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10 Classic Picture Books Every Preschooler Should Own

A good picture book should stimulate the imagination and promote hours of pretend play.

A good picture book should stimulate the imagination and promote hours of pretend play.

Classic Preschool Books

  • Did you know that reading to preschoolers is one of the best ways to stimulate their imaginations and promote dramatic play?
  • Did you know that the acclaimed physicist, Albert Einstein, said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge?”
  • Did you know student test scores show a steady decline in creative thinking since 1990?

With preschools becoming more academic, allowing less time for play and social interaction, parents must step in and encourage their children’s imaginations. These 10 classic picture books for preschoolers are the perfect catalyst for getting kids away from screens and involved in creating their own pretend worlds:

  1. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
  2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  3. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
  4. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
  5. Lovable Lyle by Bernard Waber
  6. The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle
  7. The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
  8. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel
  9. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
  10. Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett

When Imagination Guided Play

When my grown sons were little, our house was where neighborhood kids hung out and played. The boys would pull the sheets off our beds and place them over tables and chairs to make forts, mazes, haunted houses, and caves. They'd grab flashlights and pretend they were explorers searching for gold, bats, and hieroglyphics.

I just stood back and watched as their imaginations took them to places around the globe and adventures that thrilled their souls. I had snacks at the ready, but besides that, my duties were minimal.

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.

— Albert Einstein

The Death of Imagination

Fast forward 20 years and, sadly, many children don't know how to play and use their imaginations. I get disturbed and disheartened every time my neighbor's two little girls, ages 6 and 4, drop by for a visit, and I try to entice them with my closet-full of dress-up clothes, puppets, dinosaurs, and blocks from my days teaching kindergarten.

Those toys seem foreign and old-fashioned to them, requiring too much effort as opposed to the entertainment that's spoon-fed to them through an iPad, smartphone, and computer.

Their parents have them over-programmed with structured activities from the time they wake up until they fall asleep: school, soccer, tutoring, violin lessons, Spanish, and ballet. They never have time to feel bored, explore their creativity, and develop initiative.

Researchers have tracked a decline in children's creativity over the past 50 years, attributing it to the rise of technology and the decrease in play. Unfortunately, many parents (such as my neighbors) don't seem alarmed by this in the least. They're too impressed with this new generation's advanced tech skills to see the harmful effects.

They've bought into the belief that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is the key to their children's success in life and imagination is downright trivial. But are they correct?

Beware of minimizing imagination by equating it to a game of pretend. Every single creation in existence, from the Great Wall of China to the first flight to the moon, was a byproduct of imagination.


Imagination Matters

Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, recently discounted the clamor about STEM, arguing that creative thinking is the skill needed in the future. He said, "I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than for programming majors and maybe even engineering."

Going against popular opinion, he believes degrees such as English, philosophy, and foreign languages will become the most valuable in years to come. Perhaps, it takes a billionaire (and television star) to articulate what scholars in early childhood education have said for years: imagination counts!

It takes knowledgeable parents with strong convictions to promote their kids' creativity while ignoring STEM hysteria. Reading is one of the easiest and best ways that moms and dads can stimulate their youngster's imagination and boost dramatic play. Not all books do that, though, but these 10 titles will.

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister stimulates dramatic play by letting kids pretend their fish and other sea creatures.

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister stimulates dramatic play by letting kids pretend their fish and other sea creatures.

1. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

A great children's book opens up new worlds for kids to explore with their imaginations, and that's exactly what The Rainbow Fish does. Its story is perfectly suited for today's superficial society as it tells about a fish who defines himself by his good looks. He believes his worth is based solely on his beautiful shiny scales that are the envy of his fish friends. Unwilling to share his scales with those who have less, he leads a lonely, isolated existence until a wise octopus teaches him the value of sharing and letting go of vanity.

Young children will instantly relate to this story. After all, they've had experiences with someone who's been stingy, or they've been stingy themselves. They know it's hard to share, but they're beginning to understand its value in developing friendships. Therefore, The Rainbow Fish is ideal for this age group.

2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

This beloved classic celebrates the wild imagination of a boy named Max who travels to a land of monsters and becomes king of them all. It won the Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year in 1964 and deservedly so. It's stood the test of time by entertaining generations of children.

Not only does the tale promote creative thought, but it also empowers kids to be in charge of their imaginations—where they want to travel, who they want to see, and how they want to act. The book is short on words with its bold illustrations doing most of the talking. Kids love hearing it again and again.

3. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

This is another classic children's book and winner of a Caldecott award in 1970. Sylvester Duncan is a donkey who finds a magic pebble that grants wishes. When a ferocious lion frightens him, he wishes to become a rock. Sadly, when the lion leaves, Sylvester cannot turn back into a donkey.

This beautifully-crafted tale illustrates the bond between parents and children and lets readers inhabit a charming world where pigs are police officers, chickens are neighbors, and donkeys are a loving family. The moral is about appreciating the simple things in our lives—mom and dad, home, and community—and not wishing for anything other than what we already have. It's a book about love and family that makes everyone feel warm and gooey.

4. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

This gentle story returns us to an innocent time when our imaginations were so strong that stuffed animals became real. It tells about a boy who adores his toy bunny so much that he makes it come alive. The moral about the transformative power of love touches both young and old.

