We were stunned that such a small child noticed McCloskey’s distinctive illustrations and correctly identified all the other McCloskey books we owned. Small children notice more than we think about picture books. The story is important, but so are beautiful illustrations! As St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists: “beauty is the visible form of the good.” Here are five authors who grasp this and personally pour effort both into crafting their story and creating artwork to accompany it.
1. Shirley Hughes is one of my absolute favorite children’s authors/illustrators. Not only are her distinctive illustrations carefully executed, they contain so many small details that little children delight in studying them. Her stories are always simple and engaging on the surface, but underneath they invariably present an age appropriate lesson. For example, Alfie Gets in First is a cautionary story about locking your parents out of the house. Moving Molly encourages children who are moving that there will be good aspects of their new homes. In Alfie and the Big Boys, Alfie exemplifies that even a small child can offer comfort and help to an older child. And Dogger is what I consider Hughes’ masterpiece: a tear-jerking tale of sibling love and sacrifice. Hughes also wrote one of my favorite book of children’s poetry:Out and About: A First Book of Poems.
2. Jan Brett‘s highly realistic and detailed illustrations are extremely popular right now, and I like most of her stories, though not all. One of my favorites is Fritz and the Beautiful Horses , a lovely story about a pony who realizes that being gentle and kind is more important than being physically beautiful. We also enjoy Annie and the Wild Animals, Town Mouse, Country Mouse and Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella. While I enjoy the illustrations in her Christmas themed books, I do not recommend them since she sadly promotes a heavily secularized view of Christmas.
3. Jane Hissey‘s endearing illustrations fittingly accompany the gentle adventures of a gang of stuffed animal friends in The Old Bear Collection. We love all her stories about Old Bear, Jolly Tall, Little Bear, Rabbit, and Bramwell!
4. Nick Butterworth is another English author whose stories we read with great appreciation. His stories, such as The Secret Path , star Percy the Park Keeper, a sweet-natured gardener who makes friends with all the animals in the park. The largest collection of Percy’s adventures, Percy the Park Keeper: A Classic Treasury, is out of print but can often be found in used condition quite cheaply.
5. To return to the anecdote I began with, my children all love Robert McCloskey‘s stories and illustrations. We also appreciate that not only does he draw illustrations for his simplest picture book, Blueberries for Sal, but he also includes fun illustrations in his chapter books like Homer Price.
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If you have a range of ages in your children and still want to attempt a family read-aloud time, then it is best to select a book which is interesting enough for your older children, but not too intense for the younger ones. You can expect that under fives will need a quiet toy to play with while listening since the lack of illustrations in moat chapter books will leave them searching for visual stimulation. A series can be a fun choice to read as a family since it gives your children more investment in the characters.
The number one series I recommend for a family read aloud is Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Both you and your child will enjoy the adventures and misadventures of the four Walker children, responsible John, motherly Susan, dreamy Titty, and active Roger, and their friends wild Nancy, timid Peggy, bookish Dick, and his twin cheerful Dot. The Swallows and Amazons’ adventures take them all over England, out on the ocean, and even to China. Arthur Ransome’s fine writing and skill as a storyteller make the books in this series true classics. There are 12 books in the series, all wonderful, so plenty of hours of reading! Our favorites are Winter Holiday (Swallows & Amazons) and The Picts & the Martyrs (Swallows & Amazons) but really all the books are worth reading.
Another favorite series of mine is Catholic author Hilda Van Stockum’s wonderful Mitchell’s series, consisting of three books: The Mitchells: Five for Victory , Canadian Summer , and Friendly Gables . These books are about the five children of the Mitchell family growing up in World War II era America. Later, the family moves to Canada, which provides some nice exposure to Canadian culture. These books are memorable because the children are so very realistic. Your children will immediately connect to the Mitchells, with their dreams and disasters, as they grow both individually and as a family.
The Good Master and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy are amazing books about a Hungarian family in the 1930’s. The first book describes how Jansci’s patient family gentles his wild young cousin Kate and also offers a lovely portrait of life, tradition, and cultures in Catholic Hungary. The second book is a bit more intense, describing the dark War years’ impact on the family farm and the children.
What better choice to read to a Catholic family then a book about saints? Mary Fabyan Windeatt‘s books are my favorite for this purpose. The language is simple enough for younger listeners, but the books also have solid content and details to engage older listeners. She wrote about a wide variety of saints so there are many choices!
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House series is an American family classic. Not only do these books provide a realistic historical portrait of pioneer life, they also offer many life lessons about hard work, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and perseverance. And of course they also provide an enjoyable story line. Girls will identify with these more than boys since all the books except Farmer Boy are about the Wilder girls, but boys can still enjoy these classic all-American stories.
