The best children’s books that don’t condescend to children

Who am I?

Like Matasha, my eleven-year-old heroine, I am the product of a big-city Midwestern 1970s childhood. I was a rabid reader who always felt that books made the world make more sense. Now as then, I am drawn to characters who are allowed to be complicated and to endings that don’t tie things up with a tidy bow. I believe “unlikeability” in fiction is a myth. I love children’s books that show kids thinking and feeling deeply.


I wrote...

Matasha

By Pamela Erens,

Book cover of Matasha

What is my book about?

It’s 1970s Chicago. At the start of sixth grade, Matasha Wax has a best friend who is blowing her off, parents fighting over whether to adopt another child, and the possibility of needing growth hormone shots (she can’t seem to grow past four-foot-four). But none of these difficulties can prepare her for her mother’s sudden disappearance, a puzzle Matasha has to figure out all by herself. Matasha is a poignant look at resilience in the face of childhood loneliness, divorce, bullying, and slow development. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Harriet the Spy

Pamela Erens Why did I love this book?

I read this book over and over as a kid, and it became one of my primary inspirations when I wrote Matasha. Harriet is a twelve-year-old living in New York City who spies on her neighbors and then writes about them in a secret diary. Harriet isn’t “nice.” She’s observant and judgmental and feisty and expressive (boy, is she expressive), and author Louise Fitzhugh, bless her, thinks that’s just fine. Harriet learns a lesson about compassion at the end, but it isn’t a treacly one. 

By Louise Fitzhugh,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Harriet the Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

First published in 1974, a title in which Harriet M. Welsch, aspiring author, keeps a secret journal in which she records her thoughts about strangers and friends alike, but when her friends find the notebook with all its revelations, Harriet becomes the victim of a hate campaign.


Book cover of The Phantom Tollbooth

Pamela Erens Why did I love this book?

I discovered this book at age ten in a doctor’s office, waiting for my mother. It’s pure fun for younger kids, while older ones will start to catch onto its endless puns, jokes, and philosophical conundrums (in that way, it’s like Alice in Wonderland). Milo, a very ordinary boy, is whisked off into an adventure in Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, the warring kingdoms of numbers and words. There he discovers things like Subtraction Soup (the more you eat, the hungrier you get) and the land of Conclusions (which you get to by jumping). The Phantom Tollbooth will keep a curious kid’s mind busy and delighted for hours.

By Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Phantom Tollbooth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

With almost 5 million copies sold 60 years after its original publication, generations of readers have now journeyed with Milo to the Lands Beyond in this beloved classic. Enriched by Jules Feiffer’s splendid illustrations, the wit, wisdom, and wordplay of Norton Juster’s offbeat fantasy are as beguiling as ever. 

“Comes up bright and new every time I read it . . . it will continue to charm and delight for a very long time yet. And teach us some wisdom, too.” --Phillip Pullman

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only…


Book cover of Charlotte's Web

Pamela Erens Why did I love this book?

This classic about Fern, a girl growing up on a farm; Wilbur, the piglet runt she saves from the axe; and Charlotte, the wise spider who saves Wilbur again once he’s grown, is unsparing about the realities of the life cycle: creatures live and then—at some point—they die. Death is a unique loss and true cause for grief, and yet new life emerges in its wake. Crisply written and full of the feeling of rural life, it’s one of the first books I remember crying over. 

By E.B. White,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked Charlotte's Web as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

Puffin Classics: the definitive collection of timeless stories, for every child.

On foggy mornings, Charlotte's web was truly a thing of beauty . Even Lurvy, who wasn't particularly interested in beauty, noticed the web when he came with the pig's breakfast. And then he took another look and he saw something that made him set his pail down. There, in the centre of the web, neatly woven in block letters, was a message. It said: SOME PIG!

This is the story of a little girl named Fern, who loves a little pig named Wilbur - and of Wilbur's dear friend,…


Book cover of Little Women

Pamela Erens Why did I love this book?

