In the 1960s, the most popular children's literature introduced children to delightful new characters, historical events, and many stories that would come to stand the test of time. That doesn't mean that they left out the culture of the 60s entirely. From the illustrations to the radicalness of some of the subjects they tackled, as well as the carefree attitude of the hippies, many of the best books of the 1960s managed to invoke elements of the era while still introducing timeless themes.
Some of the best picture books of the 1960s will be familiar to young kids today. Many of these books have been bestsellers for decades and were written by popular children's authors such as Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Eric Carle, and even Dr. Seuss.
Frederick by Leo Lionni introduces kids to an adorable mouse who spends his time daydreaming while the other mice spend time gathering food for the winter. This book, which was a Caldecott Medal honor book in 1968, also discussed important philosophical and political issues at the time, such as the value of work and the concepts of socialism and collectivism.
Swimmy, also by Leo Lionni, was a Caldecott Medal Honor book and ALA Notable Book in 1964. While the book focuses on Swimmy, the only black fish in a school of red fish, the subtle message is about groups of people together, learning to embrace differences and overcome dangers as one, much like many of the social movements during the 1960s.
Zlateh the Goat
Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translates many traditional Yiddish stories, including the famous Zlateh the Goat. The main story tells the tale of a family with an aging goat named Zlateh. They must decide whether to sell the goat or keep it as a valuable member of their family. The School Library Journal named the book one of the 100 Books that Shaped the Century.
Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, may be one of the most notable children's books to come out in the 1960s. Not only did it win a Caldecott Medal in 1964, it also inspired a motion picture movie and an opera. For decades, kids have come to relate to the main character, Max, as he travels to a fantasy world to become king of the wild things after being sent to bed without supper. Even more than the story, readers appreciate the whimsical illustrations.
A Kiss for Little Bear
A Kiss for Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik, also features illustrations by award-winning author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Its easy-to-read text makes it a perfect choice for beginning readers and was even named one of the New York Time's Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year in 1968. Part of the larger Little Bear series, the book tells the story of Little Bear, his grandmother, and the confusion that results as his grandmother tries to send him a kiss.
The Snowy Day
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats follows Peter as he explores the world around him on a snowy day. While the story and illustrations delight children and won a Caldecott Medal, even more important is its status as one of the first children's books to feature an African-American main character, changing the way children looked at books and at themselves.
The Giving Tree
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein has celebrated over 50 years as a best-selling book for children and adults. The book tells the story of a boy and his favorite tree as they both grow and change. Its message of giving and love mirrored the attitude of many during the 1960s, while its simple text and illustrations make it easy for kids to read and enjoy.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, has become a staple in elementary schools, with some even turning March 20, the first day of Spring, into 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar Day.' Not only does the book teach the kids about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, it also delights them with its colorful illustrations, and a lesson about overeating. It was named one of the New York Time's declared this books was gorgeously illustrated, and it has gone on to win other awards and spawn a large line of products based on the colorful caterpillar.
Green Eggs and Ham
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss has been quoted by kids for over 50 years and has also become Dr. Seuss' best-selling book. Written on a bet, the book tells the story of Sam-I-Am as he attempts to convince an unnamed character to eat green eggs and ham, using less than 50 different words.
The best chapter books of the 1960s introduce kids to a variety of genres, from Madeleine L'Engle's science fiction to Irene Hunt's historical fiction. They also include novels by authors who have become favorites of children and young adults, such as Beverly Cleary and S.E. Hinton.
To Be a Slave
To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, may not have remained one of the most popular children's books, but it still stands out because of its content. This book featured accounts of actual slaves combined with paintings and additional text to help children really gain an understanding of slavery. It won a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award among other awards.
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle, helped make science fiction more accessible to children. This book follows the Murry family, particularly the daughter, Meg, as they search for Meg's father who disappeared while working with tesseracts (wrinkles in time). It won the Newbery Medal in 1963.
Ribsy, by Beverly Cleary, is the final book in a popular series. The book follows Henry's dog, Ribsy, as he attempts to get home and find his owner. It won the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award in 1966 and has become a favorite of children.
The Mouse and the Motorcycle
The Mouse and the Motorcycle, also by Beverly Cleary, tells the story of Ralph, a mouse always looking for an adventure. This delightful tale was named an ALA Notable Book, has been listed as one of School Library Journal's Top 100 Children's Novels, and even inspired a short film.
My Side of the Mountain
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, follows 15-year-old Sam Gribley as he runs away from home in New York City to his great-grandfather's old farm in the Catskills. The Newbery Honor Book offers kids a unique reading experience, combining multiple formats, such as diary entries and recipes, to tell the story.
The Egypt Game
The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, introduced a modern-mystery to kids. April Hall and Melanie Ross become friends over their shared love for imagination and ancient Egyptian history and form a club where they transfer an abandoned lot into an ancient Egyptian world. The book won a Newbery Honor Award in 1968.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton defined a generation of revolution and rebellion, introducing kids to two rival gangs, the Greasers and the Socs. Today, the book, which was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and numerous other awards, has helped boys get into reading and taught "outsiders" lessons about life.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell, tells an inspiring and empowering story of a girl who was stranded on an island off the coast of California and had to learn to survive. The book won numerous awards, including the Newbery Medal in 1961, was named one of School Library Journal's Books that Shaped the Century, and was turned into a major film.
The Jazz Man
The Jazz Man, by Mary Hays Weik, tells the story of nine-year-old Zeke, a boy living a difficult life in Harlem. Zeke finds comfort in the music played by the Jazz Man that drifts across the courtyard. The book won a Newbery Award in 1967 and has become a staple in many elementary and middle schools, particularly those serving low-income or diverse student populations.
Across Five Aprils
Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt, takes place during the Civil War. The Newbery Award-winning novel has been praised for its historical accuracy as it follows the Creighton family and their struggle to survive during the war. It was published during the era of the Vietnam War and many teachers made comparisons between the stories of those involved in both wars.
The Cricket in Times Square
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1961. Chester, a cricket from Connecticut, finds himself in New York City, where he must make friends and learn to navigate life in the big city.
Timeless Characters and Timeless Themes
What makes children's books great is their ability to transcend time to connect with children throughout multiple generations. While a few of these books from the 1960s have not been enormously successful, the majority of them continue to find a place in classrooms, libraries, and on children's bookshelves today. Many have received updated covers and hip descriptions to help appeal to a modern audience, but the characters, stories, and even images remain the same, still managing to reach children as well as they did in the 1960s.