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Twaddle-free books for young children: my top 10 favorites

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and is currently traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

CS Lewis once said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty.” In other words, if a grown adult can’t stomach a children’s book, why should a child be expected to?

Charlotte Mason was a pioneer in children’s education during the 19th century, and her ideas have led to one of the primary methods of homeschooling.  She also coined the term “twaddle.” Its definition is simple: Dumbed-down literature; absence of meaning.

I think children (and adults, really) should invest their time in quality books—books that drip with story, that you want to read again and again, that stay with you long after you’ve finished them.  And quite frankly, there’s a lot of twaddle out there in the world of children’s literature.

My children are very young, so I’m up to my elbows in early childhood literature.  These are my top 10 favorite books for the preschool age, and all twaddle-free. Edited to add: Six years later, I read this list and still agree. I’ve made a few changes, but not many. (My kids are now 9, 6, and almost 4.)

The top 10 picture books for young children

Madeline (and the other original Madeline books)

by Ludwig Bemelmans

madelineappendix

The Madeline books have a great cadence of words—a great introduction to poetry, and the illustrations are delightful.  What kid doesn’t want to live in an old house in Paris that is covered in vines?

Best Friends for Frances (and all the Frances books)

by Russell Hoban

Frances the Badger

Frances is a lovable badger with a wild imagination, excellent song-writing skills, and a bag full of tricks.  These books subtly teach skills like being a good friend, eating what’s in front of you, and knowing when you’re being scammed.

Ferdinand

by Munro Leaf

ferdinand the bull

I loved this story as a kid, and my kids love it now.  Ferdinand is a laid-back, gentle bull who’s been recruited for a Spanish bullfight.

Frog and Toad are Friends (and all the Frog and Toad books)

by Arnold Lobel

Frog and Toad

I adore this pair of amphibians.  You’ll laugh along with your children at Frog and Toad’s sense of logic, and you’ll love their close-knit friendship. Edit: I’d argue these short stories continue on well into the older elementary age, too. Its self-deprecating humor is better understood.

George and Martha (all the stories)

by James Marshall

George and Martha

A hilarious duo of hippos who have more personality than common sense.  Adults get a kick out of them, too. Totally endearing.

Make Way For Ducklings

by Robert McCloskey

Make Way for Ducklings

A classic tale of a pair of ducks living in Boston.  This story has enthralled generations of children.

Blueberries for Sal

by Robert McCloskey

Blueberries for Sal

Yep, by the same author—this book is one of MY personal favorites (not just out of the children’s literature category). I could stare at these illustrations all day.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (and all the If You Give… books)

by Laura Numeroff

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

My mother-in-law gave us this treasury for Christmas, and we’ve read it almost daily since. (Edit: Six years later, and we still read it about weekly. Our favorite is the Moose one.) The stories are well-told, the illustrations are hilarious, and I can honestly say I don’t tire from reading these stories.

Harold and the Purple Crayon

by Crockett Johnson

Harold and the Purple Crayon

We’ve officially worn the cover off this bite-sized book. One of the most ingenious ways to tell a story—everyone could relate to this tale of imagination.

Harry the Dirty Dog

by Gene Zion

Harry the Dirty Dog

A sweet dog gets dirty and the kids no longer recognize him. What preschooler can’t relate to getting filthy?

Katy and the Big Snow

by Virginia Lee Burton

Katy and the Big Snow

Katy is a snowplow who must rescue her small town from impending doom. Drama, a superhero to the rescue, brilliant illustrations—we like this one even more than Mike Mulligan by the same author.

Adendum

Winnie the Pooh

This list originally included the original Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, but as my kids have aged, I’d now include this classic with a list of books for older kids. We read this as a read-aloud when my older ones were 9 and 6, and the humor was much better appreciated (especially by the older one). I think this book is mislabeled as one for littles. Read it when they’re older—you’ll love it, too.

honey for a child's heartI also recommend the resource Honey For a Child’s Heart, by Gladys Hunt.  Now in its fourth edition, this book is a must-have for parents who want a trusted guide for quality literature.  It’s chock-full of annotated lists of books for ages 0 to 14.

What are your favorite early childhood books?  What are your child’s favorites?

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Comments

  1. avatar
    Julie Holland says:

    The Fanny books by Holly Hobbie and all Kevin Henkes books (especially Lilly) and Ezra Jack Keats books are my 4-year-old’s and my current favorites.