Many bookworms report that they identified with tomboy, scribbling Jo when they read Little Women as children, but I didn’t. I wanted to be Meg, the pretty and sensible one. The good thing is there’s no wrong March sister to identify with. They each represent very different but equally valid ways of managing the challenges of growing up. And for the sisters, there are many challenges: an absent father, strapped finances, and the eventual premature, heartbreaking death of one of them. Little Women doesn’t play down life’s difficulties but also shows family and friendship and love in all its richness.

By Louisa May Alcott,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Little Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

Louisa May Alcott shares the innocence of girlhood in this classic coming of age story about four sisters-Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

In picturesque nineteenth-century New England, tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, fragile Beth, and romantic Amy are responsible for keeping a home while their father is off to war. At the same time, they must come to terms with their individual personalities-and make the transition from girlhood to womanhood. It can all be quite a challenge. But the March sisters, however different, are nurtured by their wise and beloved Marmee, bound by their love for each other and the feminine…


Book cover of Millions of Cats

Pamela Erens Why did I love this book?

An elderly man goes in search of a cat to make him and his wife less lonely. He comes home with not one but millions of them: how to choose which to keep? The cats solve the problem by fighting among themselves until “they must have eaten each other all up.” But one unexpected little kitten is left…. 

I couldn’t have articulated this when I first sat raptly turning its pages, but Ga’g’s fable, with its handwritten text and charming 1928 black-and-white drawings, acknowledges both the ferocious and the vulnerable in children’s natures.

By Wanda Gág,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Millions of Cats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

An American classic with a refrain that millions of kids love to chant: Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.

Once upon a time there was an old man and an old woman who were very lonely. They decided to get a cat, but when the old man went out searching, he found not one cat, but millions and billions and trillions of cats! Unable to decide which one would be the best pet, he brought them all home.

How the old couple came to have just one cat to call their own is…


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The City Sings Green & Other Poems About Welcoming Wildlife

By Erica Silverman, Ginnie Hsu (illustrator),

Book cover of The City Sings Green & Other Poems About Welcoming Wildlife

Erica Silverman Author Of Wake Up, City!

New book alert!

Who am I?

I am an award-winning author of picture books and early readers. I have set my stories in many kinds of locations, including a haunted house, an Eastern European shtetl, an English Renaissance village, and a working cattle ranch. For Wake Up, City, I turned to the setting I know best, the city. I drew on memories of walking to kindergarten in early morning Brooklyn. This book is my love song to cities everywhere. As a lifelong city dweller, I worry about the impact of urban spread on the planet, but I feel hopeful, too, because many cities are becoming more nature and wildlife-friendly. The books I'm excited to share celebrate city wildlife. 

Erica's book list on celebrating cities

What is my book about?

A unique and artful blend of poetry, science, and activism, this picture book shows how city dwellers can intervene so that nature can work her magic.

In Oslo, Norway: citizens create a honeybee highway that stretches from one side of the city to the other, offering flowerpots, resting spots, bee boxes, and beehives—even water fountains—every eight hundred feet.

In the Bronx, New York: a community rallies to clean their river and cheers at the return of the long-lost beaver population.

In Busselton, Australia: people make a rope bridge that swings high above speeding cars, creating a safe path for tree-hopping possums and squirrels alike.

Through a mix of lyrical poems, real-life success stories, and bouquet-bright artwork, The City Sings Green explores the environmental impact of humans and showcases the many ways that we can rewild cities across the globe. Together, we can welcome nature back!

The City Sings Green & Other Poems About Welcoming Wildlife

By Erica Silverman, Ginnie Hsu (illustrator),

What is this book about?

A unique and artful blend of poetry, science, and activism, this picture book shows how city dwellers can intervene so that nature can work her magic. Perfect for fans of The Curious Garden and Harlem Grown.

In Oslo, Norway: citizens create a honey-bee highway that stretches from one side of the city to the other, offering flowerpots, resting spots, bee boxes and beehives-even water fountains-every 800 feet.

In the Bronx, New York: a community rallies to clean their river and cheers at the return of the long-lost beaver population.

In Busselton, Australia: people make a rope bridge that swings high…


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