Books can be great gifts for children! But there are so freaking many to choose from, how do you know that you’re getting a quality book?

There are some books whose titles are household standards, and those are obvious choices for growing your child’s library. But some of my favorite picks for kids are actually hidden gems: not-so-well-known books which are fantastic in their own way.

I’ve got categories for authors, babies and toddlers, preschoolers and elementary kids, classics, and even a section for young readers’ first books!

Here are all of my favorites, as a teacher and a mom. Happy reading!

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In order to make my list, the books need to be quality: a great story (educational is a plus), gorgeous illustrations, and useful themes for children. Bonus for extra creative artwork and originality, and for simplicity.

I don’t like books which condone violence or bullying; books that use language which is too simple or not worded well; and books that don’t teach or inspire my kids. So here are the selections which passed our test!

(Suggestions also came from my husband, who is a certified educator like I am.)

You can’t go wrong with these authors!

There are some children’s authors whom you know will have great work, even if you haven’t heard of that particular book. These are the names you probably know, along with a few of my favorites from each one.

Other “standards” in kids’ literature

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein: a moving, simple story about a tree who loved a boy so much she would do anything for him, even if it meant sacrifice.
  • Love You Forever by Robert Munsch: based on the author’s experience with a miscarriage, this book tells of a mother’s love for her child even when he drives her crazy.
  • Corduroy by Don Freeman: a sweet bear longs for his own home as he waits in a department store for someone to buy him; but who would want a bear who’s missing a button?

the BEST Children's Books You May Not Have Heard of - Real Simple Mama

“The Classics” – old school recommendations

These books were written long before your child’s time, and so some of the language and themes may feel antiquated and overly complex. But I love the idea of my children hearing these stories and seeing the classic drawings. (Don’t be offended if these were in your childhood library – they were in mine too!) I’ve listed them by author for convenience.

  • Beatrix Potter: among other beloved tales, Potter is the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the classic tale of a bunny who wanders from home and gets lost. There’s also a whole collection of the entire Peter Rabbit saga. Lines from this book are still memorized and floating in my mind.
  • Hans Christian Andersen: he has over 150 fables and tales to his name, including The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Pea. Andersen is definitely one of the authors I want to have around for my children to read as they get older. (Do note that some of his stories are rather dark, so you might want to screen some of his collections before just leaving them out for your young reader to peruse.)
  • Marguerite Henry: I loved horses as a little girl and I have fond memories of reading Misty of Chincoteague and other tales about the wild ponies on Chincoteague Island off New England.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women is by far one of my favorite books. I had an abridged version as a little girl, and still own multiple copies.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson: yes, this is the author of such magnificent works as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide. But I recently found that he wrote a collection called A Child’s Garden of Verses and I plan to grab it soon!
  • Maurice Sendak: his most famous book is probably Where the Wild Things Are, which I didn’t put on this list (I can’t get over how the mother would send her child to bed hungry because she’s mad at him). But it’s undeniable that he has incredible stories and artwork for children.

Great for babies and toddlers

These books are great for reading to a very young child: they’re vibrant and easy to follow. (If you’re looking beyond my list, try to find stories which are instantly engaging, rhyme, and/or have quality artwork.)

  • Gossie and Friends (series) by Olivier Dunrea: a set of gorgeous, classic-esque stories about various animals: Gossie the Gosling, best friends Jasper and Joop, etc. The plots are simple and the drawings are beautiful. We have the board books so that they last longer.
  • Little Owl (series) by Divya Srinivasan: this collection has books for colors, numbers, animals, nighttime, etc. They’re lovely and bright, and are board books so they’ll be durable enough for your little one!
  • Lamaze books are soft (read: washable), safe for babies, and have various textures. I really love them – my favorite (and my oldest child’s first book!) is Peekaboo Forest. “Who is hiding behind the spruce? Peekaboo, it’s the moose!” cracks him up every time!
  • Rainbow Fish (series) by Marcus Pfister: Rainbow Fish is beautiful and unique, but it starts to go to his head. There is a series of these books now about varying topics, and the illustrations are gorgeous.
  • One to Ten and Back Again by Betty Ann Schwartz: this is the most creative book I’ve ever seen. It’s a flip-around ribbon book which is cute, original, and surprisingly sturdy.

