1. The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein - The all-time classic, the only book that gives me chills every time I read it. I'm so lucky to have gotten my hands on a clothbound copy of this treasure while I was working in the bookshop; I will hold onto it forever.
2. The Gruffalo - Julia Donaldson, illustrations by Axel Scheffler - This is one of those books that just so happened to show up along my path while working in the bookshop, and between the sharp, colorful illustrations and the craftiness of the little mouse who outwits the other animals pursuing him before finally meeting the "Gruffalo" (and YES, he does exist!), I just can't get enough of it, especially since it also has a great rhyming rhythm that gets kids right into the story.
4. Knuffle Bunny - Mo Willems - Now HERE'S a recent book that bowled me over as soon as I read it the first time -- everything about it is endearing and appealing, as sappy as that may sound... The combination of black-and-white New York street photos with the quirky colorful drawings on top only enhance Mo Willems' portrayal of baby Trixie, just hitting that age when she's garbling away like crazy but is still pretty much incomprehensible -- until she pronounces her first real word at the end! But not before she loses her beloved stuffed Knuffle Bunny, and drives daddy crazy looking for it... I was sold on Mo after his first Pigeon book, when it won the Caldecott Honor in 2003, and I've become a big fan of his naive drawings and wacky, addictive sense of humor. He also really has a way with kids... Apparently he was inspired by his own baby daughter when he wrote and illustrated Knuffle Bunny, which won the Caldecott Medal in 2004.
5. The Magic Paintbrush - (exists in several versions, as it is based on a Chinese fable, if I'm not mistaken; I have the Julia Donaldson edition as well as a tiny French edition) An enchanting, inspiring story about an incredible paintbrush that brings everything it paints to life. But the main character, Shen, who was given this magical gift, has to protect it from the greedy plans of the emperor, who wants to use it to create more and more riches for himself.
6. The Cat in the Hat - Dr. Seuss - Who doesn't know this eponymous tale by Theodore Geisel, most definitely his most well-loved classic, along with Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish? I have a mini boxed set at this point, as well as my worn copy from childhood, but I'm sure this is a book we'll read together time and time again... I have a particular affinity for Dr. Seuss as he was such a major part of my childhood, so I had to hold myself back several times from buying some anniversary collected editions a few years ago. I may regret not getting my hands on those, though...
7. When Everybody Wore a Hat - William Steig - I'm sure some of you out there have already heard of a silly, loveable monster by the name of Shrek, right?! Well, he was invented by none other than William Steig, also quite known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. But his last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat, was the one that really touched me, with the voyage back in time to another era, when Steig himself was growing up in the city, and the many different people he encountered. Something about his childlike drawings here gets to me every time.
8. Frog and Toad Are Friends - Arnold Lobell (and actually the whole Frod & Toad early reading series) Such whimsical, sweet, funny tales of friendship and exchange, these books make me nostalgic for my childhood every time I read them again today. There is even a certain depth to the stories, something that children wouldn't necessarily grasp of course (at least not immediately), but I think that is truly what is so magical about the best children's books out there, how perfectly they capture childhood and its complications, while they presage the difficulties, challenges, and painful moments of adulthood and all that it brings at the same time. Frog & Toad just really bring back memories... And oh, how I love Lobell's drawings!
9. Miss Nelson is Missing - Harry Allard, illustrations by James Marshall - I don't know if I first heard this book when I was really little, or if I heard it for the first time when looking over my mother's shoulder as she read to my baby brother, six years my junior. I used to get a kick out of listening to her read to him, even though by then I was reading plenty of my own books. But there's just something about storytelling time... And Miss Nelson is one of those irresistible tales that gets you smiling from the start. Naughty schoolkids, a sweet teacher, a nasty witch, and a mystery: all the ingredients for the best kind of story!
10. Harry the Dirty Dog - Gene Zion - The memories of this book came rushing back to me when I found a special hardbound anniversary edition of it in a bookshop this past January, just when I was wandering around looking for the best board books of the bunch... Actually, this edition also includes No Roses for Harry, and Harry by the Sea. But the first tale is of course the most memorable one, in which Harry runs away and has a good time getting dirty all day long, but when his family doesn't recognize him he has to find a way to convince them that he's still the same dog!
11. Goodnight Gorilla - Peggy Rathmann - When looking for those baby board books, I fell upon an edition of this adorable "word-free" picture book, full of images that are so perfect that they tell the story on their own. When a friendly zookeeper's animals all follow him home one night while he's trying to close up shop, he has to usher them each back to their cages. But one tricky gorilla keeps getting loose again! I love the one double-page illustration of the gorilla's toothy smile shining in the dark of the zookeeper's bedroom.
12. The Snail and the Whale - Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler (is it obvious that I'm also a big fan of this writer/illustrator team?!) After discovering The Gruffalo, this educational picture book showed up in my book-buying catalogue one day and it was love at first sight. I'm a sucker for Scheffler's flair for color and setting, and this cautionary environmental tale is the perfect balance of fairy tale and modern fable.
Gosh, I think I'm going to stop here with my dozen, although obviously I could go on forever... I also love The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds, which should be put between the hands of any budding artist who has lost his/her sense of confidence -- or for that matter any child who thinks he/she can't draw! And Zen Shorts, another Caldecott Honor winner which has breathtaking watercolor illustrations and a refreshing take on philosophy for the youngest crowd.
Ahhh, I'm turning into a monster! Anybody have any favorites they want to add?! Obviously I'm OPEN to new discoveries! (Even though our sagging bookshelves may not be too happy...) [Oh, and by the way, if you're as into children's books as I am, or you just love a great collection of children's stories, this book is a must-have. I love paging through it and re-reading some of my classic favorites... So many are in there!]