If you’re a parent, literacy is no doubt a very high priority for your child. According to the Literacy Project, “a child is 90% likely to remain a poor reader at the end of the fourth grade if the child is a poor reader at the end of first grade.” Early literacy is key to helping your child be successful not only in school but in life.
As a former elementary reading teacher and high-school English lit teacher, I saw firsthand the trickle-down effects of children who are below grade level in reading. Reading ability affects every aspect of your child’s education, from early childhood to teenage years, and beyond. But if you begin reading to your child early, you’ll be setting them up for success from the beginning and keep them hooked on reading their whole life.
It’s no secret children need a lot of books to read during their formative years. Children’s books are so short they fly through them, meaning it’s impossible to buy all the books they want to read! Besides your local library, there are plenty of books to read online for free in the public domain.
Below is a list of free books to read online for your child that will keep them engaged and help build important literacy skills without breaking the bank. They are also sorted by grade level (not reading level) to help you find the perfect books (and stories) for your little readers! All of the books below can be found on Project Gutenberg and are available in a variety of formats to download for various devices, including Kindle.
As a bonus, I’ve also included film versions to watch after reading!
Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
If you want to give your child the foundation for all of their favorite animated classics, have them read the eerie and sometimes disturbing fairy tales of the masters themselves, the Brothers Grimm. Favorites (most of which have been made into movies) include:
- “Briar Rose” (Inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty)
- “The Frog Prince”
- “Rapunzel” (Inspiration for Disney’s Tangled)
- “Snow-white and Rose-red”
- “Hansel and Gretel”
Watch: By Disney—Snow White (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010)
Raggedy Ann Stories by Johnny Gruell
A childhood favorite since 1918, this is a collection of stories that reads a lot like Disney’s Toy Story: a new doll (the aforementioned Raggedy Ann) comes to Marcella’s nursery and promptly becomes the leader of the dolls. Raggedy Ann’s stories focus on her being a paragon of goodness while having fun adventures and teaching the other dolls about kindness and tolerance. Anyone else thinking of Woody and Buzz?
Watch: Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)
“The Light Princess” by George MacDonald
Published in 1864, “The Light Princess” is a warm and humorous short story that has stood the test of time. A princess is cursed by a witch to lose her gravity. What follows is a silly yet poignant tale of a young heroine that has no weight physically—or spiritually. This is an eloquently written and engaging tale of what it means to sacrifice for those you love.
Watch: The Light Princess (1978)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Originally published as a serial story in 1910, this beloved children’s book was published as a novel in 1911 and has been a worldwide classic ever since. Young Mary Lennox has lost both of her parents in the cholera epidemic in India. When Mary is sent to live with her uncle in the English countryside, her rude and temperamental demeanor transforms as she becomes immersed in her new world: an enchanting walled garden and new friends to share it with. The themes of truth, kindness, and the intrinsic goodness of the human heart are always relatable, no matter what year it is.
Watch: There are three film versions of the same name, the 1949 and 1993 versions, and a new version released in 2020 (available on Amazon or Hulu).
The ever-delightful stories of the rascally rabbit Peter and his siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, have captured the imaginations of young readers the world over for more than a century. The naughty little bunny who doesn’t listen to his mother is one of the most endearing cautionary tales ever, and what child doesn’t love bunnies??
Watch: Peter Rabbit (2018), Miss Potter (2006)
Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz by Frank Baum
Not to be confused with Dorothy and the Wizard Of Oz, this is book four in the Oz universe, and despite the title, very little of the action actually takes place in Oz. Written soon after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, this book begins with an earthquake in California instead of a tornado in Kansas. Dorothy Gale and her friends subsequently fall into the cracks in the earth and thus begin their adventure. Only twenty chapters take place in Oz, where Baum creates an Oz not for adventure, but for the characters to take refuge from their adventures.
Watch: The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
The Story of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting
A doctor who can talk to animals? Yes, please! I think every human, whether you’re a kid or an adult, wishes they could interpret the messages from their furry friends. In the first book in the series, Doctor Doolittle learns he can talk to animals. After his discovery, Doolittle decides to switch from “human” medicine to veterinary care, and word spreads in the animal kingdom of his special gift.
Watch: Doctor Doolittle (1967), Dr. Doolittle (1998). A Netflix adaptation starring Robert Downy, Jr., Doolittle, debuted in 2020.
Peter Pan J.M. Barrie
This archetypal tale, with its sassy fairies and flying children, has bewitched children for over one hundred years, and for good reason. Underneath the fairy dust and fantasy, Barrie’s enduring classic has us question what it means to belong, the idea of mortality, and the heartbreaking lesson of having to let go of the ones we love.
Watch: Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), Hook (1991), Finding Neverland (2004)
Heidi by Joanna Spyri
If you want to immerse your child in a realistic fairyland, reach for Spryi’s exquisite descriptions of her alpine childhood home in Heidi. Heidi is an orphan girl who is sent to live with her lonely, taciturn grandfather at the top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Your child will fall in love with Heidi’s loving nature as she charms her grandfather with her affection and kindness, gradually helping him to reenter mountain society.
Watch: Since there are over 25 films inspired by this book and character, there is no shortage here of films to pick from, but the most modern pick is Netflix’s 2015 version.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Another first book in a series, this novel has also become iconic and archetypal like Peter Pan with its unforgettable characters like the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. One of the most famous works of fantasy, your child will love the adventures of Alice and the strange and fantastical creatures she meets along the way, like the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Red Queen.
Watch: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1959), Tim Burton’s visually stunning Alice In Wonderland (2010), and Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016).
Author Bio : – Heather R. Parker is a freelance writer, editor, and published poet from Georgia. She works as a writer and editor for the self-publishing platform Fictionate.me. Her work has been published by Nightingale & Sparrow Magazine, Analog Submissions Press, Friday Flash Fiction, Medium, and others. Her upcoming chapbook will be published by Between Shadows Press in the summer of 2021.