Best Books For Children; The Power of Reading © 2014


  • The Power of Books – What is a Good Book?
  • Best Classics;
  • Best Picture Books;
  • Best Fantasy and Sci-Fi;
  • Books for Boys; Realism;
  • Reading Lists by Age

The love of reading is one of the most influential gifts we can give children. Teaching children to read is vital but they must also learn to like books – and it’s the great stories that help them fall in love with reading. (Top 20  children’s books)

The amount of time the child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read continues to be one of the best predictors of later reading — Maryanne Wolf

The Power of Books

In a world that offers a child so many entertainments, why bother with dusty blocks of wood-pulp?  Books give us something more lasting…

Books help children understand the world

Books expose children to new ideas and help to shape their world view. In good literature, children discover the wider world.  There is a meeting of minds,  from far off places and times, good and evil, rich and poor.

Eg. In Parvana by Deborah Ellis, the reader becomes a girl who must disguise herself as a boy to survive growing up under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Children walk in her shoes.

While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture – Maryanne Wolf

Books help children understand themselves

We read books to find out who we are. Ursula K Le Guin

Children ask (subconsciously) ‘Who do I want to be like? Why am I feeling this?’ Stories give a frame of reference by which to measure experiences. In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford describes how books change us: ‘There are times when a particular book dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a saturated solution, and suddenly we were changed.’

Eg. The brilliant children’s novel The Daydreamer by Ian MacEwan. A boy’s imagination helps him deal with bullying, burglars, and fear of growing up.

Books develop children’s imagination

At their best, they (books) expand horizons and instill in children a sense of the wonderful complexity of life Michele Landsberg.

Reading helps us imagine. TV, movies and computers offer ready-made imagery (from someone else’s imagination) and are less likely to engage deeper thinking. Eg. The fantasy novel Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel, is so convincing you almost believe there’s a society of intelligent bats with their own religion, music and language. A rich imagination can also enrich the real world.

Children do not despise real woods because they have read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all woods a little enchanted. C.S.Lewis

Good books are a gateway to unique experiences: a parallel world (Narnia); a living board-game (Jumanji); a friendly monster (Shrek, the picture book not the movie).

Books develop language and the brain

Thank you, thank you Dr Seuss – for using rhyme and repetition so refreshingly. In Green Eggs and Ham he used a 50 word vocabulary to create a masterpiece that’s fun and a language builder. Books are an essential part of a child’s intellectual development. The brain changes when we learn to read: it has billions of neurons which connect with each other. This brain plasticity enables us to learn to read: the brain creates new pathways and these then become the basis for innovative thinking. Reading and thinking actually enhance each other. Read Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf for a better explanation.

Books are enjoyable.

Learning to read is fine but ultimately a child must want to read. The child who reads for pleasure is forming a wonderful habit. We encourage this desire by providing good books. Nothing can resist their power: not sleep, TV , or conversation. Eg. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is so exciting it demands to be finished in one sitting. There’s also pleasure for parents in reading aloud.

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. Graham Greene

Further reading: Why picture books are good for children.

What is a Good Book?

Okay, it’s partly a matter of taste, but I define ‘good’ as in high standards of writing and illustration. High quality books nourish and like wholewheat bread, often require more digestion. A good book has imaginative writing (and/or illustration), compelling characters, a great story and enriching themes.

Good Writing

A sentence which keeps its feet clean from beginning to end is good. Janet Frame.

It’s a  misconception that writing for children is easier than for adults: children’s books must combine economy, style (invention and imagery) and narrative drive– no easy task. The opening of Charlotte’s Web by EB White packs all those into two sentences:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother. “Out to the hoghouse,’ replied Mrs Arable.

The characters in a children’s story must be engaging. Eg. Dominic, by William Steig, is a novel about free-spirited animals talk about the death of friends, choice, love and wonder. The plot must also grab the attention: it must be original with strong pacing. Eg. The compelling Drift, by William Mayne, a novel for young teens. The opening chapter hurls the reader into this scene: two children stranded on a dissolving ice floe with an angry bear!

Good Themes

A good book can enrich a child’s understanding. Eg. The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy is a picture book version of a classic (from his Twenty-Three Tales). It attempts to answer some of life’s deepest questions: what should I do? where should I live? who should I be with? A good book can  explore values. Eg. The Windsinger trilogy by William Nicholson (Mammoth) is a multi-layered fantasy set in a society where to progress, a family must pass exams. A good book can enlarge a child’s viewpoint. Eg. What was it like to be a black child in Mississippi in the 1930s? Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor tells a story of hardship, but with a foundation of hope that is so essential in children’s fiction.

