Time for Bed, by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer
Some children’s books you treasure for their message, others for their illustrations, and others for their magical powers. This is the third type. Not one I would naturally be drawn to (the pictures are kind of intense), it was a Grandma gift in my house, that turned out to have unparalleled soporific effects. A freshly bathed toddler was powerless against the quiet, repetitive text, which chronicles tuck-in time across the animal community ("It’s time for bed, little mouse, little mouse; darkness is falling all over the house...”; you get the idea). She or he, whether of mellow or insane temperament (not naming names here) would struggle to stay awake for the big finish. As will you. Get the big hardcover, for maximum impact.
Elmo’s Big Lift-and-Look Book, by Anna Ross and Joe Mathieu
Before there were touchscreens, there were flapbooks, and, people, this is king of the genre. I don’t know what it is about this particular book—probably some combination of the size (big!), the Elmoness, and the old-school interactivity, but it inspires play to the point of wear-out (like a beloved dolly). Be warned that certain parents are not keen on bright-colored branded books that contrast so aggressively with wooden toys and neutral play spaces. Totally worth it for how happy it will make the little human you’re actually aiming to please.
Age 4 and forever
Nora’s Stars, by Satomi Ichikawa
Simply the most beautiful children’s book ever, with a sweet, lovely message about imagination and generosity. I think this was the most-read book in my house.
All of a Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor
When this series was reissued recently, I found myself high-fiving via Facebook with friends my age and their fourth-grade children. It’s about a family of five girls on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the early 1900s and their parents who always manage to make ends meet, make life fun, and bring joy to everyday chores and activities. Rereading there’s a fair amount of hilariously dated disrespect for others in their low-income neighborhood (like my own people, the Italians) but the book just tells it like it is, and I can’t tell you how many little details of my life were colored by what I saw in these pages (yearning to celebrate Sukkoth, for example, though my family isn’t Jewish). I disappeared into these books when I was 8 or 9. My daughter loved them at the same age. And I suspect their magic is still pretty powerful today.
Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech
Either you’re going to be the coolest aunt/uncle/grown-up friend ever for giving this story in poems or you’ll never be invited back. It’s killer-sad, but incredibly beautiful, and just right for that age when kids are wanting to feel and feel and feel their feelings. Give it at your own risk.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by the brilliant E.L. Konigsburg
Because my heart fills to my throat when I type the name of this book, I’m going to be no good at describing it—and because it’s a famous one, maybe I don’t have to. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s about a girl named Claudia growing up in a suburb of New York who decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What might feel exciting to today’s actively parented youth is the benign neglect and open sibling discord that make the plot absolutely plausible (it was written in 1968). It’s a smart, gritty adventure (Claudia chooses her best-funded brother to accompany her) that’s funny and real and (forgive this next adjective, but I warned you I am inarticulate with emotion) enchanting. Ps: I only just realized that the super-evocative illustrations are by the author herself. Wowza.
I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser
Giving non-monetary gifts to teens is like crossing the street with your eyes closed, but this one is, I promise, cool enough to get you a chin nod. It’s just a smallish paperback, but exactly right for when you have wine for the parents, a toy for the little one, and omigod-nothing-for-Clio. Part of the Six-Word Memoir series, it’s a bunch of brief, poetic musings by “teens obscure and famous” that kept my daughter, at just this age, up reading till the wee hours and left her with a lot to share and discuss in the morning. (Warning: it’s pretty edgy, but that’s why it’s cool!)
Catching the Big Fish, by David Lynch
David Lynch, lifetime meditator and wackadoodle genius, talks humbly about creativity and life’s mysteries in this really lovely object-of-a-book. Its dimensions are pleasing, it's light on words, and it feels as peaceful and curious as a meditation itself. I like it for a certain type of graduate, and I like Al Franken’s Oh The Things I Know—real advice wrapped in a candy-coating of hilarity that goes down smooth and stays with you—for another type.
One last note: If you like paper books and want them to stay around, buy them! From local booksellers, please! They’ll order whatever you need. Find indie bookstores near you here.