The 80s was a decade characterized by many excesses, from bold fashion choices and vibrant neon colors to the rise of rampant consumerism and the advent of new technologies. Yet amidst this era of mind-warping extravagance, children’s literature remained a timeless oasis, offering young readers tales that captivated their minds and ignited the sparks of childhood’s limitless imagination.
80s children’s books served as a respite from an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, teaching highly valuable life lessons along the way.
These classic books took us on epic journeys that expanded our horizons and introduced us to capable heroes and formidable antagonists that helped shape our moral compasses.
In today’s post, I will delve into the pages of these iconic works and rediscover the timeless treasures that shaped an entire generation. So, travel with me down memory lane and revisit the
Table of Contents
25 Best Children’s Books From The 1980s
The Polar Express
This story of a young boy who embarks on a thrilling journey aboard a mysterious train headed for the North Pole captures the magical wonder and enchantment of Christmas.
The book contains stunningly detailed illustrations that bring the captivating narrative to life, inspiring young readers to dream.
The Polar Express (from Amazon) is a timeless tale about the power of belief and the beauty of the holiday spirit, and for that reason, it sits here at the top of the list.
Love You Forever
Love You Forever (from Amazon) is a heartwarming picture book with a powerful and emotionally resonant story that has touched the hearts of millions of young readers since its first published edition in 1986.
The book masterfully explores the enduring bond between a mother and her son as they journey together through the various stages of his life.
With gentle words and highly poignant illustrations, Love You Forever celebrates unconditional love and reminds readers of the profound impact that loving another can have.
Owl Moon is an award-winning children’s book published in 1987 and written by Jane Yolen with illustrations by John Schoenherr.
This delightful, lyrical, and highly atmospheric tale captures the relatable beauty of family adventure. The story follows a young girl and her father (a welcome departure as most stories about little girls feature a mother figure) as they venture into the wintry woods on an owl-watching mission.
The book’s poetic prose beautifully depicts the hushed, frosty stillness of the nighttime forest, and invites young readers to embrace and cherish the enduring bond of parental love, and for that reason qualifies as a bonafide gem of 80s children’s literature.
The next best book from the 80s is Mister Magnolia (from Amazon), a delightfully whimsical picture book that embraces uniqueness and eccentricity.
Mister Magnolia follows the adventures of the titular character, a man with a single boot and trumpet that goes rooty-toot. Vibrantly illustrated and wittily scripted, the book is filled to the brim with playful rhymes infused with humorous imagination.
Mister Magnolia is a memorable celebration of individuality and the joy we can find in our distinctiveness.
Outside Over There
Outside Over There is the first Maurice Sendak book on this list, though it is far from being the only good children’s book in his repertoire.
Outside Over There, like all of Maurice Sendak’s books, is a captivating tale filled with innovative artwork, lyrical prose, and insightful storytelling. This classic children’s book masterfully explores themes of love, responsibility, and the healing power of imagination.
Outside Over There is one of the best children’s books of the 1980s, and it remains a magical and transformative journey over 40 years later.
Matilda is a children’s book written by the one and only Roald Dahl that celebrates the power of intellect, imagination, resilience, and perseverance.
The story revolves around a sweet, brilliant, and precocious young girl and her many misadventures at a school run by a tyrannical headmistress.
The novel ranks amongst the best young adult and children’s novels ever written, and it is full of witty prose and populated by a varied cast of memorable characters.
Matilda is an inspiring read and its themes are timeless. The book serves as a triumphant and empowering reminder that good prevails in the face of adversity. It also encourages uniqueness and standing up for what is right.
Matilda was not only one of the first books that I read as a child, but it was also one of the first to ignite and nurture my lifelong love for storytelling and the magic of literature.
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales is a powerful collection of African American folktales that highlights and celebrates the astounding strength of the human spirit and the resilience of men in the face of adversity.
