Books We Know by Heart
Reading a book aloud to a child is one of life’s sweetest pleasures, and children sometimes ask to repeat the experience with the same book over and over.
And over and over and over and over and over, until that book is burned into the reader’s memory forever.
This week, we asked our NYPL book experts to name children’s books they can recite from memory, along with their favorite passages. And we upped the challenge by asking for unusual and unexpected picks... we all adore Goodnight Moon, of course, but we wanted some surprises.
Here’s what they recommend.
Wild Boars Cook by Meg Rosoff, with pictures by Sophie Blackall. Both my boys love these rude and stinky boars who conspire to make a massive pudding (ingredients include a gross of doughnuts, a bucket of butter, and a squid). Now when we cook together, we always chant, “Mix mix mix! Stir stir stir! Cook cook cook!” like Horace, Morris, Boris, and Doris. We’ve even made the massive cookie from the recipe at the back of the book. —Susie Heimbach, Mulberry Street
This Is Not My Hat by John Klassen. A cute and subversive tale about a tiny fish who steals a hat from a bigger fish, the pictures and simple language keep the kids interested, but I always chuckle to myself as an adult reading it. Also the illustrations are beautiful cutouts reminiscent of Leo Lionni, whom I loved as a child. —Alessandra Affinito, Chatham Square
The Baby Beebee Bird by Diane Redfield Massie is one I’ve memorized just by reading it aloud to all the younger classes. All the kids will spend the rest of the day saying “beebeeboobibobbi beebeebobbibobii” and drive everyone crazy. (I’ve apologized to teachers after I read it.) —Sue Yee, Children’s Center
One of my favorite books from childhood is The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward (a fellow Charlestonian!). I still hope to someday be as great as Mother Cottontail! My mom must have read the book to my sister and me a million times, and when she sends Easter care packages (yes, I still get care packages) she tapes little gold shoes and Easter eggs all over the outside. My favorite quote is from Old Grandfather bunny:
You are pretty and you are fast, but you have not shown me that you are either kind or wise.
—Sarah Lugo, Administration
Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell was a staple for me in my 15 years as a children’s librarian.
I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet. They sent me an elephant. He was TOO BIG, so I sent him back. They sent me a giraffe. He was TOO TALL, so I sent him back....
The kids love to see what is revealed under the flaps, until he child ends up with a perfect puppy. —Ronni Krasnow, Morningside Heights
I love Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson. After you read, “But the bear snores on...” you have to make snoring sounds—very important! —Adriana Blancarte-Hayward, Outreach
My toddler is obsessed—OBSESSED—with Maisy, particularly the lift-the-flap Maisy’s Seasons. Lucy Cousins has planted that mouse firmly in his one-year-old consciousness, and now my husband and I can both recite the entire book from memory.
In the summer, Maisy and her friends go to the beach! What does Charley catch?
(Spoiler alert: He catches a fish, sure, but also an octopus, a crab, a boot…) —Gwen Glazer, Readers Services
My little sister ate one hare. We thought she’d throw up then & there but... she didn’t.
My Little Sister Ate One Hare by Bill Grossman is a rhyme-and-repeat story. It’s gross and fun in equal measure and kids of all ages love it. Perfect for reading aloud. —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Steet
I have fond memories of my mother and I reading Stan & Jan Berenstain’s Bears in the Night. Little bears sneak out of their house at night for an unexpected fright; our favorite part was always “Up Spook Hill...” —Rebecca Donsky, 67th Street
A Big Spooky House by Donna Washington. I read or tell this story every year around this season. Based on oral stories, this picture book is so much fun to read aloud to a group!
He was a big man, he was a strong man, he was a not gonna-be-scared-by-some-spooky-house-sittin-up-on-some-big-spooky-hill kind of man.
—Stephanie Whelan, Seward Park
When I was growing up, one of my very favorite books was Dr. Seuss’s ABC. My dad read it to me so frequently that to this day, over 25 years later, if you suggest to either of us a letter, we can recite the appropriate rhyme. My favorite always came at the end, when my dad would read, “Big Z, little Z, what begins with Z?” and then drawl in a southern accent (think John Goodman in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), “I do. I am a Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz as you can plainly see.” When I started elementary school and one of the computers in the school library had an interactive version of the book on CD-ROM, I was deeply offended that they got the Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz’s accent wrong! —Gretchen Kolderup, Young Adult Services
Another Dr. Seuss endorsement! I loved Horton Hatches the Egg and the line that always sticks in my mind is, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent!” —Jeff Katz, Chatham Square
Hands-down winner for me for well over a decade was “Too Many Daves” from Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches and Other Stories.
Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?...
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face....
I challenge any of you to NOT laugh at this story. Go on, go to the shelf and try it right now. —Anne Barreca, Battery Park City
When I did storytelling for the NYPL storytelling project, my memorized story was The Paper Bag Princess. Excellent picture-book-feminist morals and dragon-beating tips for everyone to know by heart.
