The Best Bedtime Stories for Children by Age and Reading Level
19 min read
Last Modified 27 April 2021 First Added 9 December 2019
No two children are the same, which makes it difficult to truly list the best bedtime stories for kids. Some will like those with dinosaurs. Others prefer magic and fantasy. And what makes the best bedtime stories for 3-year-olds won’t be relevant for older children. With that in mind, we’ve identified the best books for children split into different age groups, and reading abilities. We’ve also explored a number of reasons for why it’s important to read to your children. If you’d rather see bedtime stories broken down by genre and style, check out our bedtime story finder instead.
To start, lets take a look at the best classic bedtime stories for children. These are mainstays in the bedtime story world – often creating a sense of nostalgia and reminding those reading the story of their own childhoods. Young children often love hearing about their parents as youngsters, and this can be a great way to get them settled and ready to listen before bed. It’s likely you’ll know plenty of these already so feel free to skip ahead if you’re looking for something new or something age specific.
Don’t be put off by the monsters theme. This is a magical tale of adventure and whimsy about a little boy called Max who sails to the island of the Wild Things and becomes their king. It has a great plot, a happy ending, and has proved hugely popular with millions of young children worldwide.
As you can probably guess from the title, this fun board book for very small kids is aimed at getting them in their ‘jim jams’. It gets them in the right frame of mind for bed whilst being an entertaining, appropriate read.
Dr. Seuss books are tried and tested children’s classics and this is his first and best known. Basically it’s about a crazy cat in a silly hat causing chaos in all sorts of fun and inventive ways. Especially ideal for kids from 5 to 7 who will love the madness and mayhem.
These tales are over 100 years old. However, their colourful descriptions, fascinating characters and exotic locations are still guaranteed to enthrall and delight the kids of today. For added novelty value, tell them that these are the stories their great, great, grandmother might have read.
From The BFG to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl’s books have entertained generations of kids and show no signs of falling off. This one features a quick-witted fox running rings around some dopey farmers and is great to read out nice and loud.
A traditional picture book, where the story is told more through the images on the pages than the words. This simple tale about a zookeeper and a gorilla is perfect for very young children.
Oddly entertaining plot-driven stories about small creatures that look a little bit like hippos but walk on two legs. These tall tales from Finland are as enjoyable as they are unusual.
There’s a little debate in the parenting world about when to start reading bedtime stories to your little one. That said, KidsHealth.org identify that reading to your baby from birth is a thoroughly valuable exercise – both for you and your new arrival. Reading bedtime stories to babies helps create a loving bond and also teaches communication. By the time babies reach their first birthday, they’ll have all the sounds needed to speak their native – so anything that can help this process is worth considering! To help, here are the best bedtime stories for babies.
Helpful tip – Plenty of parents read their own books aloud to their little ones. This can help you tackle two birds with one stone, especially while your infant still sleeps in your room.
Toddlers have incredible imaginations. They’re at the stage where the world is just starting to make sense, while still being wide open for magic and fantasy. Some of the best bedtime stories for toddlers are those with repetition and rhyming patterns – helping them learn and practice the building block sounds that make up their native language.
This is the age where, as parents, you can really start to instil a love of books within your children. It’s when your little ones reach this this age that stories become less about simple sounds and repetition. Instead, you’ll start see more characters and more detailed plotlines. This can really help you and your youngster to bond. You can put on silly voices and allow them to do the same, helping them to start recognise words and sentences, at the same time as having fun.
It’s between these ages that your child’s reading ability will really start to improve. You’ll also likely see a much wider variation on their bookshelf at this time. That’s because when they’re reading by themselves, or reading to you, they’ll need simpler books. When you are reading to them, they’ll want something more complex. That’s because their brains can understand much greater detail than their reading ability caters for. So, at this age, we recommend having a range of different ability books to ensure you’ve covered all angles.
At this age, you’ll likely spend less time reading your child bedtime stories. Especially towards the ages of ten and eleven, your youngster will have their own favourite books and be able to read much more complex novels. If you’ve really instilled a love of reading, it may be that their reading age is beyond their actual age. In fact, at this age, it may well be above the national average for UK adults, which is, quite shockingly, a mere 9 years old. But just because they’re able to read more complicated prose, this doesn’t mean you should let them. Be aware that plenty of young adult fiction has moments that you might not deem suitable. That said, our list is comprised only of suitable topics, in line with the national curriculum for this age group.