Reminiscent of the Little House books, the Happy Little Family series chronicles episodes in the lives of an early American family, the Fairchilds. Beautifully written, with characters that jump off the page, these four books are very enjoyable read alouds with great lessons and vivid descriptions of nineteenth century life. For example, in a chapter of the first book, Happy Little Family , the father offers a special arrowhead for whichever of his children first shows true bravery. Stories like these provide great discussion themes: what is bravery or courage, are there different types of courage, how would your child act in the story, how could your child show courage in daily life?
All-of-a-Kind Family and its sequels More All-Of-A-Kind Family and All-Of-A-Kind Family Downtown are charming stories about a Jewish family living in New York City about 100 years ago. These stories about a family with 5 active, engaging young girls are sure to be favorites. They also provide good information about the different holidays and culture within a Jewish family.
Depending on your children’s ages and sensitivity limits, C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia may be a good choice. These books are certainly more intense than the others on this list, so be advised that they may not be a good choice for younger, sensitive children, but slightly older children love these magical tales by a master story teller. The plethora of Christian symbolism and allegory makes these books a rich, thought-provoking read. If your family spends a lot of time driving, here is a wonderful audio version read by a full cast of actors: The Chronicles of Narnia Collector’s Edition (Radio Theatre).
The Happy Hollisters is the first in a long series of mysteries featuring the Hollister family. Each book features the large Hollister family who exemplify cheerfulness and teamwork as they help others by solving mysteries. These are not great classics of literature, but wholesome, simple, enjoyable books for if you are looking for a light read aloud. Check out my review here!
If your children are a bit earlier, say eight and older, they will love the Letzenstein Chronicles, which begin with The Crystal Snowstorm. Catholic author Meriol Trevor sets these adventurous stories about orphaned children in the fictional Catholic country of Letzenstein, a tiny European kingdom. These books have heroes and villains to please the adventurous souls. I find their portrayal of the lowly and childlike characters as integral and important both noteworthy and admirable.
For animal lovers, I can’t recommend Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague series highly enough! Based on true events, these stories about two children’s hard work and love for horses is really inspiring. Don’t stop at the first book! Read more about Misty, Stormy, and other great horses in Marguerite Henry Stable of Classics.
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At age 4 to 5, starting preschool, children still love picture books, so most of my choices are in this category. But I also include some chapter books with few pictures to introduce children to the idea of simply listening to a story without visual stimulation.
Little Gold Star: A Spanish American Cinderella Tale is a lovely retelling of the Cinderella story with a Catholic flavor! Instead of a fairy godmother, the author has the Blessed Virgin come to Cinderella’s aid. I appreciated how in the end, the evil stepsisters actually repent of their evil ways and live happily ever after too.
What Can I Give God?, Will You Bless Me?, and Can God See Me in the Dark? are three charming Catholic books by Neil Lozano which answer common children’s questions about God through simple retellings of parts of the Gospels. The sense of love and closeness emanating from the family in the stories is like a warm blanket wrapping around you and your child as you read.
Another book which answers children’s questions about God is Does God Know How to Tie Shoes?. Author Nancy White Carlstrom answers a small girl’s questions about God’s nature and abilities in a creative way by drawing on the Psalms.
For the boy who loves knights, Karen Kingsbury’s Brave Young Knight is a little gem of a story. It offers so many wonderful themes about choosing honesty and integrity, ignoring peer pressure, and unconditional parental love.
Another awesome story about true knighthood, loyalty and service is The Errant Knight. My son loves this story about a knight who teaches true charity by helping each servant of the king he encounters.
As an introduction to the saints, I like Ethel Pochocki’s Once upon a Time Saints. These are stories of less famous saints told in a fairy tale style which interests preschoolers. The lesson to be learned is that the saints were real people with real feelings, just like us.
The first loose tooth can be unnerving for a child, so reading One Morning in Maine to prepare for that day is a great preemptive strategy. Sal wakes up one morning with a loose tooth, and has a busy morning helping her father and little sister, losing her tooth, making wishes, and boating to the harbour. In addition to growing up themes, there are good discussion opportunities about kindness to little siblings, bravery, and wishes.
Percy the Park Keeper: A Classic Treasury is a wonderful collection of many of Nick Butterworth’s Percy stories. These are charming tales of Percy interacting with his animal friends and caring for the park. You can talk about observing animals, kindness to animals, friendship, gardening, and stewardship.
Days on the Farm is a good introduction to farm life. This collection of beautifully illustrated stories includes information about sheep dogs, chickens, orphan animals, sheep sheering and herding, and tractors.
