50+ picture books every child should be read – a non-prescriptive list for inspiration

Last week the UK Secretary for Education Michael Gove suggested that children as young as 11 should be reading 50 books a year as part of a drive to raise literacy standards. This raised a lot of eyebrows amongst the British book-loving public, not least as it comes following large cuts in funding for libraries in the UK.

Whilst most commentators of course agreed that reading should be encouraged, many argued against a prescribed list of set length:

I feel it’s the quality of children’s reading experience that really matters. Pleasure, engagement and enjoyment of books is what counts – not simply meeting targets” ~ Anthony Browne
The important aim is a reading that should be wide and deep rather than numerical” ~Alan Garner
When it comes to reading books children should be allowed – and encouraged – to read as much rubbish as they want to” ~ Philip Pullman

In response to Gove’s 50 books a year suggestion, The Independent newspaper published an article “The 50 books every child should read“, containing books for 11 year olds suggested by Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen and others. This list gave me lots of food for thought. Of course I want to do all I can to encourage a love of reading in my children, and one of the ways I do this is by reading lots and lots to them – if they don’t love books when they are 6 it’s unlikely they’ll love books when they are 11 or 16.

So I try to let them read whenever or whatever they want, but I also try to ensure they’re surrounded by superb, stimulating, brilliant and breathtaking (picture) books. But how do I, you, or any other person discover and choose such books?

I approached six brilliant UK-based illustrators and asked them to contribute towards a list of books every child should be read. Tim Hopgood, James Mayhew, Jan Pieńkowski, Katie Cleminson, Viviane Schwarz and Clara Vulliamy all very gamely accepted my challenge of producing a list of 10 or so books each that they love.

This list is not prescriptive, this list is personal. This list does not claim to be the definitive top 50 picture books of all time, although it certainly would create a fantastic library for any child. This list is merely a starting point and this list, hopefully, will generate lots of discussion; I look forward to hearing what you think about the books, authors and illustrators which have been included (and those which have been left out).

Tim Hopgood

Tim says “This is not my top 10 – that would be impossible! My top 10 changes constantly as I discover more and more new (or sometimes old) picture books to add to my collection. And I don’t claim to be an expert on what makes a great picture book. The list I’ve put together is simply 10 books that I find inspiring and enjoyable to look at time and time again and hope others will too!

  • Shaker Lane by Alice and Martin Provensen
    I love this book – it always makes me smile just knowing that such an unlikely idea for a picture book was ever published. So what’s it about? Shaker Lane is a scruffy residential area that gets flattened and turned into a reservoir! The illustrations are superb – rather like a set of fascinating portraits -brimming with everyday detail. My copy is nearly falling apart which tells you that my kids loved this book too!

  • Next Stop Grand Central by Maira Kalman
    I’m a big fan of Maira Kalman so I had to include one of her titles in my list. This book tells the story of a day in the life of Grand Central Station in New York. It’s packed full of fascinating people and interesting facts – even what kind of sandwich Bob Hennessey the Fire Chief likes best! The whole thing feels rather like a sketchbook you can just dip into and enjoy!

  • I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss Illustrated by Mary Blair
    Simple rhyming text that works perfectly with Mary Blair’s charming illustrations.

  • Come Away from The Water, Shirley by John Burningham
    John Burningham is my favourite author/illustrator. This book reminds me of all those great days at the beach (often grey and sometimes raining!) making up all kinds of adventures while my parents sat dozing in their folding deck-chairs. Superb illustrations with a sparse text leaves plenty for you to talk about with young ones.

  • 365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental Illustrated by Joelle Jolivet
    A huge bold book, full of numbers, logic, humour and penguins!

  • That Rabbit Belongs To Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell Illustrated by Neal Layton
    This book is great fun. Neal Layton’s illustrations really bring the story to life in a refreshing and lively way. Although the text is quite long the story romps along at top speed. Superb.

  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins
    A simple story told in a very clever way. I use the board-book edition as a mouse mat! It sits on my desk as a reminder of how to tell a story with very few words!

