If you're looking to entertain little ones with some of best children's books of all time, you're in the right place. And as it's World Book Day – Shakespeare's birth and death day, don't you know – there's no better time to stock up on some classics. So, whether you're in need of some inspiration for your own projects, want to keep your kids happy or are simply sick and tired of the books you've already got, we've got something for you.
The best children's books not only need to excite the mind of their audience, they also need to engage the adult reading them to the point that they're happy going through the same book time after time (after time). We've broken down our list of children's books down into age groups – with some extra recommendations in each section that anyone interested in design or illustration will enjoy, too.
Saying that, remember that you don't necessarily need to be tied to age group, children will often enjoy being read to, and they can usually enjoy the pictures of a book even if they don't seem to be getting as much from the words.
With all that in mind, read on for our pick of the best children's books of all time.
Summary: Follow a quick-witted mouse through the deep dark wood and discover what happens when he comes face-to-face with an owl, a snake... and a hungry Gruffalo!
There can't be many parents of young children who don't know about The Gruffalo. Written by prize-winning author Julia Donaldson, The Gruffalo has become one of the world's most famous literary monsters.
But his counterpart, a quick-witted mouse travelling through a perilous deep, dark wood, is as much loved by kids as the big man himself. The Gruffalo's detailed, beautiful illustrations by Axel Scheffler are brought to life when reading Donaldson's rhythmic tale – making for a winning recipe most children find very hard to resist.
Summary: A classic that has been passed down over generations, this children's book follows the journey of a caterpillar eating his way to adulthood.
Now over 40 years old, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been delighting children for generations. Eric Carle's unique and beautiful illustration style combines with a story that is fun and educational, even for young ears. It's a 'first buy' book for anyone with a child on the way.
The original is in paperback, but the book is available in so many different formats, from pop-up to puppet, and there's even a film. We've linked the board book, which is perfect for toddlers to hold and read and discover the world.
Summary: One night Max makes mischief of one kind and another, so his mother sends him to bed. When a forest grows, the Wild Things are unleashed and make Max their king.
Another classic, Where the Wild Things Are, has been on children's bookshelves since 1964. The story uses the jungle and Wild Things as a metaphor for Max's rage at being told to go to his room.
There's a beautiful message hidden under what seems like a story of an overactive imagination: sometimes a child just needs a bit of time to calm themselves down. This is something both parents and children can learn from.
Summary: It's Christmas Eve, and the Jolly Postman has letters to deliver – included in envelopes inside the book – to a cast of beloved fairy-tale characters.
Really any one of the Ahlberg books could go into this list. Each Peach Pear Plum, Funny Bones and Peepo are timeless classics. The Jolly Christmas Postman wins out because there is just so much fun to be had with your kids as you turn the page and see what's been delivered to the next classic character.
There's a game for Little Red Riding Hood, a jigsaw for Humpty Dumpty, a tiny book-in-a-book for the Gingerbread Man. Sit in bed on Christmas Eve and pop open the envelopes to reveal little toys and games to play with your little ones.
Summary: One winter's night a boy finds his Snowman has come to life, so they head on a magical adventure across the skies.
The Snowman is one of the rare occasions when a book and a film are on par with each other. If you've watched and read the story, you can almost see Raymond Briggs' illustrations dancing across the page.
There is a slight difference in that the characters don't visit the North Pole and meet Father Christmas in the book, which feels notably absent if you do it in film - book order. The end is still touching and sad though. The entire story of The Snowman is wordless, and it is fascinating to see how emotion and context are achieved using just body and facial expressions.
Summary: Once there was a boy, and one day he finds a penguin on his doorstep. The boy tries to return the penguin to his home but finds a friendship was all he was looking for instead.
Lost & Found is just about the pinnacle of what a picture book should be. It's the perfect length and tone, and the illustrations are approachable for both adult and child. The story of a developing friendship is quickly picked up by young children, and the humour is well placed, and subtle at points.
While How to Catch a Star is Oliver Jeffers excellent debut book, Lost and Found is really where he began to gain notoriety. The book was developed into a film by Studio AKA of which Jeffers produced a lot of graphics assets, and it's the first time you really start to see his iconic handwriting make an outing.
