I grew up surrounded by a truly astonishing library of children's books, and for years I've been promising that I'd put together a comprehensive list of the all-time greats. But having entered the phase of life where baby showers have replaced weddings as my primary source of summer social obligations, I've been buying a lot more children's books than usual, and I realised it wasn't fair to keep you waiting.
So, for your gifting pleasure, or for the pleasure of your own family, here are 10 children's books that I think would make a delightful addition to any child's library.
I should note that almost every book on this list could have been replaced by another volume by the same author. It's a real testament to the best children's book authors that many of them produced a number of absolute classics -- and that those books have their charms for adults as well as for kids.
1. 'People' by Peter Spier: Spier is a master of visual storytelling. Books like Peter Spier's Circus, Peter Spier's Christmas and Bored -- Nothing To Do would be mesmerising even without text. And while People has narration that guides readers young and old through their global tour of humanity, it's an astonishingly beautiful book, fitting for a celebration of all the ways people live, love, work and raise their families all around the world. People was published in 1980, but it doesn't feel dated or condescending. It's the sort of book a child can fall into for hours.
2. 'Life Story' by Virginia Lee Burton: Speaking of introductions to the world, Burton's Life Story is a history of the Earth that begins with the Big Bang and continues on to the present day. Some of Burton's other books, including The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel might resonate with your readers at an earlier age. But Life Story fits a grand, wondrous story onto its small pages. It's the perfect book for children who want to know where the world comes from.
3. 'Make Way For Ducklings' by Robert McCloskey: I'll admit that Make Way For Ducklings beat Blueberries for Sal or the utterly outstanding Time of Wonder, or Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man; the truth is, you really can't go wrong with anything by Robert McCloskey, and Homer Price is absolutely essential for young readers just making their way into chapter books. But Make Way For Ducklings is a charming story about the intersection of good parenting and responsible communities. The world isn't as kind to everyone as it is to Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack Mallard. But it should be.
4. 'Roxaboxen' by Alice McLerran: I suspect this book will be less familiar than some of the other titles on this list. But it shouldn't be. Roxaboxen, which is beautifully illustrated by the immortal Barbara Cooney, is about the imaginary town a group of children build and govern for themselves. It's a glorious ode to childhood independence, a tonic against helicopter parenting.
5. 'Amos & Boris' by William Steig: When it comes to children's books, Steig is one of the all-time greats. The only reason I don't have Sylvester and the Magic Pebble on this list is that when I read it, I cry too hard to finish it, and I suspect that it would send any new parents into the vapors. And there are easily a dozen other Steig books that would be strong contenders for a place on a top-100 list. But I have sentimental feelings for this one, the story of a mouse and a whale who save each other in dire circumstances. It's poignant, has genuine dramatic tension, and it presents sophisticated ideas about love and loss at levels children can absorb.
6. 'How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head' by Bill Peet: Of the things that make me angry about culture on a regular basis, the fact that any of this genius' children's books are ever out of print for even a moment. (Bill Peet, An Autobiography is a fantastic memoir and a fascinating look at the early years of Disney.) You can't get new printings of No Such Things, Peet's clever imaginary bestiary, which is a great way to introduce children to the idea of science fiction and fantasy. But fortunately, you can still buy this fractured fairy tale, which is a wonderful introduction to Peet's deeply weird sensibility.
7. 'The Philharmonic Gets Dressed' by Karla Kuskin: I'm partial to children's books, books that break down big, complicated concepts into their constituent parts and then put them all back together again; obviously, The Way Things Work is a classic of this genre, along with Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? But I particularly like the way Kuskin takes us through the personalities of an orchestra until the point that the musicians and conductors come together to become one entity, capable of extraordinary things.
8. 'The Snowy Day' by Ezra Jack Keats: The fact that this book is on the list gives me an excuse to link to Anna Holmes' essay on diversity in children's and young adult publishing, and if you're looking to consciously diversify a child's bookshelf, both The Snowy Day and The Story of Ping, which is set in China, are good places to start. But completely aside from its political bona fides, The Snowy Day is another charming story about a child exploring the world on his own. And while many great children's books about kids having adventures on their own are set in rural or suburban areas, The Snowy Day is set in a city. It's a valuable reminder that letting a kid walk down the block or ride the subway doesn't have to invite catastrophe.
9. Corduroy by Don Freeman: You may have noticed a theme to this list: Many of these books encourage flights of the imagination and initiative on the part of children. Corduroy, which follows a teddy bear as he wanders around his department store late at night, and the little girl who scrapes together her own money to buy him, does both. It's also on here, because honestly, it's just adorable. And while I don't think children are stupid creatures who need to be distracted by pure cuteness, there's nothing wrong with a little sweetness in the mix.
10. 'Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters' by John Steptoe: This book is every bit as visually captivating as People, though Steptoe's style is more ornate and glossy than Spier's. Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters is a stunning retelling of the Cinderella story. And because, like How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, it's a riff on a fairy tale and fairy tale conventions, it's the kind of book that will feel different when a child revisits it at different ages and from different perspectives.