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.
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 fewer pictures to introduce children to the idea of simply listening to a story without constant visual stimulation.
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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.
King of the Shattered Glass is a lovely allegory about a little servant girl who keeps breaking the King’s precious glass. Despite her fear of punishment, she takes the broken glass to the King, who always forgives her. In the end, she discovers her “mistakes” have been made into a spectacular Stained Glass window! This one really resonated with my kids.
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.
Wee Gillis is a Scottish laddie who doesn’t know whether to be a hunter like his father’s family or a farmer like his mother’s. But then he realizes his talent is something unique just to him: playing the bagpipes.
Three Little Horses is a fanciful make-believe about three little horses, Blackie, Brownie, and Whitie, who meet an artist and have an adventure.
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.
Time of Wonder is another charming Robert McCloskey book. A slower paced nature-focused look at the beautiful Maine coast.
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.
In The Finest Horse in Town, a child recounts three different versions of local legend about his aunts’ legendary horse: the finest horse in 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 King With Six Friends is in some ways a similar story to The Fool of the World. There’s a similar focus on teamwork, friendship, and quests. But in this version the protagonist is a king without a kingdom and his friends each have the ability to transform into something else such as a tree, a fire, or an elephant.
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.
The Jolly Postman is an adorable idea: a book about a postman delivering letters between the different characters of famous fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Kids love how there are envelopes with little letters in them.
Parent warning: one letter is to the Wicked Witch (of Hansel and Gretel fame) and is an advertisement for potions and such. The Wicked Witch is portrayed as mildly scary and bad and the Jolly Postman hurries away.
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.
Chrysanthemum has a beautiful, unique name, so the kids in her class at school tease her. How will she learn to love her name and stop caring about what the bullies say?
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.
Another fabulous first chapter book for this age is Big Susan. Little girls love this make-believe about a dollhouse family that comes to life and makes a Christmas surprise for their little owner.
A Collection of fairy tales is a much for any home library. My favorite is this hard-to-find collection The Fairy Tale Book.
By age three to four, toddlers are becoming preschoolers and are ready for longer, more challenging stories. Here are some of our favorites for this age!
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If you only buy one book off this list, buy Dogger. In my opinion Shirley Hughes’ greatest work, Dogger tells a humorous and heartwarming story of losing a favorite toy, and big sister saving the day through a sacrifice. I always tear up for this one. Themes: sacrifice, sibling love, giving
With The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook, you get four stories plus poems in one book! In this collection, Alfie and Annie Rose build a store, help a cow find its way home, go camping, and visit the seashore. Themes: enjoying nature, patience, playing together, sibling love
Under the Moon by Joanne Ryder has incredibly beautiful, detailed nature scenes (my kids wanted to eat the blackberries!). Mama Mouse teaches baby mouse to find her way home by using her senses. Themes: nature, five senses, mother-child love
Make Way for Ducklings is a famous Robert McCloskey story about a mallard duck couple raising their babies in a busy city. Themes: helping, kindness to animals
Speaking of ducklings the lesser known Lucky Ducklings is a fun story about baby ducklings falling down a storm drain and being rescued in a dramatic manner by fireen and a truck with a tow hitch. Themes: helping, rescues, bravery
Jane Hissey’s beautifully illustrated Old Bear books about the adventures of a collection of plush animals are definitely worth buying. Her original unabridged stories are difficult to find, but The Old Bear Collection contains most of her charming text and illustrations. Themes: friendship, sharing, kindness
The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown is a layered story about at once an island steadfast through the seasons of the year and a curious kitten who adventures on the island.
The Perfect Pony is a perfect story for horse loving children. It has an amazing theme about patience and kindness mattering more than beauty.
The Apple Pie Tree describes two sisters watching their apple tree and a family of robins throughout the year, eagerly waiting to make an apple pie! Themes: waiting patiently, observing nature, sibling fun
Tractor Mac, the friendly red tractor, learns about building a barn, patience, and humility in Tractor Mac Builds a Barn. Themes: patience, humility, boasting, hard work
Charlie Goes to School is a funny story about Charlie the ranch dog’s family starting their school year as homeschoolers. Charlie is such a sweet, amusing, sleepy basset hound he is sure to become a family favorite. You can find more of his adventures in Charlie the Ranch Dog and Charlie Plays Ball . Themes: starting school, homeschooling, friendship, helping
Percy the parkkeeper is another wonderful character of British children’s literature. In Percy’s Bumpy Ride , Percy invents a flying lawn mower and takes his animal friends for a ride over the park. Themes: friendship, building machines, kindness
The Brave Cowboy is a tale of a little boy whose days are colored with cowboy adventures courtesy of his vivid imagination. The illustrations are cleverly executed with the boy’s visions in red ink and real life in black ink. Themes: bravery, imaginative play, the wild west
Another cowboy tale, Cowboy Small rides his paint pony cactus on the range, getting back on even when he hits the dust, in this fun little story from Lois Lenski. Themes: trying again, bravery, perseverance, wild west
Raven and River is a beautifully illustrated story about a Raven and a winter in Alaska. Simple, beautiful text, poetic in its diction and rhythm, make this book memorable.
