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 Mélanie 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. “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus” and the others in the series by Mo Willems. I’ve given this book and others in the series to several new mamas and they all love them. I’ll be buying them once I finally become a mama myself.

  2. When I was growing up I use to live by the paper bag princess. Such a great book!

  3. THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS!!!!!! My FAVORITE book as a child! Oh man, I read it to my Mom hundreds of times! The author also wrote Stephanie’s Ponytail which is another GREAT read!

    *sigh*

    I love books…

  4. one of my very favorite books would have to be the treasure tree by dr. john trent. the illustrations are BEAUTIFUL and the story line is wonderful. great for teaching cooperation and accepting the differences of others.

  5. My kids (now 12 and 6) are still in love with The Enourmous Crocodile by Roald Dahl (the big illustrated version with full page Quentin Blake pics) – i think it’s the unabashed rotteness of the croc that gets them.

    I will have to go check the author names of the others they love and come back with them laters – yay book thread!

  6. I will always love Goodnight Moon 🙂

    When I used to babysit the family had a book called Amazing Me, or maybe it was Amazing You? Anyway, it was a book for young children to teach them about their private parts, why boys and girls are biologically different, etc. It was a very tasteful book.

  7. I would recommend anything by James Marshall, especially the George and Martha series. Each book is a series of vignettes about two hippos who are platonic friends. My favourite story is the time George, who is fond of peeking in windows, peeks in on Martha when she is bathing. George ends up with the tub on his head, and Martha scolds, “We are friends, but there is such a thing as privacy!”

    I also love to read classic Beatrix Potter books to my 4-year-old. My favourites are Squirrel Nutkin and Two Bad Mice.

    • OMG!!! OMG!! OMG!!! GEORGE AND MARTHA FOR THE WIN!!! I almost forgot about them!!! THANK YOU!!!

  8. As a LOOOOOONG time nanny in my former life I have to think I have read just about all of them and this is a great 20! I would offer a few more as well.
    1. Mo Willams “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus” as well as “Pigeon finds a hot dog”

    2. Barbara Cooney “Miss Rumphius”, “Island Boy” and “Hattie and the Wild Waves”

    3. Blueberries For Sal

    4. Walter the farting dog

    5. Any of the “Skippy John Jones” books

    6. Frog and Toad (for the new reader)

    7. The Gardener

    8. The Ox Cart Man

    9. Imogene’s Antlers

    10. Roxaboxen

    Wow! I could go on forever!

  9. I have no idea why my comment before still says “awaiting moderation!”

    I like “Max, The Stubborn Little Wolf” about an offbeat wolf boy who wants to be a florist and a vegetarian and not a hunter which enrages his onbeat wolf father.

    • Hey Kelli–I’m not sure what’s going on comment-wise. I’ll fix it ASAP.

  10. I always loved Millicent And The Wind by Munsch, it is a lonely story and different than the usual Munsch books. I also like it because it features two ladies who live in the middle of nowhere, in an offbeat sort of way! Good for only children who might feel alone in the world.

  11. My all time favorite kids book is “Old Turtle”, text by Douglas Wood,amazing watercolors by Cheng-Khee Chee. We are a rather eclectically religious family, but everyone from my old school Catholic former MIL to the most Pagan leaning among us has appreciated the story of how no one has a monopoly on God, and what can happen when we forget to see the beauty of the Divine all around us. Just beautiful and touching.

  12. I so love this post! I’m not a mama yet, but I’m a teacher, so I spend LOTS of time with children’s books, and try to make sure that they represent a lot of different people, personalities, and viewpoints. (Aside: I’m so glad you mentioned Scaredy Squirrel!! I love those books, as a recovered over-planner, and my students and I love them so much we wrote our own version about our class pet, a scaredy dwarf hamster.) A few of my all-time favorites:

    1. Phoebe’s Revolt, by Natalie Babbitt. This one is hard to find these days, but it is an awesome read. It’s about a little girl living at the turn of the 20th Century who hates the frilly, ruffled, restrictive clothes girls have to wear back then, so she refuses to get out of the bath and attend her party until she can dress like her father. I wrote one of my college entrance essays about this book!