The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where did he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.’ A great classic modern fairytale, The Iron Man opens as an enormous, mysterious being arrives in a small, unnamed town and proceeds to wreak havoc by consuming any metallic item in its path. But rather than try to understand it, the adults in the village hatch a plan to simply bury the giant creature. Overwhelmed by fear and anger, their reaction to the creature is fuelled by panic and selfishness. However, it is little Hogarth who works instead to understand the creature’s motives, and create a solution that will bring about harmony for all. A beautiful tale of understanding and tolerance, this story is brimming with intrigue, mystery and suspense, but has a strong and human moral at its heart.
Set in Poland during the 1940’s Nazi invasion, The Silver Sword, based on true historical events, begins with Joseph, a Polish headmaster, arrested by the Gestapo and taken to a prison camp, from which he later escapes. But upon returning to Warsaw, Joseph finds his family gone (his wife has also been arrested, and the three children are in hiding) and their home destroyed. A paper knife (The Silver Sword), once belonging to his wife, now lies in the possession of a pickpocket called Jan. Joseph leaves, intending to follow his family to Switzerland, where he assumes they have fled. But Jan and The Silver Sword form the central thread of the story, as the boy befriends the three children and joins them in their journey in search of their parents. An exciting, tense and often exhilarating story, The Silver Sword follows one family’s challenging journey to safety, and finally back to each other.
A truly magical book which children will never forget – a gift they will take with them into adulthood. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are sent to stay at a big old house with an eccentric professor and accidentally stumble into Narnia through the back of a wardrobe – a frozen, snowy land in which it is always winter, but never Christmas’. This is a book full of adventure and imagination, with great characters like Mr Tumnus the Faun, the icily terrifying White Witch and Aslan, the great and mysterious Lion whose arrival signals a great change in the land, as well as a great sacrifice. Deep and layered, as well as a real page-turner, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a wonderful introduction to The Chronicles of Narnia even though it is the second book in the series. It will leave you and your child eager to read the other six together!
I remember discovering Artemis Fowl soon after it was published (I was twelve), then later surreptitiously reading the eighth and final book of this sci-fi fantasy series in a shop (I was, er, twenty-three). Twelve-year-old criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl may inhabit a sprawling mansion on the outskirts of Dublin, but he is already primed for his first big money-making scheme: divest the fairyfolk of their pot of gold’, by kidnapping a fairy and waiting for the ransom to arrive. What he doesn’t bet upon is Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance) Unit, who is to be assisted by technologically adept centaur Foaly, and a whole host of outlandishly unforgettable characters. This fast-paced, wise-cracking adventure, described by the author as Die Hard with fairies’, is a guaranteed gripping read for young readers and any older ones…
Don’t be fooled by his size! When Sophie is carried from her room in the middle of the night and taken to Giantland, she believes her cards are marked. However, more mousey than murderous, Sophie is in the good hands of her midnight captor, the BFG. His fellow giants, on the other hand, are not as friendly and have a penchant for children’s blood. Sophie must prevent their gluttonous massacre. With the help of the snozzcumber munching BFG, they set out to stop the Childchewer, Bonecrusher and the rest of the terrifying giants from swallowing the children of England.
Young Hugo lives unnoticed within the walls of a Parisian train station – until a series of encounters with a strange and bitter old man places Hugo at the centre of the discovery of the magical new art of cinema. Its blend of visual and written stories lends this book the wonderfully unique experience of reading a film. The eerie and evocative black and white illustrations draw the reader into Hugo’s shadowy world of mysterious bookshops, clockwork men and the forgotten genius who first pioneered the use of visual effects in film.
Bradley Chalkers sits at the back of the classroom, all alone: everyone ignores him and he ignores everyone else, including his teachers. In this powerful novel, the reader gets to explore how new friendships and the magical world of books enable Bradley to take on some of the challenges he faces, until the Bradley we see by the end is a very different boy to the one whom we meet at the start of the story.
A story which tells the tale of the Second World War experienced through the eyes of those children who were evacuated to the countryside. One of the most touching and powerful children’s books ever written, it tells the story of grumpy Tom Oakley who takes in young Willie only to form an unlikely friendship which helps to enrich both of their lives. Yet no one was safe from the ravages of the war, and circumstances conspire to split them apart.
A true modern classic; set in a fictional time as England is about to change from pound sterling to the Euro, two brothers discover millions of pounds in cash, with seventeen days left to spend the money. Damian, the younger brother, believes the money has come from God and should be used for doing good. But his older brother Anthony has other ideas, and starts using the money to bribe classmates, even looking into real estate. Unbeknownst to the brothers, the money came from a train robbery, and the robbers are looking for their money… will they be able to catch up with the brothers before time finally runs out?