Homeplace is a fascinating book about a homestead that has been passed down through seven generations of a family. The detailed illustrations visualize what each generation adds to what begins as a tiny log cabin and ends as a thriving home and farm.
The Seven Silly Eaters is a hilarious rhymed story of a mom struggling to cope with seven picky children until they decide to do something for her for a change. I found it heartwarming, even if the ending is far fetched, and kids love the detailed illustrations. Themes: picky eating, helping out, big families
In Honey… Honey… Lion!, you get a gorgeously illustrated retelling of an African folk tale. This book is a great introduction to onomatopoeia! (Onomatopoeia are words that imitate the sound of the subject or object they refer to, like “buzz” or “drip-drop.”)
We love the description of homestead life in Ox-Cart Man accompanied by illustrations from the wonderful Barbara Cooney. A family works industriously all winter to have goods to trade in the spring.
Eric Carle’s Pancakes, Pancakes! is stellar for starting preschool minds thinking about from where food comes and appreciating the work that goes into a simple meal. Jack wants a pancake, and his mother will make it if he gathers all the ingredients himself! Themes: hard work, perseverance, where food comes from, earning something makes it sweeter
Doctor Dan the Bandage Man is the story of Dan learning from his mom’s care of his own cut to care for the hurts of his sister, pet, and even dad. Themes: caring for others, helping, bravery
As I add yet another British classic to the list, I’ll confess a weakness for British children’s books! Mick Inkpen’s Kipper Story Collection introduces Kipper, the sweet-natured dog, whose gentle adventures with his stuffed animals and real animal friends make soothing bedtime stories. Themes: friendship, kindness
In The Mitten Nicki loses his mitten despite his grandma’s warnings, and when he finds it is stretched out from a tangle of animals using it as a den. Themes: good stewardship, sharing
Another favorite Jan Brett, Annie and the Wild Animals features adorable Annie, who is searching for a new pet after her cat Taffy disappears. Themes: perseverance, friendship, loneliness
Home Sweet Home is a beautiful book both both in its detailed illustrations of different animal habitats and in its simple message of God blessing all things. Themes: appreciating nature, blessings
The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 75th Anniversary Edition is, to me, a good book in essence as long as one adequately discusses George’s disobedience and its negative consequences. These original stories by the Reys are funny and have good lessons about obedience, impulse control, and friendship. Themes: obedience, actions have consequences, helping, self control
Pond is a beautifully illustrated book that combines an introduction to the seasons with the concept of creative outdoor play.
The Seed Who Was Afraid to Be Planted is a great story to introduce the idea of dying and heaven to young children in a positive way. A little seed is afraid to be planted and “die” but realizes that only by dying can he attain a life more beautiful than he could imagine in his dark drawer. Check out my full review here.
Please also check out my list of specifically Catholic books:
A new baby on the way is an exciting time for a Catholic family, but sometimes the toddler or preschooler is a little less than enthusiastic. Or they may be excited, but still anxious. These books can help answer their questions, put a positive picture of big brother or sisterhood in their minds, and reassure them they are still special.
Regina Doman’s Angel in the Waters is a beautiful account of life in the womb and birth from the unborn baby’s perspective. Themes: guardian angels, unborn babies
When the Teddy Bears Came is a sweet story about a little boy helping his baby brother with all the teddy bears friends give the baby, then realizing the couch is getting too crowded for him. It ends with a special message that there is always still room on mom’s lap for the older sibling! Themes: helping, sharing, there’s enough love to go around
In Annie Rose Is My Little Sister, Alfie describes his little sister in a touching manner, matter of factly acknowledging her faults, but focusing on the fun of playing with her.
“And we’ll go on like this forever, even until we’re all grown up, because Annie Rose will always be my little sister.
Themes: little siblings are a gift, siblings will always be there
Big Brother, Little Brother is a celebration of the special bond between siblings. Big brother and little brother occasionally disagree, but overall take care of each other. Themes: empathy, taking care of babies, sharing, including little siblings
At two to three years old, children have a longer attention span and a greater appreciation for detailed illustrations. There are so many wonderful books for this age!
Some of my favorite authors to begin to explore with 2 to 3 year olds include Shirley Hughes, Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Jan Brett, and Robert McCloskey.
