The Very Hungry Caterpillar Turns 45, and 10 Other Timeless Children’s Classics

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

This year, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle’s epic tale of an insect who tries and tries but cannot quench the insatiable hunger that drives him, turns 45, which is coincidentally the number of times I have read it out loud to my two-year-old this week.

It’s easy to see why the book has endured. In just a few pages, it packs in a science lesson (the life cycle of the butterfly!), a bit of counting (five oranges, one…two…three…four…five!), a primer on the days of the week, and a life lesson: Saturday is for indulging (salami and sausage! Pie and cake!), and Sunday is for recovery, and a nice salad.

Still, you can only read one book so many times (I assume…I haven’t hit the wall with this one yet). Here are 10 other timeless classics that belong in every child’s library:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr.
Eric Carle makes this list twice (truthfully, I could probably make this list all Carle), though he’s only responsible for the art here; the words belong to Bill Martin, Jr. Playfully singsong text and wonderfully abstract art make it an easy repeat, even if “I see a teacher looking at me!” comes off as perhaps slightly more sinister than the artist intended.

Moo, Baa, La La La, by Sandra Boynton
Sandra Boynton has written over a dozen children’s books, and if you ask me, that’s not enough. The simple drawings (with characters recurring from book to book) and super memorable, offbeat rhymes make them easy favorites for kids and parents alike. This one, first published in 1982, isn’t my favorite Boynton (that would be The Going to Bed Book), but it is, perhaps, the definitive Boynton.

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
After you’ve read Goodnight Moon a few dozen times, you start noticing how deeply strange a book it is. As the moon climbs higher in the sky, the litany of objects in the little rabbit’s room takes on a sinister cast. Why do the socks disappear and then reappear? Why are the lights in the little toy house eternally bright? In this world of anthropomorphic animals, why is there a tiger skin rug on the floor? Why is that old lady telling me to “hush”?

Hmm. Maybe we should switch over to The Runaway Bunny.

Good Dog, Carl, by Alexandra Day
At just 29 years, Carl is by far the youngest entry on this list (though in dog years, he’s practically ancient). Still, it’s impossible to imagine this nearly wordless story of a gentle Rottweiler, a baby girl, and a wildly, possibly criminally inattentive mother won’t endure. Plus, because there is no text, you get to figure out how to explain in your own words that, though the baby survived a drop down the laundry chute with no apparent injuries, it probably isn’t a good idea to try it out.

Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss
I mean, obviously. See also: anything else by Dr. Seuss. Come on, he has a whole day and everything.

Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt
One of the first “interactive” children’s books, this 74-year-old remains a relevant tactile experience even in the iPad era. I’d like to see an iPad let baby feel the stubble on daddy’s face!

The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch
This book inverted the princess stereotype before it was cool.

Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
Also known as “That book everyone assumes is by Dr. Seuss,” this story is a nice reminder of just how dumb babies are. I mean, I’m pretty sure my kid is a genius, but I’m not entirely convinced she would have known me from a steam-shovel on the day she was born, either.

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
The Urban Outfitters–friendly movie adaptation aside, Where the Wild Things Are is a strong contender for the title of Most Wonderful Book Ever. The lush artwork captures the sound and fury of an angry child’s emotions, embodied as beasts with rolling eyes, gnashing teeth, and terrible claws. It’s a reminder to children and parents alike that sometimes you need to spend a night with the monsters. And that’s okay, as long as you know you have a warm supper to come home to.

Anatole, by Eve Titus
Before Ratatouille, there was another French rat looking to impress humans with his gourmet tastes. Though the story is delightful, the element that really sticks in the memory is Paul Galdone’s sparsely colored artwork, which manages to stick relatively close to rodent anatomy without coming off as, well, disgusting.

What books are must-haves for your child’s library?

  • emmachastain

    When I was a kid, it made perfect sense to me that Carl was babysitting. Only now that I’m a parent do I realize that this book is actually about one mother’s nervous breakdown.

  • Katie Strand

    Some books I feel could have gotten in on this list are: The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown, Corduroy by Don Freeman, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, and Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion… among so many others! I can’t narrow the field!!! I would agree with most of the books on this list.

    • Joel Cunningham

      Corduroy almost made it! He was #11 for sure. I will add your other suggestions to my list (though we do have Madeline… my wife just doesn’t like it!).

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