  • Big Rabbit’s Bad Mood by Ramona Badescu Illustrated by Delphine Durand
    The delightful tale of a BIG bad mood with delightful illustrations too!

  • Madeline And The Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans
    As a fan of Ludwig Bemelmans I could have chosen any of one of the original Madeline series, but this is the one I keep on the shelf near my desk. Stunning illustrations evoke a real sense of adventure.

  • Oh, The THINKS You Can Think! by Dr. Seuss
    Anything that gets kids thinking is a BIG hit with me and this book does it non-stop from start to finish. Mad, silly and fantastic!

  • James Mayhew

    In choosing his 10 books for this list, James took inspiration from his son. All the following books come from his collection, picture books he can’t bear to part with even though he’s now nearly 12.

  • The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson
    Eccentric, beautiful, inventive and witty; the perfect introduction to Moominvalley, with holes cut in the pages for extra novelty value.

  • The Story of The Little Red Engine by Diana Ross and Leslie Wood
    The most appealing of all train characters, with beautiful vintage illustrations, and a charming story with read-aloud sound effects (and the most bizarre station names in the world!)

  • The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin
    Another classic with glorious illustrations and a clever tale about perception. Everyone loves the Happy Lion, until he finds his gate unlocked and he escapes. He can’t understand why everyone suddenly runs away.

  • The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson
    An understated fable about pacifism; an absolute classic about an unusual Spanish bull with an aversion to fighting.

  • Would you Rather by John Burningham
    Of Burningham’s many brilliant books, this is the most loved and laughed over and quoted in our house. such a clever idea.

  • The Circle of Days by Reeve Lindburgh and Cathy Felsted
    An unexpected joy: the words of St Francis of Assisi become a life affirming, lyrical series of philosophical thoughts. Very useful when young children ask big questions.

  • This Little Chick by John Lawrence
    I love Lawrence’s woodcuts – the man is a genius. Here his brilliantly crafted work is created in lovely colours and the animal sounds and images will engage the most reluctant child. My son adored this book.

  • In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
    For some reason this is the Sendak book we all loved the most. The lilting and flowing words, the tumbling illustrations. and the surreal world created by night. It sticks in the mind and once made us all get up very early to bake morning-cake for breakfast!

  • The Adventures of Uncle Lubin by W. Heath Robinson
    How Uncle Lubin rescues his nephew from the Bag Bird, is a ridiculous and rather wacky story with very few words and a lot of fascinating Edwardian black and whit illustrations. Possibly an acquired taste, my son insists it is his most favourite book in the world.

  • Little Bear by Else Homelund-Minarik and Maurice Sendak
    My son learned to read with these and other “I can read” books from America. There is a warm heart at the core of these books that really makes them special. The whole series is brilliant.

  • Jan Pieńkowski

    These are ones I read myself or had read to me as a child during the war (when there were no modern books on offer).”

  • The Illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel.

  • The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse written and illustrated by Edward Lear

  • The Just-So Stories written and illustrated by Rudyard Kipling

  • Just William by Richmal Crompton, illustrated by Thomas Henry

  • Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorn, illustrated by Granville Fell

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech

  • “And now here are a few more that I read when I was a bit older”

  • The Adventures of Tin-Tin written and illustrated by Hergé

  • The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illustrated by Mervyn Peake

  • Albert and the Lion by Marriott Edgar, illustrated by John Hassall

  • Sindbad the Sailor and Other Stories From the Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac

  • Katie Cleminson

  • Pierre by Maurice Sendak
    This was a recent discovery for me, and it’s now my favourite Sendak book by a mile! The rhyming text just leaps off the page.

  • The Miracle of the Bears by Wolf Erlbruch
    An unusual book about the birds and the bees, with fresh illustrations full of texture. And an excellent bear, of course.

  • Trubloff by John Burningham
    The story of a mouse who played the balalaika. This book is just perfect, and makes me want to climb into the pages.

