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Best timeless story books for young children

Martha Alexander rounds up the story books for children that have stood the test of time

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18 December 2017

ou can never be too young to cultivate a love of literature, which is why there are so many excellent books for babies and infants.

Story books for very young children often contain rhyme and repetition, while familiar domestic settings and animals feature heavily. But perhaps most pertinently of all, the books selected for this list have been enjoyed by children for at least 30 years.

There’s something extra-special about reading a story to a child that one remembers so clearly from their own infancy; what has for years been a fragmented couplet in a distant memory becomes whole and vivid again through reading the same book as an adult with a child.

Here we round-up some the best timeless books for very young children.

Hairy McClary From Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

Hairy McClary, the ringleader of this rhyming canine adventure romp, is a small scruffy chap who lives at Donaldson’s Dairy. His friends, including Bottomley Potts “covered in spots”, a handsome Dalmatian and “skinny and bony” Bitzer Maloney run riot through the streets until Scarface Claw, a formidable Tom Cat, sends them packing with a loud hiss. The rhyming and repetition that Dodd created in this volume is addictive to children so that by the end of story time there’s always a little chorus from attentive listeners who have remembered the words.

£3.99, Amazon, Buy it now

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

This wordless volume in which a snowman comes to life one festive evening, taking a little boy on an astonishing wintery adventure has delighted children for decades. The softness of the illustrations and how cleverly Briggs guides audiences makes the book truly exciting. The part where the Snowman looks set to melt in front of the fire is still heart-in-the-mouth stuff for adults. But most of all, kids today still say what children said 35 years ago: “I want a snowman like that…” When the snow comes and children make their own snowmen, you just know a little part of them is having a wistful daydream that come night time it might be the start of their own winter adventure. A Christmas delight.

£5.59, Amazon, But it now

Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski

The cartoonish colour blocking, rife with pop art speech bubbles has made this light-hearted tale about a witch and her cat thrilling for even very small babies since 1972. The thick, black line drawings, although simplistic, are especially attractive to youngsters – many of whom want to stroke the spikey-looking Mog. The inventory of foods Meg puts into her cauldron seem to be the biggest hit as children realise how extraordinary a recipe of kippers, jam and milk really is.

£5.99, Waterstones, Buy it now

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

No children’s library would be complete without this classic by Carle, whose tale of an insatiable caterpillar has had generation after generation hooked. Perhaps it’s something about how the pages are cut in a staggered manner, to correspond with the amount of food consumed by our hungry hero, or maybe it is simply Carle’s beautiful illustrations. The final page, when the protagonist emerges from his tight cocoon as a multi-coloured butterfly, still provides the most dazzling climactic joy among young readers.

£5.49, Waterstones, Buy it now

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

The first read of Goodnight Moon feels terribly surreal as we follow a rabbit-boy in pyjamas as he prepares to go to sleep in the “great green room”. An inventory of his surroundings is taken – including a red balloon, a telephone and a bowl of mush – before the prose bids goodnight to it all: “goodnight nobody, goodnight mush”. It is inconceivable that the last line – “goodnight noises anywhere” could be uttered in anything but a whisper, by which point eyes are drooping and the Land of Nod beckons.

£6.99, Pan Macmillan, Buy it now

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell

A lift-the-flap favourite, the reader is introduced to a menagerie of different animals in a variety of containers, all of whom prove unsuitable gifts for the narrator, who has asked the zoo to send him a pet. The giraffe is of course, too tall. The monkey, too naughty. The elephant, too big. At the end, the ideal animal companion is revealed, before little hands invariably flip right back to the beginning again. Only trouble is, in most cases, flaps in books don’t stay on for long, so do have a glue stick on standby.

£5.49, Waterstones, Buy it now

Peace At Last by Jill Murphy

Many an exhausted parent can relate to the fate of poor Mr Bear in Peace at Last – the tale of an insomniac father desperate for forty winks. Readers follow him as snoring wives, dripping taps and hooting owls keep him from slumber. First published over 35 years ago, the story’s appeal perhaps lies in Murphy’s repeated employment of the sounds which keep our protagonist awake. Little voices are wont to repeat each and every “tweet tweet” or “TICK TOCK”. The illustrations are rich and full of the kind of detail small children adore such as Mrs Bear’s hairnet, salt and pepper pots, discarded shoes.

£5.99, PanMacmillan, Buy it now

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Taking some of the best-loved characters from classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales, the Ahlberg’s created their own rhyming picture book which invites young readers to play “I spy” on each page, making them work to find Cinderella or Robin Hood or Baby Bunting. The pages are jam-packed with vivid illustrations containing the level of detail this duo is famous for. Little fingers will find not only the main characters, but pick out smaller fruits, cats, bowls, birds, trees, shoes, in fact, every aspect of domesticity that children find so fascinating when they recognise it outside of their immediate sphere.

£3.49, Amazon, Buy it now

The Story of Barbar by Jean de Brunhoff

Barbar the elephant is one of the most iconic children’s characters of all time, first appearing in The Story of Barbar in 1931. It is a story of growing up – Barbar endures suffering, is taken out of his comfort zone and returns to his roots a smarter, savvier and more sartorial elephant than before. Small children are amazed by Barbar’s outfits: his green suit, for example, is an endless hit. This is however, definitely a story for three-year-olds and not much younger: Barbar’s mother is killed by hunters which has proved upsetting for very small children.

£2.89, World of Books, Buy it now

Mr Tickle by Roger Hargreaves

Obviously the entire Mr Men canon is much-loved by very young children but Mr Tickle is the best-seller. And it’s not hard to see why. This orange chap with wiggly arms (which are so long he can move around his house retrieving biscuits while he’s still in bed) looks like he’d be the best tickler in town. Readers follow Mr Tickle as he spends a busy day in his local town tickling, amongst others, a policeman, a butcher and a postman, resulting in various degrees of chaos. The ending, which is the threat of Mr Tickle being nearby and ready to, well… tickle, will inevitably lead to shrieks of total hysteria, which is of course, the point.

£2.99, Waterstones, Buy it now

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Mischievous Max in his wolf suit is sent to bed without any supper – which is fine by him because in his bedroom an uncultivated world grows, introducing the protagonist, and riveted readers, to the wild things – a motley crew of monsters with huge teeth, spikey horns and big feet. A “wild rumpus” ensues, exhausting Max and making him pine for home. Sendak’s ability to marry words and pictures to such dramatic and memorable effect is exactly why this story has been a hit with children since 1963 – and is imprinted on the minds of generations.

£6.99, W H Smith, Buy it now


Each Peach Pear Plum packs in so much: from intricate cheek-by-jowl drawings containing mindboggling detail, to characters spanning dozens of other stories, not to mention rhyme, repetition and a favourite game – it’s hard to find fault with this beloved story.