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Giving is a wonderful story about all the different meanings of “giving.” Described by a little girl and illustrated by the ever-charming Shirley Hughes. Themes: giving, thankfulness, sharing
Blueberries for Sal is possibly my favorite book for two year olds. Little Sal and little bear learn that they should stay close to their mommies, even if yummy berries are tempting! Themes: obedience, courage
Baby’s Boat is a luminous bedtime story we love describing a dream voyage on a moon-boat. Themes: bedtime, poetic language
Little Donkey Close Your Eyes is by the great Margaret Wise Brown. Animals around the world settle down for bed in their own ways as their mothers urge them to close their eyes. Themes: bedtime, animals, mothers
A Home in the Barn is another favorite by Margaret Wise Brown with lovely illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney. This book describes the coming of winter and how various farm animals prepare for the cold and wind. Themes: winter, opposites, onomatopoeia
Peter finds treasures on his walk, but has no pockets to put them in! Mommy saves the day by sewing new ones on in Peter’s Pockets Themes: sharing, creativity
Hush Little Baby is a nature-focused variation on the traditional rhyme, and is the version we sing in our house. Themes: mother love, enjoying nature
When the Rooster Crowed is a toddler favorite about the farm animals trying to wake up the sleepy farmer. Themes: persistence, sloth, patience
Shirley Hughes’ Alfie’s Feet is a simple but beloved story in which Alfie gets new boots and solves the mystery of why they feel funny. Themes: growing, calmly solving problems, enjoying the outdoors
Another popular Alfie story, Alfie Gets in First, is a cautionary tale warning children against locking doors. But don’t worry it has a happy ending! Themes: obedience, staying calm in an emergency
Little Lamb to the Rescue, one of the most beautiful picture books we own, is the story of a little lamb helping an even littler bird. Themes: helping, friendship
Little Baby Buttercup is a charming recounting by a loving mother of her day with her little girl. This sweet book is a must read to your little girl! Themes: a mother’s love for her child
Crocodaddy is one for the daddies and sons! A little boy and his father play at a pond, using their imaginations to make an enjoyable day even funner. Themes: using your imagination, daddy-son bonding
In Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear, Jesse Bear, a very active little bear, learns about all the times one shouldn’t get wet, and finally when one should! Themes: obedience, patience
Jan Brett’s illustrations in The Hat are, as always, worthy of lengthy study. In this story Hedgehog struggles to get untangled from a stocking, and Lisa tries to find her missing clothes. Themes: perseverance, being kind to others
Little Mommy is a good old story of a little girl caring for her dolls. It’s sure to delight any little mommy! Themes: motherliness
Another good old story, The curious little Kitten details the adventure of a very curious little kitten! It is a good cautionary tale to show the dangers of too much curiosity. Themes: curiosity, persistence
Is Your Mama a Llama? is a funny story that connects animal mamas and babies together. I think Steven Kellog’s trademark illustrations work perfectly with this story.
Once Upon a Cloud is a modern tale with illustrations to delight little princesses and a fanciful story of a little girl going on a magic carpet ride to find the perfect gift for her mother. Themes: giving
Little Mouse and the Big Cupcake is a delectable, gentle story about a little mouse trying to get a huge cupcake home, with some help from his hungry friends. Themes: sharing, generosity
Illustrated by the marvellous Hilda Van Stockum, Pamela Walks the Dog is a hilarious little book about Pamela’s lengthy preparations to take her non-existent dog for a walk.
“So she took her little sister instead.”
Themes: perseverance, creativity
Simple stories about Poppy and Sam are always a hit with two year olds. In Complete Book of Farmyard Tales, Poppy and Sam find lost animals, discover kittens, and help rescue the tractor.
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We start reading young around here! By the time our kids have their first birthday, they are usually happy listening to me read simple picture books. As always, my criteria include an inspiring theme, beautiful illustrations, and that my children approved. These books are great read alouds for a 1 to 2 year old, and preschoolers will also enjoy them.
What Did Baby Jesus Do? is a beautifully illustrated little board book talking about Jesus’ childhood. Themes: Jesus was God and man
Who is Coming to Our House? is a sweet board book which shows the barn animals preparing for baby Jesus’ arrival. Themes: Jesus coming, Christmas
The Word of the Lord and Cloud of Witnesses are part of a new series of board books from Katie Warner aimed at exposing the littlest Catholics to religious artwork and Catholic teaching! These are quality books that would make great gifts for a Baptism or baby shower. Themes: Bible, Jesus, Catholic Faith, Saints
Bear Wants More is a short rhyming board book about a very hungry bear. Themes: friendship, kindness
Baby Listens (Little Golden Book) helps teach little ones about their senses as baby experiences the sounds around him. Lots of onomatopoeic words keep the youngest readers engaged. Themes: attentiveness to the world around us
Going to Sleep on the Farm, with its beautiful illustrations of farm life, is a simple story of a father soothing his son to sleep. Themes: patience (for parents!)
Ask Mr. Bear is a story about a little boy searching for the perfect gift for his mother with some help from his animal friends. Themes: persistence, a giving spirit
I love Maurice Pledger’s Nature Trails books for their detailed animal illustrations. Some have touch and feed components my babies have all loved.
Biscuit Storybook Collection stories are somewhat repetitive but so loved by my children that I had to include them! Themes: friendship, gentleness to animals, forgiveness
Jamberry‘s gentle rhymes and clever illustrations make it another much loved and well worn toddler favorite around here. It is a rollicking little tale of a boy and bear searching for berries. Themes: enjoying nature, a cheerful attitude in adversity
Big Red Barn is a classic Margaret Wise Brown story, less well known than Goodnight Moon but equally enjoyable. Big Red Barn describes barnyard life, while Goodnight, Moon focuses on a room at bedtime. Themes: attention to the world around us, whether outdoors or just in our own room
Pat the Bunny (Touch and Feel Book) is a great early book because it provides sensory stimulation which can engage a reluctant listener. Siblings Paul and Judy explore their house along with your child. Themes: sibling love, attentiveness to sensory information