    2. Pretty much *anything* by Jon Scieszka! His humorous, off-the-beaten-track updates of classic fairy tales never disappoint. I’m particularly fond of:
    -The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which tells the story from the wolf’s perspective (“You know, if hamburgers were cute, people might think you were big and bad, too!”)
    -The Frog Prince Continued, which talks about what happens to the prince and princess after she kisses that frog (“after happily ever after”). I cry every time I read the end of this book, because it’s such a beautiful testament to what real love is, after the “magic” of early romance wears off. I can’t even do it justice, just read it!!. Though it’s a “children’s book”, I give this out to my friends now when they get married.
    -The Stinky Cheese Man, and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, which has a bunch of re-written fairy tales. They’re just funny as all get-out!

    3. Lon Po-Po, by Ed Young. Rock on, little girls who refuse to be damsels in distress! Far from relying on a hunter or some other crap to save them from the wolf (as in our “traditional” version of Little Red Riding Hood), the sisters in this Chinese version think of a clever way to KICK THE WOLF’S ASS.

    4. Grace for President, about an awesomely dreadlocked little girl who gets angry at school when she discovers that there are no women presidents in American history. She raises her hand and declares, “I’ve been thinking it over, and I’d like to be President!” Her school then has an election, where she faces off against super-popular Thomas Cobb, and fears she may not win. In classic tortoise vs. hare form, Thomas figures out that the boys have slightly more electoral votes than the girls, so he rests on his laurels while Grace campaigns like mad. The vote comes down to one little boy representing Wyoming (“incidentally” the first state to give women the right to vote…), and without totally giving it away, I’ll say that everyone learns a bit about what it means to make an educated choice in a democracy. SO GREAT!

    5. Click Clack Moo, Duck for President, and basically all of Doreen Cronin’s books. I LOOOOVE these books! Questioning authority, collective bargaining, politics, leaving politics because leadership is too hard and then working on a book deal instead…pure awesome!

    • LOVE Jon Scieszka!

      2 others that I read to my class when *I* need to be amused are Monsters Eat Whiny Children (the monsters argue about how to prepare them while the kids quietly slip away) and I’d Really Like to Eat a Child (about a very picky crocodile)

  13. “All the World” by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Depicts families from all walks of life. It also won the Caldecott!

  14. And Tango Makes Three. Gorgeous illustrations, lots of cute penguins, and a great way to teach little ones (or older ones) that anyone can make a family.

  15. the Serendipity books by Stephen Cosgrove were my favorite as a kid, my parents couldnt find it so i would take it out of the library everytime i could. I also liked alot of books about bears; not sure if exactly offbeat but Winnie the Pooh was a classic, also Corderoy Bear and Rupert Bear. When I have a baby I plan on reading to the fetus, so far the book on the top of my list is Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block, kinda different type of fairy tale, little off beat. Its all of the Weetzie Bat books in one volume, great, wonderful fantastic book.

  16. I collect children’s literature, and there’s lots of offbeat stuff I want to recommend. I’ll try to keep the list short, and not to recommend anything that’s already been listed:

    The most OB kid books I own are:
    * ‘Louis & the Dodo’ by Shulman & Vincent Nguyen. It’s about a boy whose only friends are birds, and he goes on a fantastical journey to save some… The art is really what gets me. (Google or Amazon search it; you’ll see what I mean.)
    * Weslandia, I forget who by. Offbeat kid builds his own world in his backyard.

    For offbeat families seeking representation:
    * Rosen & Oxenbury’s ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’ (father with three kids)
    * Lobel’s ‘Frog & Toad’ series… As an adult, it’s hard for me to imagine them as heterosexual male friends. (They have a Bert’n’Ernie dynamic, if that helps you picture it.)
    * ee cummings’s ‘fairy tales’ (they include gay and hetero love stories)
    * Joose’s ‘I Love You the Purplest’ (mother and two sons, about sibling rivalry; I use it as a polyamorous metaphor all the time)

    Empowered women from all over the world:
    * Muten & Guay’s ‘Goddesses: A World of Myth and Magic’… nonfiction encyclopedia of goddesses from all over the world
    * Winter’s ‘The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq’ tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian who was responsible for saving tens of thousands of books when the US bombed Iraq (though who does the bombing is kept vague, there’s still images of bombs and tanks and fire).