The short stories within The People Could Fly, which were written by Virginia Hamilton and exquisitely illustrated by husband-and-wife Leo and Diane Dillon, captivate young readers with their beautifully lyrical prose. Each illustration is intricate and stunningly impressive, breathing life into the characters and landscapes, and igniting the reader’s imagination.
Hamilton’s words and the Dillons’ artwork work together to create a highly poignant and inspiring reading experience. One that highlights the importance and value of hope, freedom, and the enduring legacy of heritage.
Dear Mr. Henshaw
The next 80s children’s book on the list is Dear. Mr. Henshaw (from Amazon) is a touching epistolary novel by Beverly Cleary.
The book’s narrative, presented entirely through a series of letters between a schoolboy named Leigh Botts and his favorite author, Boyd Henshaw, deftly explores themes of self-discovery, empathy, and the important role of personal connection in our lives.
As Leigh navigates the challenges of his parent’s divorce, a neglectful father, and being the new kid in school, the significance of hope, resilience, family, and friendship are brought to the forefront, giving young readers a chance to self-reflect and find their voice in an ever-challenging world.
Dear Mr. Henshaw is a masterful children’s book written in simple, realistic language that encourages growth and empowers through empathy.
Number The Stars
Number the Stars, written by Lois Lowry and published in 1989, is one of the most significant and distinguished contributions to children’s literature ever written.
This remarkable historical fiction novel follows the attempts of a ten-year-old girl and her family to escape from Copenhagen during World War II.
While young readers are protected from the worst realities of that historic event, the author does a superb job of exploring in a highly relatable manner the meaning of courage, sacrifice, and hope in the face of immense adversity.
Children who read Number The Stars will be caught up by the suspenseful developments of the plot, but will also be reminded of the indomitable power of standing up for what is right.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Most people today know of the next entry on the list from the critically acclaimed animated film of the same name. However, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the best children’s books written in the 1980s.
Written by British novelist Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a highly whimsical and utterly enchanting fantasy novel that effortlessly weaves together themes of destiny, courage, identity, self-discovery, and the power of friendship and love.
With some exceptionally imaginative world-building, a captivating narrative, and a cast of richly compelling characters, Howl’s Moving Castle is the epitome of what children’s books can aspire to be.
The novel’s masterful storytelling transports young readers to realms brimming with magic, and explores worthwhile themes, making it a timeless treasure for readers of all ages.
The Indian in the Cupboard
The Indian in the Cupboard is another classic children’s book from the 80s and one of my all-time favorite reads. The book was written by Lynne Reid Banks and published in 1980, and it set the stage for what readers could expect from the coming decade.
The story follows a young boy named Ombir who discovers that his toys come to life when placed inside a magical cupboard. Young readers are then transported to a world of adventure and self-discovery as Omri navigates the challenges and dilemmas generated by this discovery.
As all good chapter books do, The Indian in the Cupboard ignites the reader’s imagination and teaches highly valuable lessons about empathy and the moral consequences of our actions.
The BFG is the next Roald Dahl book on the list, and it is just as whimsical and richly endearing as you can expect.
The story follows a young Orphan by the name of Sophie as she befriends a big friendly giant (the story’s titular BFG), who takes her on a magical journey to a country of Giants.
Dahl’s imaginative storytelling, in conjunction with some truly delightful illustrations, bring this land of dreams and extraordinary adventure to vibrant life.
The BFG is a testament to the transformative power of children’s literature, captivating readers of all ages with unrivaled charm and an important heartwarming message about compassion and bravery.
It is no coincidence that The BFG has won numerous awards, including the very reputable U.S. National Education Association Teachers Top 100 Books for Children.
Hatchet is a gripping work of children’s literature that delves into themes of resilience, self-reliance, gratitude, mental health, and, ultimately, the triumphant nature of the human spirit.
The story follows a thirteen-year-old boy, who finds himself stranded in the deep Canadian wilderness after a tragic plane crash. This is all told in bold and vividly visceral prose that works as a masterclass in reader immersion, all the while offering a harrowing yet profound examination of the power of human will.
