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Treasure Hunting for Children's Books

Treasure Hunting for Children's Books

12 Mins
January 1, 1999

Note: While the selection criteria described in this article apply to children's books in general, the examples cited are drawn from picture books for children aged three to eight, reflecting the author's current knowledge and experience. This article also omits reference to such well-known works as those of E. B. White and C. S. Lewis.

In the last thirty years, books for children have become more available, less expensive, and of a higher production quality. The 1998 edition of Children's Books in Print contains an astonishing 126,600 children's books published in the United States and available for purchase, five times the number listed in 1968. An estimated four thousand juvenile trade titles (not textbooks) are published each year. Children's books are available seemingly everywhere for purchase—from large chain bookstores, which feature attractively designed children's areas and weekly story times, to discount stores, supermarkets bedding stores, and even car washes. In the year 2000, it is projected, consumers will buy nearly four hundred million children's books, with a retail value of over three billion dollars. In short, the children's book market is huge and the choices extensive.

But while the quantity of available books may be large, the quality is quite uneven. Delightful, well-written, and beautifully illustrated books are published alongside the unremarkable, the dull, and the truly objectionable. Thought and effort are required to separate the treasures from the trash. The books a child reads are as important as the food he eats. Good books develop and nourish a child's mind and character in the same way that healthy and nutritious food feeds and builds his growing body. This thought was expressed by nineteenth-century British educator Charlotte Mason in her book A Philosophy of Education:

Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally each of us possess this kind of mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving (Qtd. in Clay and Sally Clarkson, Educating the Whole-hearted Child, 78).

Five criteria can be used to sift through the morass of literary "junk food" and choose the best books for children:

  1. Children need books that teach rational values.
  2. The best books are ones that make the subject come alive.
  3. Children need books that counter the propaganda so prevalent in today's society (environmentalism, multiculturalism, etc.).
  4. Children should be exposed to a wide variety of good books and not solely to fiction.
  5. Picture books with beautiful and artistic illustrations should be chosen over books with cartoon-style illustrations.


The most important criterion is that good books for children must reflect and teach rational values. Books that profess to teach values are becoming quite popular. To date, William Bennett and renowned children's illustrator Michael Hague have collaborated on three gorgeous picture books for children, books that portray virtues, heroes, and our American heritage, respectively. Their Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories was on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

Homeschool book catalogs and Christian book stores are stocking and selling increasing numbers of both fiction and nonfiction children's books that uphold explicitly Christian values. Unfortunately, most children's books that purport to teach values rest on the ethics of altruism and not on rationality. The title character of the best-selling picture book The Rainbow Fish achieves happiness by giving away his glorious, shimmery scales. In Bennett and Hague's 1997 work, The Children's Book of Heroes, stories about true heroes such as Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln are interspersed with tales of Mother Teresa helping the needy in Calcutta and George Washington praying for victory at Valley Forge. The latter story implies that Washington prevailed not because of his own considerable virtues, but because it was Gods will. From the introduction: "This story about the Revolutionary War reminds us that in the worst of times, even great men need help. Often, they look to God to find it" (16).

Christian parents have extensive and reliable sources of books that reflect their values. The Sowers series of biographies focuses on the spiritual lives of great men and women and how their relationship with Jesus Christ allegedly influenced history. Young adult fiction by authors such as Patricia St. John develops the theme of difference that Christian faith, love, and forgiveness make in facing life's problems. The Elsie Dinsmore and Annie Henry series provide Christian heroines as role models for little girls. Unfortunately, there are no Objectivist equivalents to these books, upholding explicitly rational values. Objectivist parents have to search to find children's books that are consistent with Objectivism and that illustrate the specific virtues of rationality, productivity, pride integrity, honesty, justice, and independence. Happily, many such books have been published, although they are not advertised as such.

Rationality is typically depicted via three broad categories of children's books: (1) fictional or fact-based stories that emphasize cleverness or the superiority of brains to physical size such as Doctor DeSoto, the Emperor and the Kite, An American Army of Two, and Phoebe the Spy; (2) mysteries that feature child detectives using their senses and the facts of reality to solve problems without resorting to mysticism or supernaturalism, such as Marjorie Weinman's Nate the Great series; and (3) biographies of scientists, mathematicians, and inventors such as Marie Curie and Henry Ford, which demonstrate the importance and practicality of using one's mind.

