Ten "Must-Read" Classic Books for Kids

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Ten "Must-Read" Classic Books for Kids

I made a list of ten classic books which I think are a "must-read." I've sprinkled it with some comments and quotes throughout. As you know, the classics contain a literary richness modern books often lack, such as:

     •   Extensive vocabulary

     •   Eloquent use of language

     •   Moral lessons

 My list can also serve as a starting point when you're building your children's first library. With so many books available, there's a lot to choose from and the task can be overwhelming. This should help a little. 

Most of the books here boys and girls will enjoy and all of them they should read, but there are a couple of selections where I'll offer you a choice of two titles: one will be very much a girl's book and the other will be a title that boys will favor. 

The Very First Book

1. For the very young (a little under three), I would start with books of rhymes. Mother Goose is our oldest recorder of rhymes (we still don't know who she was or if she was even a "she," though there are some theories, one of which says she was a Mrs. Elizabeth Foster Goose of Boston who inherited ten children from her husband's first marriage, bore him six of her own, and when her son-in-law published her rhymes in 1719, became the official "Mother Goose," at least on this side of the ocean. 

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As I'm someone who's unable to resist beautifully illustrated books, I would suggest buying afterwards a copy of Edward Lear's, The Owl and the Pussycat, illustrated by Paul Galdone. 

2. My next choice for the little ones is Peter Rabbit. I adore Winnie the Pooh, too, but if it came down to which I'd buy first, it would have to be Peter. Children love animal stories and these tales are full of memorable moral lessons. I still remember being a child and cringing when Peter, adorned in his beautiful new jacket with shiny brass buttons, disobeyed his mother and hopped stealthily into Mr. MacGregor's garden. Would he end up baked in a pie, too, like his father? 

A room without books is like a body without a soul.
— Cicero

3. Heidi is a wonderful story for a child, usually one of six or seven years,  who can follow a longer narration. Our protagonist is a young orphan named Heidi who is sent to live with her cold and gruff uncle in the Swiss Alps. Heidi's compassion, kindness and cheerfulness defrost his heart and a beautiful relationship unfolds. 

4. Moving on, I'm torn between Pinocchio and The Pied Piper of Hamelin. I discovered the Pied Piper when my children were older. It was one of the books I had never encountered when young and I didn't get around to reading to my own kids, but after reading it for the first time much later, I thought every young child should encounter The Pied Piper of Hamelin at least once during their childhood. 

Pinocchio, on the other hand, is a great story of a puppet who earns the right to become a real boy by achieving the virtue of honesty. Pinocchio encounters some interesting characters and has some wild adventures, but he learns his lesson in the end, as all good children do. 

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I would probably start with Pinocchio and next read The Pied Piper of Hamlin, but with the latter, not before a child is at least seven. I may be wrong about this, but the story is a bit intense and would have kept me up at night when I was young. I've included links to both titles. The Pied Piper with the splendid Kate Greenaway illustrations is my favorite edition. 

5. Aesop's Fables is an absolute reading requirement! The fables are perfect for learning when young, because they prove invaluable when navigating the complexities of life when grown. 

Aesop's Fables are also at the root of many sayings in English like "a sheep in wolf's clothing" or "necessity is the mother of invention." They're full of stories of anthropomorphized characters containing great wisdom but told as simple tales, so children can enjoy them, too.

Reading brings us unknown friends
— Honoré de Balzac

6. Two more books I loved reading to my children were A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. They are both rags-to-riches stories with matters of the heart guiding the themes. Girls identify with the former and boys the latter, but both will love the stories of two little children growing up without parents and the struggles they encounter. 

7. Alice in Wonderland is an all-time favorite, and one I still read now and then. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name: Lewis Carroll) was a mathematician and logician. The story is one of logic told through the adventures of Alice, who falls down a rabbit hole and encounters a world of characters where nothing anyone says or does makes sense.

The tea party scene never fails to amuse me. I've been accused of conducting endless teacup parties myself, from time to time, (usually when I get behind in washing teacups!).

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8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is another favorite that children adore. L. L. Baum has an entire series of Oz stories, which I've never made it through but would like to. (You can probably tell that I'm looking forward to having grandkids.) Most people know the movie and story line about the four characters who are longing for something in life (courage, a heart, a brain, a home), and travel together with Dorothy to find the Wizard of Oz, who is going to make everything right. But can he? And is there somewhere else they might be looking? 

9. The Prince and the Pauper: A Mark Twain satire about two 16th-century English boys, who discover during a chance encounter that they are identical in appearance and agree to swap places for a while, so they can experience life on the other side. Only the pauper really enjoys his life as a prince, which presents a little problem for the prince, who isn't enjoying life so much as a pauper. 

10. Lastly, Anne of Green Gables is a lovely story of a girl who is bright and virtuous and the perfect role model for young girls as they approach womanhood. Little Women is another favorite so, again, I couldn't easily choose between the two, but if I had to decide then I would probably choose "Anne." There is also an entire Green Gable series, so girls can absorb themselves with her life and experiences for a good long while.

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Little Men would be the "boy" version to read, though boys will also benefit from reading the other two stories. After all, they need to learn about good women, too!

You probably noticed that I omitted fairy tales and poetry. If you've seen my extensive book list, The Smart Homeschoolers List of Mostly Classic Literature, you know I favor Andrew Lang's fairy tales. My first poetry book for children would be Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, but, again, if I were to buy one book it would have to be A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (both are also on my complete list). 

This completes a list of ten books (and a little more), which is not a definitive list, but a starting point for diving into the world of children's classic literature. As you can see from some of my descriptions, the stories are equally entertaining for parents. In fact, there are even adults who have book clubs where all they read are children's classics!

A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
— C. S. Lewis

Did you have a favorite story when you were a child? Three that stand out for me are Peter Rabbit, A Child's Garden of Verses and Little Women. I remember them vividly, as I'm sure your kids will, too.

For a more comprehensive list of mostly classics, please sign up and receive a 27-page guide to reading and a list of great books for children. Yours, for free!


Elizabeth Y. Hanson teaches parents the secrets and skills to raising brighter children with a focus on getting the early years right. She is the founder of Smart Homeschooler™ and has been a holistic consultant and a researcher in children's education since 2001.