Hatchet remains a captivating and thought-provoking children’s book, and can serve as a powerful reminder to our youngest readers that true strength lies inside each and every one of us.
While 90s kids may remember the 1995 film adaptation of Jumanji, it is the 80s kids who had the pleasure of experiencing the original children’s book.
The book, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, is a thrilling and imaginative adventure that transports young readers to a wild realm of the imagination with the aid of a magical board game.
The story follows two siblings who enter a world of excitement and danger, where the boundaries between reality and fantasy become muddled.
Van Allsburg’s illustrations are wonderfully detailed and highly imaginative, and the narrative is engaging and suspenseful. The result is a seamless blend of the fantastical with the mundane, making it one of the most charming children’s books on this list.
The Brave Little Toaster
The Brave Little Toaster is a surprisingly heartwarming and extremely charming short novel that outlines the adventures of a small group of animated household appliances as they set on a quest to reunite with their owner.
This imaginative tale was written by Hugo Award winner Thomas M. Disch and touches upon the ideas of kinship, loyalty, and unwavering resolve.
The book’s spellbinding storytelling and its lovable ensemble of characters make for a delightful read, and the poignant narrative resonates with young and older readers alike.
The Brave Little Toaster (which received a wonderful animated film adaptation in 1987) has become a beloved classic of the 80s, serving as a valuable reminder that wonder and sentiment can be found in the most unexpected places.
Janet Ahlberg and her husband Allan Ahlbert made some of the most cherished children’s books of the 20th century, with many of them always appearing on these sorts of lists. Today I want to highlight one of their most delightfully funny and whimsical works: Funnybones.
Funnybones follows the misadventures of a pair of adorable skeletons and their skeleton dog, as they venture out into the night.
The book’s playful illustrations and simple yet clever storytelling create a perfect balance of humor and mystery, engaging young readers from the first page to the last.
Funnybones is a timeless classic that continues to bring joy and laughter to the children of the children who first read it in the 80s, showcasing the lasting power of imaginative storytelling.
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs is a very clever and genuinely humorous retelling of the classic fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs.
Written by Jon Scieszka and released in 1989, this imaginative parody flips the script by presenting readers with the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective, thus challenging traditional notions of good and evil.
The book is a textbook example of witty writing which, together with its many quirky illustrations, engages young readers and stimulates their critical thinking and sense of empathy. It also asks children to question narratives and explore different perspectives, and for that, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs remains a brilliant addition to any child’s reading list.
The Paper Bag Princess
First published in 1980, The Paper Bag Princess was ahead of its time in the way it empowered young readers and challenged traditional gender roles.
The story, which followed Princess Elizabeth as she went on a courageous journey to rescue her betrothed, touches upon themes of independence, resilience, and, most importantly, self-empowerment.
The prose is witty and highly engaging, and, paired with some very expressive illustrations, has served to inspire generations of children to embrace their inner strength and defiantly stand in the face of societal expectations.
So You Want To Be A Wizard?
This captivating and imaginative children’s book takes readers on a thrilling ride into a hidden magical world beyond our own.
The story, featuring some exquisitely detailed world-building and a cast of endearing characters, follows a young girl who discovers a book that grants her the opportunity to become a Wizard (always capitalized in the text).
The plot, while simple and easy to follow, introduces young readers to thought-provoking themes such as the power of choice, friendship, sympathy, and responsibility.
So You Want To Be A Wizard? remains one of my favorite children’s books of all time, and it is a worthwhile read regardless of the reader’s age.
The Witches is yet another fantastic children’s book by the inimitable Roald Dahl.
This spellbinding work features the same dark storytelling and narrative focus that we have come to expect from Roald Dahl’s works. This time, readers are cast into a world where witches exist and hide as they plot wicked schemes. The story follows a young boy who must outsmart these evil hags and save the day.
