Lesson #201: Reading to Improve English Language Skills? 3 Recommended Children’s Classics

📚 One question I am often asked is: ‘which classics are good for English language learners?’

It is one of my favourite questions because it allows me to recommend great books that can be useful and enjoyable for you. 😊

As you can tell from this Lesson’s title, I recommend getting started on children’s classics since the vocabulary and grammar are generally easier. This allows you to progress more quickly and feel more satisfied overall!

So here are 3 good children’s books over the years, along with the English language level you might need to fully enjoy the experience. I am also including links to free online versions of each below.

📘 #1 The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) by Beatrix Potter – suitable for A2 onwards

You can access a free ebook version of it here via Gutenberg.org (I recommend downloading the version with images, so that you can see her watercolours).

This is such a great little story to get started with! Its vocabulary is simple and straightforward, which allows you to focus on the story. Add to this Potter’s watercolour illustrations, which are incredibly attractive in themselves!

What is more, if you like this little book, you might enjoy reading other tales she wrote that are of similar length and language level. Some of these include her The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904 – a kind of sequel to Peter Rabbit), The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (1905), The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1917), and perhaps my favourite of them all, The Tailor of Gloucester (1902). These are just some of my personal recommendations – she wrote and illustrated 23 little ‘tales’ in total! 📚

Beatrix Potter’s story in itself is worth reading about. She was born in London into a well-to-do family in 1866. As a child she always loved to visit the Lake District in northwest England where she enjoyed studying nature, care for wild animals, and paint everything she could. As an adult, she turned her back on (rejected) her family’s lifestyle and hopes for an affluent marriage, and bought a house and land in the Lake District, with the aim of conserving (protecting from disappearing) the natural landscape and wildlife of that area.

As a writer, she created a distinctive genre (type) of storybooks for children that encouraged them to imagine and appreciate the natural world more. She also became famous for farming Herdwick sheep, a breed of sheep native to that area and which were at risk of being lost. When she died, she bequeathed (gifted or left to others after death) her house and lands to the National Trust, ensuring (making sure) that it would be protected and accessible to the public for generations to come.

👉 If you are keen on (eager, interested) finding out more about this wonderful writer and her famous books, you will surely enjoy the animated versions of her stories called ‘The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends’ (1992-1998).

To learn more about Potter herself, you might like to watch a movie about called ‘Miss Potter’ (2006), or even visit Beatrix Potter’s Home or ‘The World of Beatrix Potter’ centre on your next trip to the UK (all of which I can recommend)!


📙 #2 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll – suitable for B1 onwards

You can access a free ebook version of it here via Gutenberg.org.

I am certain that you have heard of this book or even watched one of the movie versions of it, of which there are many!

It is about a little girl who falls down a rabbit-hole and discovers a whole new world where so much is topsy-turvy (upside-down).

✍️ One of the good things about this book is that you will learn a lot of useful vocabulary – especially nouns, adjectives, and adverbs – that are used by English speakers on a daily basis.

💡 Note: The more advanced your English is, the more you will appreciate Lewis Carroll’s word-play throughout the book!

Here are 5 sample words I picked up from it:

  • Out-of-the-way: remote, secluded, or disconnected
  • Contemptuously: with contempt (strong feeling that something else is unimportant and not worth noticing or respecting)
  • Knot: a fastening or tangle of rope, usually made to secure something safely
  • Knuckles: the bending joints in fingers or toes, including where they meet the hand or foot
  • Fling: to throw (far) away, usually carelessly and forcefully

👉 If you enjoy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you might want to check my Lesson #197 here on words that sound or are spelled similarly (homonyms) in English, using Alice as the study text.


📗 #3 Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1911) – suitable for level B2 onwards

You can access a free ebook version of it here via Gutenberg.org.

Last but not least, here is one of my very favourites – Peter Pan, once a play by J. M. Barrie (1904), originally called Peter and Wendy, that was later adapted (1911) to be published as a novel.

👉 I recommend starting with the novel, since his descriptive language not only explains the context more clearly but also provides interesting vocabulary and epressions.

While it is as imaginative as Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, I find that Peter Pan is more psychologically insightful (if not as intellectually intricate). J.M. Barrie’s story explores childhood, dreams, and our experiences (and fears) of growing up. Barrie’s sense of humour comes through in every chapter, a good counterbalance (something that is balanced against something else) to the deeper, sometimes darker moments in the book. All this said, it is suitable reading not just for English language learners but for all children aged around 8 years or older and adults (in my opinion)!

J. M. Barrie was a Scottish writer who became very close to a family with five young boys: George, John (known as Jack), Peter, Michael, and Nicholas Llewelyn-Davies. He used to tell them many stories, and his tales about a boy called Peter Pan who ‘never grew up’ fascinated them. Over the years, he added details, including Wendy Darling, and gradually turned it into a play, then a novel. When the five boys tragically lost their parents (their parents died), J. M. Barrie effectively cared for them and continued to comfort them with more stories about Peter. In the novel and play, Wendy’s brothers are called John and Michael, and their father is called George. The only Llewelyn-Davies brother not to be included therein (in that place, book, story, etc.) by name was Nicholas, the youngest boy, who was only born around the time of the play’s publication. Some of the book’s character’s lines are actually taken directly from what the young Llewelyn-Davies boys used to say (e.g., ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’).

Here are some memorable quotes from the book, just to get you started:

📗 ‘Would you like an adventure now, or would like to have your tea first?’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

📗 Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter. He often met it, but he always forgot it. I suppose that was the real difference between him and all the rest.

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

📗 There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

👉 I recently wrote Lesson #189 on Peter Pan here, where we looked at the use of the pluperfect tense in the book.

As always, there will be words here and there that are new for you (and perhaps even for native English speakers), but don’t be discouraged! 😉

💡 TIP: If searching for the meaning of words in online dictionaries helps you to understand the story better, go ahead; but otherwise feel free to ‘skip’ words that you don’t understand – just carry on reading the text to the end. This will give you an overall comprehension of the story, and, if you re-read the book, you will understand even more of those challenging words by their context on this second or third reading.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)