Good Pictures

A good picture uses the artist’s tools: colour, line, perspective, shape, composition. Eg.  Millions of Cats, by Wanda G’ag, is a design masterpiece about a cat plague. Flowing lines lead the reader’s eye on a suspenseful journey. Good pictures must also evoke the mood of the story. Read anything by Chris Van Allsburg to get the picture.

The Classics

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age. Robertson Davies.

Each time you read a classic storybook, you get something different from it. As a child I loved the bizarre creatures in Moominpappa at Sea, by Tove Jannson. As a 40-something adult I was delighted to discover that it was also about a father’s mid-life crisis. So what makes a book like Pinocchio stay fresh, while others such as The Water Babies have dated? A classic can be a book with an original concept for its time. Eg. Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll was the first children’s novel to create a complete fantasy world. Children’s books before then were  moral lessons or grim religious titles such as ‘An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children.’

A classic won’t gather dust: it’s read by generation after generation.  A classic will have strong writing or illustration. Eg. Kipling’s Just So Stories are still wonderful read-alouds. Eg. Dr Seuss was considered too quirky at first: he had 28 rejections before his first book was accepted. A classic appeals at all ages and stages. Eg. The Lord of the Rings consistently tops book lists for adults.


Struwwelpeter (1845) by Heinrich Hoffman poked fun at the dreary moral stories of its time. The gruesome rhymes are cautionary tales and the pictures are unforgettable. The King of the Golden River (1851), by John Ruskin, is a  fairytale with a powerful messages about self-sacrifice and the major flaw in Capitalism. The Light Princess (1864) by George Macdonald is a perfectly plotted story with wit, twists and a classic witch. Pinocchio (1882), by Carlo Collodi, is a wonderful creation: the puppet-boy has become the archetype of the disobedient child.  The language has barely dated.  Look for illustrations by Roberto Innocenti. Avoid edited watered-down versions. The last lines of The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde (1888) always reduce me to tears. A gilded statue is willingly stripped of his wealth to feed the poor.


E. Nesbit was the JK Rowling of her time. Many of her fantasies are still accessible. Five Children and It (1902) concerns a sand-fairy who grants three wishes a day. Naturally, the wishes all backfire. Nesbit established a formula about the intrusion of magic into the real world. Just So Stories (1902) by Rudyard Kipling are invented animal folklore. The language has repetition and funny characters for younger listeners. The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis (1950s) have some religious symbols, but rather than being preachy, the imagery enriches the plots with life and death situations. Calico The Wonder Horse by Virginia Lee Burton (1941) is my favourite picture book. It’s a western about a gang who steal Christmas presents. Burton’s illustrations are full of swooping lines and drama.


The Moominland books by Tove Jannson are a whimsical combination of pictures and childlike wonder making these my all time fantasy favourites. And those bizarre characters: the electrifying Hattifatteners, the frozen Groke, sweet Snork Maiden and the hippy Snufkin. Read my tribute to the Moomins and about Tove Jansson’s philosophy. The Borrowers by Mary Norton  is a very English series of fantasy novels that survives because of strong characters. Leon Garfield’s Black Jack is a macabre tale that has a cracker opening: Young Tolly is bound to the body of a freshly hanged murderer who revives.

Best Picture Books

To be an illustrator is to a participant, someone who has something equally important to say as the writer. Maurice Sendak

Picture books are a marriage of text and illustration; they should both support and spark off each other. Illustrations should make full use of the artist’s tools. The plot should be tightly focused, especially for younger children. Max’s Bath by Barbro Lindgren is a perfect example of a first book . Max dumps his toys and food in the tub and  then tries to bath the dog. The recently translated Zou books by Michel Gay are beautiful observations of childhood, with zebras standing in for humans. I Went Walking by Sue Machin, is another great book for preschoolers. The words are  basic yet they incorporate repetition, questions, rhymes and humour. My Dad by Anthony Browne is a child’s catalogue of how a typical dad deals with life’s tricky situations. Rats by Gavin Bishop is a spectacular modern folk tale that homages The Pied Piper. Pigtails the Pirate, by David Elliot, has spectacular use of colour and perspective in the illustrations. In this fantasy, a girl sails into stormy seas in search of her father. Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers, is visual poetry. A very small boy is followed by a lost penguin. He embarks on a perilous voyage to return it to the South Pole.

Almost too scary is The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Catcher by Molly Bang. An old woman is pursued by a freaky cloaked creature who is after her strawberries. The artwork has surreal colours. The Findus books by Sven Nordquist are brilliant picture books with detailed illustrations that are comic genius at times. My favourite is When Findus was Little and Disappeared: utterly charming. Zagazoo, by Quentin Blake, ingeniously reflects the stages of childhood using animal metaphors. A growing baby evolves into a screeching vulture, to a clumsy elephant, a warthog, and finally a hairy adolescent monster. The story within a story is taken to extremes in Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book, by Julia Donaldson. Inside each of Charlie’s books is a story about characters who have favourite books. Duck, Death and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch, is a remarkable book about dying. Death is pursuing duck and they strike up a touching friendship. Avoids dogma and gently suggests we must all ‘befriend’ death.