  2. SO many GREAT books mentioned! One that all of my children have loved is “The Happy Lion” by Roger Duvoisin. The first chapter books we tried for our sensitive little ones were “The Littles” series. The originals are such fun, and my boys still play, a year later, that the Littles are living in our walls. The also loved the Ralph Mouse books by Beverly Cleary. Even though we have forayed into chapter books, picture books are still their favorite part of bedtime! Right now, we are absolutely loving Emily Bearn’s delightful adventures written about TumTum and Nutmeg. They are so rich and so fun all at the same time!

  3. Couldn’t resist adding a few more names:

    Frane Lessac: Island Counting 123 is the best! I don’t care for the dragon books but there are lots of great ones!

    Leslie Patricelli: ALL of these books are amazing (we call them the “Dinky” books for some reason–I think my daughter thought the baby’s name was Dinky). The Birthday Box and Yummy Yucky are so easy to read 100 times.

    Beach Babies Wear Shades, Urban Babies Wear Black, etc. These are so much fun! (I think they have various authors.)

  4. (Nope, looks like they’re all by Michelle Sinclair Coleman.)

  5. avatar
    Patricia Brown says:

    I think what is important is simplicity in word form and ideas, and repetition. Kids love to read the same book. It helps them gain self-confidence when they recognize something, they are more likely to begin to hear rhythm and understand new words by using the same books for a time. My younger kids ( as a teacher of 0-3years and as a mom) like:
    *Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?
    *Baby Faces (faces of babies with moods) (*Great for recognizing and teaching emotions)
    *The rainbow fish
    *Katy Kaboose got loose
    *Brown Bear, Brown Bear
    *Magic School Bus series
    *Curious George series
    *The Giving Tree

  6. What a great list of classics! We still quote Frances and Frog and Toad around here, and my boys are now 10 and 12.

    As a children’s author I’ve come to realize a lot of parents aren’t familiar with more recent titles that are just as worthy of reading. It can be hard to know where to look for information, too. One easy place to start is the Bank Street College Best Books of the Year list. I’m attaching 2013’s Under Five list.
    https://s3.amazonaws.com/bankstreet_web/media/filer_public/filer_public/2013/06/19/2013under-five.pdf

    Other places parents might find new titles of note are through School Library Journal and Horn Book, which are print review journals with on-line counterparts. I can also recommend Jen Robinson’s Book Page, a blog with incredible resources. http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/

  7. We also love great children’s books. Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh and Little House books were favorites around here. We also love Blueberries for Sal which my granddaughter has to have read to her over and over especially since blueberries are ripe! Eve Rice books are favorites, too. At Grammy’s House and Benny Bakes a Cake were memorized long ago when my daughter was little. Thanks for sharing your list. I see a couple I need to purchase for my granddaughters that I had forgotten about.

  8. Some family favorites here:
    – Pam Munoz Ryan wrote “Mud is Cake” which is a beautiful portrayal of imagination, and “Hello, Ocean” which describes in detail experiencing the beach with all five senses.
    – Fancy Nancy books are some of my first grader’s favorites, and incorporate new vocabulary words, as Nancy is very fancy and likes to use them.
    – “Mortimer’s First Garden” about growing a sunflower
    – Sandra Boynton board books capture very well real situations and information with fun rhymes and cute illustrations
    – “Hooway for Wodney Wat” about how everyone has value
    – “Diary of a Worm” about the daily life of a worm and his family/friends. Informative yet hilariously creative.
    – “Snow Happy to be Here” about how snowmen come to life. I get misty every. time.
    – “Wild about Books” about animals in a zoo learning to love reading

    I don’t like the “If you give a…” books because the animal is described as an entitled individual who gets whatever they request even when it inevitably leads to chaos. I know most see them as adorable and creative, but they just bug me.

  9. I have convinced my husband that I am Toad (Type A, but well-meaning) and he is Frog (full of energy and loves me anyway).

  10. A subject close to my heart! But I don’t know George and Martha! Thanks for the rec.

  11. http://mallerywisdom.blogspot.com/2013/07/reading-to-my-children.html

    Here are a few of my favorites. My son loves Curious George and I can’t wait to introduce Madeline to my lass.

  12. Ahhh reading this post brought back so many wonderful childhood memories :) Even now being in my late 20’s I still very much enjoy reading children books, makes me all giddy & happy! My absolute love & favorites are Madeline & Curious George. Cannot wait for the day when I have my own kids to read to them books that I’ve loved as a child~ LOVE this post!

