Kid’s books. Love ’em. While we try hard not to over-consume on toys, I cannot seem to control my kid book buying urges.

But not all kids books are created equal. There are some really really really crappy ones out there. For starters – as a queer household, we avoid many books because of the default “traditional” family model. Seriously – in a world that has so so many different kinds of families (single parented, grandparented, queer parented, adopted, foster-parented, step-parented, whathaveyou) you’d think there would be some more variety out there in books! And secondly, lots of kids books are just badly written. Though I love a good rhyming book, the ability to rhyme does not a great book make. Kids aren’t stupid – they’re just, well, young. They need good literature too!

So, if you’re in the market for some great kid’s reading… here’s a glimpse at 20 of our family’s kid-tested, a-bit-off-the-beaten-path favourites!

1. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz. This book was first published in 1987 and has had a gazillion reprints. And for good reason! This book follows young Alexander through the throes of a bad day. The perfect book to pull off the shelf when your tots (and you!) have endured a particularly gruelling day. This book has gotten us through a number of “terrible twos” days. So far it’s working for the “tricky threes” too. (Is a traditional het family model – mom in skirts at home, dad in suits at work – BUT I forgive it because of the time of writing, and because it’s just so good!)

2. The Family Book, by Todd Parr. Todd Parr does an amazing job of introducing all different kinds of families. Includes single parents, two mom/dad households, adopted families, interracial families, etc. Great, great book with fun illustrations. (Also, The Feelings Book, The Okay Book, The Peace Book etc. Todd Parr is prolific).

3. No Matter What, by Debi Gliori. A sweet read about the enduring love between parents and kids, and easing the anxieties that kids can sometimes have (particularly separation anxiety). I love that the kid character is called Small and the adult is called Large, so that kids can fill in the blanks with their own particular family situations. A little bit sugary to be sure – but a well loved book in this household nonetheless, especially when one of the grown-ups has to go away for a bit.

4. Haiku Baby, by Betsy Snyder. The most beautiful baby book I’ve ever seen. Hands down. Bee-ooo-ti-full. I will be bestowing a copy to every baby-bearing person I know!

5. Stella Star of the Seaby Marie Louise Gay. Stella is a spectacular, spunky and bossy heroine, and Sam (the little brother) is a sweet timid counterpart. Together, they are ridiculously loveable. This is a book kids will love to hear and parents will love to read. (Also: Stella Queen of the Snow, Stella Fairy of the Forest, When Stella was very Little, Good Morning Sam, Goodnight Sam, What are you Doing Sam? – Or pretty much any Stella or Sam book by MLG).

6. Murmel, Murmel, Murmel by Robert Munsch, with his trusty illustrating sidekick, Michael Marchenko. One of Munsch’s older books (1982) – but an endearing classic. This is about a little girl who finds a baby and tries very hard to find it a loving family. I love that the family she finds for the baby is a sweet, truck driving man, and so does my three year old son.

7. The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Marchenko. Another Musch classic about a princess who discovers that she’s perfectly capable of rescuing herself (AND the prince!). A perfect antidote to the “Disney-fication” of little girl culture.

8. Lost and Found and How to Catch a Star by Irish author Oliver Jeffers. The former is a look at the friendship between a boy and his penguin, and the latter chronicles a boy’s quest to catch a star. In a world where so much kidlit seems to be over-the-top, Jeffers’ writing and illustrations are delightfully spare.

9. My Granny Went to Market, by Stella Blackstone. A gorgeous counting book and round the world adventure. The perfect way for kids (who aren’t yet world travellers!) to start learning about other places and cultures. The pictures are beautiful.

10. Mabel Murple, by Sheree Fitch and Maryanne Kovalski. This book is fantastic. By a Nova Scotia author Fitch, it chronicles the mis/adventures of a wild -and purple- little girl. Much like Stella of Marie Louise Gay’s writing, Mabel Murple is a wild and spunky character that defies gender stereotyping. The perfect antidote for those of us who are sick of princess culture. (This is one of my son’s all-time favourite books, hands down!). I will boldly assert that it is impossible not to love a wee girl who is referred to as a “skateboard scallywag”.

11. Scaredy Squirrel by MΓ©lanie Watt. A fun little read about how fear (and complacency) holds us back from living a full life. Very loveable and kid-relatable squirrely character. A great way to approach talking about kids’ anxieties about all kinds of things.

12. Is There Really a Human Race?by Jamie Lee Curtis. Actually all of her books are pretty good – check ’em out! (Another one that is particularly good is “Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, which deals with adoption). Curtis never strays from the het, two parent family model, BUT – her books do an awesome job of educating kids about all kinds of wonderful values, making positive change in the world around us, appreciating diversity, being okay with all of our feelings, self-esteem, etc. And the illustrations by Laura Cornell are gorgeous. Check out the pic on the last page with the Muslim and the Rabbi chatting on the park bench. LOVE IT!

