The best children’s books have the power to pull adult reader back towards childhood while helping younger readers (and listeners) expand their view of the world. This is no easy trick, but it feels natural when accomplished with grace. This is both why parents return to the books they loved as children and why the most transportive of those books tend to hold up decades later.
Still, the tendency to reach for books from one’s own childhood leads many parents to skip over worthy new work. This is why Fatherly wanted to draw attention to the 50 of the greatest children’s books of the past decade (from 2007 to 2017). These are stories we — as well as librarians, bookstore owners, and children’s book aficionados we consulted — feel are modern classics capable of helping kids laugh, learn, think, imagine, dream, see, and embrace the world around them in new ways.
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
There is no text in this retelling of Aesop’s classic fable. Instead, the classic story of friendship and finding strength in the smallest of creatures is told solely through illustrations. And those illustrations speak volumes. Look at the detail of the Serengeti, the wetness of the lion’s eyes, the fear he expresses when caught in the poacher’s net, and the spirit of the mouse throughout. Words aren’t necessary when the work is this vibrant.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
A simple tale that’s a must-read for any budding environmentalist. Wandering through the city, a young boy named Liam stumbles upon a tiny, unloved garden. He decides to tend it, and does so with great care. His hard work pays off, as the tiny plot of green space eventually spreads through the entire city, brightening every block.
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
It’s never too soon to present kids with a good dose of ambiguity. This genuinely funny story focuses on a character rendered exactly like the 19th-century drawing-turned-philosophical-debate-turned-internet-meme of a duck that looks like a rabbit…or is it the other way around? That’s where the simple joy of this book comes in, as two off-page narrators spend their times arguing about which creature it has to be. At the end, it doesn’t really matter does it? We’re allowed to see things differently.
Princess Hyacinth (the Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) by Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith
In 1971, Heide wrote the classic The Shrinking of Treehorn, which concerned a boy who, after his parents don’t believe he’s growing smaller by the day, takes matters into his own hands. In this book, which came out nearly 28 years later, the parents are too aware of the metaphysical changes happening to their daughter. Here, the problem is that she floats. So mom and dad take measures to weigh her down and shackle her to stable things to ensure she will not fly away. The story that unfolds as a result of this predicament — which involves a balloon salesman and a kite-flying boy — is a joy.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead
Amos McGee has nearly every kid’s dream job. An elderly zookeeper, his (very exact) routine consists of playing chess with an elephant, reading bedtime stories to an owl, and sprinting against a tortoise. When Amos is stricken with the sniffles and has to stay home, his animal friends decide to visit him and offer the companionship he so often provides them. The pencil and woodblock illustrations make each page feel like a frameable print.
Little Monkey Calms Down by Michael Dahl and Oriol Vidal
Consider this a self-help book for toddlers who have a tendency to go all Godzilla when things don’t go their way. Written by Mike Dahl, the story sees Little Monkey experiencing a bit of a tantrum. Sent to his room to calm down, he goes through a suite of tricks that will arm readers with ways to mitigate their own meltdowns.
The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
In 32 pages, Jeffers weaves a tale of love, loss, grief, and healing that, miraculously, feels complete. A wondrous little girl goes about her day, buoyed by the strength of the old man that watches her. But then one day the old man is gone (we see only an empty chair). To handle the hurt, she places her heart in a glass bottle. What follows is a meditation on life and how to endure its many tribulations. Is the story heavy? Yes. But it has a tender spirit.
The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes
This is one of those picture books that’s as much a joy for parents to read as it is children. The story is simple enough: a girl is given a key to a mysterious house and, when there, a mysterious bird flies forth from an ancient book and guides her through the sky. It’s the watercolor illustrations that really sing, creating a drowsy, starlit dreamscape littered with trinkets and magic aplenty. An ideal bedtime read.
The Wave by Suzy Lee
There’s so much grace packed into Suzy Lee’s panoramic book, which uses sparse blue and black illustrations and zero words to tell a story. We see a little girl at the beach, squeamish of the water at first but growing braver and braver by the page. Eventually, the girl — watched over by a squadron of seagulls — is bold enough to play in the ocean, where she is met by a wave and the wonder of it all. It’s a must for any child or parent who’s awestruck by the ocean.
Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein and Ed Young
Wabi Sabi the cat really wants to know the true meaning of her name, which derives from the Japanese philosophy that seeks to find beauty in imperfection. She leaves her Kyoto home and asks a variety of people for help, finally arriving at a mountain temple where a monkey answers her question beautifully. Reibstein’s haikus are exquisite, as are Young’s incredible collages, which gives the book the feel of a patchwork quilt.
I Must Have Bobo! by Eileen Rosenthal
It’s the classic children’s book trope: boy misplaces stuffed animal. But, in the able hands of Rosenthal, it takes on new life. The boy here is Willy and the stuffed animal here is a sock monkey named Bobo. Willy wakes up and, unable to find his lumpy companion, spends his morning losing his mind before discovering that Bobo has been taken by his cat, Earl. It’s a book that works so well because it’s so embedded in the world of toddlers. Read aloud, it helps them understand that some things that are lost find new homes.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
This book’s titular wish comes from a slow-witted bear with small eyes. He’s missing his beloved red conical hat and proceeds to ask a variety of creatures in the forest if they know its whereabouts. The simple journey, bolstered by Klassen’s sparse illustrations and fun details, has few major lessons but is a blast to go on regardless.
The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton
Brian fades into the background figuratively and literally (he’s drawn in black-and-white) until a kind gesture towards the new kid in class illuminates his artistic talents and their value. It’s a struggle to be a lonesome kid silently drawing superheroes with the power to make friends, but as an artist, one day Brian will appreciate not being appreciated in his own time.
Press Here by Herve Tullet
A lone yellow dot sits on the first page of this book; below it, the simple instruction: press here. Turn the page and you’ll find two dots and more instructions and more and more. What follows is an exercise in imagination that will have kids shaking, blowing, twisting, and pressing the pages to see what magic awaits them on the next. And the amazing thing is that the book makes it seem as though the reader really is controlling the action. It’s all exceptionally clever, and proves that a young imagination needs but a bit of urging.
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
This true story of the primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, charts her progression from animal-obsessed little girl to pioneer of a field notably devoid of women. It’s an ape-filled tale of determination fit for both nature-lovers and anyone who dreams of a life spent with animals.
Journey by Aaron Becker
One of the most brilliant wordless picture books ever created, Aaron Becker’s Journey follows a young girl who, ignored by her family, uses a red crayon to draw a door on her bedroom wall and steps through it into a magical world. Becker’s bright, imaginative renderings of everything from a forest strung with lanterns to citadels and flying carpets, as well as the realizations that strike as pages turn, make the titular journey all the more essential. The follow up stories, Quest and Return are as magical.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Annabelle lives in a drab, colorless world. One day, she happens upon a magic box filled with yarn of every color and, in an act of reflexive generosity, decides to knit sweaters for everyone she knows. And while Annabelle has certain hurdles that come her way, nothing stops her from brightening up their world. The prose here is bright and the way Klassen’s color palette goes from black and white to kaleidoscopic is astonishing.
Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo
A story about female empowerment starring a chicken. Louise the chicken stands up to everything the world throws at her: a pirate abduction, a shipwreck, a sublet in the mouth of a circus lion. When she returns home to her farm, Louise smoothly recounts her antics to her barnyard friends. As it turns out, bravery is possible for everyone — even those they’ve been told they’re, well, you know.
Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham
In this twist on the alphabet book, the titular Moose keeps trying to get his time in the spotlight. But Zebra, who’s directing the action, keeps sending him off page. When the letter M finally arrives and Zebra decides to give the spot to Mr. Mouse, Moose is livid — until, he’s given a special place of his own. It’s a clever shakeup of the standard style, one that deserves a place on your bookshelf for the zany ways it illustrates the Moose.
