I love children’s books. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher now. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t learn to read until age ten. But I am a huge sucker for picture books, early readers, chapter books, etc. I even got my masters in writing books for children and teenagers. But there’s one problem with me writing a list of the 20 best children’s authors: the word best.
Best is a hard word for me. When I don’t like a book, I usually think something is wrong with me, not the book. I tried to pick a mix of classic and currently publishing writers with a wide body of work. I also narrowed the list to authors who write primarily for children under 10. The reflects the relatively homogenous authors from my past along with the diversity and inclusion that guide my book choices today. I also in one case listed a writing/illustrating duo as one person. While this isn’t metaphysically possible, it made sense given the format.
If you’re sad that I put the Hungry Caterpillar on the list but left off Stewart Little or the Berenstain Bears, I get it. Books are personal. Children’s books are extra personal. In fact, there are authors I’m mad at myself for cutting from the list. Seriously, how could I do that?
I’m putting all this handwringing on hold, to present my highly subjective and not-at-all scientific list of the 20 best children’s authors.
1. Judy Blume
I literally don’t know how I would have gotten through my childhood without Judy Blume. She writes for humans of all ages about emotions and difficult topics with so much care and humor. And even though she started writing over 50 years ago, her stories still feel so relevant and timeless. From annoying little brothers to friends moving away to getting your period, Judy Blume explained it all and made so many things that felt weird or embarrassing begin to feel normal.
Book you might have missed: Freckle Juice
2. Eric Carle
Eric Carle has written and illustrated well over 50 books for children, and he’s still creating at age 89. His distinctive illustration style includes collage using hand painted papers. The result is images that are cheerful, colorful, and characters that appear full of energy. Combining these beloved characters with simple phrasing that is often easy for young children to memorize has made him a beloved and bestselling author of picture books for the last six decades.
Book you might have missed: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse
3. Yangsook Choi
This writer and illustrator grew up in South Korea and now splits her time between New York and Seoul. This multi-national life is reflected in her books, ranging from the story of a girl newly in America and nervous if her classmates will to learn to pronounce her name to the mixing of Korean street dancing traditions with American Halloween. All of her books are illustrated mixing soft, dreamy colors with strong graphic images.
Most known for: The Name Jar
Book you might have missed: Peach Heaven
4. Beverly Cleary
I know I said I didn’t like the word “best,” but Ramona Geraldine Quimby is one of the best literary figures of all time. She’s funny, awkward, and so so relatable. Who among us does not remember the horror of when she cracked an egg on her forehead in the cafeteria at school. But she didn’t just write about Ramona. Cleary wrote over thirty books for kids, including a few YA books and the novelization of the TV show “Leave It to Beaver.”
Book you might have missed: The Mouse and the Motorcycle
5. Christopher Paul Curtis
Since 1995, Christopher Paul Curtis has been writing award-winning novels for young people focusing on the history of African Americans. His books often take place in his hometown, Flint, Michigan. But his characters are what make his books so read and beloved. His insight into children’s brains, personalities, and family dynamics make his characters highly specific, even while important events in history like the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963 or the Underground Railroad unfold in his story’s background.
Book you might have missed: Elijah of Buxton
6. Roald Dahl
Between his 21 books for children and the variations of adaptations of his work, Roald Dahl stories are so well known and beloved among my millennial generation and everyone who’s come after us. As a teacher, I see how these are some of the best books to interest reluctant readers. And as a reader, I’m still completely tickled by the idea of shooting into space in a glass elevator or vanquishing a villain as evil as Miss Trunchbull. With his dark comedy, clever wordplay, and imaginative, unexpected endings, Roald Dahl’s books delight children and adults. And I expect they will continue to do so for some time.
7. Kate DiCamillo
Whether writing picture books, chapter books, or novels for children, Kate DiCamillo always builds elaborate and fully-immersive worlds in the pages of her stories. This is true whether she’s writing about a girl living in a Florida trailer, a mouse living in a fairytale world, or an adventure-loving pig. The perspective and details she’s able to saturate into every word she writes make her one of the best children’s authors.
Book you might have missed: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
8. Grace Lin
Grace Lin has written and often illustrated over 20 books for children, ranging from picture books to early readers to novels. She writes from a Taiwanese American perspective, with book subjects ranging from growing up Asian American in primarily white communities to traditional foods like dim sum and mooncakes to fantasy stories based in Chinese folklore. No matter the focus, Lin always tells stories with nuance and emotional resonance.
Book you might have missed: Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!
9. Arnold Lobel
Arnold Lobel once said, “I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children.” We are all very lucky he felt that way, because his illustrated early readers that celebrate friendship, help us learn to be alone, and teach the importance of accepting each other’s difference with grace and humor. Some of my favorite early reading memories are with Frog and Toad. And I still think of Toad every time I lose my list of things to do!
