Greedy tigers, soothing moons and wild rumpuses: classic picture books and why we love them

By Brenda Gurr

Picture books that stand the test of time are rare. So what magical ingredients turn a picture book into a classic? Is it the words, the theme, the characters or perhaps the illustrations? Is it a combination of these things? Sometimes it’s impossible to figure out why a picture book appeals to us—it just has that je ne sais quoi that all writers would love to wish upon their books!

I put out a call on social media last week for help with this post, asking ‘What was your favourite picture book as a child?’ Thanks to everyone who responded. There was quite a range of books covered! Diane told us about the Australian classic Shy the platypus(first published in 1944), Liz loved the whimsicalThere’s a sea in my bedroom(1984) and Kate admired the strong main character in Princess Smartypants(1986). A group of followers had fond memories of stories from the long-lived Beginner Books series by Penguin Random House (The digging-est dog,Robert the rose horse, Are you my mother? andGo, dog. Go!).Michael particularly loved Go, dog. Go!for its intriguing treetop dog party and its subplot involving dubious poodle fashion.

Based on your other suggestions and some serious research on my part (J), I’ve come up with a short shortlist of well-loved picture books that have endured for many decades. (That’s in the English-speaking world anyway. I would love to hear from readers who were brought up with picture books written in other languages.)

Where the wild things are – Maurice Sendak

I was certain someone would nominate this in my social media call out and Travis didn’t let me down! He particularly remembers being excited about Max’s room transforming into a jungle. This wildly popular (sorry) 1963 story is often included in classic picture book lists—and with good reason. In fewer than 400 words, Sendak whisks us away to a world inhabited by monsters, crowns its main character and sails us home again in time for supper. Can you believe that at the time of its release it received negative reviews? Some critics thought it was simply too dark for children.

Goodnight moon – Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

This soothing, quaint book was first published in 1947 and has been translated into numerous languages. Its beauty seems to lie in its simplicity. Facebook follower Jenni loved its beautiful rhythm and the fact that ‘the little things’ were important to the story. Allanna commented that she used it as part of her children’s bedtime routine. I’m sure many grateful parents around the world have done the same!

The very hungry caterpillar – Eric Carle

Inspired by a hole punch, this 1969 book is still a firm favourite with many. Like most young children, I couldn’t resist poking my fingers through each of the holes. Featuring simple text, gorgeously bright illustrations and a lesson on the life cycle of a butterfly, it seems likely this will continue to enchant generations of young children.

The poky little puppy – Janette Sebring Lowrey and Gustaf Tenggren

Ah, this 1942 classic has such strong memories for me! I can clearly remember listening to my grandmother recite the lovely rolling rhythm of ‘roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble’. One social media commenter said that it was the kindness of the other puppies and the forgiveness from the mother dog that made an impact. A seemingly simple story that delights in playful words and repetition, teaches counting and promotes life lessons—what’s not to love?

The tiger who came to tea – Judith Kerr

I have a soft spot for Judith Kerr because she wroteWhen Hitler stole Pink Rabbit, a novel I read over and over when I was nine years old. I still have my battered copy!

The tiger who came to tea (1968) is a fun tale about a greedy and mysterious tiger. The expressions on the tiger’s face throughout the book hold great appeal, as do the matter-of-fact reactions to his visit from its human characters. It begs to be read many times over because we all want the tiger to come back and eat Sophie’s tin of tiger food. It has been suggested that the tiger represents a Nazi-like threat (Kerr spent the first part of her childhood in Berlin just before the Nazis came to power), but Kerr has disputed the claim.

So many wonderful classics. And so many more I can’t cover in this post!

What are your favourites? We’d love to know!


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