Great for preschool and early elementary children

These books have been chosen as books which are a bit more detailed or in depth, with longer passages that don’t necessarily rhyme. They give the reader the opportunity to have dialogue with the child, asking them about what’s happening and what the child can infer or learn.

  • The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds: Vashti hates art class because she just can’t do it. But when her teacher gently convinces her to “make a mark and see where it takes you,” it opens up a world of possibilities.
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson: I love the creativity and simplicity of this book, in which a young Harold goes for a stroll in the moonlight with his trusted purple crayon.
  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: I really enjoy reading this book to my son. He is really starting to understand so many of the concepts in it, from the Onceler’s greed and lack of consideration of the environment, to how “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better… it’s not.”
  • Silly Tilly by Eileen Spinelli: this lighthearted, rhyming book tells how Tilly, the silly goose on the farm, went a bit too far and annoyed her friends. But then, they start to miss her individuality.
  • Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts: oh how I love this story. Uniquely told in first person, this book tells how a child covets the cool new shoes that every kid has… except him. I’ll leave the rest up to you to read. This is one of the most memorable, most influential children’s books we’ve ever read to our son.

  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson: a crafty mouse treks through the forest in search of an acorn, but is met with hungry carnivores along the way. Will his tall tales of a mysterious creature, called the Gruffalo, keep them at bay?
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst: poor Alexander just woke up on the wrong side of the bed (with gum in his hair) and things just go from bad to worse.
  • Quick As A Cricket by Audrey Wood: a beautifully illustrated book of similes, like “I’m as brave as a tiger, I’m as shy as a shrimp.” I honestly didn’t like this book at first, but my son adores it and it’s truly grown on me. (I also memorized it and would recite it to him softly when he had night terrors.)
  • Beast Feast by Douglas Florian: this book is a series of poems (some rhyming, some not), each about a different animal. They’re hilarious and really creative, and some of the references are a bit obscure so be prepared to explain!

Great for early readers’ first books

These books seem simple, but I find that’s the best thing about them. When a child has been working on their ABCs and letter sounds, and is ready to start practicing reading with sight words and shorter sentences, these are a wonderful place to start! (Note: these books may feel like a developmental “step down” from the previous category – remember that these books are to be read by the children themselves, so they’re written in a way to make them readable by a child. These are also not books of isolated words, like a vocabulary lesson. These actually have sentences and simple plots.)

    • Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss: very simple rhyming words like “Pat hat” and “tent went sent”, with the famous Seussian illustrations, this book is on our dinner table right now so we can practice after meals!
    • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss: I know I know, it’s another Seuss book, but that’s what these texts were written for! It rhymes, it’s catchy, and it’s a great story.
    • Dr. Seuss’s ABC Book: My son has memorized the rhymes of this ABC book and reads it to his little sister. It’s a bit off the wall, of course, but sometimes the silly things are what your child will remember the best!
    • I Like Bugs by Margaret Wise Brown: I love that this book has sight words and repeating words, in this case “bugs.” It’s also a fresh topic, instead of the usual cat and dog beginner reader stories.
    • How Rocket Learned to Read (series) by Tad Hills: Rocket is a sweet dog who learns how to read from his teacher, a little yellow bird. Other books follow the same two characters as they search for words and have adventures together.
    • (Many of the books in the Babies/Toddlers section above can also be great for early readers.)

There you have it! My super-extensive list of the best children’s books, including those less-famous-but-just-as-good titles you may not have heard of.

Have suggestions? Let me know in the comments! And thanks for taking the time to read – I hope I’ve helped you to inspire a young reader!