Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
The adventure that has inspired generations of children to let out their inner monsters, showing how imagination allows for an escape from life’s doldrums. It’s also a moving testament to family love: when young Max returns from his reverie, his mother has saved him a hot dinner.
Buy now:Where the Wild Things Are
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The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats.
The journey of Peter through a snowbound New York City made for a milestone: as a successful children’s story focused on a black protagonist, it broke down barriers many white editors may have never noticed. But Keats’ book is memorable too for the sheer beauty of its collage illustrations.
Buy now:The Snowy Day
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Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd.
Somewhere a child is being put to sleep right now to Brown’s soothing, repetitive cadences. While the lines may be etched in every parent’s memory, Hurd’s illustrations, with their quirky hidden jokes, provide amusement on the thousandth reading.
Buy now:Goodnight Moon
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Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey.
The block-printed illustrations show just how similar families of different species can be, as child Sal and a baby bear covet Maine blueberries on a berry hunt with their respective mothers. It’s an instructive read for any kid who’s ever felt a bit like a wild animal, or parents who’ve ever felt like they’re raising one.
Buy now:Blueberries for Sal
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Little Bear (series), by Else Holmelund Minarek, illustrations by Maurice Sendak.
Minarik wrote these stories, which convey a young cub’s yearning for his absent father, but it’s Sendak’s illustrations that catch the eye and allow for endless imaginings of life among woodland critters.
Buy now:Little Bear (series)
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Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illustrations by John Schoenherr.
Many young bird watchers likely owe their passion to this story of a father-daughter trip to find the elusive great horned owl takes flight thanks to Schoenherr’s evocative woods-at-night illustrations.
Buy now:Owl Moon
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The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.
It’s hard to imagine a story more poignant than the tale of a tree that gives its life for a boy turned self-centered young man. It’s been interpreted along environmentalist and religious lines, but all can agree on the beauty of its underlying theme of generosity.
Buy now:The Giving Tree
Harper & Row
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The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka, illustrations by Lane Smith.
This ironic, witty book, which revises the story of the pigs as an exculpatory memoir by the wolf—who claims he’s not so big and bad at all!—is a welcome corrective to more saccharine tales. It also introduces young readers to the notion of dueling perspectives.
Buy now:The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
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Tuesday, by David Wiesner.
Who needs text? Not this illustrator, who also “wrote” the very few words that make up his tale. His stunning, propulsive watercolors show flying frogs on a surreal adventure. Reading may be fundamental, but here the pictures do almost all the talking.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein.
Silverstein wasn’t just good at tales of leafy self-sacrifice. His loopy poems have been speaking to kids’ concerns and sparking their imaginations for decades. Any child who’s ever fantasized about playing “hug o’ war” instead of tug-of-war will find a kindred spirit in these pages.
Buy now:Where the Sidewalk Ends
Hello, Rock, by Roger Bradfield.
A child happily converses with a rock in this celebration of imagination.
Buy now:Hello, Rock
Purple House Press
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The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson, illustrations by Axel Scheffler.
A clever mouse invents a fearsome creature to protect himself from predators in the woods—but is the Gruffalo really imaginary?
Buy now:The Gruffalo
The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Leonard Weisgard.
A curious game asks children to name the most important quality about the different objects they see.
Buy now:The Important Book
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Jazz, by Walter Dean Myers, illustrations by Christopher Myers.
These jazz poems and their vivid illustrations capture the energy of the genre.
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The Stranger, by Chris Van Allsburg.
A suspenseful farm tale about a mystery visitor who seems to control the weather.
Buy now:The Stranger
The Story of Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff.
The beloved French elephant travels from the jungle to the big city and back, just in time to be crowned king of the elephant kingdom.
Buy now:The Story of Babar
Miss Nelson is Missing, by Harry Allard, illustrations by James Marshall.
Miss Nelson goes missing, and because her wildly misbehaved class can't handle the cruel substitute teacher, they seek her whereabouts.
Buy now:Miss Nelson is Missing
Alligator Pie, by Dennis Lee, illustrations by Jack Newfeld.
A Canadian classic chock full of playful rhyming verse.
Buy now:Alligator Pie
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Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi, illustrations by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum.
A treatise on that basic bodily function, told with humor and poise.
Buy now:Everyone Poops
Kane/Miller Book Publishers
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Rain Makes Applesauce, by Julian Scheer, illustrations by Marvin Bileck.
Filled with beautiful, dense illustrations, this intricate work reveals itself slowly and rewards rereading.
Buy now:Rain Makes Applesauce
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Lon Po Po, by Ed Young.
In this dark variant of Little Red Riding Hood, young sisters deliver swift justice to the big bad wolf.
Buy now:Lon Po Po
Harry the Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion, illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham.
Kids might be more eager to bathe after seeing this mischievous dog get so dirty his own family can't recognize him.
Buy now:Harry the Dirty Dog
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Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper.
Because she cannot talk, walk, or write, no one knows how brilliant 5th grader Melody is—until she finds a way to make her voice heard.
Buy now:Out of My Mind
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The Poky Little Puppy, by Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrations by Gustaf Tenggren.
One curious puppy likes to dawdle and wander more than his siblings, and he learns a lesson about independence.
Buy now:The Poky Little Puppy
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