Remember when you were a kid, and occasionally someone would shove a Newberry Award-winning book at you that you were "supposed" to like and didn't? These aren't those books.
These are books children actually enjoy, as opposed to ones that grown-ups somehow think they should. I just finished reading one of the former type to my son-- "Afternoon of the Elves," which turned out to be less about elves and more about social-worker-type problems. Just because a book is about children does not mean it's for children. I also remember being nagged again and again to read "The Earthsea Trilogy," and not ever getting hooked by it. I liked it as an adult (along with most other works by Ursula K. LeGuin), but as a child? The books are very grim and dry.
Well. These recommendations are not only for parents or aunts and uncles-- many of these stories are a good read for adults as well.
I'm trying to gauge the categories and ages. My kids were both early readers, and Christopher in particular likes complex stories-- the books he brought to preschool would never get read to the group, and I finally had to tell him that they had "too much story" for the other kids.
Early Books (Ages 1-3):
Sandra Boynton: Moo, Ba, La-La-La, Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs, The Going-to-Bed Book. Now these are books that both kids and adults will love. Silly pictures, silly stories, and so much fun. Available in hardbound booklets that withstand baby abuse.
Margaret Wise Brown: Kids love these, though I honestly don't know why (!). Goodnight Moon and The Big Red Barn are classics (but a bit mind-numbing for me). The Runaway Bunny has fascinating pictures, and though I found the mother in it rather stalkerish my older sister with the Child Ed background assures me that little ones find that reassuring.
Richard Scarry: Everything by this author is wonderful. The pictures are fantastic, and he has such a wonderful sense of humor. He has fairy tales, word-learning books, and stories. Such variety! My favorites include Mr. Frumble's Coffee-Shop Disaster (a very bad day in the life of the world's most incompetent pig) and Firefighter's Busy Day (the fire station tends to one problem after another, all caused by guess who?)
Jan Brett: Brett is a phenomenal illustrator, but a mixed-bag as a storyteller. Her Christmas-based books, Troll books and Hedgie-based books are the best. My son has a terrible weakness for hedgehogs, and Hedgie is his hero.
Julia Donaldson: Room on the Broom. Delightful rhyming book about a cheerful witch and various creatures she encounters and lets ride along with her. Great ending.
Bernard Lodge: Mouldylocks. A birthday celebration for a friendly witch, with her odd assortment of friends, include Wizard Twittle and Crabby Anne. Hilarious pictures, with many rebounding magical disasters.
Jerdine Nolan: Raising Dragons and Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm. These two very different and wonderfully-creative stories contrast magic elements with others' perceptions. Both books feature African-American girls as the main character-- Nolan is one of the few Black children's authors who is well-known.
Matt Novak: Robobots, Mouse TV, Gertie and Gumbo, Elmer Blunt's Open House. These four books could not be more different. This author is an unusual thinker, to say the least, and his illustrations are so funny. "Robobots" features a robot family moving into a regular neighborhood, and struggling to befriend a standoffish streetlamp. "Mouse TV" is so weird it almost defies description. "Gertie and Gumbo" stars a little girl who raises a baby alligator to be a dancing fool. "Elmer Blunt's Open House" is a home-invasion-by-forest-animals story, all because Elmer was in too much of a hurry to remember to lock the door.
Jane Yolen: Eeny, Meeny, Miney Mole. Such a wistful, beautiful story. Lovely watercolors tell the story of Eeny Mole who is so very curious about Up Above, since she has always lived underground where 'dark was light, day was night, and summer and winter seemed the same.' Cannot recommend this enough-- it's very soulful.
Young Readers and Reading-To Books (Ages 3/4 to 7/8):
Denys Cazet: Minnie and Moo books. Two deranged cows make mischief again and again thanks to a dress-up trunk in the barn and an enormous lack of common sense. These are hilarious.
Kinuko Craft, Illustrator: I recommend any of the various fairy tales as illustrated by this author (better known as the cover-artist for many of the Patricia McKillip fantasy books). Each picture is a literal work of art. Gorgeous
Jack Gantos/Nicole Rubel: Rotten Ralph series. These are so offbeat-- Rotten Ralph is a cantankerous trouble-making cat who occasionally feels remorse for having gone too far. The "before" portions are unexpected and different.
Dav Pilkey: The Dragon books, all about the delightfully dim blue dragon, are wonderful except for the depressing and disturbing A Friend For Dragon. I don't know what the author was thinking there, but it's much too cruel for younger children.
Cynthia Rylant: Mr. Putter series, Poppleton the Pig series. There's such a warm style to the Mr. Putter books, a beloved grandfatherly type with a little orange cat. The Poppleton books have marvelous pictures and odd characters-- Poppleton occasionally woos the lipstick-and-heels-wearing llama next door.
Janice Lee Smith: Wizard and Wart books. Funny and droll stories about the not-always accurate Wizard and his lazy bulldog, Wart. Wizard and Wart, and Wizard and Wart at Sea, are my favorites.
Tony Abbott: Secrets of Droon series. These books kind of drive me nuts, but the kids just love them. Less formulaic than the "Magic Treehouse" series, and well-balanced between genders. Talking purple pillows, a pie-baking dragon, and the Evil Lord Sparr are featured. My kids were done with them after first-to-second grade, but their peers read them up to grade 3.
