The Library 100 is a project by the OCLC that ranks the 100 books that are owned by the most OCLC libraries from around the world. They know that good children’s literature is good literature, so they are included. Out of the 100 books on the list, about a third are in the public domain, which means that it’s legal to copy and share these novels freely.
As a result of the work of Project Gutenberg and other organizations, these books are available absolutely FREE with no long in digital formats, which is a boon for families and educators who are short on resources.
From this list, The Lois Level has put together a short list of the 10 best children’s books. Yes, they are not as diverse as we would like, but that’s because older children’s literature is not diverse in many ways. But we do have here are books from the United States, England, Italy, France, and Germany. While we have 3 female authors, we have 4 female protagonists and the story of a male horse that addresses feminist issues.
These books were selected from the list to appeal to a combination of ages and genders so that they make good family reads. Since they are free, you can get multiple copies if the grandparents want to read along on their own or if older kids prefer to read to themselves. If that’s an issue, just read the book yourself so that you can talk about it, but really, don’t underestimate the value of reading aloud. If the older ones balk, read to the younger ones. There’s a good chance the older ones will just “happen” to be in the room.
The first 8 are recommended by 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up for ages 8 and up, the last three are recommended for ages 12 and up. 1001 Children’s books has a very high estimation of children’s reading ability, but kids at the recommended ages will enjoy the story even if they aren’t quite ready to read it independently.
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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Contrary to what many people believe, Lewis Carroll was not high when he conceived this story. He literally made it up to entertain a little name Alice, to whom he told this story. It just seems like he must have been.
Oh well, anyway it’s an iconic story that is actually full of symbolism. And aren’t we always looking for stories about girls who are the subject of their own lives?
British, male author, female protagonist
FREE digital edition from Project Gutenberg: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
2. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Another story about a girl…and going back and reading the original story, with all the parts left out or reinterpreted by the film, is well worth it. L. Frank Baum was a fascinating person who brought a lot of the tensions going on in the late 19th century to his children’s books.
If you or your kids like this, there are many sequels available online that have been in and out of print.
For more, read How L. Frank Baum Invented Wizardry in North America (beating J.K. Rowling by nearly 100 Years)
American, male author, female protagonist
Link to FREE digital version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I have to admit, The Secret Garden has never been my favorite Burnett book, that would be A Little Princess. A Little Princess, however, did not make the Library 100. Sarah Crewe, the protagonist of A Little Princess, might just come off as too goody-goody for some people, and Mary is not that…she is possibly one of the most unappealing children in children’s literature: we end up with a bratty girl and a sickly boy…two abandoned (in an upper class way) outcasts…who figure a lot out by working the land.
And there always is something very appealing about finding a secret spot and making it your own. Don’t you remember?
British, female author, female protagonist
Link to FREE digital version of The Secret Garden at Project Gutenberg
4. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Black Beauty the first pony novel and was written to help prevent cruelty to animals, especially horses, who remember were a primary means of transportation before the car. It is also one of the first books to have an animal as a narrator AND is said to have feminist messages too.
British, female author, male protagonist
Link to FREE digital edition of Black Beauty at Project Gutenberg
4. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
What does it take to be a real boy?
This is a book people think they know because of the Disney film, but of course there is so much more in the book.
Italian, male author, male protagonist
Link to FREE digital edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio at Project Gutenberg
4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Several of Mark Twain’s books made the Library 100. I wanted to get at least one realistic novel of American life into this mix, and while Huckleberry Finn was ranked higher than Tom Sawyer, I consider Huck an adolescent/adult book, and anyway, Huck is much more of an outcast than Tom.
Reading Tom Sawyer, a great novel by a master humorist (people forget that, I think), is a great starting point for the younger reader.
American, male protagonist, male author
Link to FREE digital edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at Project Gutenberg
5. The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
I hadn’t plan to include two books by any one author on this list, but I’m making an exception for this one because it’s a great story and it’s also so much different from Tom Sawyer.
The Prince and the Pauper is one of the original “secret switch” books when young Tom Canty switches place with the future Edward VI of England. Prince Edward learns all about Tudor London while the readers also gets to step into the reality of royalty. Naturally, this whole thing raises a lot of questions and bodes well for the future of England.
American, male author, male protagonists
Link to FREE digital edition of The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
6. Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Heidi, the original book, is much more complicated than people remember. It’s a great choice for people interested in sharing Christianity with children.
Swiss, female author, female protagonist
Link to FREE digital edition at Project Gutenberg: Heidi
7. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I have never personally been a big fan of “Sherlock Holmes”, but often I feel I am the only person in the world who feels that way. They are great to read with kids because it teaches them logical thinking. The collection below is for the short-story length (looong short stories). If you want a short novel, try The Hound of the Baskervilles.
FREE digital editions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles on Project Gutenberg
8. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island is a great book to read chapter by chapter because there is a cliff hanger in each one. It’s also an exciting tale of adventure, and like many of these books, of growing up.
Kidnapped is a great option for older readers.
FREE digital editions of Treasure Island and Kidnapped at Project Gutenberg
9. Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Swiss Family Robinson is the classic story of a family making their was on an island, alone. It’s especially known for its description of wild life…unrealistic in the particular combination of animals, which can’t exist, but detailed in it individual descriptions.
FREE digital version of The Swiss Family Robinson from Project Gutenberg
10. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables is not my favorite L.M. Montgomery book, but it is definitely the most famous…and I’m not kidding, famous around the world. In Japan, they have whole English language learning series based on Anne! And it is a more entertaining for kids than some of Montgomery’s other books because Anne certainly does have a penchant for getting into trouble!
Canadian, female protagonist, female author
FREE digital edition of Anne of Green Gables at Project Gutenberg
In addition to linked articles, 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up is our primary resource for additional information about the books described.
For more great options for kids, check out 5 FREE Easy Chapter Book Classics to Make Your Kids Laugh