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri (2012)
Listen: sometimes you just want a story with a silly premise and no substantive message that makes children giggle every time they turn a page. This book, which posits that the fabled fire-breathing creatures really can’t resist some mexican food, achieves just that. It’s a blast.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
This is a genuinely fun book with a message of female empowerment. The Godmother of maker women was World War II’s Rosie “We Can Do It!” Riveter, whom the title character of this book is lucky enough to have as a great-great aunt. Rosie (the younger) is too shy to talk about her passion for inventing, but is motivated by a timely visit from Rosie (the elder) to pursue her dreams and attempt to build a flying machine. All little girls need is some inspiration.
Wild by Emily Hughes
The heroine in this book is a modern day Mowgli: She grew up in the jungle and was taught everything she knows by animals (“bird taught her how to speak”; “bear taught her how to eat”). Eventually, she’s captured by humans and brought to regular society where she is extremely out of her element. They try to tame her,, but that won’t happen. Consider this a call for kids to be their one true self.
Little Owl’s Night by Divya Srinivasan
A clever twist on the bedtime story, Divya Srinavasan’s tale not only conjures sleep in little kids but also assures them that darkness is nothing to fear. Little Owl wakes up as night begins to see his other nocturnal friends going about their day: a sniffing hedgehog, a family of opossums, a chorus of frogs and crickets. As morning approaches, Little Owl asks his mother to tell him what the daytime is like. She does — but he’s fast asleep before dawn breaks. Graceful prose and cartoonish illustrations buoy the story.
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown
Mr. Tiger’s society is stuffy: everyone wears top hats and lapelled-coats and no one wants to run or do anything but be serious. He plays along with them for a while, shaking hands and exchanging how-do-you-dos, but eventually the call of the wild — which is the call to loosen up and have some fun — is too strong and he sheds his clothing and embraces his true, four-legged self. It’s a story any child will relate to and the accompanying illustrations of waistcoated wildlife, should earn multiple re-reads.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers
This clever tale imagines what would happen if all the colors in a box of crayons stage a walkout. They leave written notes to their owner, a young boy named Duncan, explaining particular gripes they have and where they’ll be headed. Beige is tired of being Brown’s annoying step-cousin; blue is worn down by drawing endless seascapes; pea-green hates the associated vegetable. All ends up well, of course, and the journey to that point is worthwhile for the clever conceit and the crayon-inspired imagery throughout.
The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc
One day, while tending to his garden, a lion finds a wounded bird and decides to nurse him back to life during the winter. The two become fast friends — and save one another from a season of loneliness — but as the year stomps on, the two realize that, as soon as the bird’s wing is healed, he will rejoin his flock and they will no longer be together. It’s heavy stuff, but the story never feels overwrought and is always buffeted by Dubuc’s immaculate illustrations. It’s a masterpiece.
Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers
In this exploration of the classic alphabet book, Jeffers’ imagines and illustrates 27 simple tales that appear alongside letters A through Z. Coupled with the letter A, for instance, is an astronaut who’s afraid of heights. P is a puzzled parsnip. I is an inventor. Some of the tales are bright, others are bathed in darkness (in one, a little girl rolls out of her literal half house and into the ocean). The stories have subtle nods to one another throughout and the accompanying drawings are spare and exquisite.
The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall
Where, in fact, do babies come from? That’s what the precocious little dude at the center of this story wants to know. You see, his parents are expecting another child and, well, he’s curious. Mom and dad quickly jet out the door as he asks the question so, instead, he poses it to all the grownups he meets during the day, from his teenage babysitter (who says they grow in a baby tree) to his gym teacher (who says they come from the hospital). Utterly confused about the whole thing, he heads home where his parents offer him the actual reason.
Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo
A story about celebrating your sensitive spirit even when the world doesn’t, Hug Me focuses on a young cactus named Felipe. All Felipe wants is a hug — such a simple thing — but he is denied the act at every turn. His immediate family values personal space; others are not welcoming either. He has a chance with a yellow balloon but his hug leads to an unfortunate demise. Eventually, Felipe sets off on his own and learns to love himself before he meets someone searching for the same tenderness he so desires.
Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant
Baldacchino and Malenfant craft a story about modern gender norms that feels neither preachy nor prescribed — only necessary. It centers on Morris, a creative, fun-loving boy, who finds a tangerine dress in his classroom costume bin. He likes the dress because the color reminds him of his mother’s hair and it makes cool noises when he walks, so he wears it. The other kids at school aren’t supportive of Morris’ decision, but, thanks to the support of his mother, however, Morris is able to show the class that he’s more than his choice of dress. A must-read for anyone who needs some urging to stay on their own course.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
An ode to the vibrancy of city life, de la Pena’s story urges kids to see “beautiful where they never even thought to look.” It centers on CJ, a young boy riding the bus to the soup kitchen after church with his nana. CJ’s not a big fan of public transportation, but Nana knows the trip is an important way of getting her grandson to pay attention to — and realize the hidden beauty in — the everyday. The illustrations, particularly of the colorful characters met along the way, are effervescent. Watch how CJ, urged by his grandmother to listen to the guitarist play, is whisked off into a world of music. It’s a beautiful, necessary book.
Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford
The story of 19th-century slaves, this nonfiction tale uses painted folk art-style illustrations to “capture a human’s capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances.” It walks readers through a week in the life a 19th-century slave in New Orleans; six days of hard labor in anticipation of Sunday afternoons spent dancing and singing in Congo Square.
This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman and Kristyna Litten
Told in rhyming couplets and filled with illustrations of a diverse range of characters, this celebration of a, well, celebration, focus on that joyous summer day when the gay pride parade takes place in NYC. It’s a simple, sweet story that highlights all the colorful characters that make the parade such a beloved event.
Zak’s Safari by Christy Tyrner and Ciaee
Zak skips the part about lions and gazelles, focusing instead on giving his stuffed animals the low-done on how he was donor-conceived. There are some medically accurate words little ones may not know yet, but at the book’s core is a sweet story about two moms who wanted nothing more than to have a baby.
The Cat From Hunger Mountain by Ed Young
If you want to teach your kids about sharing — and avoid ending up on Hoarders — show them this fable about a wealthy, wasteful Lord Cat who refuses to abandon his possessions until he find himself destitute and starving is a good place to start. Think of it as mixed-media collages meet meaningful life lessons.
Waiting by Kevin Henkes (2015)
The act of waiting is such an essential part of being a kid. You must wait for dinner, for bedtime, for dad to get home. In Henkes’ book, a quintet of toys — an owl, a puppy, a bear, a rabbit, and a pig — sit on a window sill, each waiting for something incredible to happen. And while the thing for which they’re waiting for does occur and bring them happiness, they all find joy in the very act. Shouldn’t we all?
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall
A story that tackles sibling relationships, forgiveness, and the immigrant experience in just 40 Pages, Rukhsana’s tale about a little girl whose mother, uncertain as to why in American culture parents celebrate their children’s birthdays, forces her to take her little sister to a birthday party. Khan’s writing and Blackall’s imagery, though simple, both contain multitudes.
Sidewalk Flowers by Jo Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith
There are no words in Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith’s story, but the literati-style panel illustrations speak volumes. A little girl, clad in a red hood, plucks flowers on a walk home with her distracted father. Each flower, she decides, is a gift to bestow. A dead bird receives some, so does a dog’s collar, so do her siblings. Her journey and good deeds soon prove that simple acts can be splendid things.
Louis I, King of Sheep by Olivier Tallec
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously. His words are embodied in this beautifully illustrated tale of a sheep who, out of pure luck, becomes king of his kind. Louis, said sheep, quickly morphs into a tyrant and the tale that follows serves as a microcosm for the playground struggles all kids encounter. Consider it required reading for any child who flirts with, or is seduced by, power.
The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone Roach
That the bear ate a sandwich is inconsequential in Julia Sarcone Roach’s tale. What it truly concerns, and explains in both sharp prose and wonderful acrylics, is how the tuft-eared creature ended up near said sandwich in the first place. And that involves a ride in the back of a truck that brings him to the big city and a string of fire-escape climbing adventures. You can’t blame the bear for his appetite after such a long day, can you? At least that’s what the narrator of the clever tale wants you to believe.
