Classic children’s books written prior to 1975, particularly those which appear timeless, and not outdated due to language and culture.
Theme: Historical Fiction
Best for: ages 10 and up
“The troops from Andover appeared in there dashing red uniforms, every button shining, leather gleaming…The church bells chimed. Then a great shout went up. For there was President Washington – a tall, commanding man, riding horseback to enter the town.” Here’s a children’s book that is so informative, it’s a little hard not to compare it to a dull textbook that might teach the same subject. The subject matter is navigation, discoveries, and life at the time of the American Revolution.
Best for: 9 to 12
“Dick was there, of course, but, with his mind on the new boat, or on birds, or on cutting up wood in a scientific way, he did not seem to realize that they were going to sleep in a hut in the wood with nobody in it but themselves, a hut with holes in its roof and no glass in its window.” Each of Ransome’s books carry the excitement of: children out on their own, creating wild adventures in nature, having close calls that are always resolved, and learning absolute self-sufficiency and resilience…
Theme: Magic of the Ordinary
Best for: 9 and up
“Night putting her arms around the sea. No helping wizard. Just the earth going to bed the same as it had done for a million years.. .Were no more wonders worked since sprites and fairies left the haunts of Man? Yet it was magic too, this…the sun sinking in the sea at dusk and rising on the land at dawn.” This children’s book is about belief in the unseen worlds, and learning to see the magic that is also possible in daily life. The characters in the book are fascinating, and unlike those we might meet in other books…
Theme: Healing Power of Nature
Best for: all ages
“Soon all the lively goats came leaping up the mountain, the nimble Distelfinck bounding ahead of the others. Heide was at once in the midst of the flock, which pushed her hither and thither with loud, stormy greetings.” It has been far too long since I re-read the classic children’s book, Heidi, and once I picked it up, it was impossible to put it down…
Theme: Kindness to Animals
Best for: 5-8
“After a while, with the parrot’s help, the Doctor got to learn the language of the animals so well that he could talk to them himself and understand everything they said. Then he gave up being a people’s doctor altogether.” The fantasy that is outlined in this edited versionis fabulous. Not only can the animals talk, but they do wonderful things for this kind man who takes care of everyone and everything…
Best for: ages 10 and up
“Be not robbers to any who are poor and who are good fellows–having only their poverty against them. Be kind to those who help you, but exact toll as heretofore of all who come through the greenwood. The rich to pay in money, and blood–if it be necessary.” Given how riveting the tale of Robin Hood is, I surely hope others don’t wait as long as I did to finally read this masterpiece of children’s literature. It is everything I had hoped it would be…
Best for: 4 and over
“Dolls are not like us; we are alive as soon as we are born, but dolls are not really alive until they are played with. ‘I want to be played with,’ said Holly… ‘I wish! I wish!'” It is utterly entrancing in each story to be inside the heart and mind of a doll, or the little girl or boy who is taking care of the doll. Each story is unique, each doll is different, and yet …
Theme: Friendship, Courage
Best for: ages 11 and up
“He was angry, too, because it would soon be Christmas and he had nothing to give Leslie. It was not that she would expect something expensive; it was that he needed to give her something as much as he needed to eat when he was hungry.” When I put this children’s book down, my shirt was dampened with teardrops, and I couldn’t do anything but sit quietly for a while. I felt like I had just lost my best friend, as Jess had. The impact was astounding…
Best for: ages 5 and up
“Look here, father, you know we’ve each of us got our line. You know about sheep, and weather , and things; I know about dragons…Now, please, just leave this all to me…I’ll go up and have a talk with him, and you’ll find it’ll be all right.” Kenneth Grahame is best known for Wind in the Willows, and this children’s book has the same touch of brilliance. Everything is just on the edge of believable, even though it is surely make-believe.
Theme: Respecting Differences
Best for: ages 10-12
“He used to live up on Hessian Hill, Onion John did, in a house he built out of piled up stone and four bathtubs and no running water. Once a month he’d get up in the middle of the night, according to the way the moon was, to cook up a stew…It was a stew to get gold out of the moon…” I read this children’s book with some trepidation, turning each page expecting something bad to happen. Yet, in fact, it turned out to be a rather heartwarming turn of events that I enjoyed…
Theme: The Power of Kindness
Best for: Boys age 9 and older
“As with all good magic, there is a bit of skill involved, so proceed with caution, particularly right at first. And above all, use discretion. Remember, there must be absolutely no public notice.” Who would imagine that doing good deeds, without really planning them, could have terrific results? This imaginative children’s book has a subtle way of bring the interconnectedness of life to children, without ever saying so.
Theme: Simple Living
Best for: ages 6 to 10
“I have everything here. I am happy. Look, the sky gives me sunshine and rain. The ground gives me food. The spring gives me water. The sheep gives me shelter and clothes…” Here’s a really unusual children’s book, written about experiences in rural Budapest, quite a while ago. The setting is so far removed from our fast-paced contemporary life that the book almost becomes a meditation for the mind.
