This month marks the 70th anniversary of one of our favorite children’s books of all time, the beautiful, contemplative novella The Little Prince. To celebrate the book’s legacy (and to encourage any parents currently dragging their feet to get it for their little ones), we’ve put together a list of 25 essential books that every kid should have on his or her bookshelf growing up. Add your own suggestions to the list (it has potential to be infinite) in the comments.
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The much beloved classic — gorgeous, insightful, a bit postmodern. And of course, there’s that eternal takeaway: “’Goodbye,’ said the fox. ‘Now here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.’”
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
Maybe our favorite kids’ book of all time: a traditional quest narrative gone haywire, all wrapped in Sendak’s gleefully monstrous illustrations and take-no-prisoners narrative juice.
The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
As far as we can tell, Merrill’s story of underdog pushcart peddlers and Big Mack trucks will never get old — there’s always a big, evil corporation (or just a big bully) to fight with your wits and a peashooter. It’s David and Goliath on the streets of New York, populated with the most colorful characters (Morris the Florist, we’re looking at you) we could ever hope to meet.
The Sweetest Fig, Chris Van Allsburg
We think all children should have every book Chris Van Allsburg has ever created, each one a gorgeous breath of fresh air amongst the spastically colored, hyperactive media kids are usually fed. Our favorite is The Sweetest Fig, which happens to come with a double-sided moral: be nice to your pets, and magic is real.
Matilda, Roald Dahl
Again, we’re pretty confident saying that all kids should have the entire oeuvre — minus the smutty stuff, of course (until later). Book nerds that we are, we favor that great brain of Matilda’s, but the rest of Dahl’s books are right on her tail.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
A classic among classics. Any kid who starts her life off with Twain is starting her life off right.
Dealing With Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede
This one’s a personal favorite of your humble literary editor, who couldn’t get enough of the princess who’d rather hang out with a dragon — cooking cherries jubilee, organizing her library, and learning Latin — than practice her dainty screams and complex embroidery. Plus, Wrede throws just about every fairy tale trope and character into the pot, and comes out with a weird and wonderful universe to rival anything out there today.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Must we even explain? Every child needs to experience Wonderland.
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
If you’ve noticed, we dote on Ursula K. Le Guin over here, and nothing more than her Earthsea cycle, which has everything you’re familiar with — wizard school, self discovery, quests, apprenticeships — except done a little bit better. And, it should be noted, first.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
Speaking of wizards of, we also recommend L. Frank Baum’s classic series. No, the film is not sufficient (though it is wonderful). Trust us.
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
A must for every outsider, for every watcher, for every sidelined thinker with a quick wit bubbling under the surface. Or for popular kids who are just as weird inside as the outsiders.
Half Magic, Edward Eager
We have a huge soft spot for the works of Edward Eager, who does better than almost anyone at integrating magic into the lives of ordinary children, who tilt their heads and accept it, as children are wont to do. This is our favorite of the lot, and inspired our amateur coin collection for at least a week.
Peter Pan and Wendy, J. M. Barrie
If our children don’t read Peter Pan, how will they know what the New York Times is talking about when they’re 25 and still living in their parents’ basements? Just kidding (kind of).
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
A complex and fascinating science fiction/fantasy novel starring an analytic-minded, kick-ass girl? A Wrinkle in Time is basically our religion.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Another time-tested classic. Rat, Mole, Toad, and Badger are like the British version of Pooh and friends. Idyllic, heartwarming (though in our childhoods, we admit that we identified most with Mr. Badger) and filled with adventure, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans
Like so many of these books, Bemelmans’s series is clever, beautifully illustrated, and comes complete with a message of individuality, compassion, and bravery. It also has a lot of satisfying rhymes.
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
It seems to us that almost everyone we know was introduced to poetry via the work of Shel Silverstein, whose book manages to captivate even the tiniest children in verse. You can work up to Rimbaud.
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
Look, kids need to learn about puns early. They also need to get to read this wonderful book, and steer clear of the Mountains of Ignorance. Tick tock.
The Giver, Lois Lowry
A perfect dystopic vision and an easy way to stop any child from saying “I’m starving.” We can also recommend the rest of the books in the series.
The House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne
Tonstant Weader may have fwowed up, but less snippy children (all of them) have been falling in love with Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood gang for years. And why shouldn’t they? Sweetness, friendship, and teddy bears have never gone wrong.
The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf
We know more than a few people who could take a lesson from Ferdinand, the bull who much preferred to sit around smelling the flowers than to fight the other bulls in a ring. Plus, our favorite artists don’t just get Ferdinand tattooed all over themselves for nothing.
Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
An indisputable classic and one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, no child should have to grow up without Charlotte’s Web. As long as their parents tell them not to actually play with spiders.
Lizard Music, Daniel Pinkwater
After all, as Haruki Murakami’s Nagasawa sagely advised, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” If your kid grows up reading Daniel Pinkwater, she’s going to have quite a few thoughts of her own. They might not be normal, but what genius ideas are?
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
There’s just something about this book. As Joanna Trollope put it, “I know of few novels – except Pride and Prejudice – that inspire as much fierce lifelong affection in their readers as I Capture the Castle.” Cassandra will become your guide, your best friend, and your own internal voice in an instant, and the Mortmain family will stick with you forever. Recommended for kids who want to grow up to be writers.
Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss
Did you think we could put together a list of essential children’s books without the venerable Dr. Seuss? Well, we couldn’t. Like some of the other authors on this list, every child deserves a full library of Mr. Geisel’s works, but we think this one rings true no matter what your age.