Children will be charmed by this magical tale, and adults will reach back in time to recall their own beloved stuffed friends. Acclaimed American writer, David Foster Wallace, said of the book: "The truth is I don't think I've ever found anything, as purely 'moving' as the end of The Velveteen Rabbit." It's a book that never leaves us and is always pure joy to revisit.

5. Lovable Lyle by Bernard Waber

No book from my childhood stimulated more dramatic play than Lovable Lyle (and the other Lyle stories in the series). It tells the captivating tale of a friendly crocodile who lives in the big city with the Primm family. Everybody in the community adores the courteous crocodile except for the new neighbors.

Children will feel an immediate allegiance with Lyle, who experiences discrimination just because he's different. At a time in history when we're so frightened and hateful of "the other," the Lyle books beg us to look deeper, seeing our similarities and not our differences. It also teaches kids the important lesson that not everyone will like you, even when you're as nice, polite, and charming as Lyle!

6. The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle

With its splendid illustrations, this book not only lets kids imagine what it's like to fly about like a ladybug, landing on leaves and eating aphids, but it gets them in touch with difficult emotions. The main character is an unlikely protagonist—a disgruntled ladybug who doesn't like sharing and wants to fight with everyone it meets.

What child can't relate to this insect who's in a bad mood and just needs a little kindness and understanding? The book serves as a springboard to talk about difficult feelings. Youngsters can come to understand that they'll still be loved by their parents even when they're tired, moody, and, yes, even grouchy!

7. The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper

No book sparked more pretend play in my two sons than this one. They both had a keen interest in trains, and this story brought it to new heights. They'd spend hours pretending to be that feisty little engine who refused to give up.

The tale's lesson—to think positively and keep going ("I think I can. I think I can.")—came up time and time again during their childhoods. It gave them the persistence to succeed in many endeavors. Recent studies show that grit, as demonstrated by the little engine, is a better determinant of success than intelligence and talent. If kids get that message from this simple story, they'll have a huge head-start in life!

8. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel

Written in 1968, this book is remembered fondly by many adults who now read it to their children or grandchildren. I loved it as a kid because it took me to far-away China, where their culture seemed so exotic. It re-tells a folktale that explains how first-born sons were given long names to honor them. However, this practice changed when it almost cost a young boy his life.

Although it's been over 40 years since I first heard this book in preschool, I still remember how it enchanted me. It inspired hours of dramatic play with my siblings, a ladder, and us reciting that long name repeatedly.

9. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

This classic book is another you may remember fondly from childhood. Published in 1940, it tells the humorous tale of a peddler who falls asleep under a tree. When he awakes, he's shocked to discover all the caps he sells are missing. He looks up into the branches and sees a pack of mischievous monkeys, each wearing a cap on its head!

What follows next is a game of monkey-see-monkey-do that will bring a smile to your child's face. My sons would ask me to read this story often when they were little. Then they'd go into our backyard and play monkeys in their tree fort for hours.

10. Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett

Jan Brett, the beloved author and illustrator of many outstanding children's books, puts her unique twist on the classic story of the gingerbread boy. Her detailed drawings are true masterpieces. You and your child can sit and admire each page, commenting joyfully on all that's depicted.

As in the original telling, the gingerbread baby is a rascal who jumps out of the oven and is chased by a cat, a dog, goats, kids, grownups, and a pig. But unlike the original, the gingerbread baby doesn't get gobbled up by a sly fox. Instead, Brett has a happier and more magical ending in store that's sure to spark your child's imagination and warm their heart.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on December 31, 2019:

I love that idea, Denise. When kids get immersed like that, it makes a lifelong impact. It's so much more powerful than the rote learning that goes on at school and is quickly forgotten.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on December 30, 2019:

It is true that imagination is a vital key to the development of children's minds and creativity. We had one day a month as "dress-up" day where the kids each picked a person from history, science or literature to "be" for the day. Once they dressed like the person, knew his/her birthday, what they were famous for, etc., I was sure those were facts they would never forget, as well as instilling creativity and fun in their day.



McKenna Meyers (author) on September 28, 2017:

Einstein also famously said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Unfortunately, we've moved away from that in early childhood education, but I'm sure we'll return to it again. Thanks for reading.

sybol on September 27, 2017:

I took note of the Einstein quote. It really opened my mind. I know that imagination is vital to learning and that quote brought it home.

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 09, 2017:

So true. When I taught kindergarten 20 years ago, I'd marvel at the kids' imaginations and thought how sad it is that we lose it as we age. Now I'm around children who have no imagination at all and don't even know how to play. They expect me to entertain them every second or give into their demands for technology. When I drive around family neighborhoods on a sunny day, I'm shocked to see no kids outside biking, skating, or playing. They're all inside with their devices. I grade research papers written by middle school students -- kids who've grown up using iPads at home and at school. What's most glaring is how lazy they are. They try to answer the questions without reading the sources as if reading is too much effort. Many parents foolishly think their kids are more intelligent because they're tech savvy. They're in for a rude awakening! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on June 09, 2017:

A great, timely message through this article. It's true that children are losing their innate abilities with the ever growing technology. They are becoming like robots and machines with no taste of real happiness.