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
    Johnson was one of the first to draw a character creating it’s own story over fifty years ago. In a sea of picture books that now do this, for me, this simplistic approach is still the best.

  • Jitterbug Jam written by Barbara Jean Hicks, Illustrated by Alexis Deacon
    I would happily put all of Deacon’s books in this list, but this is a great story, paired with Deacon’s sublime drawings make it unmissable. I’d buy it just for the pyjama sequence.

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr
    A classic, just perfect, and my favourite book as a child.

  • Wave by Suzy Lee
    Every child should own a wordless book and add their own text, and this book is a total breath of fresh air.

  • Olivia by Ian Falconer
    A witty, sophisticated, and original character, Olivia is a tour-de-force.

  • Le Voyage d’Oregon written by Rascal, illustrated by Louis Joos
    I only have the French edition, but I think you can get it in English now (Zoe adds: it is, here). A highly original story about a bear and a clown, full of pops of colour and great landscapes, I really wish I had drawn this.

  • The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey
    This proves a great picture book can be just black and white, and the text makes me laugh every time.

  • Viviane Schwarz

    Most of these are classics, because I chose books that I cared about as a child. There are many new books that I love, exciting ones and beautiful ones and ones that change the way people might think about picture books. But I felt like listing the ones that made me think.

  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
    I suppose this is on everyone’s list, and that’s only proper.

  • The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin
    This is the book I took out of the library every time I saw it when I was a child. It’s stylish in a way that appealed to me before I could read. It’s expressive. And it’s a story that touched me – about going out into the unknown and finding it very challenging, and how familiar things can become strange and confusing. I was scared for the Lion, and for his happiness, and relieved every time when he is saved. It taught me something about the way other people can see you in a very different way than you expect, which was an amazing idea to very-small-me. Also it’s got a cover that calls to you from a distance, the kind of book that signals: HEY! I’m your friend, come over here and read me!

  • Geraldine, the Music Mouse by Leo Lionni
    In nursery, Leo Lionni’s book about Frederick the mouse who collects words and colours was read to us all, and that was an important book, too. But it was everyone’s book. “Geraldine” was my book. The story is similar: a mouse that is different from the rest discovering art – in this case, music. But the music comes from a solemn, mouse statue made of a giant piece of cheese! I felt genuinely awed by this, and worried by the dilemma: can you eat the cheese that contains music? That’s still what I sometimes think, looking at a pot of ink, a scribbled note, a street sign pointing slightly the wrong way: Careful now, there is art in this. Listen and learn and remember and tell, because all things will get eaten eventually, but we may keep their art.

  • Croc and Bird by Alexis Deacon
    This book is not out yet, but I have seen it, and it is one of my favourite books ever written and illustrated… and I think it will make many people laugh and cry. I can’t tell you more, sorry, but remember this when you see it one day.

  • No Kiss for Mother by Tomi Ungerer
    This book about a kitten who does not wish to be kissed by his mother frightened me. There is violence and dread in it, from the smallest acts of wanton destruction to hints at the greatest. And it does not end, as you would expect, in the kitten learning to give mother a nice good night kiss. Instead he learns and understands that other people have feelings – and his mother, would you believe it, learns to respect her child. And so the two of them come to a very honest agreement. That made me feel stronger when I read it, so I read it over and over again, and I was happy every time at the end when it said: No Kiss for Mother. And there really was no kiss for mother. I learned about respect – not just to give it, but to expect it, even as a child.

  • Puss and Boots by Ayano Imai
    There are so many picture book versions of Puss in Boots – it’s a great story, but there tends to be a saggy bit somewhere that shows that it wasn’t conceived as a picture book. This reworking fits it onto the format like a well-fitted boot, it’s been reduced down masterfully to its essence – every page is a precise, beautiful bit of story telling. It’s wonderfully balanced between fear and joy. The most well-crafted fairytale picture book I can think of. And the characters are wonderful – cat is an incredibly engaging character, fierce and cute, greedy and determined, the shape-shifting monster it defeats is awe-inspiring and his demise is truly shocking.

  • Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski
    Pop up books were my special obsession as a child, I collected them, but really I was just trying to find another one that amazed and fascinated me as much as Haunted House. I don’t have a copy here, so I can only write about it from memory – but there was the alien horror that crashed outside the window in one picture and then smashed through and out of the book at you on the next. There was the dreadful fridge monster and the disturbing colour-changing concoctions hidden in the cupboards, and the skeleton that was always broken (I think it was supposed to jump from the bedroom cupboard)… and worst of all, THE THING IN THE BOX IN THE ATTIC SAWING ITS WAY OUT FROM THE INSIDE WITH A SAW THAT REALLY SAWED… the noise, oh the noise! Owning it was like owning an actual haunted house, I could hardly believe I was allowed such a treasure.

  • Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrate by Maurice Sendak
    This book about a little girl who assembles a birthday present for her mother with the help of a large, lanky talking rabbit was very precious to me as a child. I have noticed that in my life I have looked for friends who are like Mr. Rabbit: reassuring, patient, and ready to take me seriously. And it’s a perfect sun-dappled day out, with a good friend, working on an important project.

  • Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
    A book about a pet Boa Constrictor. Not so much a story as a manual on how to lead a good life, be useful and brave – and also on what you need: somewhere to belong (in this case, a Very Long Bed amongst lush potted plants) and someone who loves you no mater what (in this case an old lady who gets Crictor as a present and after a brief fright gives him a home, and a knitted snake-warmer, and things to do in life). Crictor was my hero, I wanted to grow up to be like him – looking at the book now, still a good role model.

  • The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan
    It’s a beautiful book about rabbits colonising a country and displacing the native marsupials. It’s incredibly detailed and atmospheric, and every detail makes you think.

  • Clara Vulliamy

  • Ginger by Charlotte Voake
    Charming and hilarious, the perfect book for any cats out there feeling anxious about the arrival of a new kitten in the family…

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr
    A true classic by picture book royalty; the deliciousness of the story prompted my young son into attempting his first sentence: ‘tiger – tea – with ME!’

  • Slow Loris by Alexis Deacon
    Brilliant and unique – how I wish I’d thought of it.

  • Clarice Bean, That’s Me! by Lauren Child
    A fresh and very funny voice showing family life warts and all, changing the topography of contemporary children’s books forever.

  • Starting School by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
    Reassuring, sweet and low-key; although clearly a wonderfully useful book for pre-school nerves, it also shows – which children know already – that the important things in life are all in the detail.

  • The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
    I read this regularly as a reminder of the gold standard of perfect writing against which everything else should be measured. And marvel at these original illustrations (later versions are a poor imitation).

  • Marshall Armstrong is New to our School by David Mackintosh
    Stylish re-working, with a light touch, of the all-important theme of welcoming the outsider.

  • Cars And Trucks And Things That Go by Richard Scarry
    A nostalgic choice, recalling hours and hours of happy browsing for my daughter and son alike, completely absorbed in Scarry’s eccentric world of animals in strange vehicles.

  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
    Takes a very real thing, a small boy’s anger, and transforms it into one of THE great magical stories. It’s great to think of another generation of children exploring the wilder shores of their imagination and feelings.

  • Dogger by Shirley Hughes (known to me as Mum)
    The best of the best. A tale of that most dramatic of heart-in-mouth sagas – a lost toy. Only the stoniest-hearted person could read aloud the happy ending without a wobble in their voice.

  • …………………………………………

    James Mayhew loves to tell stories and is passionate about bringing art music and culture into the lives of children. In 1994 he received The New York Times Award for one of the ten best illustrated books of the year for The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams. He writes the very popular Katie series – about a girl who explores the stories behind artwork in galleries, and also the Ella Bella Ballerina books which retell much loved ballet stories. He is currently working on a new book with Clara Vulliamy called Bubble and Squeak. You can find out more about James Mayhew at his own blog, on Katie’s blog or on Ella Bella’s blog. I’ve reviewed several books by James and you can find those reviews here.

