14 Classic Children’s Books for
3- to 5-Year-Olds

by Sharon Holbrook

These are the children’s books that you give as gifts or buy for your family, because borrowing them from the library and reading them once or twice will never be enough. They are the ones that join generations, which you may have read as a child, and which will be hard to give away when your children outgrow them. They are the ones you may be tempted to hang on to — “just in case” — to read to visiting nieces and nephews and, just maybe, the ones you keep around long enough to read to your grandchildren. That, friends, is what we mean by classic.

  • Make Way for Ducklings

    by Robert McCloskey

    Young readers will be charmed by the vividly rendered characters of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, their adorable children, and their eventful journey all over Boston. For the next decade or so, prepare to affectionately call every mallard you see in real life Mr. or Mrs. Mallard.

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon

    by Crockett Johnson

    Harold’s extravagant adventures are self-made, the product of his mind’s-eye and a trusty crayon. A clever homage to the imagination and creativity of childhood.

  • The Little House

    by Virginia Lee Burton

    A cheerful little house in the country happily rolls with the rhythm of the seasons around her, until the noisy, dark city grows and grows to surround her. Many authors can make animals into characters, but only Virginia Lee Burton could so deftly make a house come alive.

  • Anatole

    by Eve Titus, illustrated by Paul Galdone

    “In all France there was no happier, more contented mouse than Anatole.” Until, that is, Anatole learns people despise mice. Horrified, Anatole finds a delightful way to regain his pride and repay the people from whom he takes food.

  • Blueberries for Sal

    by Robert McCloskey

    Sal and her mother are picking blueberries and encounter a young bear and its mother doing the same. A charming story of a summer day in Maine, and the small adventures that can enter ordinary days.

  • Corduroy

    by Don Freeman

    A tender story of a sweet teddy bear and the girl who counts her piggy bank money out to buy him. “You must be a friend. I’ve always wanted a friend,” says Corduroy.

  • The Snowy Day

    by Ezra Jack Keats

    Through the appreciative eyes of a curious little boy, the everyday wonders of snow and sticks and wandering play become extraordinary. Brilliant simplicity.

  • Where the Wild Things Are

    by Maurice Sendak

    Two stories are masterfully folded into one in this classic — on its surface, it’s the story of a boy’s magical adventure (and rumpus!) among the wild things. It is also, though, the story of a naughty, sent-to-his-room boy who “was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” And that, of course, is even better than being king of all the wild things.

  • A Chair for My Mother

    by Vera B. Williams

    After a house fire, the young narrator and her whole family save their change to buy a comfy chair for Mama, who works on her feet all day at the diner. A heartwarming tale of close family ties, cheerful endurance, and patience.

  • The Story of Ferdinand

    by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson

    One bull is not like the other roughhousing ones. Gentle Ferdinand likes to lie under the cork tree and smell the flowers, but in the unlikeliest turn of events, Ferdinand is selected for the bullfighting ring in Madrid. A lovely tribute to acceptance of our own and our children’s unique selves.

  • Owl Moon

    by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr

    It’s finally the young narrator’s turn to go looking for owls with Pa, long past bedtime. The silent journey through the wintry woods is a rich sensory adventure and a testament to the quiet, steady closeness of parent and child and the wonder of nature.

  • A Baby Sister for Frances

    by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban

    Frances the little badger has a new baby sister, and nothing is quite right anymore. So Frances is going to run away. But not until after dinner, naturally. A captivating rendering of the quirkily charming Frances and her wise, understanding parents.

  • Harry the Dirty Dog

    by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham

    Harry likes everything. Everything, that is, except getting a bath. So when he hears the tub running, Harry runs too — into a gloriously dirty adventure all over town. But what will he do when his family doesn’t recognize the dirty dog he’s become? Gorgeously colorful illustrations bring Harry and his world to life.

  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

    by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

    Some days, everything goes wrong. No one understands a bad day like a kid, and of course, brilliantly, so does Judith Viorst. “My mom says some days are like that,” says Alexander at last. Sometimes that’s all we need to hear.

So what really makes a children’s book a classic? It’s not simply amusement value. It’s not pop-ups nor holograms nor any other fun gimmick. No, it’s a book’s ability to evoke the essence of childhood — what it is to view the world through a child’s eyes and to feel the world with a child’s heart. It’s giving voice and stories to children without condescension and with uncommon understanding. And, if we are not hardened beyond recognition, it can even speak to that part of us that remembers what it was to be young.