More recently, Oliver Jeffers released an anthology of all of his 'boy' books featuring pencil sketches and brainstorms completed while plotting the series. The Boy, His Stories and How They Came To Be is also available on Amazon. See our interview with Oliver Jeffers on the making of this collection here.
Summary: Sophie and her mum sit down for tea when the doorbell rings. Who could it be? It's a tiger of course.
You will often spot The Tiger Who Came to Tea in coffee shops, doctors surgeries, nurseries and waiting rooms across the country. This slightly absurd story has been entertaining for over 50 years and is immediately inviting to toddlers and young children, due in part to the fact that the imagery on the front is of a tiger sat at the dinner table. Once kids pick it up, there's plenty to look at and it's a joy to follow along. Just make sure you explain tigers aren't this friendly in real life.
Summary: A book about a bear whose hat has gone and he wants it back. Asking creatures one by one, the bear searches for his lost hat.
Klassen's colour and illustration style juxtapose the traditionally vibrant world we usually see in picture books. With its neutral hues and darker tones I Want my Hat Back makes a refreshing read in between magical kingdoms and fairy tales.
The humour is drier, subtler and darker as well, meaning its much more of a treat for adults than the norm. Kids still massively enjoy it though. The pacing of this story is some of the best you'll see in a 40-page picture book, meaning the plot twist at the end is delivered with excellent comic timing.
Summary: Noi and his father (a fisherman) live by the sea. One day a baby whale washes up on the beach, and Noi decides to take it home and care for it.
Benji Davies' illustration style reminds of Axel Scheffler (Gruffalo, Room on a Broom) in that it's incredibly detailed but completely unique. It's like landscape painting with a modern, more simplified colour scheme.
Add that to a story that is heartwarming and enjoys positive father-son dynamics, and you end up with a book that will go down as a modern classic. The Storm Whale in Winter is an excellent follow up that shifts the colour palette and adds even more vibrancy to the world.
Summary: A guide to life for people who've just arrived on Earth (babies).
In what is probably Oliver Jeffers' most refined book from a visual point of view, this book was written to teach his children the nuances of contemporary life. Fortunately, it does a great job of educating everyone else too.
The illustrations are stunning, and the message is refreshing. In a world that feels like it's becoming increasingly disconnected, this children's book aims to teach the next generation about life's purpose and what they can do in their time on this planet.
Summary: Husband and wife team of Ann and design legend Paul Rand combine to produce a simple and effective book for children.
Paul Rand illustrated four of his wife's books, each of them utilising a shape-led style with flat colour. There are undoubtedly more engaging books for children out there, but from a designer/illustrator point of view, given that this book was first published in 1956, there's still a lot to be learnt from the simplicity of layout and shape here.
Summary: A story of encouragement based around Jessica Hische's beautiful hand-drawn letters.
'A joyous burst of colour' is the best way to describe this book, which is Jessica Hische's debut children's book. Hische is famous for her ornate lettering that is shared far and wide across the internet as a beacon of beautiful, modern calligraphy.
This book is an extension of that work, combing her expressive lettering with charming illustrations and vibrant colours. The book encourages readers to seize the day, while reminding them that if for whatever reason they didn't accomplish what they set out to do, they have another chance tomorrow.
Summary: Paddington Bear has travelled from darkest Peru to London, England, where he meets a family called the Browns at Padding Station – bear-related high jinx follows.
Much like Winnie the Pooh and the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Paddington books and even toys are a staple of a newborn's bedroom. This classic British children's book features eight stories of the marmalade-loving bear some of which you may recognise from the two hit films released in the past few years.
The stories are quite bite-sized making it an excellent introduction to long-form reading and for making the transition from picture book to novels.
Summary: After years of absence, Willy Wonka has decided to re-open his world famous chocolate factory to five lucky children who find a golden ticket hidden in one of his chocolate bars.
This list of children's books could be entirely made up of Roald Dahl books, such is the quality of probably the world's most celebrated children's author. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes it ahead of any other because it ticks the box for every kid's fantasy – a magical chocolate factory where everything is edible.
As poor Charlie makes his way to becoming the successor to Willy Wonka, we wave goodbye to nasty, spoilt children who get the best of comeuppances. In the most hilarious of ways, Dahl's books provide great reminders to be kind to one another.
Summary: Join Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Christopher Robin for games in the 100-acre wood.