Du Iz Tak? By Carson Ellis
The characters of Du Iz Tak are all bugs, including two damselflies, some beetles, a pill bug (named Icky!), a cricket, and a caterpillar-turned-moth, all of whom coexist in a few square feet of earth. Using exquisitely detailed illustrations and a strange, invented language of bugs, Ellis sees the characters marvel at the world around them, one that’s majestically large and atomically small.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie and Yuyi Morales
Acclaimed Native American novelist Sherman Alexie spent nearly 10 years trying to find the perfect angle for his first children’s book. He finally arrived on this beautiful tale of a young Native American boy Thunder Boy Smith Jr., who’s upset about being named after his dad, Thunder Boy Smith Sr. “I want my own name. I want a name that sounds like me,” he says. “I want a name that celebrates something cool that I’ve done,” thinks the young child, so he decides to find an identity that he believes suits him better. What follows is a tale of soul searching that leads to not only self-acceptance but a better understanding of the Native American identity.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michael Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
A biography of the titular artist and social commentator, Radiant Child ages a bit older than traditional children’s books, but it deserves a place on this list by the way it combines lyrical prose with Basquiat’s particular brand of collage-style artwork to tell a powerful coming-of-age story. Javaka Steptoe’s illustrations were painted on wood scraps found throughout Basquiat’s own New York City, a fitting tribute to a man who turned everything around him into artwork.
They All Saw A Cat by Brendan Wenzel
The premise here is simple enough: a cat goes for a walk. On that walk he encounters a number of creatures, including a child, a fish, a fox, a flea, a worm, and a mouse. How the cat appears on each page, however, changes based on what creature is looking at the cat. To the mouse, the cat appears as a monstrous thing; to the worm, he is but a series of vibrations. The images are exquisite and, coupled with Wenzel’s sparse prose, speak volumes about empathy and how we perceive our world.
Goodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton
In shades of Goodnight Moon, this tale tells the story of Great Big Bear and Little Bear, the latter of whom just wants to stay up a little bit longer. So the two snuggle in and we sweep through the jungle at night time, where everyone is yawning and preparing for bed.. The illustrations showing all the characters in a darkened jungle are wonderful and the prose, while simple, should inspire any little one’s eyelids to become heavy.
Hey Boy by Benjamin Strause
This is not a chipper, snappy children’s book. In fact, it’s downright melancholy. But it’s an essential read, a sort of modern update to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The story follows a young boy who finds a stray dog. Told by his parents that he is not yet mature enough for the responsibility, he gives the dog to a shelter. He visits him through the years, promising him that he’ll soon be able to adopt him. The boy, we can tell, loves the dog. But he is never ready for the responsibility.
The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
On the first page of Barnett’s book, an unsuspecting mouse is gobbled up by a hungry wolf. Not the most positive beginning. But in the belly of the beast, the mouse finds that a duck has also been eaten and, well, it’s a pretty nice place to be. For a while at least. Barnett’s wry prose pairs well with Klassen’s illustrations for a story that will intrigue and inspire kids.
Goodnight, Planet by Liniers
A little girl spends all day playing with her favorite toy, a stuffed animal named Planet. Once she goes to bed, her loyal companion goes off on his own journey. In this case that means distracting the family dog with a cookie and joining a mouse for a moon-snatching adventure. The story brilliantly imagines a world children already inhabit: one where their stuffed animals are not only alive but bold.
Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers
Jeffers created this book, a set of instructions on how to see the world, for his young son. In it, he waxes poetic on everything from the stars to terrain to humanity, distilling it down to the bare bones beauty. It’s a beautiful book for children, but more so for parents, as, in its view of the world and everything within it, it encapsulates a father’s hopes and dreams for his child.
After the Fall by Dan Santat
Everyone knows that Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. But what happened afterward? That’s what Santat explores in this lovely book. Here, Dumpty is a bird watcher who takes his famous tumble while looking for them from atop a wall. He’s patched back together at the King’s hospital (get it?) but from then on is scared of heights. He can’t climb to get his favorite cereal. Or to see the things he wants to see. Luckily, Humpty is able to overcome his fear and Santat is able to explain to children the importance of dusting yourself off and putting yourself back together again after even the most catastrophic falls