Theme: Finding Real Values
Best for: age 10 and up
“From that first glimpse, from that first minute, it was more than a room–more than even the most beautiful room Robin had ever seen. Her hands shook on the door knob…” This is a most unusual and unique children’s book. It is certainly a look at the experience of migrant workers in old California, but it doesn’t feel like the purpose of the book…
Best for: ages 8 and up
“Burd Janet threw the green mantle around him to shade him from fairy sight. Then she .. took out the earth from her garden. She spread it around the two of them in a great circle of protection against the Fair Folk.” This book is a collection of folk tales where the hero is female. However, this book is for boys as well, since they too need to know that women can be heroes.
Theme: Overcoming Fear
Best for: 8 and older
“Mafatu lay there under his lean-to, relaxed in every nerve. He had fire, food, shelter. He had faced Moana, the Sea God…There was a new-found confidence in his heart. He had found a new belief in himself.” This tale is told as if on one long breath, an exhalation that ends in exultation. There is not a moment where you can rest until the tale is told, which of course, is what makes a great tale, and a great children’s book.
Theme: Dream Big
Best for: all ages
“Mr. Popper soon found it was not so easy to take a penguin for a stroll. He tied one end of the clothesline to the penguin’s fat throat, and the other to his own wrist.” Here’s a delightful, simple, amusing book with nothing possibly true in it. Purely entertaining, with some sweet morals at the end..
Theme: Epic Poetry
Best for: 5-8
“By the shores of Gitche-Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the Wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the moon, Nokomis” It is so important for children to read and hear stories that have rhythm, repetition, and unusual words. Hiawatha is a great example of this…
Theme: Compassion for all creation
Best for: good readers over age 10
“The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talk to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned.”
Theme: Growing up
Best for: Girls 9-12
“There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne, it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.” It is a cliche to say things are timeless, but books like this really are. There’s nothing awkward reading it today. The emphasis on character development, and the growing pains of a young girl…
Theme: Fairy Tales
Best for: 5- 8
“The cat sat on the mat. Lots of cats do that, everybody knows. And nothing strange comes of it. But once a cay sat on a mat and something strange did come of it.” What a delight to find a contemporary writer who is able to create wonderful fairy tales. For that’s what this children’s book is: a collection of truly magical fairy tales.
Theme: Fantasy & Mystery
Best for: ages 11 and up
“The sky grew blue-black, and they left the shadowy earth behind. There were stars above them and below them. Their wagon floated gently among them as though it had been a rowboat floating in the Concord river.” How delightful to find a children’s book with so many of my favorite people: the transcendentalists, Krishna, and children who love adventures.
Theme: Getting along with others
Best for: ages 7 and up
“When Toft got outside in the darkness he stood and waited on the steps. The sky was a little lighter than the mountains, whose undulating contours rose above Moominvalley.” This little book from Finland is a wonder in character studies, and has delightful language.
Theme: The Odyssey
Best for: 10 and older
“As rude laughter came from the courtyard, Penelope closed the shutters of her windows. She returned to her loom and began weaving. Desperate for help, she prayed for her true husband to come home soon, before it was too late.” A very accessible series of children’s books with the best of the Odyssey, in clear language.
Theme: Magical Adventures
Best for: ages 10 and up
The carpet was sailing over rocks and rivers and trees and towns and farms and fields. It reminded all of them of a certain time they all had had wings… Another great imaginative classic by master storyteller E. Nesbit, this one has a real Phoenix in it!
Theme: Coping with Circumstances
Best for: age 5 and up
“You know, Henry,” said Mrs. Brown as they watched Paddington go up the stairs to bed, looking rather sticky and more than a little sleepy, “it’s nice having a bear about the house.” This is a real chapter book, perfect for young readers who have just learned to read, with a few choice illustrations to keep it moving.
Published: 1865 (est.)
Theme: Fairies, Bravery, Kindness
Best for: everyone
“What will people say?” is the name of this formidable ghost; and it does much harm, for few of us have the courage to live up to what we know to be right in all things.” What young person does not need to be reminded about being true to themselves? Or being brave, or being compassionate, or being fearless?
Theme: Overcoming Handicaps
Best for: 5th grade and up, classroom/home school
“…he would learn all the ways of knighthood. He would learn how to be of service to his liege lord, how to be courteous and gentle, and at the same time, strong of heart.” This Newberry Medal winner is a well-crafted historical fiction children’s book set in medieval England, complete with knights, plagues, and cloistered monks…
Theme: Survival, Resilience
Best for: Classroom use, Home School, grade 5 and up
“Everyone in our tribe had two names, the real one which was secret and seldom used, and one which was common, for if people use your secret name, it becomes worn out and loses it’s magic.” This work of historical fiction, about a young girl left alone on an island, chronicles the ways she managed to survive..
Best for: 10 and up
“Of course there are a few of us whose feet never reach the ground no matter how old we get, but I suppose it’s the same in every family.” This timeless classic is so filled with humor and wisdom that each reading makes it feel new. A must-have…
Best for: 5-9
“It is autumn in Moomin Valley, for how else can spring come back again?” This quirky little children’s book captured my interest right away because I’m in the midst of teaching phonetic skills to second and third graders…