I have had children’s picture books on my shelves throughout my entire life — they’re just not something I ever really grew out of. Even as an adult, I still think there are so many things that all readers can learn from children’s books — no matter what age you are — and this list of picture books even adults should read is a great place to start. After all, there is nothing quite like looking at the world through the authentic, unfiltered point of view of childhood (and sometimes we could all use a gentle reminder about what is really important in life: kindness, friendship, imagination. Nap time.)
In my own reading life, children’s books were some of my first real teachers. They created the spaces where I learned many of my first lessons about friendship and responsibility, confidence and determination, loss and resilience, and all the different ways of being a good steward of my community and the planet. And these are the kinds of simple, essential lessons that everyone needs to reconnect with at one time or another, whether you’re four or 64.
Here are 21 picture books that even adults will love — definitely consider adding a few to your own bookshelves.
1. ‘Just a Second’ by Steve Jenkins
This gorgeous nonfiction picture book invites you to slow down and begin to think differently about time: asking readers what can happen in a single second, in one minute, and in just an hour. Using real-world examples from nature, Steve Jenkins's Just a Second will redefine your understanding of time, measuring it's passing via the flap of a vulture’s wing, a crocodile’s heartbeat, and the life of a mayfly, rather than by the increments measured on a clock.
2. ‘If the World Were a Village: A Book about the World's People’ by David J. Smith
One of my favorite children's books of all time, David J. Smith's If the World Were A Village envisions what the world would be like if the planet's entire population were represented by a village of only 100 people. Putting life on this earth into staggering (and eye-opening) perspective, this picture book explores what the lives of these 100 people would look like — from diversity and food security, to healthcare and energy resources.
3. ‘Good People Everywhere’ by Lynea Gillen
Another picture book that I absolutely adore, Lynea Gillen's Good People Everywhere offers readers a reminder we could all use these days — that there are truly good people in this world, everywhere. Filled with examples of small acts of kindness, generosity, and gratitude, Gillen's message is hopeful and inspiring.
4. ‘The Art of the Possible: An Everyday Guide to Politics’ by Edward Keenan
After this past year, I think everyone needs a little political refresher course — and Edward Keenan's The Art of the Possible: An Everyday Guide to Politics features examples of the kinds of small-scale, grassroots politics that really make change in our country and the world. This children's book will remind you that everyone can create positive change, via one small, sustainable act at a time.
5. ‘The Lorax’ by Dr. Seuss
One of the biggest issues facing the world today is climate change, and adults sure have managed to complicate what should be a basic, essential message: clean up your messes, use your small space on Earth responsibly, and take care of the creatures and plants around you with kindness and intelligence. The Lorax reminds readers of all ages that everyone needs to care about the environment, that the world is beautiful and sacred, and that it's our responsibility to help keep it that way.
6. ‘Nothando's Journey’ by Jill Manly
Written by yoga instructor and educator Jill Manly, Nothando's Journey introduces readers to the practice of yoga and self-discovery through examples of yogic movements found in the animal kingdom. It also offers a great message about learning to trust ourselves and live confidently. The yoga teacher in me absolutely loves this one — and I guarantee you will too.
7. ‘Bird’ by Zetta Elliott
Zetta Elliott's beautiful and touching children's book is the perfect read for those days when you're feeling like you might be dealing with a bit more than you can handle. Bird tells the story of Mekhai, aka "Bird" — a young boy dealing with more than his fair share of adult problems, including mourning the recent loss of his grandfather and coping with his drug-addicted brother. Bird turns to drawing in order to make sense of his world, using his imagination and creativity to not only survive adversity, but also to add a bit more beauty to his complicated world.
8. ‘Looking After Louis’ by Lesley Ely
In a world that could use a little more love, Lesley Ely's Looking After Louis is exactly the kind of picture book we could all stand to spend a little time with. Louis is a young boy with autism, and at first his classmates are uncertain about his different interests and needs. But by using their open hearts and imaginations, Louis’s class plans a special soccer game that will help them all understand each other better. Love it.
9. ‘Freedom in Congo Square’ by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie
The power (and right) of peaceful assembly and association is something we definitely want to maintain moving into the political future of the United States, and Freedom in Congo Square is a historically-accurate picture book that examines the importance of exactly that. The book takes readers back to slave-era Louisiana, into a place called Congo Square, where slaves were allowed to gather once a week, sharing stories and celebrating their African culture freely.
10. ‘Razia's Ray of Hope: One Girl's Dream of an Education’ by Elizabeth Suneby
Celebrating the immense power of educated girls and women, and based on the collected true stories of the girls of Kabul’s Zabuli Education Center for Girls, Razia's Ray of Hope tells the story of a young Afghan girl named Razia who wants nothing more than to attend the new all-girls school in her village. But first, she must convince her father and older brother just how valuable an educated girl really is.
11. ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac
I bet you didn't know Jack Kerouac wrote children's books... Just kidding. This gem is part of the KinderGuides new collection of children's books, which are specifically designed to bring classic literature to children through simplified storytelling and gorgeous illustrations. These titles are perfect for geeking out over your favorite novels, and if you're as On The Road-obsessed as I am, you'll definitely want to add this one to your shelves.
12. ‘One Well: The Story of Water on Earth’ by Rochelle Strauss
Another children's book that puts environmental responsibility front-and-center, Rochelle Strauss's One Well: The Story of Water on Earth describes the interconnectedness of every single one of Earth's water systems — from the smallest raindrop to the largest ocean, and explains to readers how every drop truly does make a different in the survival of our world.
13. ‘Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match’ by Monica Brown
A picture book all about honoring diversity and celebrating our differences, Monica Brown's Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match introduces readers to the utterly lovable Marisol McDonald, a multi-racial and multi-lingual little girl who has learned to embrace exactly who she is — peanut butter-and-jelly burritos, mismatched boho-chic outfits, and all. We're never too old to be reminded how important it is to celebrate both our own uniqueness and that of others.
14. ‘Deep in the Sahara’ by Kelly Cunnane
Another much-needed story about celebrating diversity and multiculturalism, Kelly Cunnane's Deep in the Sahara tells the story of Lalla, a young girl living in Mauritania, a Muslim country on the coast of West Africa. Growing up, Lalla has always wanted to wear a malafa — the brightly colored cover that Muslim Muritanian women wear in public, just like her mother and older sister do. But before she can begin that rite of passage, Lalla must learn that the true purpose of the malafa isn’t to repress but to honor, and that to wear it is a choice, not a requirement. Deep in the Sahara offers readers an interesting perspective on African-Islamic culture, and particularly the experience of women.
15. ‘The Enemy: A Book About Peace’ by Davide Cali
An anti-war book written for children, The Enemy depicts two soldiers as they face one another across a battlefield. But rather than fighting, they end up making a meaningful, if brief, connection with one another instead, learning that they both share similar values about the things in life that are most important: their homes and families, their friends and communities, and their fears, hopes, and dreams. If only we could all put aside our differences this way.
16. ‘Brush of the Gods’ by Lenore Look
Part picture book, part biography, Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look is a stunningly illustrated story about Wu Daozi, the man known as as China's greatest painter, who rejected his education in calligraphy in favor of creating art. This children's book is perfect for any adult who needs a reminder that stepping outside the box can payoff in a really big way.
17. ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ by Munro Leaf
Another anti-violence, anti-war children's book, The Story of Ferdinand has been around since the Spanish Civil War — a testament to the power of a good children's book. The Story of Ferdinand is about a bull (Ferdinand, in case you haven't caught on by now) who would rather smell flowers than fight with the other bulls. Can't fault him there.
18. ‘My Name Is Sangoel’ by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed
At a time when immigrants and refugees are being ostracized and marginalized all over the world, Sangoel's story will break your heart and make you think differently about those who have had no choice but to leave their homes. After his father is killed in the war, Sangoel, his mother, and his sister, became refugees in Sudan. When they have the opportunity to move to the United States, the family must take what they have — little more than their traditional Dinka names and memories — and adjust to a land with strange weather, overwhelming cities, and unfamiliar noises. My Name Is Sangoel offers readers a child's perspective on the experience of being a refugee.
19. ‘This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration’ by Jacqueline Woodson
During the Great Migration, starting in 1916, millions of African American families left the southern United States and moved north — seeking greater freedoms; improved social, economic, and educational opportunities; and better lives. Jacqueline Woodson's This Is the Rope tells a story of one girl and the jump rope that she discovers in her yard one day. For generations her family will find uses — both practical and fun — for this rope, and with it they'll carry the stories of their family's past.
20. ‘One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference’ by Katie Smith Milway
Based on a true story, Katie Smith Milway's One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference tells the story of Kojo, a boy from Ghana who has been forced to leave school in order to make money for his family in the wake of his father's death. But after a small loan from the families of Kojo's village, he is able to buy one hen — selling the hen's eggs and using that money as an investment in a future farm. This picture book will remind you that a little generosity and kindness can go a long way in changing someone's life forever.
21. ‘The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge’ by Tim Huff
Poverty and homelessness are still significant concerns for people living in the United States and other parts of the world, and Tim Huff's children's book, The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge, tells the stories of many different people who have had the misfortune of becoming homeless. By teaching readers compassion, understanding, and the value of charity, The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge offers a thoughtful discussion about homelessness and the importance of assisting those in need.