13. On Top of the Potty and other Get Up and Go Songs, By Alan Katz with pictures by David Catrow. Bestest and most fun potty training book ever! Our whole family pretty much has them memorized. They’ll get stuck in your head for days, but you probably won’t mind too much, and your little potty fan won’t either!

14. Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. An excellent book about the love of books. Lots of adventure and fun. (By the writers of The Gruffalo, which though also an engaging read, I have question the writers’ decision to make EVERY character in the book male. Charlie Cook is much more balanced this way.)

15. Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. A gorgeous book about a boy who helps an old woman get her memories back. So so sweet.

16. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox. A beautifully illustrated story, with lots of babies of all shapes, sizes, culture and colours. Makes a perfect gift for new parents!

17. And the Good Brown Earth by Kathy Henderson. A lovely book about a young boy and his grandma sharing a love of gardening and the earth. Gorgeous illustrations, great theme.

18. Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners by Laurie Keller. This is a fun, cartoon-y and super silly read that still manages to convey great messages about manners and general kindness.

19. Hush Little Baby by Sylvia Long (great for small babes and bigger kids alike). A new rendition of the favourite lullaby that takes consumerism right out of the picture. Instead of “Mama’s gonna buy you _______”, Long’s Mama comforts her baby bunny with lightening bugs, teddy bears, a banjo, the evening sky and the harvest moon.

20. Your Favorite Seuss: A Baker’s Dozen by the One and Only Dr. Seuss – This a wonderful collection of Seuss, lots of good ones like The Sneetches, Yertle the Turtle and The Lorax. Also includes sketches and Seuss memorabilia, as well as some short essays by folks who’ve been touched by Seuss’ work. A definite bookshelf must for Seuss lovers (especially those who love his more politically tinged work). This is definitely a book that your kids will grow with.

That’s it. (God – it was hard to whittle this list down to 20!). I’d love to hear about other OBM’s faves – if anyone feels so inclined (so we can all have another good excuse – or three – to hit the local kid’s bookstore!).

Comments on 20 kid-lit books off the beaten path

  1. I love “While You were Out”, a story about a bunny who gets into mischief while his family is gone. I also love Haiku Baby!! My daughter likes that she can turn the pages herself.

  2. I’m not an OBM, but one of my favorite children’s books is The Giving Tree. It brings a tear to my eye every time I read it. AND, I read somewhere that’s it’s one of the books being used to teach children philosophy!

  3. SQUEE! The Paperbag Princess was one of my favorites! I’m so happy it hasn’t gone out of print. Thanks for making my day OBM! I also still have my copy of Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. Every time I go through my books to clear some out, I just can’t part with that one.

  4. Not an OBM, but I was at The Wooden Shoe bookstore the other day, which is an anarchist bookshop, but basically carries anything non-mainstream, etc etc etc, anyway they have a children’s section of books and I looked through one that was about some hampsters(or some rodent)and the little girl’s uncle is marrying a guy who she comes to see as another uncle. Very cute.

  5. Amazing list–I’m totally going to track a bunch of these down!

    A few more I love–some offbeat, some just plain awesome, all field tested while working in a bookstore and teaching elementary school:
    ~Ballerino Nate by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
    ~Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester
    ~A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer
    ~And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell & Justin Richardson
    ~Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson (my personal vote for best new children’s book in the past 5 years)
    ~The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein
    ~Micawber by John Lithgow
    ~The Dot (and Ish) by Peter Reynolds
    ~Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess

  6. I’m going to wait a few days and then just print out this list of awesome books! We have a bunch of them already and my daughter LOVES (LOVES!) to read so definitely my favorite new post.

    All of the Jamie Lee Curtis books are AWESOME. My daughter also adores all of the Margaret Miller books and the touch and feel books by Little Scholastic.

    Those aren’t very OBM but these ones are:
    Momma, Mommy and Me by Leslea Newman and I’ts Okay to Be Different by Tom Parr.

  7. “Chester’s Way” was my faaaaavorite book as a kid. As I recall, the parents in the book were rather heteronormative, but reading it now as an adult the kids in the book are a rather good argument for polyamory. πŸ˜‰ At the very least, it’s about sharing, and terrific halloween costumes, and whether or not watermelons grow in your stomach if you swallow a seed.

    • Another book like this is “Six-Dinner Sid.” It’s really just a book about a cat. Once you get to the punchline, though, it’s plenty easy to see a poly argument, even if the author had no related intention. I love it.

  8. I just read “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes” for the lapsit storytime I do! Very fun. I picked it because the basic message is about embracing and celebrating cultural differences and recognizing that we are all essentially the same (and it does it with minimal words!).

    Marina, the little girl I used to nanny for LOVED Chester’s Way, and loved the spin-offs about Lilly (another spunky, adventurous girl character) even more.

