This list of classic European fairy tales for children includes the best fairy tale picture books.
Many of them are books my parents read to me while I was in my formative years. They have stuck with me and captured my imagination, just as they will do with today's children!
Since these are all European tales, please supplement this list with books from my around the world folktales book list series!
I know it's tempting to read fairy tales from collected works (and there are some great ones) but I highly encourage you to read single title fairy tale picture books, especially of well-loved stories like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. A talented illustrator will add details to the story that surprise and enchant little listeners.
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Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert (1972)
I had this book as a child and I will always remember being surprised at the ending in which Snow White's stepmother was forced to dance to her death while wearing red hot iron shoes. I wasn't alarmed by it; in fact I always found the Disney movie much, much more frightening. I don't think (most) kids find the original Grimm stories to be as disturbing as modern adults do. In any case, if you are going to share fairy tales with your child, the illustrations in this book are dazzlingly marvelous.
Beauty and the Beast, pop-up retelling by Robert Sabuda
I've never found a traditional picture book version of Beauty and the Beast that I loved, (nothing holds a candle to Robin McKinley's Beauty) so I'm going for this utterly fantastic Pop-up version that will totally wow your kids. Totally worth purchasing. Sabuda has other fairy tales, including The Little Mermaid.
Rapunzel retold and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
If your primary goal is gorgeous illustrations you can't go wrong with Zelinsky. I like this version of Rapunzel because it draws on many different sources, not just the Grimm version. There is no other Rapunzel book that even remotely compares to this one. Zelinsky has several other spectacular fairy tales including: Rumpelstiltskin and Hansel and Gretel.
Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper by Marcia Brown
To me, Marcia Brown’s rendition of the classic fairy tale will always be the quintessential version. There are many, many Cinderellas out there, some quite good, others horrendous. Brown's book is 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, oh my goodness… the costumes! Let’s just say there will be a lot of dress up play after reading this book.
More fairy tales illustrated by Marcia Brown:
- Stone Soup
- Dick Whittington and His Cat
- The Three Billy Goats Gruff
- The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Henny Penny retold by Paul Galdone
This could perhaps qualify as a folk tale (I'm not sure where the line is drawn) but it is one of my favorites so I get to decide. Henny Penny is freaked out that the sky is falling and rallies equally gullible animals to her cause. Galdone is a gold mine of fairy tales.
It would be a little ridiculous for me to list all of Goldone's books, but several more great ones include the following:
- The Three Little Pigs
- The Gingerbread Boy
- Jack and the Beanstalk
- Three Billy Goats Gruff
- The Elves and the Shoemaker
Goldilocks and the Three Bears retold and illustrated by James Marshall
I thought maybe I should include a more reverent version of this tale, but honestly, I just love this one so much I had to include it. Goldilocks is so wonderfully naughty it's hard not to love her for it.
MORE: Scandinavian folk tales
The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson, retold and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Anderson's well-known tale about beauty is given a gorgeous makeover. Pinkney, in addition to many must-read picture book versions of fables, has illustrated several other fairy tales, including:
- Puss in Boots
- Little Red Riding Hood
- Little Red Hen
- The Little Match Girl
- The Nightingale
Three Classic Children's Stories by James Donnelly, illustrated by Edward Gorey
Find it: Amazon
Who doesn't love a good Gorey tale! (See what I did there?) When I was a child I had the Gorey-illustrated version of Rumpelstiltskin and I loved it. The fairy tales in this volume, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer and Rumpelstiltskin are collected from three different individually published books by different authors.
MORE: Scottish Folk Tales
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, retold by Robert Browning, illustrated by Kate Greenaway
I was a little obsessed with this book when I was a kid but also totally freaked out by the story. The illustration of the place where the the kids end up after they followed the piper looked so appealing, yet the idea that the virtual doorway closed forever was quite freaky. But fairy tales help kids work through such fears and you can't go wrong with Greenaway's illustrations!
Hansel and Gretel retold by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Jen Corace
Find it: Amazon
I didn't realize Rylant (who is a very prolific author) adapted fairy tales. This is a very accessible version of Grimm's Hansel and Gretel. It's not overly scary but all the classic elements are there. Rylant and Corace also collaborated on a version of The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
The Frog Prince retold by Edith A. Tarcov, illustrated by James Marshall
Find it: Amazon
This is another fairy tale picture book I loved as a kid. I don't recall it being in an easy reader format way back then, but like the idea of fairy tales as easy readers. It is a nice way for kids to experience classic tales they may have previously heard on their own terms. Marshall's version has a good deal of humor, even though I still think it is weird that a prince wants to marry a girl who just threw him against the wall.
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Confession: I have never really liked this fairy tale. I won't delve into my psyche to try and explain why, lest I start to find things far disturbing than a story about a girl who sacrifices everything for a man who doesn't recognize her worth. Anywhooo. Zwerger's illustrations are spectacular, so if mermaids and muteness are your cup of tea, go for it.
Other fairy tale picture books illustrated by Zwerger:
- The Pied Piper of Hamlin (warning: the kids have super creepy eyes!)
- The Bremen Town Musicians
- Tales from the Brothers Grimm
- Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales
The Musicians of Bremen: A Grimm's Fairy Tale adapted and illustrated by Gerda Muller
I loved this fairy tale when I was a kid. I tried my hardest to figure out which version I read, but I couldn't. I'm sure it is long out of print. I think this fairy tale about a traveling group of clever, musical animals is often overlooked, but it is highly satisfying and Muller's illustrations are a delight.
The Fisherman and His Wife, retold and illustrated by Rachel Isadora
Isadora has several fairy tale books in which she sets the action in Africa. They don't all work for me; I prefer her fables but I thought this was a successful book and I really love Isadora's collage illustrations.
Hans My Hedgehog, retold by Kate Coombs, illustrated by John Nickle
Find it: Amazon
Never heard of wee Hans? You're not alone. I don't remember hearing this story at all when I was growing up. The premise, however, will sound familiar. A couple wishes against hope for a child. When the child is born his is half-hedgehog. Fearing a life of rejection, he sets out from home and meets..... (drumroll) two princesses. And what do you know, his luck starts to change. This is a great picture book to introduce your child to a lesser known Grimm tale.
The Sleeping Beauty by Felix Hoffman
Find it: Your Library
If your library has this out-of-print version by Swiss designer Felix Hoffann, it is worth seeking out. Hoffman also illustrated versions of other tales, including The Seven Ravens and King Thrushbeard.