It's a well know fact that A.A. Milne created the Pooh books based on his son Christopher Robin Milne's toys. The stories have endured for nearly a century and have been adapted to multiple formats – most notably by Disney.
Disney's Pooh never captures the beauty of E.H. Shepard's illustrations, however, which are plentiful in this book and give even more of an innocence to Pooh and his pals.
Summary: A toy rabbit joins a nursery and discovers what it means to be real.
The Velveteen Rabbit is nearly 100 years old, and yet the story feels so familiar (apart from perhaps the scarlet fever part). It's the tale of a rabbit who is loved and cared for by a boy who pretends he is real, and goes on a journey of discovery to find out what that really means.
The illustrations are very of their time, in a charming way, and the story is a little longer than most books aimed at this age group. But in a way that Toy Story made you think twice about throwing old toys away, the Velveteen Rabbit sucks the reader into empathising with inanimate objects and caring for them a little more.
Summary: Join Professor Astro Cat on an educational trip through the galaxy. From the big bang to life on earth, this book is a modern take on educational science literature.
Professor Astro Cat is like the Brian Cox of children's books, breaking down the Universe into easy to understand metaphors. With Ben Newman's lovely retro-styled illustrations the book will delight young scientists, and likely teach adults a thing or two.
Summary: A story of a girl who loses her sense of wonder and is helped to rediscover her youthful exuberance.
A much more sombre book than most of Oliver Jeffers other offerings, The Heart in the Bottle will really strike a chord with anyone who suffered loss at a young age. The title of the book addresses the metaphorical situation the main protagonist puts herself in by closing her heart to the world and not allowing it to be filled with life and joy. Her life becomes mundane and day-to-day as she grows into adulthood, and it is up to a child to help her open up her heart.
Summary: A collection of 100 one page stories about women throughout history who broke barriers and achieved great things.
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is an incredible collaboration between the authors, the women they write about and the 60 contributing artists from around the world. The tales are a mixture of stories you may know (Cleopatra, Jane Austin, Harriet Tubman) and ones that are lesser known, or even being told for the first time in this book.
They range from Mexico's first female doctor to a transgender schoolgirl, covering a broad history of girl power. Each story is accompanied by an illustration equally as powerful, and combined together this makes for some inspirational reading – regardless of the reader's gender.
Summary: Once there was a Fox who lived in a deep, dense forest. For as long as Fox could remember, his only friend had been Star, who lit the forest paths each night. But one night Star wasn't there, and Fox had to face the forest all alone.
The Fox and the Star is one of the best-illustrated books you can buy, let alone in the children's book category. It's like flipping through a series of framed art that also happens to contain an intricate and heartfelt story across its 64 pages. This is a perfect gift for any age.
Summary: Matilda is an extraordinary girl with a magical mind, but is oppressed by her horrible parents. When she signs up for school, she is top of her class but has to deal with her bully of a headteacher, Miss Trunchbull.
Matilda is probably one of Roald Dahl's most accomplished and balanced works, mixing horrendous caricatures of the worst parents and teachers with those of hope and delight: Matilda, her teacher and her classmates – who shine like a beacon throughout the book.
Even in its most absurd moments, Matilda still feels incredibly relatable. Miss Trunchbull is the worst teacher you've ever had, and Miss Honey is the best. Everyone should have a Miss Honey in their school lives.
Summary: When an envelope arrives from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Harry Potter's life changes forever. Unbeknown to him, Harry is a wizard, one who survived a deadly attack from one of the most powerful dark wizards of all time.
Harry Potter is one of the most well-known and beloved entertainment properties in the world today. This book is where it all began, and is the perfect catalyst for getting your child to read more.
The seven-book series grows more mature as it develops, so will grow with your child as they read through. That's not to say they haven't been enjoyed by millions of adults across the world as well, often multiple times over.
Summary: In a parallel world filled with daemons, children have been disappearing. Lyra, with a magical instrument that can tell the future embarks on a dangerous journey.
Much like Harry Potter, The Nothern Lights is a beloved children's fantasy book with huge lore associated with its magical world. The book is intense, captivating, and kids will be gripped throughout as the suspense leaves them wanting more. The world is familiar to our own, yet much darker, and the gritty story stars Lyra, who is feisty and smart as she battles the Gobblers.