    Tim Hopgood‘s book Here Comes Frankie won him the Best Emerging Illustrators at the Booktrust Early Years Awards in 2008, You can find out more about him in this interview on the Booktrust site or at Tim’s very beautiful blog. Tim also has a Zazzle shop selling fun stuff with his illustrations on. I’ve reviewed several books by Tim and you can find those reviews here.

    Katie Cleminson has just been named as one of Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators of 2011. She’s recently launched her blog and can also be found on twitter. I’ve reviewed several of her books, and those reviews you can find here. I also had the pleasure if interviewing Katie and you can read that interview here.

    Viviane Schwarz is another award winning illustrator, also having been named as one of Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators of 2011. Letters from Schwarzville is Viviane’s great blog and you’ll also find she enjoys a tweet or two, often pretty funny ones at that.

    Clara Vulliamy has illustrated some extremely beautiful books – favourites of ours include the series with the Bear with the Sticky Paws. As the daughter of author and illustrator Shirley Hughes and her architect husband, Clara Vulliamy was allowed to use her mother’s leftover watercolours at the end of each day; the start of her own path to being an author and illustrator. You can read more about Clara Vuilliamy at Telling Trails and also at her publishers’ website here.

    Jan Pieńkowski is well known and loved for his Meg and Mog books, his amazing pop-up books and his silouhette style illustrations. You can find out more about Jan at his website. You can read my interview with Jan from last year here and my review of his most recent Meg and Mog book here.

    Thankyou James, Tim, Jan, Katie, Vivian and Clara for contributing to this amazing list.

    What do you think of this list? What surprised you about the list? (Although sharing one or two common books, on the whole it’s very different from the top 100 picture books compiled by Betsy Bird at Fuse 8 productions.) What picture books would have been on your own list?

    29 Responses

    1. se7en

      What an amazingly awesome wonderful post!!! I will definitely be linking this one!!! Totally love it!!!

    2. Becky

      I love thi spost how inspiring but where oh where is chris wormell George and the dragon and his latest scruffy bear book….I just LOVE them. Thanks for this fab ulous post. If you ever want toguest post this at http://www.bookkreviewsformums.co.uk we wopuld love it. It’s delicious!

    3. Ebabee likes

      Fantastic list. I’m constantly looking for new books to buy and this is just perfect. There’s one book I love which isn’t here which is A Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton – the story is short, sweet and simple but it’s the illustrations and colours used that I really love.

    4. Tim Hopgood

      Yes I love Chis Haughton’s book too! Prefer the UK title ‘A Bit Lost’. Would definitely be on my favourite covers list!

    5. Susan Stephenson, the Book Chook

      Like Tim Hopgood, my favourites change constantly. As a book reviewer, I find I often start a picture book review with “I have a new favourite picture book.” There are so many wonderful picture books! I often try to come up with a formula but never can. It’s like what I say about great art – I know it when I see it. Isn’t that just a slightly pretentious way of saying “I like this one”?

      I truly don’t think putting a numerical value on reading is a way to raise literacy standards. Another way not to do it is to cut funds to libraries.

    6. Elena Gomez

      What a wonderful and useful post! Many of my favourites are here and I’m always on the look out for other good ones.

      I’ll get a link to your great blog put on ours.

    7. cathy@nurturestore

      It’s great to see some of our favourites included – Dogger and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. When I was six I saved up twenty pence pieces in our school book club and made my first ‘independent’ book purchase which was Little Bear.

    8. Jules

      What an awesome list! There are some firm favourites of ours in there and some new ones that we’ll be looking for! x

    9. Louisa

      I followed your post from British Mummy Bloggers – what a fantastic resource! We have hundreds of books in our house but interestingly only a few of the ones mentioned here. Book Depository here I come!! Thanks. I’ve tweeted this link too btw.

