In honor of Dr. Seuss's birthday (he'd be 108 this year) and the NEA's Read Across America Day on Friday, March 2, we decided it was time to put together the definitive list of best books for children. The task wasn't easy: After all, children's books are among the most indelible sources of memory—and therefore opinion—on the planet. We knew we didn't want only 20th-century classics, and also that we wanted to mix in a few graphic novels and nonfiction works, genres that have come a long way in recent years. And of course we wanted something for every child, from tots and emerging readers to middle-grade kids and middle-school students. (We stopped at roughly age 12, though many in the oldest age category are teen and adult gems as well.) A lot of our personal favorites made the cut (Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time) but we're also thrilled that the top 50 include some new classics we'd never heard of. We hope you'll weigh in with favorites of your own that aren't on our list of best books. In the meantime, click through our list and then head to the library or one of our favorite indie bookstores with your kids to pick up some of our top titles. Let the reading begin!
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak illustrated more than 50 books for other authors before he thought of making one of his own. When he finally did he managed to create the Citizen Kane of picture books, one that resonates across generations. It dares to lead kids to their wilder sides and then back to the sweet safety of their own bedrooms where a dinner of soup—still hot, no less—awaits them. HarperCollins. Ages 3 to 6.
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
"Where's Papa going with that axe?" The world's greatest first line accompanies the animal tale, recounted with a child's wisdom, that kids remember and love long after they've put it down. Even if a young reader's closest association with a pig consists of pork chops at dinner, all kids can identify with Fern and Wilbur—and when they grow up and have children of their own they'll find themselves identifying with Charlotte. HarperCollins. Ages 8 to 12.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
The No. 1 sleepytime rhyme award goes to Brown, who created the rare book that can be read a hundred times over without ever becoming tiresome. Amazingly, the quintessential bedtime story wasn't a hit in its day (1947), but the sheer levels of comfort it offers have made it a go-to book for generations of families. HarperCollins. Ages 6 months to 3 years.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Despite using potentially overdone elements (an orphan with special powers, a school for sorcerers), Rowling wove together a series that gave kids the chance to feel true wonder, some for the very first time. Ten years ago every child in the nation had read this modern-day classic. These days a whole new generation of kids is ready to meet Harry—and get sucked into his deeply engrossing world—for themselves. Scholastic. Ages 8 to 12.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The idea of writing a book for kids that manages to cover colors, counting, days of the week, healthy eating and the process of metamorphosis sounds impossible. All the more reason to admire what might well be the world's most perfect picture book. As Carle himself once said of his work, it's a book of hope for any child who feels small and helpless and wonders if they'll ever grow up. In other words, it's for the future butterflies of the world. Good thing Carle's editor convinced him to make the book about a caterpillar instead of Carle's original Willie Worm. Penguin. Ages 6 months to 3 years.
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
Seuss was charged with making a story out of the 348 words every six-year-old should know. What he produced was a 1,629-word tale that didn't just use most of the words but also produced a famous character, a hugely amusing story, and a classic to be read, shared and loved. Random House. Ages 3 to 6.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, this superstar is a crazed amalgamation of religion, fantasy and science. Protagonist Meg Murray, who has bad hair, glasses and braces, manages not only to win the heart of the basketball star but also to save her father and brother from a fate worse that death—and maybe the universe as well. Macmillan. Ages 8 to 12.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The urban cityscape takes on a wintry luster when the iconic, red-snowsuit-donning Peter explores the bright white world of a new snowfall. Though it caused a stir in its day for featuring an African-American boy, Keats's classic has since become beloved the world over. Penguin. Ages 6 months to 3 years.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
It may always be winter and never Christmas in this magical land, but Narnia's lure has always enthralled young readers. When four kids stumble into a new world, the evil White Witch who rules there has no idea what she's in for. HarperCollins. Ages 8 to 12.
Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
Though his Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus gets more attention, this Caldecott winner is a book with real heart. And just as children will identify with poor Trixie as she loses her beloved bunny, so too will parents completely identify with the dad who just cannot figure out what's wrong with his kid. Disney Books. Ages 3 to 6.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A wild mix of mystery and gothic underpinnings, this delightful story reads like a child-friendly version of Jane Eyre. It also happens to contain the most unlikable, spoiled protagonist you've ever met (at the beginning, anyway). HarperCollins. Ages 8 to 12.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Spouting the truths grown-ups don't want to hear, Harriet has no equal even today. Her notebook and spy missions around New York City have inspired whole legions of girls—and boys—to become writers as well. Random House. Ages 8 to 12.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Golden tickets, Oompa Loompas, bratty children and even poverty collide in Dahl's best-known tale. If you've only ever seen the film, take time out to see what all the fuss is really about. Penguin. Ages 8 to 12.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The idea of leaving your cozy home for adventure and possible death is beautifully conveyed in Tolkien's English classic. More kid-friendly than the later Lord of the Rings sequence, this tale of trolls, orcs, a smooth-talking dragon, hungry spiders, giant eagles and more balances literary excellence with good old-fashioned action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Ages 8 to 12.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Boredom leads to high adventure when lackluster Milo rides a tiny car through a tollbooth and finds himself in a magical land. It pulls off the unusual feat of intertwining clever wordplay and mathematics into a single cohesive story. Random House. Ages 8 to 12.
The Complete Adventures of Curious George by H.A. and Margret Rey
Curiosity may have killed the cat but for this simian it's only led to some pretty wacky adventures. George is the perfect stand-in for any antsy three-year-old, which may account for why his popularity only continues to rise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Ages 3 to 6.
Holes by Louis Sachar
One of the rare books to win both a Newbery Medal and a National Book Award, the story follows Stanley Yelnats as he grapples with the curse that has followed his family for generations. The book with a mystery at its core is by turns funny, heartbreaking and deeply thoughtful. Macmillan. Ages 8 to 12.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr., illustrated by Lois Ehlert
The catchy rhythmic alphabetics in Martin's uniquely bubbly concoction make even the most stodgy adult reader sound good. The story of 26 little letters that climb to the top of a palm tree is a modern-day classic that will have your tots tapping their tiny toes. Simon & Schuster. Ages 6 months to 3 years.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
This is the only wordless children's book you'll ever encounter that will make you cry. Tan's brilliant tale of an immigrant's arrival in a wholly new world places the reader in the hero's shoes. The book is like a work of art you can hold in your hands. Scholastic. Ages 8 to 12.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Just the right size for tiny hands, this tale of naughty Peter and his escapades has lasted more than 100 years because it just doesn't age. Potter was the first picture-book author-illustrator to draw realistic animals in human clothing, and she's inspired a century's worth of imitators ever since. Penguin. Ages 3 to 6.
Bark, George by Jules Feiffer
It's the rare picture book that can be read to preschoolers, grade-school students, and even high-school kids and still get a laugh with its twist ending. Jules Feiffer's book about a dog who sounds like anything but a dog works on many levels and is incredibly hilarious to boot. HarperCollins. Ages 3 to 6.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Don't let the 533 pages fool you. Selznick's groundbreaking mix of text and images, about an orphan seeking a family and a forgotten filmmaker in his twilight years, sometimes reads like a silent film and is mesmerizing (and fast!) from page one onward. Scholastic. Ages 8 to 12.
Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke
Set in modern-day Africa, Nigerian-born Atinuke's charming heroine navigates her ridiculously large extended family, keeps an eye on her twin brothers, Double and Trouble, and comes to understand how lucky she is in a book that deserves to become a classic. Kane Miller. Ages 6 to 9.
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Great poet or the world's greatest children's poet? Either way Silverstein remains the very best way to get kids interested in poetry—and magically have them memorizing it as well. Subversive in the safest sense, this book has never gone out of print for good reason. HarperCollins. Ages 8 to 12.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Even younger siblings will sympathize with Peter, the eternally put upon older brother to the irrepressible—not to mention voracious—Fudge. There are loads of great Judy Blume novels in the world but the travails and rewards of having a loving, flawed family have never been shown to better effect. Random House. Ages 8 to 12.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Historical fiction meets family silliness in Curtis's novel about a Michigan boy who journeys with his family to his grandmother's house for the summer. Kids will have so much fun reading the book they'll never even notice the civil rights history they're taking in at the same time. Random House. Ages 8 to 12.