There's also an armoured polar bear.
Summary: Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit who enjoys the quiet things in life. That is until Gandalf the wizard comes calling with a band of dwarves in tow, who are looking for help stealing back their treasure from a dragon named Smaug.
The world of Middle Earth has one of the most developed in fantasy lore. The journey from the shire to the lonely mountain is wrought with trolls, goblins and enormous spiders as Frodo and company are guided by Gandalf.
The Hobbit sets the scene for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it is just as good as a standalone book, as Bilbo faces his fears and trades his comfortable way of life for adventure and gold.
Aimed at a younger audience, The Hobbit is a little more deliberate than its successor, the pacing is better and young readers will find it more engaging. The linked book is an illustrated version, which will help bring the world to life.
Summary: The very first outing of Luke Pearson's blue-haired heroine, Hilda. While out on an expedition, magical Hilda discovers a Troll but becomes lost in a snowstorm.
Hilda feels like a combination of The Moomins, Tin Tin and Adventure Time. She lives in a strange world that has been beautifully illustrated and has brilliant dry humour.
Hilda and the Troll is the first in the series, but there are many more, and the stories were recently made into a Netflix series, which is equally as good.
Summary: Christopher is 15 and has Asperger's Syndrome. He is extremely intelligent but struggles with other people and has not travelled further than the end of his own road. That changes when he finds his neighbour's dog murdered, and he sets out to investigate.
Writing books from the point of view of an autistic protagonist is a challenging task. Using Christopher's love of Sherlock Holmes, Mark Haddon is able to develop the story in a way that feels natural for a character who has difficulty interacting with the world around them.
Through this looking glass, we are able to learn more about the relationships of those closest to Christopher in a way that makes sense given the limitations placed on him by life and nature, as the thread begins to unravel on the 'case' of a dog who has been killed with a garden fork.
Summary: Bruno has had to leave all his friends behind when moving to his new house and now has no children to play with. He then meets Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a fence near his home and wear strange pyjamas. A Holocaust story told through the eyes of a 9-year-old child.
The strength of this book is found in its perspective. Seeing such a tragic event play out in the eyes of a child, who at most points is entirely ignorant of the world around him. It creates an interesting angle to discuss the Holocaust with children, as the story develops and the extent of the terror begins to overshadow Bruno's world.
Summary: Panem's city Capitol rules over 12 rebellious districts. To maintain order, they hold an annual televised reality show in which 14 teens battle to survive.
The Hunger Games can feel a far-fetched concept, teens battling to the death while the rest of the world gawps and watches. There is undoubtedly an active fantasy world that grips the reader with entertaining action and suspense throughout, but underpinning the main story is a commentary on our own society and attitudes to violence on TV and celebration of reality stars.
Kids will love the non-sensationalised violence and characters, and when they're done, it's a conversation starter for how they think the world might have become so desperate, drawing parallels to their own view on modern society.
Ages: Young Adult
Summary: Hazel is dying of cancer, but despite promising she would not start a romance with Augustus, she yields and begins a relationship that will change her outlook on love, despite the pain it will cause.
From the summary, you can tell this book is going to be a tough and emotional read. The author does a compelling job in keeping the characters grounded and realistic, offering insight into a teen's thought process when they are going to die.
It's a lesson to those reading that it's better to love and be loved, despite the pain and scars it may cause and that while life will throw a lot at you both big and small, it's essential to have strong support to help you through.
Summary: Death narrates the story of Liesel, a German girl left with foster parents shortly before the outbreak of World War II. As she attends the funeral of her brother, Liesel steals The Gravedigger's Handbook, the first of a series of book thefts. Her obsession with reading grows in turn with the conflict.
This book warrants many re-readings as you come to care for the variety of characters introduced in a realistic portrayal of Germany under Nazi rule. The fates, both good and bad, play out in an emotional ending, with Death as the narrator forming an essential part of the book.
Summary: Hitchhiker's Guide lives in pop culture alongside greats like Monty Python's Holy Grail, with so many in-jokes that fans will consistently quote to each other (don't panic, carry a towel, 42!)
The book itself is utterly random, and you might find your self struggling to work out what is going on from one moment to the next. That is its charm, and those fond of snarky British humour are in for a treat.