The Witches is a suspenseful novel, but one that is filled with a masterful blend of humor, wit, and charm.
Ultimately, the book never shies away from exposing the darkest corners of the world to its young and impressionable readers, and for that, it remains a timeless classic.
Sarah, Plain, and Tall
Sarah, Plain, and Tall is a heartwarming tale set in the vast prairies of the American Midwest during the late 19th century.
The story centers around Anna and Caleb, young children to a grieving widower who, realizing that raising two kids is too difficult to do on his own, puts out an ad for a mail-order bride. The call is answered by Sarah, who must prove herself as a mother to the children.
The book features gentle prose and presents a poignant exploration of childhood loneliness, fear of abandonment, and how confronting change head-on is the best way to embrace new beginnings. The book deftly transports readers to a bygone era, where the transformative journey of Anna and Caleb is laid bare in a highly relatable manner.
Sarah, Plain and Tall is a tender timeless classic that serves as a reminder of the enduring power of love and unwavering strength that can be found within a family that stands united.
The Whipping Boy
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman was published in 1986 and won the Newbery Medal a year later.
This thrilling children’s book from the 80s is an endearing adventure tale about a spoiled prince and the young orphan who serves as his personal whipping boy, taking punishment for the prince’s misdeeds.
Set in a medieval kingdom, The Whipping Boy presents young readers with a tale of two boys who must rely on their wit and newfound friendship to survive.
Fleischman’s lively writing and fast-paced narrative make The Whipping Boy an entertaining read, that nevertheless explores important themes of friendship, empathy, and the importance of acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions.
Saint George and the Dragon
Saint George and the Dragon is a captivating retelling of the legendary tale of the bravery and chivalry of Saint George, who defeated a dragon to free an entire town in its thrall.
The story of Saint George and the Dragon, which follows the titular Saint on a perilous quest to save his kingdom from a fearsome dragon, is told through engaging prose written by Margaret Hodges and highlighted by stunning illustrations by way of Trina Schart Hyman.
Themes of courage, honor, and triumph are explored succinctly, and the book serves as a perfect introduction to a timeless classic, inspiring children with the message of bravery and the triumph of good over evil.
We’re Going On A Bear Hunt
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a wonderful and delightfully engaging award-winning children’s picture book that takes young readers on an exciting adventure.
With elegant and exquisitely rhythmic text, the story centers around a family of children, and their dog, who embark on an adventure to hunt down a big bear. Through their journey, the group encounters a variety of increasingly dangerous hazards which are highlighted beautifully by wonderful watercolor illustrations that perfectly capture the excitement and suspense of the hunt.
This beloved children’s book does a wonderful job engaging the senses of our youngest readers and encourages read-alongs.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a timeless classic that I recommend to every parent I know with a kid of reading age.
Goodnight Mister Tom
The final book on my list of the 25 best 80s children’s books is Goodnight Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian.
This powerfully moving story is set during World War II and follows the journey of a young boy as he is evacuated from London and placed in the care of a gruff, but kind-hearted old man named Mister Tom.
Through their developing relationship, the boy finds solace, healing, and a sense of belonging.
Magorian’s touching writing style skillfully portrays the emotional depth of the book’s characters and explores themes of loss, healing, and friendship. Ultimately Goodnight Mister Tom teaches our young readers that even the smallest acts of kindness can have a profound and lasting effect on those that surround us.
Wrapping Up The Best Kid’s Books Of The 80s
Embarking on this incredible journey sheds light on a remarkable truth: the 1980s gifted us with an absolute treasure trove of timeless children’s books that continue to enchant and captivate young readers to this day.
From whimsical adventures to breathtaking voyages through fantastical realms, the 25 books on this list left an indelible mark on both the literary landscape and the moral and emotional fabric of an entire generation; each page filled with lessons that inspired, uplifted, and shaped young hearts and minds, ensuring that these 80s children’s books will forever hold a special place in our hearts.