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Hats plus monkeys equals hilarity. One of the all-time great read-alouds, the story of a man who loses his caps thanks to some light-fingered simians is sure to earn giggles from your listeners. HarperCollins. Ages 6 months to 3 years.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Let's be honest. What New York City kid wouldn't want to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art if he had the chance? Two children not only live the dream but solve a mystery as well when they run away from home with a well thought-out plan. Simon & Schuster. Ages 8 to 12.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
Stories where the insipid princess and her no-name prince ride off into the sunset can get old quickly. In this Munsch classic, a princess rescues the prince for a change and then with a sudden flourish of girl power, decides she has better things to do than marry an egotistic dweeb. Annick Press. Ages 3 to 6.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
There is no surefire method to teach kids about the Holocaust but Lowry's gentle story of bravery and heroism resonates with readers everywhere for its candor and sensitivity. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Little Red Riding Hood references throughout. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Ages 8 to 12.
Olivia by Ian Falconer
Bound to please the aesthetics of parents and the wild imaginings of their kids, Olivia is a one-of-a-kind piggy. No doubt the book's elegant palette of black, red and white will be a welcome relief to those seeking something that isn't sparkly, pink or dipped in glitter. Simon & Schuster. Ages 3 to 6.
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
Nonfiction can be a refreshing change for young readers, particularly when it's as gorgeous as Floca's story of the first moon landing. Its jaw-dropping images and simple but not simplistic text manage to convey not only the awe of the moment but its fun, too. Simon & Schuster. Ages 6 to 9.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe
A princess story with an African setting, this fabulous fairy tale about two beautiful sisters who vie for the hand of their ruler punishes the greedy and rewards the good. As an added bonus, the king is himself a delightful character. HarperCollins. Ages 3 to 6
Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
Talk about separation anxiety: This baby bird loses his mother from the moment he's hatched. Yet his search for his primary caregiver never feels scary. Often mistaken for a Dr. Seuss book, Eastman's classic taps into an emotion all kids can understand. Random House. Ages 3 to 6.
The Bone series by Jeff Smith
Originally written for adults, Smith's graphic novel series of three misfits who find themselves in the middle of an epic war reads like Bambi meets The Lord of the Rings. It's also a masterpiece that will keep tweens guessing until the end. Scholastic. Ages 8 to 12.
Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
The perfect easy reader is difficult to define, but Minarik's adorable baby bear comes awfully close. The extra treat of Maurice Sendak's art (pre–Where the Wild Things Are) shows that he could be a master of cute when he wanted to be. HarperCollins. Ages 3 to 6.
Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josee Masse
Singer tells a simple fairy-tale story one way, and then reverses the very same words to tell the other side of the tale. This mind-bending poetry is accompanied by Masse's equally intelligent, equally amusing art. Penguin. Ages 6 to 9.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
If you've got a kid who seems to have read everything in her path, then hand her a universe where each person's soul is an animal companion and where heroine Lyra searches relentlessly for her kidnapped friend. Random House. Ages 8 to 12.
Doctor De Soto by William Steig
Like a modernized fable, this finely wrought story follows a mouse who outwits a hungry fox thanks to his foresight and mastery of dentistry. Steig may be better known as the author of Shrek but this simple tale is the one that will truly capture your child's heart. Macmillan. Ages 3 to 6.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Rather than a rags-to-riches story, this riches-to-rags tale follows a rich Mexican landowner's daughter who loses everything and must start over again in America. Set during the Great Depression, it's a book of hope that's ideal for kids with a penchant for realism. Scholastic. Ages 8 to 12.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Hill and Collier reconstruct a man's life from the only thing that is left of him today: his poetry-inscribed pottery. Based on the true story of a slave living in 19th-century South Carolina, Dave the Potter begins as a humble description of how to throw a pot and turns into a manifesto on how to persevere. Little, Brown. Ages 6 to 9.
My Father's Dragon by Ruth Gannett Stiles, illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett
The first installment of a series that's as spellbinding as it was when it was released in 1948 is the tale of Elmer Elevator, a boy determined to track down and save a baby dragon from a host of silly-scary, island-dwelling animals. Random House. Ages 6 to 9.