Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
With Christmas coming, many parents tremble at the idea of adding more toys to the overflowing playrooms and bedrooms. A good book to give a child can solve the problem of too much clutter and benefit the child in many ways. It gives them hours of something worthwhile to do, adds to family community when read together, and teaches them to love beautiful things.
As a bibliophile, I have two criteria for what makes a book a “good” book for children. The first is that it must be good literature. This means that it has either stood the test of time and is still seen as a valuable book, or I have read it and found it to have great beauty and depth. The second criterion is that, if it is illustrated, the illustrations be beautiful. I do not like unrealistic, overly cartoony images, but simple line drawings with watercolor, painting, colored pencil, or woodcut prints do nicely.
My reason for being so picky is that the things that my children see and read at a young age will form and shape their minds for their whole lives. The good literature will teach them about good and evil, what happens when one does not obey proper authorities or follow one’s conscience, and will give their imaginations substance to prepare them for life beyond their childhood. Beautiful stories and illustrations will increase their souls’ desire for beauty. And when they desire true beauty, they ultimately desire God. If we accustom our children’s souls to the less beautiful and the second-rate stories, then we risk them never seeking beyond the mediocre. If we want to help our children find holiness a grounding in good books and beautiful art is very important.
Over the past nine years of being a mother to little children we have read many books. The ones I share below are my absolute favorite based on my two criteria for children at a nursery level age and early elementary age. There are many other beautiful and good books, and I would love to hear about ones others have loved in the comments.
(1) Beatrix Potter, The Complete Works. I know that one can buy these stories in complete volumes, but I prefer the little blue books with a white dust jacket. They are just the right size for little hands. We have slowly collected all 26 volumes as gifts for the children over the years, and now, not a day goes by when one or more children is seen carrying around a few of these books. They are beautifully illustrated with realistic pictures of animals doing human-like things, have quirky, entertaining stories, and subtlety teach moral lessons. Potter had a brilliant way of writing and illustrating that I will never get tired of.
(2) Kate Greenaway, Under the Window and any of her other books. Kate Greenaway is another skilled illustrator. She writes rhymes for children, mostly about childhood, with illustrations to match. My children love to look at and imitate her drawings.
(3) Randolph Caldecott, Ride-a-Cock-Horse and other Rhymes and Stories. Randolph Caldecott is known for his gifted illustrated interpretations of classic nursery rhymes and tales. My children love to listen to and look at the detailed exposition of their favorite nursery rhymes again and again. The Caldecott medal that children’s books still earn for nice illustrations was named after him.
(4) Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith. This collection of childhood poems and lovely illustrations depict all the important aspects of childhood from the shadows on the wall at night to the view from the top of a tree to the value of the fun auntie. There are many illustrated editions of this book, but I really like the simple black drawings intermingled with the full-page paintings of Jessie Wilcox Smith.
(5) Andrew Lang, The Fairy Books (see The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, Green, Yellow, Pink, Grey, Violet, Crimson, Brown, Orange, Olive, Lilac). Andrew Lang compiled fairy tales and fables from around the world and published them into 12 volumes all with illustrations by Henry J. Ford. The tales teach about good and evil, the importance of obedience, and often have surprising endings. My children love these books; we read a story every day after lunch—we have made it to The Pink Fairy Book so far. Lang also compiled volumes of poetry and true stories as well for children, which we have yet to explore as a family!
(6) Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Wonder Clock, Men of Iron, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. My family has delighted for years in the wonderful telling of stories and wood-cut illustrations of Howard Pyle. Any of these make a wonderful bedtime story, with traditional lessons to be learned in an enjoyable way.
(7) Charles Lamb, The Beauty and the Beast. I gave this fairy tale to my daughter last year. We have read many versions of this classic tale, and they are all quite interesting, as they teach one to see goodness in the heart above and beyond external beauty. It is simply told with simple, yet pretty drawings.
(8) Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. There are many illustrated editions of Kenneth Grahame’s childhood classic. This story of our need for good companions is a great foundation for children being formed in Christian homes. The characters recognize their own weaknesses and accept the forgiveness and help of their friends. They experience consequences of their good and bad actions. We love to read this story every couple of years.
(9) Mother Goose, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. The rhymes of Mother Goose are foundational to a classic education for an English-speaking child. They verse them in language and art, and prepare them to read classical stories later in life. We have many books of nursery rhymes; the best being those with detailed illustrations, which give children a visual to go with the spoken rhyme. And now that we are all well versed in these rhymes, not a day goes by without someone applying some verse to a given situation.
(10) The Children’s Book of Virtues, edited by William J. Bennett, illustrated by Michael Hague. There is a longer Book of Virtues which has compiled tales and poetry focused on demonstrating the different virtues to children. This particular edition is beautifully illustrated with fewer stories. My children have loved to listen to and look at this book again and again over the years, and I hope that they have learned some moral lesson from it a well.