Biographies also provide excellent examples of the virtue of productiveness. Milk is safe to drink because of the technique developed by and named after Louis Pasteur. Electric lights and movies are widely available because of the research done by Thomas Alva Edison. Cameras are easily portable and affordable because of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. The stories of these real-life heroes are extremely inspirational. What Are You Figuring Now? by Jeri Ferris is the story of Benjamin Banneker, a self-made man who used his intelligence and his questioning mind to rise far above his humble beginnings. A self-taught mathematician and astronomer, his almanacs were renowned for their precision.

Mildred Pitts Walter's Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World demonstrates pride, specifically, how true self-esteem is earned through achievement. Ten-year-old Justin seems unable to do anything right. His cowboy grandfather teaches him not only how to make his bed but how to make a batch of prize-winning biscuits.

Very few picture books for children deal with the virtue of integrity. One of the few is Thomas Locker's The Young Artist. The vain members of the king's court want Adrian to paint a portrait of them that bears little relation to how they actually look. The young artist must choose between maintaining his integrity and painting dishonestly. This story teaches young children to be true to themselves and not give in to compromise.

The importance of honesty and the quest for truth are dramatically illustrated in Everett Fisher's picture biography of Galileo. Although the Catholic Church forces Galileo to recant, it cannot change the facts of reality: that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice versa. In Evaline Ness's Sam, Bangs and Moonshine, young Samantha learns the importance of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. When her lies place a boy in danger of drowning, she understands why it is important to tell the truth.

Even little children can understand the virtue of justice in the classic story of The Little Red Hen. The hen rightly refuses to share with the lazy animals who declined to help her plant the seed, reap the wheat, or bake the bread. She eats and enjoys the well-earned result of her hard work, while the others do not.

Historical fiction is an excellent source for heroes who demonstrate the virtue of independence. Good titles include The Long Way to a New Land, Wagon Wheels, and Dust for Dinner. Many other children's books illustrate admirable qualities, if not specifically Objectivist virtues. Stories about the value of courage and perseverance tend to be very well represented in children's literature. Notable titles include: Little Toot: The Courage of Sarah Noble; Brave Irene; and Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie. Children learn that actions have consequences in Laura Joffe Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The cookie leads to a glass of milk, which leads to a straw, which leads to a napkin and so on. Vera Williams's A Chair for My Mother is a story about thrift and personal responsibility. A mother and her daughter save their coins for months in order to purchase a chair after their furnishings are destroyed by a fire. The heroic story of Edmund Hillary's historic climb, To the Top!, conveys that there are literally and metaphorically no mountains too high for a man to climb.

Fairy tales and fables can also be an excellent way to teach rational values and important lessons. The vain and foolish emperor in Hans Christian Andersen's beloved fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes learns that he can't fake reality. In general, fairy tales show children that good triumphs over evil, by offering examples of the two in conflict.


The best books for children are ones that make the subject come alive and are a pleasure to read. The term "living book" originated with nineteenth-century British educator Charlotte Mason, and the recent reprinting of her voluminous works has sparked new interest and debate on the question of what makes a living book alive. The various self-identified whole- or living-book publishers and catalogs each define the term "living book" a little differently. The following description was written by this author and specifically excludes the spiritual/religious dimension that is included by Mason and her modern followers, such as the Clarksons, Karen Andreola, and so forth.

In my view, then, a living book (or a whole or real book) is the literary expression of ideas by an author who knows and loves the subject about which he writes. A living books is ageless and can be enjoyed by people from seven to seventy. Well-written and presenting a model of clearly reasoned and grammatically expressed thought, living books are filled with ideas that touch the heart as well as the intellect. They capture the imagination and take a child on a "magic carpet ride" to worlds unknown. Nevertheless, they treat children as persons of intelligence.

