I’ve never been a big fan of lists like “50 Books Your Kid HAS to Read” or “The 100 Best Children’s Books OF ALL TIME.” Typically, they make my blood pressure spike, tossing me between joy (“Ooh, good pick!”) and rage (“No Sylvester and the Magic Pebble? Those Philistines!”), and I spend more time debating their selection criteria and omissions than enjoying their recommendations. That said, I do think there are certain TYPES of books that every kid should be exposed to — the kinds of books that truly introduce them to the best of what the written word has to offer.
Here are my (very subjective) picks for the EIGHT essential kinds of books that every kid should have in his or her home library:
1. Board books.
Board books are more of a format than a literary genre, but their impact can be profound. They are the training wheels of literature. They can be given to crazy little toddlers, and those ankle-biters can browse them, chew on them, do whatever they want with them… those thick cardboard pages will ENDURE. They teach kids that books are there to stay, AND they allow their chubby little fingers to perfect the art of the page flip, which is possibly the greatest technical innovation in the history of reading. (Sorry, eReaders, but you can’t compete with the awesome power of the perfectly-placed page turn.)
Our world has a ridiculously rich and involved cultural history, and it would be a shame not to introduce your child to it at a young age. And I’m not just talking about Greek myths, which, granted, can have a bit too much god/animal coupling for young readers. I’m talking about the stories, the BIG STORIES, that everyone in our world knows. The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Cinderella, Noah and the Flood, Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, stories of Anansi, King Arthur, Superman, and Strega Nona — the foundational stories. The stories that are referenced throughout every other story your kids will be reading for the rest of their lives. That foundation HAS to be laid somewhere, and it should start at home.
3. Books you loved as a kid.
It’s true that you can’t expect your child to have the exact same taste as you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to share your favorite books with your kid. At the very least, it will show him or her what it looks like when a book truly has a profound effect on a person, when a book is treasured and loved. And who knows? They may surprise you.
4. Books that suit their personality.
This may be hard to hear, but if your kids love talking about farts, burps, and boogers, you should buy them some books about farts, burps, and boogers. That doesn’t mean that you should ONLY let them read about what they want — but if you really want your kids to enjoy reading, they have to know that their interests are represented in the books they read, even if those interests are completely incomprehensible.
I know a lot of adults who don’t enjoy reading poetry personally, but I can’t stress enough how powerful poetry can be for young readers. If normal prose is a Volvo, poetry is a Lamborghini — it takes language, floors the accelerator, and really shows you what words can do. Poets like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein teach kids that, when assembled correctly — even in ways that don’t seem to make sense — words can make a person feel a ridiculously deep range of emotions, and kids LOVE THAT.
6. Nonfiction books.
Because kids can’t learn about the world from the Internet alone. Because the Internet won’t stay still. Because kids always know that they’re one click away from a video of a monkey peeing into its own mouth. But nonfiction books, the best kind, offer the real world to a child as a beautifully-wrapped gift, and allow them explore and peruse and ponder at their own pace. Atlases, shark books, histories, biographies, encyclopedias, and collections of oddities — they all take kids by the hand and introduce them to the weird, wonderful world in a way that a web page simply can’t.
7. Books that are too old for them.
A kid can’t survive on Goodnight Moon alone. Eventually, every kid is going to be ready for the next step in their reading evolution, and it’s a good idea to have some of those books handy. Because reading should be aspirational. Kids should want to master board books, so they can move up to picture books, so they can graduate to chapter books, and so on. And having those books in your house as a target, as a goal, as something to be coveted, can be really motivating to a young child in a positive way. You want to read Harry Potter one day? Let’s work on getting there together…
8. Blank books.
One of the best gifts I ever gave my daughter was a blank notebook. Because that notebook was an invitation — an invitation to write her own stories. An invitation that said she had just as much potential to write something great as ANY other author on her bookshelf. All she had to do was try. Sometimes she writes about her day; sometimes she writes terrible fan fiction; sometimes she writes nonsense. But every time she writes anything, she’s learning how to use her tools. She’s learning how stories are made, and, in my experience, that connection to the written word only makes her love reading all the more.
There are many other kinds of books that I love sharing with my kid — picture books, comic books, funny books, sad books, photography books — but most of them fall into one of the eight categories I’ve listed above. They’re all variations on universal themes, and introducing those themes to my daughter has been one of the most satisfying parts of being a parent.