Authors who write classic children’s books are far more important than one would think. Their stories don’t only provide the stimuli that fire up a child’s imagination, thus stretching their experience, but they provide a bridge between cultures. A balanced diet of their books allows children to enter into the lives of children in other parts of the world, with different, sometimes very different, normals.
Most of the books that have proved themselves and become classic children’s books in the English speaking world are by American and British writers, but every now and then a writer from another place will produce a book that will strike gold.
There are some that transcend the nationalist dimension, like the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, that enter unfiltered into the imagination because of their universal nature, and where the characters and their situations are not essentially Danish, but there will be other Danish books that will primarily illuminate a Danish child’s life. And that may be true of books by writers from any country, in any language.
We define ‘child’ as anyone between the beginning of the reading age to middle teenager.
Here are 25 of the very best classic books for children, in order of their first publication:
Grimms’ Fairy Tales, by the brothers Grimm 1812
Reading one of these tales a night to a child is taking that child on a new adventure every night. These are stories that have been told and retold, again and again – it is a huge and wonderful collection of German folktales going way back. They are tales of princes and princesses, witches, magical kingdoms, evil stepmothers, malicious fairies, etc. They form the basis of the ideas about those things that all children grow up with, appearing again and again in the works of later children’s writers.
Fairy Tales Told for Children, by Hans Christian Andersen 1835-1837
The Danish writer collected stories and wrote many himself then put the collection together in this first collection. His stories tell interesting and engaging stories for children while having, at the same time, profound, universal messages about human nature. One of his stories The Emperor’s New Clothes is fr3quently cited as the best short story ever written.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens 1843
Although strictly speaking not a children’s story, it works well with children. In one sense, the story is synonymous with the whole idea of Christmas: it is almost as though Dickens invented the English Christmas. If Dickens had written nothing else this story would have marked him out as a great writer. It has everything that the mature Dickens has in his big novels – immortal characters, settings and story line, and it contains one of the most horrific moments in all literature – where Scrooge gazes on his own desolate and neglected grave.
The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley 1863
This time-tested classic caters for children’s liking of the magical, of things like fairies and mermaids. It is the tale of a young chimney sweep who falls into a river and is transformed into a tiny water baby.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass), by Lewis Carroll 1865
These are two closely linked books which, together, constitute what is probably the most famous English novel(s) of the Victorian age. The two together are usually known as ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It is full of some of the best known characters in all of English literature, including the plays of Shakespeare.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott 1868
A great nineteenth century children’s classic, this novel is more likely to appeal to girls. As a torchbearer of feminist fiction it was well before its time. One of its qualities is that it’s a perfect period piece and another is that it’s a great story, at the same time full of role models
Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell 1877
This is one of the best selling novels of all time. It is unusual in that it’s narrated by a horse. The story follows Black Beauty’s life from young colt to his retirement. As a young colt he gallops about the beautiful pastures, watched over by his mother and their kind owner. When the owner is forced to sell him he begins a life of hard work and cruelty. The story is about his suffering at the hands of men who treat animals cruelly, and how his spirit is never broken, and about his determination to survive.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter 1901
This is the most popular of Beatrix Potter’s stories, about Lake District animals. Peter gets into trouble and is chased around Farmer McGregor’s garden. He manages to escape and return to his loving mother who gives him affection and puts him to bed.
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery 1908
Canadian author, Lucy Montgomery, wrote this novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is still widely read, while spin-offs come out regularly. It is a coming of age story about a high spirited orphan girl who makes good.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame 1908
These stories began as bedtime stories for Grahame’ son. They are linked animal tales, with evocative descriptions of the countryside, interspersed with the exciting adventures of these memorable and, now immortal, animal characters, among the most famous in all English literature.
Winnie The Pooh, by A.A. Milne 1926
This is a collection of children’s stories around a collection of toys that were owned by Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, who also appears as a character in the stories.
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ramsome 1930
This is a great adventure story, as enjoyable for adults as it is for children as it takes you back to the heady days of childhood. Set in what seems to be an eternal summer with long days that seem to have no ending, the Walker children take you on an adventure on the open seas as they battle ferocious pirates. It is a great novel about being a child.
The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder 1932
This is a deeply engaging story about what it was like to live in a poor, closeknit, farming family in the American Midwest during the middle of the nineteenth century. It is part of a series that offers a long generational saga.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery 1943
Like so many of the best children’s stories this seems like a simple tale, and can be read like that. It is the story of a young prince who has travelled from his tiny asteroid in space but it is deeply existential in the lessons and messages it contains. It’s a beautiful lesson about relationships, and life in general.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis 1950
Reading this book in childhood is a magical experience in which the reader is transported to a completely different world, that opens up the mind to all kinds of new ways of looking at the real world around her. Entering this world from the back of a wardrobe leads to adventure, fascinating creatures, and a place where the notorious, dreaded White Witch lurks.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding 1954
One of the great novels of the twentieth century, Lord of the Flies can be read on several levels. It is a book about the savage nature that lies beneath what we see of human beings on the surface, and is exposed when the constraints of civilisation are removed. One of the levels on which it can be read is an exciting, tense, adventure story that can be enjoyed by all teenagers, while it is also possible for them to grasp its various meanings. That is why this story of a group of English schoolboys stranded on an island without adults is a favourite school text: it can be taught to teenagers of all abilities, with each one taking meaning from it.
Charlotte’s Web, by EB White 1956
This classic story takes place on a farm where the two main characters, a pig named Wilbur and his devoted friend, a spider named Charlotte, live. Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life by writing about him in her web.
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr Seuss 1957
This is an illustrated book, both written and illustrated by American author, Theodor Geisel, known as Dr Seuss. The cat is the famous, tall cat with the red and white-striped hat and red bowtie. He appears in several subsequent books.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee 1960
This is a great novel for young people as it is not only a moving story narrated by an 8 year-old but it teaches the salutary lesson that we never really know someone until we stand in their shoes. The novel explores hatred, racism, persecution through the eyes of an innocent. A wonderful book.
Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr Seuss 1960
The perfect child entertainment, with a great, funny story, told in verse, striking and memorable illustrations, and perfect for reading aloud, and actually performing, to children.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle 1962
The three young protagonists cross time and space to find out about Meg’s scientist father, who has been missing for more than a year. He is being held by evil forces on another planet.
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak 1963
In common with some other iconic children’s books like the Dr Seuss books, Alice in Wonderland and the Beatrice Potter stories, Where the Wild things are is a book both written and illustrated by its author. In this case the illustrations tell more of the story than the text. The book has been universally acclaimed.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl 1964
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of Dahl’s darkly comic children’s novels. It tells the story of a destitute boy who wins a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle 1969
This is an illustrated book. It tells the story of a caterpillar eating its way through a huge amount of food of different kinds until, full and exhausted he forms a cocoon around himself and falls asleep. He wakes up and emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.
The BFG, by Roald Dahl 1982
Children usually think of the giants in the stories they read as monsters to be feared ao when eight year-old Sophy encounters the Big Friendly Giant it is an unexpected delight.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling 1997
This is the first novel in the Harry Potter series of novels. Its title in the USA is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The story about a boy wizard made this book and its successors best sellers, popular with both adults and children.
That’s our pick of the 25 best ever classic children’s books. What do you think – any others we should add to this list? Let us know in the comments section below.