  13. Hi! I am new to the concept of twaddle…but am highly suspicious that I am guilty of such this faux pas. My father was more of a story-teller than a book reader during my formative years, so the “music” and rhythm of language…the pauses and inflections are precious to me. And so, we read a lot of Barbara Boynton. Pretty sure her stuff would be considered twaddle.

    Can someone speak to this? As I mentioned, I’m new to this concept. Thanks!

  14. My kids have not taken to Alexander and his bad day!

    Favourites in our house…
    Stanley and Rhoda by Rosemary Wells – great brother sister relationship.
    Winnie the Witch stories – I think the illustrations are above and beyond the stories.
    Meg and Mog books – bold, simple, fun.
    Great picture books by Philippe Dupasquier, include Dear Daddy, a great story about children waiting for their father to return from overseas.
    Mr Men books
    Julia Donaldson books, particularly A Squash and a Squeeze and The Gruffalo

    I’ve started reading Charlotte’s web to my 3 and 5 year old, we’ve not quite finished it yet. They both love George’s Marvellous Medicine which I have in the car read by Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley). Also Dick King Smith’s Sophie books.

  15. My kids love Knuffle Bunny & Knuffle Bunny Too, by Mo Willems! (And so do we!)

  16. My hands-down favorite read aloud for the younger set is the Milly Molly Mandy books, by Joyce Lankester Brisley. Delightfully captivating stories about a little girl in England in the early 1900’s, and her everyday adventures. Just wonderful!

  17. Loved this list! Good children’s books stand the test of time – even when you’re an adult. Ferdinand was always one of my favorites. I remember Ira’s teddy bear debate in “Ira Sleeps Over,” I recently passed my copy of “Make Way For Ducklings” on to a friend’s children, and I still fondly keep my copy of “Madeline.” And of course, Dr. Seuss has no equal!

  18. I work part-time at our county’s small library, which is mostly a hobby, but gives me a chance to see all the wonderful new kids books that being published. One of my boys more recent favorites (they are 3 and almost 2) is the “Pete the Cat” books by Eric Litwin. They short and repetitive, which makes them easy for my boys to learn and “read” themselves. But they also teach really cute little lessons, because no matter what happens to him (in one story he steps in several things and ruins his white shoes, and in another he loses all the buttons on his shirt), Pete keeps on singing!

  19. avatar
    Jessica says:

    This is a great list, and important. Another beautiful children’s book that has gotten consistently great reviews from both children and adults is called “Papa’s New Home” by Jessica Lynn Curtis.

  20. Thanks for the post on Twaddle-free books.

    I like to tell my friends that ANYTHING by Robert McCloskey is worth owning! I NEVER get tired of reading the books of his that we own.

    “Each Peach Pear Plum” is a really fun board book our children have enjoyed.

    Maurice Sendak’s “Little Bear” books are great.

    “Franklin” books are enjoyed as well.

    I also want to recommend a fantastic anthology of poetry called “Here’s a Little Poem” — the poems are great and are illustrated with colourful collage-work. A former student gave to me as a baby gift when I had my first child and I have treasured it since for all the above reason.

    Also, I really enjoy the “Stella” books we have — the main character has a brilliant imagination and tries to draw her younger brother into the world as she sees it. I don’t think they would qualify as twaddle. They add a bit of Canadian content to our bookshelves (We have some Robert Munsch — “Mud Puddle” is fun, “Love You Forever” is always a tear-jerker for parents, and there are a few others we like, but I agree with a previous poster who questioned the appropriateness of the content of some of his stories. Many of them seem to present either children or parents in a bad light or with really negative attitudes and/or behaviours for the sake of humour.)

    Just wanted to echo “Yes” to:

    William Stieg books, especially “Dr. DeSoto”, “The Amazing Bone”, and “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” (he kind uses a lot of the same devices, which I get a bit tired of, but our children enjoy his books and I do too for the most part)
    Kevin Henkes books — “Jessica” and “Kittens First Full Moon” are favourites around here
    James Herriot’s Treasury is great too.

    We do not own any “Madeline” or “Frances” books yet — I think we’ll change that this year with birthday presents!

  21. This was likely already mentioned in the plethora of comments, but I had to give a shout out to Mo Willems on this post. His kids books are very cute and FUNNY! As a parent, I literally enjoy reading the Elephant and Piggie books and often find myself laughing out loud.