    Another favorite is Fancy Nancy — for little girls who DO want to be princesses, it’s combines a love of dressing up with a love of :big words”; it shows the power of language to make ordinary objects extraordinary.

  9. I’m not an OBM, but an Off Beat Auntie of sorts. My family has always loved “Mama, Do You Love Me?” by Barbara M. Joosse. It’s Native Alaskan in it’s theme and the author has many others from around the world. Very cute story with a sweet message.

  10. We love “Everywhere Babies”, which is all about the everyday things babies do in their first year, & has great illustrations which are kind of subtle-ly inclusive.

    Not sure if this is “OBM” but we love the Meg & Mog books illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. The strong colours & bold lines of the illustrations are great & the stories are quirky & offbeat, all about a witch, Meg, who lives with her cat, Mog & owl, err, Owl.

    It’s a traditional het family set up (mum at home, dad comes home in suit from work) but at the moment we love “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” by Judith Kerr. I love the 60s illustrations. Not sure what my 2 year old loves about it! I change the story a little so that it’s the mummy who comes up with the solution, rather than daddy coming home & saving the day…

    This thread has reminded me of finding out that my mum used to switch genders around in the stories she read me & my brothers as kids. I do often notice how gendered kids stories are. WHY does it always default to “he”? Grr.

    • Its a very traditional book, but I have always loved that in “The Little Engine that Could”, it is the female engine who decides to help and can make it over the mountain.

  11. “Cinder Edna” The feminist version of the Cinderella story! Edna is Cinder Ella’s neighbor. She rides the bus and mows the lawn! It’s my favorite.

  12. What about all of the Serendipity books. My dad would bring us a new one all the time when we were little and I can’t wait to share them with my kids. The best illustrations and lessons.

  13. My favorite is This is Me by Philip Waechter : t’s about a bear with high self esteem, who knows that if he ever should feel lonely or sad, he can run straight into the waiting arms of “you!”

  14. Robert Munsch is pretty much amazing. Another good one is “Stephanie’s Ponytail.” Great (and super funny) story about individuality and confidence.

  15. A Porcupine Named Fluffy is one of my all time favorite books…about a porcupine who tries very hard to live up to his name and ends up becoming friends with a similarly misnamed rhinoceros.

    Another one of my favorites is The Monster at the End of this Book starring Grover from Sesame Street. Particularly awesome if you’re good with silly voices.

  16. *squee!* So stoked to see not one but *two* Australian books up there (Mem Fox is AWESOME!). Some of her books, like my favourite, Possum Magic, are very much centred on Australian Culture, but it’s the female possum who comes up with the solution when the baby one goes invisible.

    My favourite kids books are Diary of a Wombat and Baby Wombat’s Week by Jackie French, there’s a blog post below which outlines how she got the idea for the book, and also explains quite a bit about wombats in general and why I would love to have one for a pet if they weren’t endangered!

  17. Leave it to this post to lure me out of lurkerdom! Children’s books have been a passion of mine since I was…well, a child. I also grew up in a queer household, so am always on the lookout for books that depict loving families of all sorts and shapes. Here are some faves:

    1. The Duke who Outlawed Jellybeans and Other Stories, by Johnny Valentine. This book and another by the author (The Day They Put a Tax on Rainbows) are collections of fairy-tales about kids who come from all sorts of different families. One of my favorites involves a boy who has two moms- one’s a renowned cook and the other’s a powerful wizard πŸ™‚ Also by the same author: One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads.
    2. The Lupin Lady: Lovely story about a woman who makes her town more beautiful by sowing Lupin seeds wherever she walks.
    3. 123 A family Counting Book: a counting book, with each number accompanied by artwork showing happy families in various settings. The pictures depict all types of diverse families, including transracial and two-dad families.

  18. This is an awesome list!

    Along with Murmel, Murmel, Murmel & The Paper Bag Princess, we love love love “I’ll Love You Forever”

    We also super heart all of Greame Base’s books. His rhymes are always catchy (even when they are somewhat “creative”) but the illustrations are hands down the BEST EVER! I seriously want to frame every page from Animalia (side note: I actually just found out that you can buy some of the original artwork from these books for the low low price (j/k) of several thousand dollars, wow!). I also really love the mystery in The Eleventh Hour, which is challenging even for some adults, so it is a great book for the whole family.

  19. Awesome list! And Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge!!! I thought I was the only person on earth who knew about this book, because Partridge is my last name. A WONDERFUL story, as are all the others I know on this list. I also love that you included Oliver Jeffers. I framed a bunch of pages of his books for my son’s room… the illustrations are so magical πŸ™‚

  20. One of my favorites is The Old Man and the Afternoon Cat, but it’s totally sad in the middle. I read it to Jasper while he was in the NICU and could barely stand it.

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