Erika’s Story, by Ruth Vander Zee, is an outstanding picture book about the Holocaust. It’s the true story of a Jewish child born in 1944 when her family was transported to death camps. The mother throws her baby from the train and it’s rescued by a German family. Maurice Sendak may be the greatest of all picture book creators. His sophisticated book Outside Over There is a tale about childhood separation that features a very scary baby.

Golem by David Wisniewski is a brilliantly illustrated fable about the effects of power. This ancient Jewish myth about the creation of a super-man that goes on a rampage is always relevant for the Middle East.

There’s a Hair in My Dirt, by Gary Larsen, is a cartoon-style ‘dig’ at the environment. Larsen uses Disney-like animals to show nature can be deadly. John Howe’s magnificent Jack and the Beanstalk is worth seeking out. Towering cumulus clouds, a precipitous beanstalk, and a vertigo-inducing castle are marvels of perspective.

 Best Fantasy

The best of fantasy offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality — a world at once more vivid and intense. J R R Tolkien

The great fantasist Margaret Mahy said one of the functions of fantasy ‘is to mediate between us and naked existence’– to give us a place of reflection. Fantasy has potential for exploring society and ideology at a child’s level. But  fantasy is not just ‘making things up’. There must be an internal logic and consistency in the setting. The Lord of the Rings set the benchmark. Before writing it, Tolkien spent years designing a world with its own language, geography, history and mythology.

Junior Fantasy: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a brilliant fantasy about finding meaning– it got me interested in words as a child. Charlotte’s Web by EB White is popular because the language is simple, the fantasy convincing, and the characters likeable. Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a reminder of the deeper wisdom of fairy tales. A girl finds a mysterious doorway that gives her access to a parallel family with creepy parents (with buttons for eyes).  Just released is a warm fairy-tale like fantasy The Travelling Restaurant by Barbara Else with magic, rescues and adventure. Animal fantasy is a difficult genre: it can’t be too cute or older children won’t touch it; and animal behaviours must be semi-realistic. Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel has internal logic, combining bat biology with well developed characters. The Redwall books by Brian Jacques are a compulsive read about a community of mice living in an abbey. Brilliant Australian writer Garth Nix is the creator of a fabulous series of fantasy books called The Keys to the Kingdom.

Senior Fantasy: There’s an impressive mix of fantasy, science fiction, and action in Siberia by Ann Halaam (Orion). It begins in a frozen camp for political prisoners where a girl and her mother hide a incredible treasure – a box of substances containing the genetic material of all wild animal species on Earth. Novels that speculate about an after-life are rare. Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin is an inventive novel about a sixteen year old girl who dies. She begins a new ‘life’ in a place called Elsewhere– a kind of heaven where people get younger and animals can talk. Skellig by David Almond is the strange, poetic story of a derelict man who is found in a shed. His behaviour becomes less and less human; is he an animal or a supernatural being?

Isabel Allende’s trilogy for teenage readers is steeped in mystical happenings and exotic locations. City of the Beasts takes 16 year old Alex to the Amazon in search of a legendary monster. Riding Tycho by Jan Mark is about a repressive island community. Women are little more that slaves in this subsistence society. There’s a great revelation that turns the story on it’s head.

Science Fiction: Fantasy invokes the super-natural; sci-fi invokes scientific ideas or technology. Science fiction has it’s origins in the social change of the 1800s. Early sci-fi novels successfully predicted nuclear weapons, space travel, credit cards and genetic engineering. Jules Verne gave us early descriptions of the supertelescope, a spaceship launched from Florida, submarines, and a video-phone. The House of Scorpion by Nancy Farmer is a mind expanding futuristic thriller about social change caused by genetic engineering. Penelope Todd’s novel, Box, speculates about the use of drugs to control the population. Great young teenage characters (but I must confess, she’s my wife). A Wrinkle in Time quartet by Madeleine L’Engle is a classic mixing science, spirituality and politics as children battle the forces of evil. The Ormingat trilogy  by Sylvia Waugh  is another wonderful series; about aliens living in suburban England. A novel for high schoolers is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: it has a cracker ending that raises disturbing questions about childhood and violence.

