I love story time with my kids. They have learned that uttering the words - ‘Can we read a story?’ – has the effect of casting a summoning spell. It’s the one thing I can never say no to. And there, in the unfolding of a book, the kids have me completely. For a few minutes we leave behind the storm of family life: wrangling order out of chaos, sense out of noise, dinner out of spaghetti tins, and truces out of raging battles between tiny savages. We are, momentarily, Insta-perfect: little bodies snuggled up under my arms, mops of soft hair tickling my chin, everyone breathing quietly.
So, to feed this addiction, we have collected a few books along the way. And over time, some clear favourites have bobbed to the surface. I read hundreds of children’s books, and I know that the best children’s authors are truly masters of their craft, telling stories that are emotionally compelling, subtle, funny and thrilling, often with less than 500 words at their disposal. I’m thinking of books like the classic 'Not Now, Bernard' by David McKee, a story that manages to be funny and profound all at the same time, playing to the idea of the monsters our children imagine lurking in the shadows whilst illuminating the monstrousness of a child so ignored that his parents don’t even notice when the monster eats him and moves into his bedroom. Or the wonderful 'Slobcat' by Paul Geraghty that so cleverly uses illustrations to reveal an entirely different story about the narrator’s ‘lazy’ cat who does nothing but sleep, so that the child who is ‘reading’ the pictures can see that this cat is secretly a hero.
So, what do you do when faced with so many books to choose from and perhaps a Christmas stocking to fill or a birthday present to buy…? Well, I thought I’d share a list of five of our family’s personal favourites for 0 to 5-year olds, the ones we go back to time and again, the tried and tested options.
Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins
First published in 1968, this is a true classic that should, I think, feature on every child’s bookshelf at some point. As with ‘Slobcat’, the illustrations tell a contrasting story to the simple text. On the surface of it, we follow a happily oblivious hen going for a walk across, around, over, under, and through various farmyard settings. But the pictures reveal the hen being stalked by a crafty fox who is led by the unwitting hen into one slapstick mishap after another, inspiring squeals of delight, until Rosie finally arrives safely home and the Fox is vanquished. Both my kids have loved this story, reading it on repeat for several years. It has all the hallmarks of a great story – an underdog in peril, a villain to be defeated, a cocktail of humour and danger, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil – all packaged in 28 pages of classic 1960s stylized illustrations and only 32 words.
Written and illustrated by Pat Hutchins. Publisher: Random House Children’s Publishers UK, ISBN 978-0-370-32446-3
Monkey Nut by Simon Rickerty
So well-loved is this book in our house, it’s almost ruined. But when it comes to weeding out the keepers from the books destined for a store for pre-loved-books, 'Monkey Nut' will always find a home in our permanent collection. With clever but simple graphics and a total of 40 words, it succeeds in being both wildly funny and full of drama. Two little spiders find a monkey nut, which they both want to keep for themselves. They imagine all the things it could be - MY skateboard, MY boat, MY hat. Until a BIGGER spider appears and tries to take it off them. But this menacing bully gets his comeuppance (at the feet of an elephant, no less), and eventually the two little spiders each get a piece of the monkey nut to share. It’s another wonderful tale of good triumphing over evil, of the value of compromise over selfishness, and it is told with humour and style.
Written and illustrated by Simon Rickerty. Publisher: Simon and Schuster UK Ltd, ISBN 978-0-85707-576-5
Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
Kids love sensory books – lift the flaps, textures, pop-ups - things that invite interaction. 'Beautiful Oops' is the ultimate hands-on interactive book whilst simultaneously impressing on little minds that making mistakes can be opportunities to make something unexpectedly beautiful. I love this underlying message, so simply expressed, and my daughter especially never tires of exploring the beautiful transformations hidden within its pages. And as my son struggles with a self-imposed pressure to write perfectly, it offers a solution to misspellings and back to front letters, encouraging him to make art out of his errors. It’s an absolute treat.
Written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg. Publisher: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., ISBN 978-0-7611-5728-1
The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson
Surely no book list would be complete without listing one of the many wonderful books written by the inimitable Julia Donaldson. I think all of her work is superb, but if I have to pick one current favourite, it would be 'The Paper Dolls'.
In the story, a little girl makes paper dolls with her mother and she takes them (and us) on a wonderful adventure through a day in her childhood, until the paper dolls are destroyed. They fly away into the little girl’s memory along with other precious childhood things – a starfish soap, a butterfly hair slide, a kind granny. And the little girl grows up to become a mother making paper dolls with her own daughter.
The story brings to life the imaginative play of young children, transforming ordinary things and routines into fantastical adventures, before leading the young reader through the sadness of loss and into the bittersweet comfort of memory and family traditions. For the adult reading alongside, it packs an emotional punch, prompting nostalgia for your own childhood as well as for the child sitting next to you who will one day grow up. And it is all done with a wonderful lightness of touch and deliciously, whimsically illustrated by Rachel Cobb.
Written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Rachel Cobb. Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books, ISBN 978-1-5098-0128-2
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt
Could anyone before this book ever imagine life from the point of view of a crayon? Published in 2013, this book still feels like a breath of fresh air – original, witty, and just so very clever. It challenges any reader, young or old, to question their fixed ideas about things (why can’t a beach ball be black or a dinosaur pink?) and to think about things from a different perspective (“I’m only used…to fill in empty space between other things,” says White crayon and it leaves him feeling “empty”).
In the story the crayons write letters to their owner, Duncan, listing a series of grievances about over-use, under-use, boredom, conflict. In short, they go on strike. And Duncan has to reimagine how he can use his crayons to keep them happy.
One thing I noticed after my kids started school was just how quickly they start to conform and to adopt accepted ideas, particularly in the creative space. Whilst the art they bring home now is undoubtedly more polished and more recognisable, I nevertheless miss the explosive, joyful, wacky creations that used to fill our house in pre-school days. And I love the way this book reignites that idea of creativity untethered.
If all that wasn’t enough to recommend it, the book is also illustrated by the enormously talented Oliver Jeffers and that in itself is a call to action – read this book now.
Written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books, ISBN 978-0-00-751376-5
And there you have it.
A short but sweet list of (mostly modern) classic children’s picture books that are impossible not to enjoy.
Bonus book links
Elaine Williams is a children’s author living in New Zealand. Her debut book, 'Arturo and the Glitter Glue', is available to buy online at www.arturothemouse.co.nz and at selected independent bookstores within New Zealand.