Ivan is a gorilla of few, but well-chosen, words. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he’s used to us peering at him through the glass but make no mistake, he’s been watching us too. In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I’m thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine.’ But Ivan’s thoughtful life of resignation abruptly changes, with the imminent arrival of a baby elephant. His elderly elephant companion, injured by cruelty in captivity, asks him to ensure the baby doesn’t suffer her own fate. Katherine Applegate’s powerful story is inspired by a real Ivan; she explains: I wanted to give him someone to protect, and the chance to be the mighty silverback he was always meant to be.’ Expect tears before bedtime but they may well be your own!
Kitty is on the war-path: mum’s got a new boyfriend, and Kitty is adamant he’s not going to have an easy time of it. Can she succeed in driving Goggle Eyes’ Gerald away, or will she realise he’s not all that bad once you get to know him… ? Kitty’s emotional journey plays out in the context of her telling her own story to comfort fellow classmate Helen, who dislikes her prospective stepfather and who is sitting in the school cloakroom in tears. The positive framing of the story will help any young reader appreciate the often hilarious developments in Kitty’s tale, as well as accommodate potentially new family dynamics in their own lives.
Spare, poetic text and beautifully intricate painted illustrations reveal the inner fear and isolation of a young girl – who could be any one of us – as she struggles to get through the day in a world where nothing makes sense, and everything seems to be going wrong. That is, until the unseen hope, foreshadowed by a tiny red leaf on every page, is realised and we find it breaking through and blooming into a red tree growing right in front of us on the final pages. This is a story of how we can all feel alone and utterly hopeless at times, but of how hope is there – somewhere – even if we can’t always see it. It is waiting to break through and blossom for all of us. A brave, powerful and inspired rendering of what so often remains unsaid within each one of us, regardless of age.
“As parents talk, sing and read to their children, existing links among brain cells are strengthened and new links are formed. At a younger age, learning is faster than it will be as the child grows older. When a child is taught to read, the process of learning has a profound influence on the entire functioning and development of the brain. You can play a critical early role by inculcating not only reading skills and ability but more importantly, instilling a lifelong love of learning and reading.”
An unusual tale of a boy who discovers an obscure looking creature whilst out collecting bottle-tops on the beach. Guessing that it is lost, the boy decides to try to find out who owns it, or where this thing belongs. Faced with the distinct unhelpfulness of the people around him, the boy feels sorry for the lost thing’, becoming even more persistent in his search – now aided by clues in the form of directional arrows. This beautifully mysterious picture book explores a landscape which will no doubt fuel the imagination and immerse any reader, with its eventual arrival at a safe haven for the lost thing.’
The image of a child tucked up in bed with their parent sat beside them, book in hand, is one that resonates with us all. A nightly habit for most families, this activity is considered a crucial part of childhood and the role of the storyteller is one of the best parenting privileges. Though evidently an ingenious tool in ensuring your child will be exhausted enough to fall asleep, there are a wide range of benefits in bedtime reading with your child, and eventually in having your child read to you.
The concern of any parent is giving their child the necessary tools they need in order to have a prosperous, fulfilling life. As ever, this task begins at home. Reading is one of the most important communication tools that we have available to us and is fundamental in establishing essential pathways in the brain in early learners. As study author John Hutton, MD says: ‘Reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to nursery seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child’s brain processes stories and may help predict reading success.’
Not only does it further basic speech and reading skills but it has been shown to promote better communication skills which are essential at any stage in your child’s life, whether this is making friends in the playground or reading aloud in class.
Through continuing with a story on a daily basis, bedtime reading with your child can have a fantastic effect on enhancing your child’s attention span. In this way they can concentrate for longer in school, bettering their education overall. Following a story can also improve their use of logic, as they think of ways in which their favourite characters can overcome the obstacles that are facing them.
Reading is not often immediately thought of as an instrumental tool in discussions about emotional health, but any avid reader will tell you of the times they cried or laughed at a good piece of writing. Bedtime reading with your child can help them to approach difficult topics in a safe environment, where they can explore powerful emotions through the medium of fiction. It can be used as a means to approach and overcome big milestones that can trigger emotional changes in your child. It can also teach them an integral lesson in empathy. Sharing these experiences together can foster a stronger connection between parent and child. It can also provide you with ample topics for conversations between the two of you.
Perhaps most obvious of all the reasons why to read to your child, the effect reading has on an individual’s imagination is unparalleled. Books, magazines, atlases and journals – and any type of reading material that they can get their hands on – allows your child to explore both our world and fictional ones. Reading to your child can take you on fantastic journeys. Together you can clamber through jungles, scale mountains or swim to hidden depths, without even having to step through your front door. It can also help to express their individuality. Aiding them in discovering interests that may not be covered by their school curriculum.
Want to explore bedtime stories in greater detail? Check out our bedtime story finder which breaks down the best stories by genre and age.