The Best Children’s Books for Adults

Reread these children's books and you may find something new

The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey.

C.S. Lewis once said “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” and as usual, Mr. Lewis was being brilliant. While there are certainly stories designed solely for young minds that most adults will find a bit tedious (most adults presumably already know that very hungry caterpillars become very beautiful butterflies), many of the books that are designated “for children” are actually fine stories that are appropriate for kids. That means adults can enjoy them just as much. In the spirit of celebrating the greater merits of "children's" literature, here are 10 of the best kids' books for adults—you may find you enjoy them even more now that you've grown.

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'Charlotte’s Web'

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

"Charlotte's Web" is one of the most popular children’s books of all time, and it is surprisingly melancholy. E.B. White tells the story of a piglet named Wilbur who is befriended and saved from slaughter by a creative and warm-hearted spider. Death haunts the entire story; consider that Wilbur is initially spared being made into pork chops by his status as the runt of the litter only to later find himself alone and intended for death anyway. Charlotte, the wise spider who befriends him, later dies after laying her eggs. Although the story has a somewhat happy ending (a few of the baby spiders remain with Wilbur to keep him company), this cycle of death and rebirth is about as adult as you can get. Few people can read this one without tearing up.

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'Swiss Family Robinson'

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss.

"Swiss Family Robinson" is perhaps the most classic of all children’s books. John David Wyss structured the story as both an adventure tale of a family surviving a shipwreck and a series of lessons in survival, science, and living. While dated (it was published in 1812), adults often see the lessons more clearly than the children they’re reading to, who mostly see the excitement of making your own society on a deserted island, scavenging for supplies, and building cool shelters. It’s a classic, wholesome story that engages the young imagination, but adults will see the collected wisdom of a time long gone.

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'The Gashlycrumb Tinies'


Edward Gorey’s classic book, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," is a macabre and fanciful take on the “ABC-style" children’s book in which each letter of the alphabet is illustrated and accompanied by a bit of verse. The author tells the story of 26 children who meet untimely deaths in the most unusual ways, like "Xerxes who was devoured by mice.” The illustrations are wonderfully detailed and ominous and the subject matter is slightly horrifying, yet children don’t get scared because Gorey makes it all very playful. As an adult, you’ll appreciate the gloomy view of mortality and the dangers of mere existence, but you’ll also have the bouncy rhyme scheme stuck in your head for ages.

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'A Wrinkle in Time'

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

Madeleine L'Engle’s 1963 classic was turned into a movie in 2018. "A Wrinkle in Time" appeals to any young mind that yearns for more than just adventure—they also feel a sense of wonder at the universe and our place in it. Thus, the book appeals to any adult mind that has managed to hold on to those childlike feelings of awe.

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'Harry Potter'

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1) by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1) - Courtesy Scholastic.

Much has been made of the Harry Potter series' ability to cross generational lines, and it’s not uncommon to find adults reading J.K. Rowling's books without an ounce of self-consciousness. As an adult, you might find the first book in the series a bit simplistic, but this is by design. The true genius of Rowling’s revolutionary approach to children’s literature is that her characters, story, and themes all become more complex as the books progress, mimicking the aging of her characters. They start off as small children and evolve into young adults over the course of the story—and the story, appropriately, gets darker and more twisty as that maturing process goes on. The end result is an epic story that can be enjoyed when you’re 10, 15, 20, and 50.

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'The Chronicles of Narnia'

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.

"The Chronicles of Narnia" is a classic fantasy series about English children who find portals to the magical land of Narnia, where Santa is real and the animals can talk. It is one of the best examples of dual-track children’s literature ever written. For kids, the books are an adventure that will light up their imaginations with images of sword fights, talking lions, and fantastic creatures. For adults, it’s all that plus a dose of religious allegory. You can even put the Christian themes aside and still take a deep dive into Lewis’ philosophical views, as the Narnia books are more or less a primer on how Lewis saw existence as a whole.

The end result is a story that can be enjoyed on a purely superficial level, on a spiritual level, and on an even deeper level as a rumination on life, creativity, and goodness.

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'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

Roald Dahl’s "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" tells the story of an eccentric candy maker, his magical factory, and the children he invites inside. It has a touch of darkness that is largely hidden from children, who see the implied violence inherent in the elimination of children from the tour as simply wacky fun. That darkness is exactly what makes the story so engaging for adults, though.

Dahl expertly wove the deeper themes of colonialism, madness, and isolation underneath the hilarious adventures of Charlie Bucket in Willie Wonka’s world. As a result, one of the chief pleasures book lovers have is to reread this one later in life and discover new ideas far beyond candy making.

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'Peter and Wendy'

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie
Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie.

Peter Pan is an icon of children’s literature and another example of a light, bouncy children’s story layered on top of a lot of complex, dark ideas. Kids will romp about the house pretending to fly or looking for their lost shadows after reading it, but adults will be forced to think about the shocking details. There's the horror of the Lost Boys, who are implied to have been kidnapped by Peter and forced to live by his cruel rules. There's also the fact that Peter—envisioned as truly childlike—has no sense of morality and can be incredibly cruel (as all children can be).

Rereading "Peter and Wendy" may taint your childhood fantasy of flying to Never-Never Land, but you'll certainly have a deeper understanding of the text.

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'Watership Down'

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Watership Down by Richard Adams.

There’s an argument to be made that "Watership Down" isn’t a children’s book at all, but the fact that it’s about rabbits means it will almost always be first encountered when you’re quite young. That said, Richard Adams’ 1972 novel is a rich, detailed dive into a fantasy universe where rabbits not only speak and have agency, but also possess a complex and thoughtful culture and mythology. Young readers love the idea that adorable rabbits might band together to have adventures, and might not recognize the awful dangers these heroes encounter for what they are. Adults, meanwhile, will see the terrifying threat of death that hangs over every page of the story as the rabbits flee their doomed warren in search of a safe place. They’ll be able to appreciate the first-class world-building Adams engages in, as good as (if not better than) any supposedly “adult” fantasy novel out there.

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'The Beach at Night'

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante
The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante.

Elena Ferrante published this children’s book to a bit of controversy in 2016. The story—in which a sentient doll named Celina is accidentally left on the beach when her “mother” (a young girl) forgets about her—has been considered too dark for kids. The doll is at first devastated by her abandonment, then terrified when she is picked up by a caretaker cleaning up the beach and put through a horrifying ordeal. Adults will appreciate the surprising levels of horror and tension in the story, and kids will get lost in the adventure and colorful illustrations.