I love to read classic children’s books to my kids. These 1950s children’s books were popular read alouds with both my boys. You may remember my list of 1950s chapter books from my 20th century classics by the decade series. I’m working through picture books now, but as I explained in my list of 1960s picture books, I am not going in chronological order.
As with my previous series, I am highlighting books which are less-than-famous but still worthy of your attention. There is no need for me to create yet another popular books or so-called “best books” list that includes Harry the Dirty Dog and Eloise. You already know about those titles! Still, all of the selections below should be readily available at your library or at bookstores. (Titles and covers below are affiliate links.)
See all my book lists, including the classic series –> Book List Index
One sad element of making these classic lists is that it is much harder to include quality books with diverse characters. Keats’ famous The Snowy Day was published in 1960 and prior to that many picture books either ignored people of color or included stereotypes. If you have any diverse titles to recommend from the 50s (or earlier) please leave a comment below or email me.
1950s Classic Children’s Books
Cinderella. (1954) To me, Marcia Brown’s rendition of the classic fairy tale will always be the quintissential version. There are many, many Cinderellas out there, some quite good, others horrendous. It’s not gruesome like the original Grimm tales but it’s not saccharine-ified like Disney. In fact this was the first book that taught me Cinderella actually went to the ball three times. So you know, she actually knew the prince well enough to marry him. (I joke.) Anyway, Brown’s illustrations are divine and, of my goodness… the costumes! Let’s just say there will be a lot of dress up play after reading this book.
Time of Wonder. (1957) I was torn as to whether I should include this book or McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine and then I realized I had the same problem when I included both on last year’s summer reading book list. This is a long picture book and best for leisurely reading. The action follows a family with a couple of girls as they take boat rides on the bay, prepare for a summer storm and welcome back the gorgeous weather. Fun for outdoor reading!
Fly High, Fly Low. (1957) So hard to pick one Don Freeman book! Before he wrote his famous Corduroy, he wrote clever books kids enjoy like Pet of the Met and Space Witch. This one is a bit of a love story about a pair of pigeons who make their home in the “B” of an electric sign high above San Francisco. One day workers start to dismantle the sign but the community has fallen in love with the birds and rallies to their cause.
Petunia. (1950) Petunia is a delightful, quirky, none-too-bright goose who is under the impression that being in possession of a book makes her the smartest creature in the farmyard. She puts on airs and dispenses highly questionable advice but is quickly and humorously brought to task by the other farm animals and a run in with a box of fireworks.
Frog Went A-Courtin’. (1956) Sadly, I don’t think many parents still sing “Frog Went A-Courtin'” to their kids. Such a shame! I love the old folk song and if you’ve never even heard of it, start out with this book. I loved the song when I was a kid, my boys think it is hilarious, and I bet your kids will love it, too. If you are not familiar with the tune, you can listen to a recording of Burl Ives singing the classic folk song on YouTube.
What Do You Say, Dear? (1958) Are you trying to teach your children good manners? What better way than to quiz them on what they should say in all manner (pun) of absurd situations. After all, you don’t want them to be caught off guard when a fierce dragon blows smoke at you, a gentleman introduces you to an elephant, cowyboys ride down the street, or a queen feeds you too much spaghetti. The illustrations by the great Maurice Sendak are delightful, as always.
The Cow Who Fell in the Canal. (1950) I was quite in love with this book when I was a girl. I think it was probably the illustrations that appealed to me because upon re-reading it as an adult, I realized I hadn’t remembered much about the story, but all the scenes were familiar. The story is about a cow who gets bored and sets off on a raft through city and country, causing a bit of chaos in pursuit of a particularly delicious-looking straw hat. Spier’s illustrations are wonderfully detailed and evoke the Dutch landscape with its windmills, markets and canals.
Chanticleer and the Fox. (1958) Barbara Cooney adapted “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for a young audience. A widow and her daughters take care of their farm in medieval England. A rather arrogant rooster spends his day strutting and showing off. A wily fox uses the age-old strategy of flattery to trick the rooster into crowing. Only the Chanticleer’s quick thinking saves him and the farmyard brood. This is a rather long book, but that also makes it a great picture book to read aloud to older kids, who may also be better positioned to understand the lesson in humility.
The Moon Jumpers. (1959) Janice May Udry is best known for another 1950s book, A Tree is Nice, but I adore The Moon Jumpers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. This lovely, gentle book explores the magical wonder of children playing outside on a moonlit night and will fill you full of childhood nostalgia. It is also on my list of picture books about the moon.
The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My. (1952) I’ve expressed my love for all things Moomin before, but only in chapter book form. This is Tove Jansson’s first Moomin picture book, so if your kids aren’t ready for chapter books (and even if they are) pick up this charming story about what happens when Moomintroll tries to complete the simple task of carrying a bottle of milk home through the woods. Die cut pages and rhyming text gives this read aloud extra layers of fun.
What are your favorite children’s books from the 1950s? Have you read any of these?