Now that we have covered a few must-read kid books from the 19th Century, let’s move on to more classic books from the 20th Century and start off with children’s books from the early 1900s. I am showing my age a bit because I keep wanting to refer to the 20th century as “this century”. It’s still hard to get used to. Sigh.
A note on my book selections: It is not my intention to create a “Top Ten” or “Best Books of the Century” list. If that were so, these lists might have different books on them. You can find a million of those lists all over the internet. My objective is to bring to your attention 10 books in each decade that I think are worth reading even if they are not “a top book of all time.” In each list I try to highlight books that may be less familiar to the general public (this was the most difficult with the period 1900-1910, see my note below).
Note on my 1900s List: Of all the decades I will be covering, I found 1900-09 to be the trickiest. Primarily because books that do not stand the test of time are not exactly books I want to recommend. Of course limiting my lists to 10 books also leaves off some worthy books and maybe even your favorites, so be sure to leave a comment and get your favorite title heard.
Reading classics is fun, but sometimes they have dated language and include offensive stereotypes. You don’t have to read these books, but if you do I recommend being upfront with your kids about their problems. Don’t try to “sweep it under the rug”, because all that does is make history invisible.
If you want to read contemporary, diverse books that are inspired by classic book lists check out this post: If you liked this classic book, you’ll love these diverse books!
For tips on reading classic books see my first post in the series: Classic Children’s Books: 19th Century. (Note: book titles and covers are affiliate links.)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (1900) L. Frank Baum’s classic is considered by many to be the Great American Fairy Tale. Do not confine yourself to the movie version! After Dorothy reached the Emerald City she didn’t go home right away, she had another fantastic journey to meet Glinda in the Land of the Quadlings. This book has been re-illustrated many times over the years, but I highly recommend seeking out a text with the original illustrations by W.W. Denslow.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin. (1903) Rebecca can be a bit cloying, but fans of Anne of Green Gables will most likely enjoy this story of an imaginative young girl who leaves her beloved farm to live with her two unmarried aunts.
Five Children and It. (1902) I could have chosen any number of E. Nesbit’s books for this list, they are all wonderful. In this story, five siblings find a Sand Fairy who grants them a wish a day. It’s a wonderful prospect, but it causes loads of trouble. For those of you unfamilar with Nesbit, you will be interested to know that J. K. Rowling cites her as one of her favorite authors.
The Wonderful Adventures Of Nils And The Further Adventures Of Nils Holgersson (1907). Selma Lagerlöf is a household name in her native Sweden, as famous as Astrid Lindgren. She was also the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1909). Nils is a naughty little boy who takes off on an aerial journey around Sweden when he climbs on the back of a goose. On his voyage Nils learns about the geography and natural landscape of Sweden and his encounters with wildlife and people teach him a few valuable lessons about humanity. If you want an abridged version, I love this edition with cut paper illustrations.
Anne of Green Gables. (1908) It’s impossible to find fault with Anne, she is charming, imaginative and utterly beguiling. I probably don’t need to introduce her to you, but make sure you introduce her to your child. I also wholeheartedly recommend the wonderful 1985 screen adaptation.
The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. (1902) I read Howard Pyle for the first time just recently to make sure I wanted to include him on this list. (See how dedicated I am?) He wrote four books about the adventures of popular figures from the King Arthur Legend, all titles beginning with “The Story of…”: King Arthur and His Knights, Sir Lancelot and His Companions, The Champions of the Round Table The Holy Grail and the Passing of Arthur. While there are a lot of “methoughts” and “beseeches” and “hitherwards” when the characters speak to each other, I think kids who are enchanted by stories of knights and “olden times” will like these stories. There are abridged versions available, but they lack Pyle’s use of rich descriptive language.
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. (1906) This is the story of how Peter Pan became the “boy who never grows up.” It is not the story you find in the Disney movie (which was based on the later Peter and Wendy). The story originally appeared in Barrie’s The Little White Bird (1902) for adult readers, but after the runaway success of his stage play about Peter (1904), the chapters were excerpted and published as a book for children. Read it with Arthur Rackham’s gorgeous color illustrations.
The Call of the Wild. (1903) Jack London’s books were not written as children’s books but are often considered to be so since they have become part of high school curricula. The Call of the Wild is a novella, and is the story of Buck, a dog living a comfortable life in California who is uprooted and must learn to survive in the brutal landscape of Alaska. Told from the dog’s point of view, The Call of the Wild is exciting and suspenseful and may be better for older children, but it’s certainly no less violent than many movies they see. Follow it up with White Fang (1906).
The Wind in the Willows. (1908) I love Kenneth Grahame’s book about the adventures of Mole, Rat and their loopy friend, Toad, but I also think it is too often recommended for very young children. The content is appropriate, of course, but Grahame’s syntax and vocabulary is quite sophisticated. Although many parents start out reading this classic first, I suggest starting with something easier, like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or even Just So Stories.
Just So Stories. (1902) Kipling followed up The Jungle Book with a wonderful collection of short stories for children. Similar to folk tales about the creation of various natural phenomenon, the fables have titles like “How the Leopard Got His Spots” or “How the Alphabet Was Made”. Younger children will enjoy this as a read aloud.
As I said, I left off several well-known books from this list to make way for a few others. Have you heard of all of these? Did I leave off your favorites? Leave a comment below and let me know.
Visit my other posts in this series:
- Classic Children’s Books: 19th Century
- Classic Children’s Books: 1910s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1920s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1930s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1940s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1950s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1960s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1970s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1980s
- Classic Children’s Books: 1990s