells the story of a boy named Max whose imagination leads him to a world of wild monsters who make him their king. My daughter, a precocious little four-year old, loves this book, because she identifies with Max’s mischievous ways. We read the book together, imitating the Wild Things’ gnashing teeth and terrible growls. Sendak’s brilliant drawings help to illustrate the concept of dealing with anger and the unconditional love of a parent.
2) The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
This is one of the first books that I read to my younger sister when we were kids, and as such, it will always hold a special memory for me. Silverstein’s 1964 book demonstrates, with simple but eloquent pictures, a tree that selflessly gives everything of herself to satisfy the ever-changing needs of a young boy. The heartbreaking story of the tree’s sacrifices throughout the years as the boy grows into a man makes The Giving Tree an essential picture book for every child.
3) The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Van Allsburg published this book in 1985 to great critical success. The exquisite illustrations lend perfectly to the story of a boy who takes a magical train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. It’s impossible to read this book with your child and not feel overwhelmed by the pictures, and the ending will certainly make goosebumps raise on your arms.
4) Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber
This 1965 book follows a crocodile named Lyle that lives in a house with the Primm family. The best aspect of this book is that it helps young readers understand that members of a family don’t always look alike. My daughter also enjoys looking at the pictures of an unlikely creature doing things that humans do!
5) Suppertime for Freida Fuzzypaws by Cyndy Szekeres
This 1985 book chronicles a young cat who refuses to eat her vegetables (the plight of many a child!). The book is excellent for teaching a lesson to kids who would rather not eat healthier foods, and the pictures are cute and perfect for children of all ages. In fact, kids will love Freida’s larger-than-life personality.
6) The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss
Published in 1961, this book is a collection of several short stories that all contain valuable lessons. The story about The Sneetches (a group of creatures who are separated by the appearance or absence of stars on their bellies) is the most powerful, because it makes a point of teaching children about the idea of tolerance. People do not all look the same, and the story shows children how to accept the various differences in others.
7) Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm by Jerdine Nolen
The illustrations in this 1994 book are stunning and imaginative, presenting an interesting story of a man that raises balloons on a farm. Kids will find the book funny, charming, and exciting. The pictures will mesmerize even the youngest of children, because of the bright and magical rendering of an entire rainbow of balloons.
8) King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub by Audrey Wood
Wood’s award-winning book contains illustrations so beautiful that kids will surely enjoy flipping through the pages for hours. The story tells of a king who simply refuses to leave his bathtub, even to do his job as the ruler of a kingdom. The pictures are like paintings, brilliantly designed and perfect complements to the well-written story.
9) Strega Nona-Tomie De Paola
First published in 1979, this story follows an old woman named Strega Nona who has the ability to help her town in countless ways, usually through the use of magic. De Paola’s soft pastel illustrations are so lovely that my daughter and I often run our fingers over the pictures as we read the book. Strega Nona shows up in several additional books by De Paola, along with some of the other secondary characters from this first story.
10) Harry the Dirty Dog-Gene Zion
What child wouldn’t love to watch a funny little dog getting into all kinds of trouble after running away from home to avoid taking a bath? That’s exactly what happens to Harry, the silly family dog, who becomes so dirty that even his own family doesn’t recognize him. The way he makes it back home and into the loving arms of his owners is cute and well-illustrated in this 1956 picture book. Kids will find Harry’s misadventures fascinating, and you’ll find yourself rooting for the dog to figure out a way to come up with a solution.
Years and years of reading the books myself and sharing them now with my own child