Bruce Coville: Moongobble and Me series. A young boy goes on adventures with an incompetent wizard-in-training, wherein many things are turned into cheese.
Kate McMullan: Dragon Slayers' Academy series. I absolutely love this series, and loan it out to friends. The blood-fearing Wiglaf goes away to the Dragon Slayers' Academy boarding school to learn slaying skills. Many dragons are encountered, despite the school's focus on "Scrubbing Class" and other miserly creations thought up by the greedy headmaster, Mordred de Marvelous. Campy fun with many nods to adults as well as kids. Incompetent wizards! Sassy dragons! Meals made of eels! Secret weaknesses! Not to mention the nearby villages of Toenail and Armpitsia.
Older Children (typically 9 and up)
John Bellairs: The House With the Clock in its Walls. One of the first and spookiest books I read as a child. Be careful of the readers' age-- this one makes an impression.
Michael Buckley: Sisters Grimm series. An unsual "fairy-tales-as-reality" approach, where two orphaned girls are sent to live with their grandmother and try to help confine fairy tale characters to a more well-behaved life. The first book features the attack of the Beanstalk Giant.
Eleanor Cameron: The Court of the Stone Children. Such a haunting book-- a sort of ghost story, wherein a girl visiting a museum encounters a ghost near her own age from the distant past. I read this as a child, and still buy it for friends. I re-read this often up through about age 13.
Bruce Coville: Magic Shop series, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, The Dragonslayers, The Monsters of Morley Manor, The World's Worst Fairy Godmother. The Magic Shop series features various picked-on children and their misadventures in finding their voice with the help of a poorly-controlled magic gift. The Dragonslayers involves a recurring theme much-loved by my daughter and me: princesses who want to choose their own path, including fighting dragons and the like.
Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet the Spy. Still one of my favorite childhood books, this clever and bizarre book seems not to appeal much to "popular" children. I was never that type. ;)
Eva Ibbotson: Which Witch?, Dial-a-Ghost, Not Just a Witch, The Haunting of Granite Falls, The Island of the Aunts, The Secret of Platform 13. Ibbotson has quite the flair for fantasy, and employs many of the lesser-utilized creatures such as the kraken (my first encounter with it!) and the Boubrie and mermaids, harpies, selkies and hags. There's a tendency for the books to feature a "magic boy" (like the "Magic Negro" archetype), but perhaps it's only the feminist in me that finds that odd. "Which Witch?" is a favorite of 3rd-4th-grade readers.
Jane Mason/Sarah Hines Stephens: Princess School series. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel all attend a girls' school, learning pesky Princess Lessons. Very tongue-in-cheek. My daughter loves these.
Kate McMullan: Have a Hot Time, Hades, Say Cheese, Medusa, Phone Home, Persephone. These are humorous retellings of Greek myths narrated by Hades, to counteract the versions spread by his "myth-o-maniac" (lying) brother Zeus. Quite funny.
Gerald Morris: The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf. The author has other books, but this one is readily accessible for younger readers. Again, this story features a princess who does not take her destiny lying down, and makes her own future.
Charles Ogden: Edgar and Ellen series. The humorous adventures of a pair of rotten kids. Imagine Pugsly and Wednesday Addams being left alone unsupervised all day-- only slightly less homicidal.
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter Series. Everyone knows about these, of course, and I haven't personally read them, but my kids love them. My daughter began reading them at age 8, and it inspired my son to dig into them in the First Grade.
Lemony Snicket: Series of Unfortunate Events. Younger children do not seem bothered by the fact that the Baudelaire children are orphaned in the first book, and pass from one miserable guardian to the next while evading the evil and greedy Count Olaf. Quite a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, and the previews of the upcoming books are some of the best parts.
Paul Stewart: Fergus Crane. The book I'm currently reading my son, involving a boy who appears to be going to school on a pirate ship (unknown to him). Gym class features tunneling through the ship's hold, and the main course of study is "Potholing for Beginners." Mechanical creations have visited Fergus thus far, and taken him away on an adventure.
Vivian Van de Velde: Wizard at Work. Although it's summertime and his garden awaits, this wizard cannot catch a break. Summoned again and again to 'fix' problems for people who are lying to him, this is one misadventure after another.
Elizabeth Winthrop: The Castle in the Attic, The Battle for the Castle. A model castle is more than it seems, and the boy who owns it finds himself inside the castle's world.
Ian Whybrow: Little Wolf series. Beginning with Little Wolf's Book of Badness, the main character is sent off to boarding school to learn to become badder from his uncle Big Bad. He winds up striking out on his own again and again, along with the pesky little brother his parents have foisted off on him.. Somehow, the parents have endless excuses for why the cubs can't come home yet-- fetching treasure and the like.
Patricia C. Wrede: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. NOTE: Challenging sentence-structures and syntax target this for older readers. The first book is the best of these, in my opinion, but it's a lengthy and unconventional adventure series involving a princess who runs away to become a dragon's servant rather than get married off to the random prince of her parents' choosing. Feisty and fun.
I hope to add to these as time goes on. Hope you found something fun in there!