As a preschool teacher and a mom, I'm well-versed in all of today's best-selling books. I can quote the hot literary cats (Pete, Splat, and the Cat in the Hat) by heart. I can say "No!" to David and the Pigeon. I appreciate the girl-power individuality of Pinkalicious, Ada Twist, and Ladybug Girl. I've followed the adventures of Judy Moody, the Weird School, and Junie B. Jones. But I sometimes wonder whether today's kids are being exposed to the more obscure children's books that I, and generations before me, loved.
As wonderful as today's hot kids' books are, there's something to be said for the days when authors didn't have to worry about creating characters that could easily be turned into merchandise and Nickelodeon cartoons. A writer like Beverly Cleary could turn away from Ramona and Beezus for a while in order to write an Otis Spofford or Mitch and Amy. Established adult authors, like Aldous Huxley and Gertrude Stein, could write children's books that still maintained their individual style. And long before Fancy Nancy showed off her vocabulary, publisher Clifton Fadiman wrote about Wally, a bookworm who discovered words like syzygy and chimera. That book ignited my lifelong love for words in a way that a licensed-character book never could. (The book also includes the very first pun I ever heard: "The Moa is no moa.")
Next time you're at the library or browsing online for books, try going beyond your usual choices. Introduce your child to the Borrowers, the Sneetches, Ralph the Mouse, the Ordinary Princess, Chester Cricket, the Saturdays, or another of the many forgotten children's classics. You'll both be glad you did.
Beverly Cleary will forever be beloved for her Ramona and Henry Huggins series, but she also wrote a number of other books with relatable characters and timeless themes. Ellen Tebbits tells the story of two inseparable besties whose friendship is tested during a heated fight. Will Ellen ever get Austine to forgive her?
2'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'
3'The 13 Clocks'
First published in 1954, Half Magic is the first in a series of books by Edward Eager about turn-of-the-century cousins who discover that magic is trickier than it seems. In this case, they come across a magical coin that grants wishes... but only by half. And half a wish can sometimes be worse than no wish at all (just ask the cat).
5'Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose'
Will your brain turn to utter mush if you have to read Green Eggs and Ham or The Cat in the Hat one. more. time? Remember that Dr. Seuss wrote dozens of other books, and this is one gem that's often overlooked. In Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, nice-guy Thidwick lets a series of animals take shelter in his large antlers, only to find that the freeloaders might actually be endangering his life. This book is a great lesson in the importance of standing up for yourself.
6'There's a Wocket in My Pocket!'
Another lesser-known Seuss book worth adding to your library is There's a Wocket in My Pocket! A boy who lives with a variety of odd creatures (a Jertain in the curtain, Yeps on the steps, a Yottle in a bottle) will give your kids a good giggle and teach them that rhyming is about sounds, not necessarily meaning.
Sydney Taylor's book All-of-a-Kind Family was one of my absolute favorites, and it could become one of your child's, too. It's a look at life on New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s through the experiences of Jewish sisters Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. You'll find yourself yearning to try roasted sweet potatoes from a pushcart vendor and cut out paper dolls from magazines. Taylor wrote a couple of sequels which are even harder to come by, but worth the search.
8'The Hundred Dresses'
This Newbery Honor-winning book, The Hundred Dresses, was first published in 1944, but its lesson still resonates with young readers today. Young Wanda Petronski, a poor Polish girl, insists she has a hundred dresses at home, much to the amusement of her teasing classmates. Only after Wanda and her father move away do the children discover the startling truth.
9'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever'
Once you've gotten your fill of the Grinch and The Polar Express, add The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to your holiday list. The six rowdy Herdman siblings, the terrors of their neighborhood, start coming to church for the free food and are soon cast in the Nativity pageant. Will they ruin the play, or will the spirit of the season change their ways?
10Leo the Late Bloomer
Sweet little Leo lags behind his friends in reading, writing, speaking and even eating neatly in Leo the Late Bloomer. His dad worries that something's wrong, but his mom knows that some little ones just need extra time to blossom. A must-read for any family with their own late bloomer.
11'Pippi in the South Seas'
The popular pigtailed heroine returns in this romp of a sequel, Pippi in the South Seas, that doesn't get as much attention as it should. Pippi's sea-captain dad invites Pippi and her two best friends to his home on tropical Kurrekurredutt Island. The kids have the time of their lives — but will Pippi want to go back to Sweden after being treated like royalty in this land without "pluttification"?
12'A Bargain for Frances'
The gentle adventures of this little badger make a nice break from the flashier animal series. In A Bargain for Frances, Frances' friend Thelma sweet-talks her into spending her savings on her old tea set, only to find that Thelma has used the money to buy the tea set Frances really wanted.
13'The Cricket in Times Square'
An unlikely trio of friends — a subway-dwelling mouse, cat, and a country cricket visiting New York for the first time — explore the city's wonders from an animal's point of view in The Cricket in Times Square. Chester Cricket's unusual gift for music also helps a boy and his family whose newsstand is in danger of going out of business.
14'The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo'
Introduce your child to Judy Blume's wonderful writing with this tale of Freddy Dissle, a middle child who feels like a nobody until a school play gives him a chance to shine in The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo. Other Blume titles for younger readers: Freckle Juice and The Pain and the Great One.
Emma Kate is never lonely when her imaginary friend is around. They go to school together, do homework together, and share ice cream. But just who is Emma Kate's mysterious friend? The answer will surprise both your child and you! If you love Emma Kate, try some of Polacco's other titles, such as Thunder Cake, Thank You, Mr. Falker, and My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother.
This 1941 book, The Saturdays, follows the four Melendy children's adventures as they agree to pool their allowances every week and let each sibling in turn use the money to have a Saturday afternoon adventure. Your child will be enchanted, and you'll be nostalgic for a time when it was considered no big deal for kids under 13 to explore New York City on their own.
17'The Ordinary Princess'
M.M. Kaye's delightful 1980 book, The Ordinary Princess, puts a twist on the traditional fairy godmother tales. Princess Amy, gifted by a fairy with ordinariness, rebels against a life of tapestry-sewing and harp-playing. Escaping an arranged marriage, Amy takes a job as a kitchen maid in the next kingdom, and what happens is anything but ordinary. This deserves a place on your shelf next to the Disney princess tales and Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?
If all your kids know about this story is the new Disney Channel movie, then it's time to introduce them to the original 1972 book Freaky Friday. True, it has no singing, no magic timepieces, and no subplots about second marriages, but the basic message is the same — you can learn a lot about someone (even your mom) by walking in their shoes.
19'Wally the Wordworm'
My childhood treasure, this super-obscure book, Wally the Wordworm, is tough to find, but a delight to read if you can get your hands on a copy. Wally, a bookworm who's tired of eating his way through old picture books, discovers a dictionary. As he turns the pages, he (and your child) discover such juicy words as palindrome, dwindle, escalator, and somersault.