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. I love children’s literature–can’t wait to introduce my own (future) child to the wonderful world of books.

    One somewhat offbeat book/series that I really loved as a kid and want to reread is the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede (starting with Dealing with Dragons) about a princess who is dissatisfied being a “proper” princess and is intelligent and capable and doesn’t need a knight or prince to rescue her–although she does eventually meet and marry a man who gives her the respect she deserves. (The series also has a female become a king instead of a queen because the queen doesn’t have any real power but the king does). It’s really a “young adult” series, but it’d be a great series to read to an elementary school student.

  2. As a little girl, I loved the book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. It had a special meaning to me, as a flower name myself, but it was also a great book for confronting the pointless and cruel teasing that many kids face in school, and how to keep up self-esteem through it.

  3. Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop (Chris Raschka) is a great book to read with little one. Raschka’s rhymes imitate the rhythm of Be-Bop; fun to accompany with egg shakers and other little instruments.
    Anything by Margaret Wise Brown but especially The Little Fur Family for its’ somewhat surreal prose.
    For kids who are a little older, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers a picture book about real-life aerialist Phillipe Petit, who tight-rope walked between the Twin Towers.

  4. My favorite books as a kid were Stellaluna by Janell Canon, Owen by Kevin Henkes, and for the slightly older ones: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

  5. Oh! When I was a kid, I had an audio tape of Robert Munsch reading a bunch of his stories aloud and it was FANTASTIC.

    There are lines from the Paper Bag Princess that I STILL quote when something reminds me of them. My husband is no longer even surprised when I say “Is it true is it true is it TRUUUUE, dragon, that you can fly alll the way around the WHOLE WORLD in just THREE MINUTE?” or “Go awaaaay. I will eat you tomoooorooow.”

    Also “Mommy, Mommy Mommy, a MUUUD PUDDLE jumped on me!” (from Mud Puddle) and “CLANG CLANG RATTLE DING BANG, gonna make my noise all day!!” (from Mortimer)

  6. My best friend loved The Paperbag Princess when we were growing up. I recently found a board book edition of it to give to her six month old daughter 🙂

  7. Mamas and papas and mama-adjacents! I might have my old OBB ‘tude oozing in here, but you just mama the only way you can for your family. There is no right or wrong or too offbeat or too mainstream. (Ok… I do get what the OP is saying here though). You can only be you. Its hard enough to mom out there as it is. Love yourselves!
    That being said. I’m surprised no one has said “Red” by Michael Hall. Its about a Blue crayon who came from the factory in a red wrapper. No matter how hard he tried to be red, he was never good at it… until he tried to be blue. And he was very good at being blue. My cub loves that one.
    I always loved Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs growing up.
    The Llama Llama books have a single mom.
    And I had this old library sale book called “How Joe the Bear and Sam the Mouse Got Together” that I adored (finding common ground).

  8. Amy Ignatow’s “The Popularity Papers” series are an awesome set of graphic novels for tweens (and even a bit younger- if they can read cursive.) The Mighty Odds is the first in her new series. I find both to be inclusive, intelligent, amd heart-warming.

  9. Check out The Ugly Dumpling! I used to live in Chinatown and loved checking out the unique children’s books in the bookstore there. This was a favorite of mine. Great message!

  10. Nutmeg, by David Lucas. Both of my kids’ favorite book and have therefore read it over a thousand times, but it never gets old. The story of a girl, a rather petulant Genie and a magic spoon. I gave a copy to our Kindergarten as a graduation present, teacher said it was the best kid’s book she had ever read. Trust me it’s a winner…

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