Curating Literature: Delightful Classics for Little One’s Library (Ages 3-5)

There’s just nothing like scooping that sweet little one on to your lap for a story. Time stands still, as you immerse yourselves in the book’s setting and characters.

And while I enjoy sharing a variety of books with my children, new as well as old, there is something about reading the older classics that I find particularly magical. Maybe it’s the slower pacing or the rich vocabulary? Maybe it’s the feelings of nostalgia these books evoke for my own childhood? Whatever the reason, it’s an experience that elevates my spirits.

Below, I’ve curated 5 of my favorite reads from among the more classic texts. With so many wonderful works to choose from, selecting 5 was no easy task. But it was great fun to reflect upon which classics I most enjoy reading to my children.

With charming illustrations, entertaining stories, and meaningful themes, these classic picture books are sure to delight children and parents alike.

1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit (The Original Version)

by Beatrix Potter

Published 1902

I imagine just about everyone owns some form of this quintessential children’s story, but some may not have a copy of the original and unabridged version.

Reading the complete work is a dramatically different literary experience than reading something abridged like this charming, but drastically simplified, board book.

With the work in public domain, there are now many versions in print. It’s exciting to see how new publishers and artists have adapted the story, but I think it’s ideal to experience the original work alongside any derivatives.

In 2002, Penguin Group did an exceptional job publishing a centenarian version of the work, attempting to ‘re-originate’ Frederick Warne’s 1902 publication, and restoring six additional illustrations!

Their efforts to honor Ms. Potter’s intentions, while incorporating modern printing and design techniques make this 2002 Penguin Group publication the version to own!

Formatted as a small, hardback book, it’s perfect for little hands to hold, and can be ordered for $7.99 through Barnes & Noble.

Reasons to Love This Book:

  • For Children:
    • Adorable and relatable characters
    • A suspenseful, adventurous plot
  • For Adults:
    • Longer in length and richer in content than many contemporary books, Ms. Potter’s work will stretch your child’s attention span as it expands his or her vocabulary
    • It’s the cautionary tale every parent wants his or her child to hear!
  • Favorite Excerpt:

“Peter gave himself up for

lost, and shed big tears; but his

sobs were overheard by some

friendly sparrows, who flew to

him in great excitement, and

implored him to exert himself.”

2. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

by Virginia Lee Burton

Published 1939

In Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, an operator and his beloved steam shovel, Mary Anne, recount their glorious past, as they struggle to adapt and find purpose in a new era of electric and gas-powered technology.

Reasons to Love this Book:

  • For Little Ones: 
    • An endearing story of loyal friendship
    • Plenty of ‘things that go:’ steam shovels, cars, trains, & ships 
    • Creative Problem Solving: When Mike and Mary Anne become trapped in the cellar, the little boy’s solution remains one of the more brilliant to be found in children’s literature
  • For Parents: Deep and thought-provoking themes such as the inevitability of change and character redemption: 
    • Change is hard. Hard and inevitable. Virginia Lee Burton’s poignant illustrations of a very earnest Mike and Mary Anne, unable to find work, depict just that. And more than 80 years later, their struggle to adapt to ever-evolving technologies still feels relevant.
    • Character Redemption: While Mike’s struggle is a somber one, Ms. Burton more than makes-up for it by incorporating a full character arch for her mild villain, Henry B. Swap. A selectman for the small town of Popperville, the character of Henry B. Swap first appears in an attempt to exploit Mike and Mary Anne. He offers them a job, but sets for them what he perceives to be the impossible challenge of digging the cellar for the new Tow Hall in ‘just one day.’ Cut to the story’s close, and we find Henry B. Swap a changed man. He’s been so inspired by the honorable, hard-working Mike Mulligan, that he now spends the majority of his time in Mike’s company, ‘smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.’  
  • Favorite Excerpt:

“As for Henry B. Swap,

he spends most of his time in the cellar

of the new town hall listening to the stories

that Mike Mulligan has to tell

and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.”

3. Blueberries for Sal

by Robert McCloskey

Published 1948

A Caldecott Honor Book, Blueberries for Sal juxtaposes the misadventures of a human mother and her child, Little Sal, alongside those of a bear mother, and her cub, Little Bear, as each mother attempts to gather blueberries in preparation for winter. This is a wonderful book to read in the summertime, particularly if planning a berry-picking outing with your own children!

