Classic children's books are classic for a reason. The characters, storylines, writing, and themes are timeless enough to appeal as much to our children now as they did to us back when. (For some of us: waaay back when.) Still, there are so many other lesser-known children's books that are just as wonderful as the more familiar ones, and they deserve a look next time you're searching for a storytime read.
I raised my kids on the beloved books, too. Many were the nights when they begged for yet another reading of Guess How Much I Love You, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Fox in Socks, and Knuffle Bunny. On our library visits, my daughter would select at least six titles in the Berenstain Bears series. (Sometimes she still does, for nostalgia's sake.) But I also made it a point to look for either less-popular titles by the authors we loved, or else books that just seemed fun, even if they weren't on our kid-lit radar. Because, let's face it, there are just so many times you can recite the darn caterpillar's menu or retell why Sister Bear has a meltdown at her birthday party. (She loses a game! Her friend squirts water on her shirt! She can't blow out all her candles!)
Below are just a few suggestions for titles to check out online or at the bookstore or library. There's sure to be at least one new favorite to add to your rotation. If it spares you from just one day of revisiting a certain feline and his chaos-creating Thing friends, it'll be worth it, right?
1. "Leonardo the Terrible Monster," by Mo Willems
Mo Willems might just be the busiest children's author on the planet: Between his Knuffle Bunny trilogy and the long-running Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie series, he keeps young audiences constantly entertained. But don't overlook his other titles, which are just as delightful: among them, Leonardo the Terrible Monster. It's about (you guessed it) a young monster who's terrible — terrible at frightening people, that is. Then he spots a timid boy. Can Leonardo "scare the tuna salad out of him" or not?
2. "A House for Hermit Crab," by Eric Carle
If you only know Eric Carle from The Very Hungry Caterpillar and his illustrations for Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, then it's time to treat yourself and your children to his other works. You could start with A House for Hermit Crab, in which the sea creature has to replace his outgrown shell. But the new one looks too drab, so as he travels, he finds innovative ways to decorate it.
3. "Horton Hatches the Egg," by Dr. Seuss
You may know Horton as the brave elephant who protects the colony of tiny Whos on their dust speck, but that's not the end of his story. Dr. Seuss wrote this Horton sequel in which our hero gets sweet-talked by Mayzie, the lazy bird, into sitting on her egg while she takes a short break. That little vacation turns into days, weeks, and months, but Horton is determined to keep his promise: "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred per cent!"
4. "Adelita," by Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola has delighted young readers for generations with books like Strega Nona, Bill and Pete, and Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. Many of his books draw from his Irish and Italian background, but this Cinderella retelling features beautiful Mexican folk art, bilingual text, and a cultural twist (instead of a ball and a glass slipper, Adelita loses her rebozo shawl at the fiesta).
5. "Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday," by Judith Viorst
Hopefully, your children are already familiar with Judith Viorst's famous Alexander (you know, the one who had that terrible, awful, no good, very bad day). Here, he ruefully explains how the dollar he got from his grandparents gradually dwindled to nothing over a week's time on things like bubble gum, renting a friend's snake, and paying a fine for breaking house rules. When you're finished reading, you can use the book as a teaching tool, using a dollar's worth of pennies and having your child "spend" the way Alexander did.
6. "The Dumb Bunnies," by Dav Pilkey
For kids a little too young for the Captain Underpants series, author-illustrator Dav Pilkey created the Dumb Bunnies. In a parody of the standard Three Bears tale, the Bunny family comes back from a picnic at the car wash to find Little Red Goldilocks in their brick log cabin home. Did she sleep on the porridge? Don't look for any life lessons in this book, but be prepared for a lot of laughs.
7. "Little Excavator," by Anna Dewdney
Famous for her bestselling Llama Llama books, Anna Dewdney also wrote Little Excavator shortly before her (far too soon) death three years ago. Preschoolers who love vehicles and construction books will fall for the tale of a small digger who wants to help turn a vacant lot into a park.
8. "The Frog Prince Continued," by Jon Scieszka
If your kids are fans of Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, you'll want to try The Frog Prince Continued. As he puts it, "Well, let's just say they lived sort of happily for a long time. Okay, so they weren't so happy. In fact they were miserable." (Well, what do you expect when your new husband keeps hopping on the furniture and trying to catch bugs with his tongue?)
9. "Happy to Be Nappy," by Bell Hooks
10. "Nutshell Library," by Maurice Sendak
Any home that has Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are should also have his miniature four-book collection, known collectively as the Nutshell Library. Alligators All Around is a fun alphabet book; One Was Johnny teaches counting; Chicken Soup With Rice is a 12-month romp ("In January/it's so nice/while slipping/on the sliding ice/To sip hot chicken soup/with rice."). Then there's Pierre, about a bratty boy who gets taught a lesson about caring.
11. "Once Upon a Time, the End (Asleep in 60 Seconds)" by Geoffrey Kloske
Designed especially for exhausted parents trying to shorten storytime, Once Upon a Time, the End is told from the point of view of a dad who abbreviates eight familiar stories and rhymes. ("There were some bears./It doesn't really matter how many./There was a bunch. Let's get to the point.") Each story ends with a not-so-subtle hint about going to sleep, but in the end, it's Dad who conks out. The trouble with this book is that you and your child will be laughing too hard to feel sleepy.
12. "Traction Man Is Here!" by Mini Grey
Kids who love the Toy Story movies (and who doesn't?) will get a kick out of this tribute to a child's imagination. Traction Man Is Here! follows the heart-stopping adventures of an action figure as he battles such foes as the Evil Pillows and the Mysterious Toes, while accompanied by his loyal sidekick, Scrubbing Brush.
13. "Thunder Boy Jr.", by Sherman Alexie
Thunder Boy Jr. is a heartwarming tale by the bestselling author of such books as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little Thunder is named for his father, Big Thunder, but he wants a name that reflects his own identity, like Touch the Clouds or Full of Wonder. His wise dad finally comes up with the perfect answer.
14. "The Snow Globe Family," by Jane O'Connor
If you've read every adventure of Fancy Nancy at least twice, then take a break from her frills and read this sweet book by Fancy Nancy's creator. It parallels the lives of two families: a turn-of-the-century household, and the tiny parents and children who live in their snow globe. The little family longs for someone to shake the globe enough to make a sledding hill, but only one member of the big family even notices the globe is there at all.
15. "Pet Show!" by Ezra Jack Keats
You're probably familiar with The Snowy Day, about young city boy Willie's winter discoveries. Now try Keats' Pet Show!, which features Willie's friend Archie. On the day of the big competition, Archie's cat is nowhere to be found. He comes up with a highly inventive solution — and then shows a generous heart when his cat eventually turns up with a neighbor.