Books for Boys

‘ A good book for a boy is one that takes him to places he has never imagined and shows him things that dazzle his mind.’ – James Maloney

Education tends to lump boys and girls together, but boys develop at a different rate– they usually learn to read later than girls. Boys feel this delay and may become reluctant readers.  James Maloney says boys see reading as a female preoccupation. It’s vital that fathers read to boys, and are seen reading for recreation. Many teenage boys go through a computer phase but a boy who’s been raised on stories will return to them later.  Boys are often hooked by non-fiction, comic books, puzzle books, picture books, biography and science fiction. Tintin is a great place to start them off. (Read Tintin reviews). Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo is a wonderful modern day Robinson Crusoe novel. A 12 year old boy is swept off a yacht and washes up on an island where he meets an old Japanese soldier. The Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen are survival tales about a boy in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness.  True Stories of The Second World War by Paul Dowswell is a collection that young males will find gripping.  Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin is an incredible story of the determination of a boy to escape from grinding poverty and despair.  He became a famous ballet dancer and escaped to the West. The recently published  Adventure of Life by Jean Durand is a fine introduction to life sciences for young readers; and Sensational Survivors (2011) is a beautifully illustrated introduction to native creatures.

In Sea of Mutiny Ken Catran successfully debunks the Captain Bligh myths of the Mutiny on the Bounty. It is a story of exploitation and rebellion, but also a remarkable survival adventure. How do you write a children’s story about the trenches of World War One? Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence walks a masterful line between fantasy and reality. ‘I used to have a birthday’ said Uncle Trev, ‘but I gave it away.’ Just one of the many bizarre tall tales spun by a classic character in The Uncle Trev books by Jack Lasenby. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick mimics the style of a movie: half is drawings, presenting the action like a film strip. Hugo lives in a Paris train station where he meets a mysterious old man with an interest in mechanical toys. Nips X1 by Ruth Starke  is a funny and empowering story of a group of Asian children who form a cricket team.  It touches on cultural barriers faced by migrant children.

Realistic Fiction

Bridge To Terebithia by Katherine Paterson is a classic of realistic fiction. A boy from a deprived family befriends a fiercely independent girl. Their friendship grows through several crises until a heart-rending ending. Anne Fine is a great humourist (best known for Madame Doubtfire).  The More the Merrier is a funnier novel about the stress of family reunions at Christmas.  Slightly naughty humour and satire. The 10 pm Question by Kate de Gold is a quirky coming-of-age story. You will warm to the central character, 12 year old Frankie,  with his worries and eccentric family. No Safe Harbour by David Hill is a riveting account of the Wahine sinking in Wellington harbour, highlighting the courage of individuals. Hill writes sensitively, emphasising the human response to a disaster. A Respectable Girl by Fleur Beale is an historical novel with enormous sweep, ranging from New Zealand to Victorian England. 15 year old Hannah is expected to be a respectable young lady but she’s too feisty and free-thinking.

Looking For Alibrandi by  Melina Marchetta is a teenage story which has all the elements they enjoy including school humour, relationship issues, death, family stuff and a mystery. The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy is a mesmerizing character study of a twelve year old who has chosen not to speak and buries herself in reading .  David Almond’s novels are always a challenging treat. The Fire Eaters is set in 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis threatened. Almond stresses the love of family and the value of  faith.

More Great Books (in age groups)

Ages 0-3

Seasons by Blexbolex

Miffy by Dick Bruna

Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen

Peepo! by Janet and Alan Ahlberg

The Nativity by Julie Vivas

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen


Ages 3-5

Are You My Mother by PD Eastman

Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans

My First Car Was Red, by Peter Schossow

Curious George, by H A Rey

Harry the Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion

Olivia, by Ian Falconer

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr Seuss

The Three Billy Goats Gruff, by Gavin Bishop

Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

Elmer by David McKee


Ages 5–6

Where the Forest Meets the Sea by Jeanne Baker

Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young

Flat Stanley by Mark Brown

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

Ottoline books by Chris Riddell

The Quigleys- Simon Mason

Badger’s Parting Gift by Susan Varley

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

How Maui Slowed the Sun by Peter Gossage

Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel


Ages 7–8

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

War and Peas by Michael Foreman

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

A is For Arrgh! by Frank Rogers

Zoom by Istvan Banyai

Beware of the Storybook Wolves by Lauren Child

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr

The Mouse and his Motorcycle  by Beverley Cleary

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

With My Knife by Andrew Lansdown

Reflections of a Solitary Hamster by Astrid Desbordes

Ages 9–10

Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix

Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbit

Clockwork by Philip Pulman

How to Write Really Badly by Anne Fine

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

No Way of Telling by Emma Smith

Lion Boy trilogy by Zizou Corder

Sadako by Eleanor Coerr

Ambushed by Fleur Beale

Ages 11–12

The White Mountains by John Christopher

Flour Babies by Anne Fine

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

Dead Man’s Head by Jack Lasenby

Prydian series by Lloyd Alexander

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailier

Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee

Ages 13+

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by E G Speare

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Watermark trilogy by Penelope Todd

Memory by Margaret Mahy

High Tide by Anna McKenzie