International Children’s Book Day, April 2, honours the 1805 birthday of Danish author Hans Christian Anderson. It is a day to call attention to children’s literature and to inspire a love of reading in your family of destiny. Here is a list of the best children’s books of the 20th century.


Through the centuries, there have been some great bedtime tales for children. James Finn Garner, in his “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories” (MacMillan Publishing Co., 1994), lampoons such favourites as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “The Pied Piper,” and others. Politically Correct, they are; children’s stories, not!

Stories like “Chicken Little,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “The Ginger Bread Man” do get a child-pleasing twist by author John Scieszka and illustrator Lane Smith in “The Stinky Cheese Man* and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” (Scholastic Inc., 1992). These fractured fables will please young and old.

Through the years of the passing century, there have been some terrific tales for the sleep- and age-deprived. When my son Charlie was little, we had our favourites from each decade. Most are still in print. All are perfect for gifts.

The character of “Peter Pan,” by J.M. Barrie (Charles Scribner’s Sons), dates back to 1902. Disney’s adaptations of the Boy Who Never Grew Up are still timely. Freudian thinkers have a field day with the Lost Boys and Never Land. The story of Wendy, telling the stories of Pan, creates a story within a story as timeless as childhood itself.

Raggedy Ann Stories”, written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle (Bobbs-Merrill Co.) in 1918, features a figure more famous as a doll than as a literary character. The way Ann and her friends talk and play when humans are not around predates the premise of “Toy Story” by generations. This first of many volumes continues to this day with tales of flying on a kite, a washing, a candy heart. All retain their power to interest and amuse.

The story in which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place* from “Winnie-The-Pooh,” by A.A. Milne, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard (E.P. Dutton & Co.), first came out in 1926. Like Raggedy Ann, Pooh was authored by a father for his child, the plaything’s owner. What is so endearing about a bear of little brain? Again, the Zen of Christopher Robin’s friends provides a playground for psychological analysis.

The ABC Bunny” is a lesser-known work by Newbery Award-winning writer and illustrator Wanda Gag (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1933). This is a great letter-learning song and a wonderful bedtime book. It has pleasing pictures too. Charlie was two when he could finish the rhyme for each letter. “Y for you, take one last look; Z for zero, close the book.”

Another rabbit tale is “Goodnight Moon,”* by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clemet Hurd (Harper & Row, 1947). Lucky is the child (and parent) who discovers Brown at an early age. To stall the inevitable coming of sleep, this bunny says goodnight to everything; bears, chairs, even the night air. This book is a classic in every sense of the word.

Harold and the Purple Crayon” (Harper & Row) was written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson in 1955. Though markers might have replaced crayons, nothing can replace the creativity and imagination of Harold as he draws himself in and out of some strange predicaments. As the story draws to an end, he finally finds his way home. Charlie loved to draw and we loved this book.

Fears of the dark are dispelled – no, made fun of, and welcomed – in an early work of the “Little Critter’s” creator. Mercer Mayer is the author and illustrator of “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet” (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1968). Mayer’s books are popular. This one should not be missed.

A boy’s dream adventure will take you “In the Night Kitchen,” written and illustrated by Wild Things’ creator Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1970). Images of old movies and New York of the 30s abound. Is this book controversial? Does frontal nudity bother you? Is it good? Have you heard of the Caldecott Honor Books? The New York Times also named it the Best Illustrated Book of 1970. Go to the library and check it out.

In a Dark, Dark Room,” by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (Harper) came out in 1984. Many experts say young children should not be told frightening tales. My son is the exception. He found this collection of scary stories at Grandmother’s house and began to ‘read’ it to me at age three. And why not? It’s from Harper’s ‘I Can Read’ publications. It’s perfect for a mature toddler to a second-grader.

Guess How Much I Love You,”* by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram (Candlewick Press, 1994) is a modern classic. Charlie and I were already into the game of topping each other in ‘How much I love you’ when we discovered this book. Big Nutbrown Hare holds his arms wider than Little Nutbrown Hare in demonstrating the quantity of love he holds for his son. Love “all the way down the lane as far as the river” is not as far as “across the river and over the hills.” Babies will like the pen and ink and watercolors. Toddlers will attempt to top the competition when you ask, “Guess How Much I Love You?”

Through the years since the millennium, quite a few bedtime stories have been published that will make a child feel safe, happy, loved, home. Somewhere, sometime this evening, someone is reading the best bedtime book of the 21st Century. What do you think are the contenders?

*Books marked with an asterisk are included in “The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury” (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998), a compilation of more than 40 great stories for young or old.


Originally published at Single Dad. Photo by Bukowskis/Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author: Don Mathis

Don’s life revolves around the many poetry circles in South Texas. His poems have been published in a hundred periodicals and broadcasted on TV and radio. Don has written news and reviews for various media and countless editorials about fatherhood. His political correspondence has prompted personal replies from George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and numerous other lawmakers. Find his work in the Daily Dad, the Good Men Project, and many other publications.

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