In her introduction to Books Children Love, a 1987 compilation of living books, author Elizabeth Wilson describes the impact of a steady diet of living books:

Knowledge of fine literature and its insights into human nature and experience, knowledge about places, people, events, processes, causes, effects are all absorbed as a child reads—and this holds true whether the book is a well-written story, an equally well-written biography or history, a book showing great artists' paintings, or simply a well-crafted book on how to successfully grow a vegetable garden. (At the same time, the "nuts and bolts" kind of knowledge is also being absorbed: vocabulary is built, reading and spelling skills are greatly aided, and repeated exposure to various models of good writing do much to help the reader learn to put his or her own thoughts into an effectively written form.) (xvi)

One cautionary note, however: Charlotte Mason was a devout Christian, and that viewpoint is reflected in the Wilson book, which contains a mixture of wonderful stories and stories based on faith and altruism.

Classic examples of living books include the realistic fiction of Holling Clancy Holling and C. W. Anderson and the American history biographies of Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire. In Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea, a small canoe carved by a little Indian boy makes a four-year journey from Lake Superior all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. This living book provides a delightful introduction to the geography of the Great Lakes. C. W. Anderson's enthusiasm and love for horses shine through his Billy and Blaze series. The simple but well-written text is accompanied by exquisitely drawn black-and-white pencil sketches. The d'Aulaire biographies were written by two Europeans who fell in love with the ideas and heroes of America. Their biographies are characterized by their lively text romantic idealism, and gloriously vibrant and unique illustrations.

An outstanding example of well-expressed ideas is contained in the story of "The Battle of Marathon" from Russell F. Russell's 1989 Classic Myths to Read Aloud. In this passage, Russell establishes the context and explains the importance of the fight between Athens and the Persians:

Athens had flourished in every endeavor: It was home to the greatest sculptors in the world, the best architects, the finest poets and playwrights and musicians; its people had a high regard for learning, and they honored the mathematicians and philosophers who called this city home. But greater than all these artistic and scholarly achievements was the fact that Athens had given birth to the concept of freedom. Nowhere in the world, except in Athens, did people believe that they had the right to decide for themselves how to run their lives. In every land, since human beings began to live in groups, people had just accepted the notion that a king, a queen, or some other powerful ruler had the right to determine how everyone else should live. But it was only in Athens that people had freedom and so could choose to govern themselves. In Athens, then, and only in Athens, each farmer or shepherd or worker was a citizen and could take part in the doings of government; every citizen was equal before the law. The idea of a free people had never been thought of before, much less tried as a form of government. You can imagine, then, how dearly the people of Athens valued their freedom, and how they feared losing their freedom more than losing their lives. (37)

These paragraphs meet all the tests for a living book: they are full of ideas that touch the mind and the heart, the ideas are expressed in a literary form, and they treat the intended listener (aged five and older) as a person of intelligence.

The single most difficult category in which to find living books for children is the beginning reader (also known as easy reader) category. Most of these books are designed for children taught and crippled by the whole language method of reading (as opposed to the phonics method). The books feature extremely limited vocabulary, generally touted as "controlled vocabulary," simplistic sentence structures, and boring, uninteresting plots. Charlotte Mason's devotees rightly decry these books as pure "twaddle." One particularly egregious example is Margaret Hillert's 1982 Pinocchio, part of the Modern Curriculum Press's Beginning-To-Read series. This book prides itself on retelling the classic story using only seventy-two different words. The result is a book that is stilted, dull, and virtually devoid of content. Here is an example: "Look at you. I want you to go with me. Come here. Come here." Compare this with a page from Beatrix Potter's 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit designed for the same age group (kindergarten through second grade): "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" (33). Which page would you rather have your children read and learn from?

Hillert, by the way, has written many books for this series, all equally awful.

Excellent examples of living books for beginning readers can be found in the Classic American Reader series. Jeanne Chall, a reading researcher at Harvard, searched through readers used by children in the nineteenth century to compile these six books. Each small-sized book contains well-written and interesting selections that will appeal to children's intelligence and give them meaningful stories to read and think about. The selections include interesting facts about nature, classic fables and fairy tales, and stories of life and people in early America.

The simplest way to recognize a living book is to give it the "one-page test." After examining the book for general suitability, start reading it aloud to your children. Stop at the end of a few pages or the first chapter. You will know you have found a living book when you hear them plead for you to read more.


Children also need good books to counter the propaganda so prevalent in today's society.