Reasons to Love This Book:

  • For Children:
    • Little ones will love exploring Blueberry Hill
    • They’ll practice empathy, as they experience the story through the dual perspectives of Little Sal and Little Bear
  • For Parents:
    • I personally love the artwork in this book. It feels uncluttered, and the picturesque setting of Blueberry Hill provides the reader a short escape into the serenity of nature. Also, noteworthy, McCloskey does such a wonderful job of capturing movement in his pictures.
    • Seeing this book through fresh eyes as a parent, gives me a good chuckle. I find it strangely comforting to discover that mother’s of yesteryear found it just as challenging to accomplish anything with a toddler in tow! Apparently, the struggle to balance work and motherhood is a plight so universal, it is shared even by bears.
  • Favorite Excerpt:

“She hadn’t gone very long before she heard a kuplink, kuplank! kuplunk!

She knew just what made that kind of noise!”

4. Bread and Jam for Frances

Story by Russell Hoban, Pictures by Lillian Hoban

Published 1964

Featuring a precocious, but lovable badger, the Frances books have been charming children since the 1960s. Quite the character, Frances’ emotions and antics will feel instantly recognizable to children and parents. Of all the Frances books, I find Bread and Jam to be the most fun, and provide the least fodder for naughty children seeking inspiration.

Reasons to Love This Book:

  • For Children:
    • Little Ones will surely relate to Frances’ desire to have her way at mealtimes
    • Frances’ creative songs are sure to elicit abundant giggles
  • For Parents:
    • A fun opportunity to discuss food with your children, while introducing new vocabulary for more exotic and old-fashioned fare (like poached eggs or veal cutlets)
    • To maximize giggles, I love to ham-up Frances’ songs with melodies and theatrical singing…’What I am (incorporate long dramatic sigh here) Is tired of jam!”
    • And parents are sure to appreciate Mother badger’s wisdom. Rather than battle with Frances directly, she artfully enables Frances to discover, all on her own, that eating a varied and healthy diet really is the best practice!
  • Favorite Excerpt:

“‘Aren’t your worried that maybe I will get sick and all my teeth will fall out

from eating so much bread and jam?’ asked Frances.

‘I don’t think that will happen for quite a while,’ said Mother.”

5. McElligot’s Pool

by Dr. Seuss

Published 1947

Dr. Seuss’ groundbreaking books are beloved by many generations the world over. But I must admit, as an adult, he’s not my favorite author to read. Harsh, I know, but has anyone attempted Fox in Socks of late? My tongue is still exhausted!

That said, I couldn’t curate a list of library favorites and snub the legend entirely. Of his works, McElligot’s Pool, is my favorite to read aloud. It’s the story of a young boy named Marco, who sits fishing by a lackluster pond, imagining all of the spectacular fish he might catch.

Reasons to Love This Book:

  • For The Little Ones:
    • No one ignites the imaginations of children like Dr. Seuss. The illustrations in this book are particularly vivid, and incredibly deserving of Caldecott Honor. My son just loves to exclaim over the details of each new fish.
    • This book even inspires a personal anecdote. One day, while walking in the rain with my (then three-year old) son, I explained to him that the storm drains flow to the sea. A few minutes later, I noticed he was no longer trailing behind the stroller. I looked back to find him squatting down in front of the storm drain, calling out: “Hey! Hey, Mr. THING-A-MA-JIGGER. What are you doing down there?” A priceless moment for me, courtesy of Dr. Seuss!
  • For the Parents:
    • Don’t worry; this one’s not a tongue-twister! The book’s rhymes actually roll off the tongue quite pleasantly.
    • Enjoy hearing your child laugh with delight? Expect this book to deliver some major giggles.
    • Each time I read this, I’m struck by the tenacity and optimism with which Little Marco pursues his dreams of extraordinary fish. He closes the book with my favorite excerpt below.
  • Favorite Excerpt:

“Oh the sea is so full of a number of fish

If a fellow is patient he might get his wish!

And that’s why I think

That I’m not such a fool

When I sit here and fish

In McElligot’s Pool!”

More Classic Children’s Picture Books Sure to Delight (Ages 3-5):

  • Make Way For Ducklings, Robert McCloskey
  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
  • Caps for Sale, Esphyr Slobodkina
  • The Story of Ferdinand, Story by Munro Leaf, Pictures by Robert Lawson
  • Corduroy, Don Freeman

I hope your little ones enjoy these books, and, most importantly, that you delight in the experience of reading them together!

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