    Just beautiful children’s literature:
    * Farish & Root’s ‘The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup’
    * Wild & Brooks’s ‘Fox’ (NOT for younger readers!)
    * anything by Gaiman and McKean (again, NOT for younger readers!)
    * Rylant & Brown’s ‘The Old Woman Who Named Things’ (which is actually about coping with death and other tough stuff, and still having the courage to love somebody… a dog in this case)
    * Ering’s ‘Frog Belly Rat Bone’ which is actually an environmental tale, and just taps into childhood in a way that can’t be explained

    Generically OBM award (IMO) goes to Striker & Kimmel’s ‘The Anti-Coloring Book’ series. They’re full of prompts like “You are a space pioneer. Design a flag for your new planet,” and “A group of explorers found a rare bird deep in the jungle. They sent back this drawing of a bird sitting in a tree.” So cool…

    • I want to do that anti-coloring book and I’m not even a kid lol.

      It sounds a lot like what I do with my ESL students when I’m teaching them prepositions. “Okay, draw a tree. Next to the tree draw a monster. On the monster’s head draw your friend…” etc.

  17. Thank you for this list. I love to read and I hope to pass it down to my kids.

  18. Yay, I grew up on The Paperbag Princess! And I absolutely second that recommendation for The Duke Who Outlawed Jellybeans, I adore that book, and the way it represents ALL kinds of families as just part of the (wonderful and well-illustrated) stories.

  19. Excellent suggestions, I can feel an amazon shop coming on!!!

    My little girl is addicted to anything by Julia Donaldson, favourites include The Gruffalo, Sharing a Shell. Not a book but a little story to share; when my baby was younger she loved the story of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, only we changed it to suit our family life. Mommy bear, Mikey bear and Baby bear lived in the forest and on Saturday, baby bear went to visit Daddy Bears house on the other side of the forest… it helped when we were explaining our family was a little different to the other kids in pre-school!! 🙂

  20. A Giraffe and a Half by Shel Silverstein…His poems and illustrations are always fun, but they can have an edge and philosophical connotations (one of the reasons I love his stuff) but Giraffe is just a pure children’s book that’s zany and funny and it seems no one ever knows about it. One of my all time favorites for sure.

  21. I love this thread!!! I have a whole list of amazing books that I want to get now!!! Some stories I read as a child and forgot about… like George and Martha!!!

    My list would have to include…
    -Where the wild things are.
    -Mommy as a tattoo [a story about a young boy who is afraid of his tattooed neighbour until he finds out that his mom as a tattoo]
    -If you give a mouse a cookie

    • if you give a mouse a cookie was probably my sister’s favourite. to this day i still reference it (particularly when talking to/about the cat and her demands for food)

  22. I have no idea if this is “offbeat enough”, but I loved the Berenstain Bears. I will definitely be tracking down a few of those to mix into my collection.

  23. My favourite was “The Cranky Baby” it was about teething, my parents still remember every word (I’m now 20)

  24. oh, i adore picture books. i sort of forgot that for a while, but now that i’m regularly taking care of a friend’s kids, i’m on the lookout for some of my favorites from back when:

    The Rainbow Goblins
    The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher Pierre (a cautionary tale)
    Tar Beach
    The Jolly Postman
    pretty much anything by Chris Van Allsburg or Maurice Sendak (and i rather like Tommie De Paulo as well), not that those are far off the beaten path.

    and i’ll certainly keep an eye out for some of the ones on your list!

    • I love Tomie dePaola too. Although his books may not be super offbeat, many of them are autobiographical and he is a gay man. Plus his drawings are gorgeous!

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