For young children, the single best way to contradict the idea that the world is unknowable is with a heavy dose of science books. While juvenile science books rarely argue explicitly that the world is understandable and that we can learn about it by using our minds the cumulative effect is to teach children exactly that. The Let's Read and Find Out® series is an excellent choice for young children and focuses on topics that are usually of interest to them, such as dinosaurs, the human body, plants and animals, space, the earth, weather and the seasons, and the world around us. Many of the books include easy hands-on activities that further illustrate and reinforce the concepts presented. The books also make excellent beginning readers once children have reached the fluency stage of reading. The few obviously environmentalist titles in the series can and should be avoided.

The anti-hero and anti-individualist slant of today's culture can be countered through books that feature true heroes. William Bennett argues that stories about heroes provide children with much needed moral inspiration:

But factual or fictional, they all put a face on and give a meaning to heroism. They give us a chance to say to children, "Look, there is a person who has done something worth imitating." It is important to say that to children, because believing in the heroic can make each and every one of us a little bit better, day in and day out. If our children are to reach for the best, they need to have a picture of the best. (Heroes, 8)

Excellent fictional works with admirable heroes include Brave Irene, Wagon Wheels, The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Matchlock Gun, An American Army of Two, and Phoebe the Spy. Biographies of scientists and industrialists also provide an excellent source for real-life heroes. The American history biographies of the d'Aulaires are particularly recommended for their idealism and portrayal of man as heroic.

The current trend in early elementary school geography is to focus on the concrete (e.g., the child's neighborhood) instead of the more abstract (e.g., the universe, the earth). In some curricula, it is not until the fourth grade that a child learns about the globe, the continents, the equator, etc. Two excellent geography books for young children are recommended as antidotes: (1) My Place in Space, which provides a truly complete answer to the simple question of "Where do you live?" and (2) Maps and Globes.

Children need to have a sense of their place in time as well as in space. The current trend is to teach history thematically or in disconnected pieces, so that a child never fully understands the progression of events through history. Time lines are very much out of fashion. Virgil Hillyer's A Child's History of the World is an excellent and comprehensive introduction for young children. The delightful stories in the book teach important names and dates in chronological order and are graphically reinforced on the "Staircase of Time." Originally written as the history textbook for the fourth-grade class at the Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland, the book has been edited and revised since Hillyer's death. The pre-WWII editions are devoid of the political correctness, environmentalism, and multiculturalism that mar the edition currently in print. Another recommended resource is Virginia Lee Burton's Life Story, which imaginatively tells the story of life on earth as a play (for example, Act I is the Paleozoic Era).

Children with an age-appropriate understanding of history and science are also better equipped to deal with the barrage of propaganda about environmentalism that permeates our culture in general and children's literature in particular. A child who has read about life in the Stone Age or in the Middle Ages is less likely to want to regress to a world bereft of modern science and technology. A child who regards scientists and inventors and industrialists as heroes is less likely to regard their achievement as evil. A child who has been brought up with a plethora of good science books is less susceptible to the junk science used by environmentalists. Another excellent source of pro-man, pro-technology books is the non-fiction of author Gail Gibbons. My favorite work is her 1990 book Up Goes the Skyscraper!, which ends with the statement "Look up at the skyscraper. It took two years and three hundred people to build it . . . and it is beautiful."

The best defense against multiculturalism is a steady diet of the classics of Western literature. There are excellent children's editions of Aesop's fables, the myths of Homer, and the plays of Shakespeare, to name just a few. The read-aloud books by William Russell provide a wonderful introduction to the classics of Western literature for young children (Classic Myths to Read Aloud, Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children, and More Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children). Full-length versions of these and other classics should be added as the child matures.


Too many parents unnecessarily restrict their children to works of fiction. In the summertime, it is not uncommon for the fiction shelves at the local library to be almost bare, while the non-fiction shelves remain full. Most major chain bookstores concentrate on fiction and carry only token non-fiction selections. Choosing age-appropriate non-fiction is also more challenging, since titles are usually not segregated into easy readers, picture books, young readers, and young adult sections as are fictional works.