    10. Aqeela

      We have loads of books here and some of the ones which have been mentioned in the list too. I love Shirley Hughes and Janet and Alan Ahlberg amongst many others. Great post!
      Aqeela xx

    11. Ali B

      Brilliant post! I love Dogger (and in fact all Shirley Hughes’ books, particularly the Alfie ones) and Maurice Sendak. I love John Burningham as well- his pictures are so beautiful, and his stories are deadpan funny.

    12. Library Mice

      It is lovely to see a handful of French titles on there. I have very vivid memories of reading “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go” when I was little.
      I don’t think I’d be able to make a list, too many favourites! But no list would be complete for me without at least one title from Oliver Jeffers :0)
      Wonderful post Zoe :0)

    13. Kathy

      Fantastic lists! Some of our family favourites are there, such as the Sendak titles, The Tiger Who Came to Tea (an classic) and one of the Madeline books.

      I would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to put together an all-time top 10, as there are so very many wonderful titles out there and my childrens’ tastes change over time. I would say that there is a dirth of Antipodean authors on there – any list we’d compile would have to include something by Mem Fox, something by Pamela Allen, something by Leigh Hobbs, something by Alison Lester, one of Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s How Do Dinosaurs books, and of course, at least one of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy McClary books.

      We also could not have such a list without Martin Waddell (Owl Babies being my toddler’s Absolute Favourite Book Of All Time, Full Stop) or brilliances like Helen Cooper’s Pumpkin Soup books, Sam Lloyd’s wonderful Mr Pusskins stories, or Lynn Plourde’s series about Mrs Shepherd’s class (Book Fair Day being the kids’ favourite one).

      Plus lots more…!

    14. Jennifer Howze

      What a great list of books. I confess that I haven’t read even close to all of it but glad to see my faves on there, like Ferdinand.

      Of course which books are worth reading is always up for debate. Two obvious oversights for me:

      * Follow the Line by Laura Ljungkvist, which has fabulous illustrations


      * Goodnight Moon – the perfect going-to-bed book.

      It just shows the wide variety of great books out there for children.

    15. Katherine

      Some great books in there, old favourites as well as others that you don’t normally see on lists like this but I’ve bought for kids we know and they’ve loved them.

      I always buy new babies The Babies Catalogue by the Ahlbergs, it’s a classic and they love it from an early age, babies love looking at babies.

    16. Donna McKinnon

      Wow Zoe, what an inspired article! I’ll have to think about my own choices, but what a cool idea, and a great way to advocate for visual (and literary) literacy.

    17. Se7en’s Fabulous Friday Fun #63… » se7en

      […] we are blogging all about books at the moment, this has to be one of my fave posts of the week: 50 + Picture Books Every Child Should Read – A Non Perscriptive List for Inspiration on Playin… I don’t think I could limit my list to just fifty!!! Who doesn’t love a brilliant […]

    18. Choxbox

      Wow what a list!

      Happy to have some of them in our favourites list, and thanks for giving us a peek into what more waits to be discovered.

    19. Mamalion

      What a brilliant idea! Lots are old favorites of ours, but a few new ones also, and it was interesting to see the variety between the different illustrators. I’d like to add the Anatole books by Eve Titus, which they’ve just started republishing in the US, and a newer favorite, Lynley Dodd. We love Slinky Malinki and Harry Maclary!

      And Jan Pienkowski had lovely little board books when my kids were small- Shapes, Colors, Farm, Sea- My boys loved those!

    20. Janelle

      Very helpful post, Zoe. It’s quite interesting to learn about illustrators’ favorites. There are several titles on this list we haven’t explored yet.

    21. Even in Australia

      Hi. This has some of my favorite and lots of new suggestions for me to look into! So many books, so little time…

      This also reminds me of what my elementary school principal would announce over the loudspeaker just before summer vacation – that we should read ONE book over the summer. That announcement always made my sister and me scoff. One book?!? We practically read a book a day! While I agree that it can backfire to set a numerical goal of number of books (not to mention that all books are not created equal in terms of length or difficulty), I think it can also backfire to set the bar too low.

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