  22. avatar
    Jessica in Canada says:

    My favourites when I was a kid were “One Morning in Maine” and the “Booky” trilogy (start with “That Scatterbrain Booky”). My sister & I read & re-read those books. They are a true story about a girl growing up during the Depression in Canada.

    It is hard to narrow down, but the current favourites around our house (with the parents too!) are “The Incredible Book-eating Boy”, “Don’t Grown-ups Ever Have Fun?” and “Baby in a Basket”.

  23. My girl is now a teenager but her favourite book is The Nickle Nackle Tree. When we gave it away, she insisted we get her another one even though she was 16 at the time. A good story has stickabilty. I have written a couple of android app books I thought you may be interested in. One is titled “Kitty Conundrum” and the other is “Seesaw Kitty”. You can view the youtube videos here: https://www.ephiinspired.co.nz/content/android/android1.cshtml
    You can also find me on Facebook here:
    https://www.facebook.com/ephiinspired

  24. avatar
    Leigh Anne says:

    When I was two years old, a family friend sent me a set of record albums of the great British actor Cyril Ritchard reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The set included a facsimile of the original cloth-bound edition of the book, and I learned to read by following along with the records. The characters were so memorable, and while some of Alice’s adventures were strange, none of them were particularly frightening to me, even at that young age. I highly recommend this, and Through the Looking-Glass, as read-together books for families, especially with the original Tenniel illustrations.

  25. I love your list! And I’m so glad to see some Robert McCloskey books on there! We were big fans since we grew up in Maine (my mother *may* have called me Sal when we went out to pick blueberries–it might have had something to do with how many blueberries ended up in my mouth ;) ). Blueberries for Sal would definitely be in my own Top 10!

    Also, I love Frog and Toad as well as the Alexander book (that’s one that I still think of when I’m having a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day”!).

  26. I’ve been involved in primary education for almost 20 years, ran a children’s book club and taught preschool. GOOD BOOKS are SO important. I love the list you provided…but, I would add one. “Where’s My Teddy” by Jez Alborough. It is the oldest, most adored book at my house. The front cover is taped and some of the pages have been ripped and patched up more than once, but it has survived for 20 years! My 21 year old daughter still reads it when she comes home. My book club children and preschoolers loved it and asked for it over and over. I have a collection of children’s literature which I will never let go, and I currently do not teach and have no children in my home! Grandkids and more opportunities to read and share…that’s all I’m waiting for! I appreciate your insight and sharing.

  27. Thanks for reposting this, always looking for good books for my three year old! I let him have some twaddle, he’s really into Jake and the Neverland Pirates right now! But, he also has most of the books on this list! He loves nonfiction, too, so the National Geographic Kods books are good friends of his right now…the same books some of my fifth graders read at school!

  28. avatar
    Debbie says:

    I loved Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice . We also had an audio version and my kids (now 25 and 29 ! can still sing the whole thing.

  29. avatar
    Paul L says:

    I can’ t tell you how much I enjoy:
    Slow Train to Oxmox by Kurt. Cyrus

    Flotsam by David Wiesner
    (Or any of his other books)

    The Remarkable Farkle McBride by. John Lithgow

    And anything by Rob Gonsalves. He’s magical.

  30. avatar
    Denise says:

    Any books on the Five in a Row curriculum list are twaddle free – several are on this list and all are great quality.

  31. avatar
    Jessica says:

    Thank you so much for this list! I have been going through reading lists because we are in need of getting more books for my almost 3 year old who is totally bored with his books and was looking for a twaddle-free list without knowing it, lol! I just kept coming across lists that are books I read to him as a baby/toddler and I just wasn’t convinced that was it because I can tell he is ready for more challenging books. I was so excited to find this list…my boy loves Katy and the Big Snow more than Mike Mulligan but he loves them both and so glad to find all of these other books!! Especially now that we have a 5 1/2 month old girl we will be so much better prepared. I wish I had books to add to the list but a lot of folks have mentioned them already so no sense in repeating. :-) Thank you again!

  32. avatar
    Jessica says:

    Oh wait! These books are very specific but my child likes them and I think they are worth buying. The Goodnight Our World Series and I’m Your Flag So Please Treat Me Right! He likes Winnie the Pooh but will appreciate the humor more as he gets older like you said.

  33. What a fantastic selection of books! Many of these are all-time favorites of mine. Thanks for cutting through the twaddle and coming up with such a great list!

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