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10 picturebooks that should be in every primary classroom

On Day 10 of the Tes 12 days of Christmas reading, headteacher Simon Smith details the 10 picturebooks every primary school should own

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On Day 10 of the Tes 12 days of Christmas reading, headteacher Simon Smith details the 10 picturebooks every primary school should own

When I was asked to pick 10 picture books that every school should have for a Christmas list, I thought “No problem”.

I was so wrong. Getting it down to just 10 has been a nightmare. It’s been like picking which of your children is your favourite. If I’m asked again, the answer will be an unequivocal "No!"

“Why picture books?” I hear you cry. Well, Matthew Tobin, senior lecturer in English and Children's Literature at Oxford Brookes University, sums it up perfectly:

“There is an accessibility to picture books that the written word cannot offer,” he has written. “With the very best picture books, our reading and interpretation of both picture and word can lead to a deeper response than a novel.”

Picture book benefits

And as Martin Galway, English teaching and learning adviser with Herts for Learning, says: they provide a swift democracy, a shared world and experience that can mitigate and compensate for varying levels of experience of the world. They can provide a unique common starting point that levels the playing field. The best picture books give us that wonderful opportunity to talk, explore and interpret.

With that in mind, I had to think about which 10 – and only 10 – picture books I think all schools should have. I’m pretty sure my 10 will be different to someone else’s 10, but for me these would be a great starting point for any school.

1. Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems​

Charming, funny and just wonderful. Knuffle Bunny brilliantly portrays the challenge a young child faces in communicating their need. Text and picture playfully challenge each other in the perfect way that the best picture books do. The facial expressions are sublime and universal.

2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

An absolute classic. The story communicates the message of unconditional love – and the rebelliousness and cruelty of childhood. Sendak presents us with universal childhood truths in a wild celebration. “Let the wild rumpus begin…”

Where the wild things are

3. The Journey by Francesca Sanna

A stunning book, exploring the themes of forced migration and war.  The powerful artwork invokes hope, fear and despair – without ever losing sight of the humanity of the story. A book for our times that every school should have and every child should read.

4. The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin

A delicate, stunningly and beautiful book. It’s about fresh starts and changing lives. A story of a young thief whose life is forever changed. It emphasises how we are all inextricably linked to our environment and celebrates the power we have to transform our world. 

5. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Just perfect. No other book captures that innocence and joy of discovery like The Snowy Day does. Anybody running a school needs to read and remember this feeling and think about how their school creates that feeling for their children. The joy of learning is encapsulated in this book.

snow book

6. After the Fall by Dan Santat

Setting up a fantastic "what happened next story" for Humpty Dumpty, Santat creates a damaged version of Humpty, broken by his experience. This is a fantastic book about overcoming fears and facing them head-on. Great story, brilliantly clever artwork and a gasp-out-loud finale. What more could you want?

7. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Sam and Dave dig a hole to try and find something spectacular in this brilliant book with lots of layers. The devil is definitely in the detail. Close looking will reveal so much – you really do have to look, mind – and the ending is stunning, leaving you with so many questions.

8. Shhh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton

Deliciously funny. Instantly retellable. Three hunters fail spectacularly to capture the vibrantly coloured bird. And then...the littlest one tries something different, with unexpected results. Children will learn there is more than one way to solve a problem and that sometimes you just have to listen.

9. Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo

A brilliant biography picturebook about the life of poet EE Cummings. Wonderfully illustrated and rich in language this book tells such a beautifully inspiring story that it will send you straight to a sheet of blank paper, keen to create works of art yourself.

10. Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

Anybody who says picture books have no value, just give them a copy of this timeless sublime book. The juxtaposition of text and picture telling two almost separate stories is just amazing. Read the book with a class of children and see the power of pictures to subvert and challenge the words. A masterpiece.


I have a further 57 books for your consideration, but this will do for starters... 

Simon Smith is headteacher at East Whitby Academy in North Yorkshire. He tweets @smithsmm

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