It starts so demurely with, “little boy went to grandma’s house to spend the night.” And then you get to “she tiptoed out” *finger walk* “she turned off the light” *snap* cloooosed the door” *sqeeeeaak* and? “Wahhh! Meow! woof woof woof! oink oink oink! Neighh!!!” —Jill Rothstein, Andrew Heiskell
“Each peach, pear, plum, I spy Tom Thumb...” from the book of the same name by Janet and Allen Ahlberg. I loved to read that book to my nieces and I gave it to all of my friends’ children too. Because the book introduces many of the characters from other fairy tales and nursery rhymes it is a great starting off point to recite those as well. And Ahlberg’s Jolly Postman is a close runner-up for the same reason. —Virginia Bartow, Special Collections
I have been a children’s librarian for 27 years (plus, I can recite favorite stories from my own childhood, but I guess that just means I chose the right career). So I tried to think… what’s the strangest one I know? And I came up with Ruth Krauss’s Somebody Else’s Nut Tree and Other Tales from Children.
The story I love is called “The Little Queen.” A little girl’s wish to become a queen is granted, but her mother and father aren’t so thrilled. My line (said by the little queen to the fairy):
I want to be a little girl again because that is what my mother and father want. Besides the police are coming. But when I am grown up, I want to be a queen.
—Danita Nichols, Inwood
My kids both loved a book called Bark, George by Jules Feiffer
George’s mother said, “Bark, George.” George went, “Meow.”
A loveable pup and an exasperated mom take a trip to the vet to get to the bottom of all the (other) animal noises coming out of George. —Lynn Lobash, Readers Services
The Boss Baby! My kid loved it, we read it multiple times a day, and the art is fun and very retro mid-century stylistic. It has become a go-to gift for me for new parents.
From the moment the baby arrived, it was obvious that he was the boss. If things weren’t done to his immediate satisfaction, he had a fit.
—Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division
Poetry & Rhymes
Drummer Hoff was my absolute favorite, and I can still say them all. I like “Sergeant Chowder Brought the Powder” the best:
Sergeant Chowder brought the powder
Corporal Farrell brought the barrel
Private Parridge brought the carriage
But Drummer Hoff fired it off.
—Gretchen Smith, Learning & Development
When I was a kid, I loved Shel Silverstein. His quirky, imaginative, hilarious writing style makes his poems unique and endearing. I wouldn’t say I have memorized the whole book, but I did learn some of his poems by heart from reading them so often.
Often when I eat scrambled eggs, the following lines blip through my mind:
Cooked eggsactly right
By an eggspert
And it makes my breakfast taste better. —Christina Lebec, Bronx Library Center
I also used to read Shel Silverstein regularly and my sisters and I used to make up melodies to them to add to the fun. I’d say I could recite probably half of A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
“Invitation” from WTSE:
If you’re a dreamer, come in.
If you’re a dreamer, a wisher a liar,
a hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer,
If you’re a pretender, come and sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
—Katrina Ortega, Hamilton Grange
Chugga-chugga Choo-choo by Kevin Lewis is one of my all-time favorite feel good stories to read aloud to the under-five crowd.
Sun’s up! Morning’s here! Up and at ‘em, engineer!
The nannies at story time know this one so well they can chant it, and the kids love making spontaneous train sounds. —Lauren Younger, Battery Park City
“Dis lickle pig go a markit, / Dis lickle pig tan a yaad.” Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes is a splendidly illustrated intercultural collection of rhymes. The introduction is an invitation to explore both new and familiar sounds, poetry and art. —Miriam Tuliao, Selection Team
Owen by Kevin Henkes was a staple at our house when our son was getting ready to attend preschool and would not give up his stuffed Eeyore.
“Fuzzy goes where I go!” exclaims Owen throughout the book, and Fuzzy does go everywhere, but he won’t be able to go to school with Owen. My husband and I would always start to giggle when Mrs. Tweezers would give an unhelpful suggestion. (We solved our Eeyore problem by making a pocket-sized photo that could go to school unnoticed.) —Maura Muller, Volunteer Office
I will go into the zoo, I want to see it, yes I do.
We do not want you in the zoo, out you go, out out with you!
Why did they put me out this way?
I think I only read Put Me in the Zoo 5,890,543.34 times to my older son. It helps that it’s a cute story with a cuter lesson that doesn’t beat kids over the head. Being different can be a wonderful thing in Robert Lopshire’s board book about a unique animal that is an ill fit for a traditional zoo. —Joshua Soule, Spuyten Duyvil
One Not-Picture Book
My new go-to book right now for kids is The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak (of The Office). ”You might think a book with no pictures seems boring and serious. Except . . . here’s how books work. Everything written on the page has to be said by the person reading it aloud. Even if the words say…” It teaches children that you can have fun reading books without pictures, that words and ideas can be entertaining and fun too. —Leslie Bernstein, Mott Haven
Songs (or Books that Should Be Songs)
Do you know the tune to “The Muffin Man”? Then you’ll be able to sing this song from Let’s Go to the Library, a board book from Scholastic.
Let’s go to the library, the library, the library.
So many books for you and me,
to look at and to share.
We’ll read about a castle tall, a magic ball, and that’s not all.
So many books for you and me to look at and to share...
You get the idea—a fun song to sing while you are on your way to your favorite destination. —Peggy Salwen, St. Agnes Library
Barnyard Dance! by Sandra Boynton. I’m waiting for the remix of the song as this title is very catchy. All of her board books are very memorable, and I confess to feeling like a “frazzled thing, I don’t know what it is” at times. —Jenny Baum, Jefferson Market
I love singing, so any book I can read aloud with a song is fantastic. Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin is one I (and I’m sure many others) can easily recite and sing from cover to cover. Best line:
The moral of the story is, no matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song, because it’s all good.
Such wisdom from a simple story! —Emily Lazio, Tompkins Square
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend.
And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for 100 new recommendations every month!