Most known for: The Frog and Toad Collection
Book you might have missed: Uncle Elephant
10. Lenore Look
Lenore Look embeds Chinese and Chinese American culture into her hilarious books for children. She is the creator of many picture books and two early chapter book series for children who are just beginning to learn how to read. Her characters often face a variety of challenges, some related to their heritage, like visiting relatives in another country and not liking the food and others that are almost universal, like being scared to learn how to swim.
Book you might have missed: Polka Dot Penguin Pottery
11. Andrea Davis Pinkney
Pinkney has written so many award-winning picture books, novels, nonfiction, and historical fiction for young readers. Her booklist reads like a record of contemporary and historical African American experiences, ranging from slavery to Black entertainers to a biography of the Obamas. She often collaborates with her husband, illustrator and writer Brian Pinkney, to bring these stories to life and make sure these important people are not forgotten.
Book you might have missed: Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
12. Jerry Pinkney
As an illustrator, Jerry Pinkney has created over 75 books for children in his more than 60 years working. He often illustrates for a writer, often the illustrious Julius Lester or his wife Gloria Pinkney. But some of his best books are solo projects where he lets his pictures tell the story and omits words completely.
Most known for: The Lion and the Mouse
Book you might have missed: The Three Billy Goats Gruff
13. Adam Rubin and Daniel Salieri
The duo Adam Rubin and Daniel Salieri have created some of the best contemporary classic picture books around. There is something about their books that feel incredibly modern, whether they feature dragons eating too spicy salsa or raccoons scheming to plan their own secret pizza parties. Best of all, children adore these books. And in my experience as a teacher, if you read one they will ask if you can read the book again and again and again and again…
Most known for: Dragon’s Love Tacos
Book you might have missed: Robo-Sauce
14. Pam Muñoz Ryan
Ryan has written over thirty books for children and teens, ranging from picture books to novels. Some of her books focus on Latina and multicultural experiences, reflecting her own heritage. In these stories, her characters often face hardship and struggle, but find their hard work rewarded. Others include silly animal stories full of rhymes, like her series about Tony Baloney the macaroni penguin.
Most known for: Esperanza Rising
Book you might have missed: The Dreamer
15. Dan Santat
Dan Santat brings humorous books to children as an illustrator and author. While illustrating, he’s worked with wonderful authors like Samantha Berger, Aaron Reynolds, Minh Lê, Corey Rosen Schwartz, and more. But his solo books also stand out as imaginative, hilarious, and almost always grappling with anxiety in some form or another. While he is a newer author, I suspect his books will be read and passed down for generations.
Most known for: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
Book you might have missed: Are We There Yet?
16. Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak once said, “You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.” This high respect for children’s intelligence and autonomy is easy to see in his weird, slightly dark stories and illustrations. It is hard to imagine a picture book character more iconic and emotionally resonant than Max, the boy in a wolf suit who tames the wild things after a fight with his mother. But Sendak’s other books present equally twisty and entertaining tales.
Most known for: Where the Wild Things Are
Books you might have missed: In the Night Kitchen and Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue
17. Dr. Seuss
It’s hard to imagine a list of greatest children’s authors that doesn’t include Dr. Seuss. Theodore Seuss Geisel wrote and illustrated over 60 books for children. Using a whimsical art style and sing-song rhyming scheme, he created many of the world’s most loved and best selling children’s books.
Book you might’ve missed: The Butter Battle Book
18. Noel Streatfeild
Noel Streatfeild penned the beloved Shoes books in the 1930s and 1940s to reflect the lives of child entertainers. Her first book, Ballet Shoes, was an instant hit and helped set up the trend of ballet and dancing themed books for children that are still quite popular today. While slightly old-fashioned, her stories always hit the right ration of charm and mischief, with beloved characters carrying out fantasies of what it would be like to be on the stage.
19. Mo Willems
I tried to count how many iconic children’s books the prolific Mo Willems has created in the last two decades, but I kept losing count. My best estimate is around 40. He creates series around beloved characters that children love to read for themselves and have read to them. From Elephant and Piggie to the Pigeon series to Knuffle Bunny, Willems knows how to make children laugh and think at the same time with lessons on kindness, friendship and respect.
Book you might have missed: Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs
20. Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson writes prolifically and poetically about the Black experience in America in everything from picture books to adult novels. From poetry to historical fiction to memoir, Woodson get’s into the point of view of her characters expertly and fills her stories with lyrical descriptions of the worlds they inhabit.
Book you might’ve missed: This Is the Rope
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