We read The Weight of a Mass: A Tale of Faith by Josephine Nobisso to introduce our children to the importance of the Mass. The baker in the story is awakened to the value of a Mass when all the goods in his shop prove to weigh less than a scrap of paper with “1 Mass” scribbled on it.
Also by Josephine Nobisso, Take It to the Queen: A Tale of Hope emphasizes the idea of the queen as mediator between the people and king. This is a highly symbolic story which draws on parables and the incarnation, all accompanied by beautiful illustrations.
If you are looking for a book to encourage empathy and appreciation for different personalities, The Treasure Tree: Helping Kids Understand Their Personality is the perfect pick. It combines a fun, rollicking search across a land of peppermint waterfalls and blueberry pie trees with a story of friendship, bravery, kindness, and leadership.
<Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm combines an informative, down to earth description of each animal on the farm with hilarious, engaging tidbits about its personality. The theme of this book is that no animal is perfect, but they still provide us with entertainment, companionship, and enjoyment.
Moving Molly is my book of choice for discussing moving. Molly is a bit sad at first to leave her old, familiar house. But she soon finds that her new home has many great things to enjoy: a wonderful yard, plants to water, and even new friends next door!
Five o’clock Charlie is such a sweet story about an old horse who feels abandoned and sad until an old friend gives him a job and opportunity to socialize again. You can take this as an opportunity to talk about the elderly, or just enjoy Charlie’s charm!
Henry Explores the Mountains is a story about courage, self-reliance, and hiking. Henry’s exploring in the mountains takes a hair-raising turn when he discovers a forest fire and must rush to alert the rangers. We also love Henry the Castaway, in which Henry and loyal dog Angus get stranded on an island and come up with creative ways for signalling for help. These books are great for encouraging kids to problem solve on their own, be brave, and stay calm.
Mike Mulligan and More: Four Classic Stories by Virginia Lee Burton includes stories about Katy the Snow Plow, Maybelle the Cable Car, and the Little House. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel’s race to finish the cellar is so well known that I won’t waste space elaborating. Less famous but also very good are Burton’s other stories. Katy the snow plow perseveres to clear all the roads of the city. The Little House is my favorite in this collection, describing the changes in the world over the course of a century from the perspective of the house.
The Growing Story is a gem both for its simple, peaceful message and illustrations. It follows a little boy, some chicks, and a puppy as they grow over the course of the year. It’s a wonderful story for explaining how children grow slowly (at least it seems like that to them!)
Andy and the Lion is a tale of kindness and friendship between a boy and a lion. Andy helps the lion, and the lion remembers when he gets loose in Andy’s town.
I firmly believe every little boy needs to read Steven Kellog’s tall tales Mike Fink, Pecos Bill, and Paul Bunyan. These tales are very tall, but they awake a spirit of courage, adventure, and boldness that little boys need. The illustrations are detailed and funny in classic Kellog style.
The Rattlebang Picnic is a rollicking tale by Steven Kellog about a big family and their adventures in their old car. Add a volcano exploding, an inedible pizza, and a flat tire and you have a recipe for hilarity.
We love Shirley Hughes so much she pops up on every book list I make! Tales of Trotter Street includes four of her longer stories, all with a great lesson as is typical for Hughes. Angel Mae adjusts to having a new sister. Carlos learns that receiving a surprise present can be even better than getting what you think you want. Neighbors work together to save the day when the concrete lorry dumps its load a day early.
Little Bear’s Dragon and Other Stories are Jane Hissey’s stories for slightly older listeners, charmingly illustrated as always. In this collection, children learn about putting on a play, camping out, having a race, and playing pretend.
Tomie dePaola has many good stories to choose from, but we like to begin with his Tomie dePaola’s Favorite Nursery Tales. This collection includes famous fairy tales like “The Princess and the Pea,” unusual folk tales like “The Straw Ox,” and poems such as “The Children’s Hour.”
Most preschoolers are still struggling with the concept of selflessness versus selfishness, so reading about Kermit the Hermit, the selfish shellfish, is the perfect help. Kermit is a selfish shellfish until his life is saved by a boy one day, and he realizes giving a gift to his benefactor is more important and fulfilling than sitting on his hoard of treasure.
The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh chronicles the adventures of the lovable, huggable Winnie the Pooh. These stories teach friendship, courage, kindness, sharing, and so many other lessons!
Raggedy Ann Stories are American children’s classics that offer some wonderful lessons. Raggedy provides a stellar example of cheerfulness, kindness, and friendship throughout her adventures.
A Collection of fairy tales is a much for any home library. My favorite is this hard-to-find collection The Fairy Tale Book.
Looking for more specifically Catholic books for 4 and 5 year olds? Check out my other lists.