However, children need to be exposed not just to realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales, but to a wide and varied diet of books including science, mathematics, history, geography, biography, poetry, and mythology. Non-fiction books provide an important source of information and inspiration, albeit in a different way from fiction. Science books build on children's insatiable curiosity about the world around them and teach fundamental scientific concepts. From science books, children learn that the world is intelligible and that people have used their minds to learn about such diverse subjects as dinosaurs, weather, and the human body. From geography books, children learn their place in space, and from history books their place in time. Biographies of statesmen, scientists and inventors, teach children about men of character and give them heroes to admire and emulate. Through poetry children gain a sense of enjoyment of the English language with its rich vocabulary and wonderful rhythms. Mythology not only tells wonderful stories, it provides a rich introduction to some of the classics of Western literature. An additional benefit is that children familiar with the stories of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures are more likely to regard figures from the wonderful non-fiction find that their children willingly choose science books and biographies for their own reading pleasure.


The last criterion is that books with beautiful and artistic illustrations should be chosen over books with cartoon-style illustrations. Children are extremely sensitive to the illustrations contained in books. Carefully selected picture books can develop a child's appreciation for fine art and train his appetite for beauty and excellence. This point can most easily be demonstrated by comparing the Disney and the Margaret Early versions of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Most parents are familiar with the Disney version of this classic, which features colorful, cartoon-like illustrations based on the movie. The pictures are unobjectionable, unremarkable, and add little to the story. In contrast, Margaret Early's exquisite illustrations, with their fine detail and elaborate borders, make her version of the same fairy tale quite special and one that children will want to look at and read again and again. It is hard to believe that these are two versions of the same story, because they have about as much in common as a stick figure and a Renoir. In the Disney book, the illustrations are just there; in Margaret Early's version, the illustrations make the book a sheer delight.

Books with beautiful illustrations are both more expensive and harder to find in stores than the mass-marketed works produced by Disney, Sesame Street, and the Berenstains. But children raised on a steady diet of books by Margaret Early, Thomas Locker, N. C. Wyeth, Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, C. W. Anderson, Holling Clancy Holling, and Diane Stanley among others, will be incapable of discriminating between the outstanding and the mediocre, and they will be unlikely to want to settle for second best.


Some additional thoughts on choosing books for children:

  1. Make a note of the authors and illustrators whom both you and your children enjoy. Encourage your child to have favorites. Remember that children grow up quickly and their literary tastes will change over time.
  2. In order for a read-aloud to be a success, both parent and child must like it.
  3. In general, I tend to select older rather than newer books for my daughter. Books written earlier in this century tend to reflect higher literary standards in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure and to be free from the rampant political correctness that infects so many contemporary children's books. One very positive trend today is that many previously out-of-print children's books are being reprinted. Examples include the d'Aulaire American history biographies and the Billy and Blaze books.
  4. My favorite sources for children's books are catalogs from companies that specialize in living or whole books for children, online book services, and major chain superstores, in that order. Children's books sold in grocery stores, discount stores, and other non-traditional outlets tend to be formulaic junk (such as the Goosebumps and Animorphs series) or cartoon-type books based on popular movies and television shows, books offering little of lasting value.
  5. The best-selling children's books of today rarely meet the criteria described in this article.
  6. I recommend that you take particular care in choosing the first books that your child reads independently. It is critical to provide children with well-written, interesting stories to give children the idea that, in Charlotte Mason's words, "knowledge is extremely attractive and that reading is delightful."
  7. Beginning readers tend to be very sensitive to a book's typeface. Since any children's books have more than one edition, spend time looking for editions with larger and more readable typefaces.
  8. Cautionary note: You may find dozens of books by an author that you enjoy. Do not assume that all of these books will be just as wonderful. For example, one of my daughter's favorite authors is Bill Peet. However, he has written some books that I find morally objectionable and will not allow her to read. For example, Return to Shady Glade is explicitly environmentalist, anti-technology, and dedicated to Rachel Carson.
  9. Be sure to select some books just for fun.
  10. Most recommended book-lists for children can be divided into two categories: the religious and the secular. I find that these lists tend to contain a mixture of good and bad books. The religious lists tend to have books that emphasize praiseworthy values and character, mixed with religious stories and stories extolling faith and altruism. The secular lists include many excellent choices for read-alouds, along with environmentalist and multicultural titles. I have used both lists as starting points in the selection of good books for my daughter.

Finally: Have fun and enjoy reading some really good books with your children. I am having a ball introducing my daughter to books I loved as a child and finding new treasures to share together.

Mary Heinking
About the author:
Mary Heinking