Books that are in the public domain are free to read, share, and reprint, and since the advent of the internet we've entered a golden age for accesing public domain works. Websites like Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and the Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania allow anyone with access to an internet connection to read some of the greatest works of literature ever written, right in their own homes or local libraries.
However, despite the ease of access to public domain material, some readers--particularly young ones--may be put off from reading these works. The sheer volume of books in the public domain can be overwhelming, and older books for children can sometimes be tedious or didactic. But there are so many excellent books for young readers in the public domain that are just as fresh and captivating to modern readers as they were to audiences of a hundred years ago, and it's well worth seeking them out--you'll find several good ones to start with below!
Beatrix Potter's picture books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit
, The Tale of Tom Kitten
, and The Tailor of Gloucester
have been beloved by young readers for over a century. You can read all of Beatrix Potter's books online at Project Gutenberg, complete with her lovely and iconic watercolor illustrations.
All children should learn the old nursery rhymes, and this collection with illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright is one of the best. It's very comprehensive, featuring rhymes that would be familiar to many generations as well as some that are more obscure. Almost every rhyme is accompanied by an illustration, which really bring the (often nonsensical) lines to life.
Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy are classic characters, and all of their stories by Johnny Gruelle are in the public domain. The adventures of Marcella's dolls and their toy friends are full of excitement and gentle sweetness in equal measure, although there are one or two tales that adults should preview before sharing with children due to potentially insensitive content. Both of these collections are fully illustrated in color by Gruelle.
Robert Louis Stevenson is a wonderful first poet for children, and his anthology A Child's Garden of Verses
is essential childhood reading. There are many wonderful illustrated editions of the book in the public domain, but Jessie Willcox Smith's illustrations are particularly beautiful.
Project Gutenberg has Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
, and Carroll's original, shorter version of the first Alice book, Alice's Adventures Underground
available online--the last is available complete with Lewis Carroll's own illustrations and facsimile manuscript pages.
Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows
is another classic children's book in the public domain. Perhaps the best illustrator of the book is Ernest H. Shepard, famous for illustrating A. A. Milne's Pooh books and children's poetry books, but the Shepard edition is not in the public domain. For a good public domain edition, try the version illustrated by Nancy Barnhart linked above.
Many books about plucky young heroines are in the public domain, such as Eleanor Porter's Pollyanna
and Kate Douglas Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
, but Anne of Green Gables
has had the most enduring fame and success. Most of the sequels and spinoff books in the series are also in the public domain, although a few were published past the current cutoff date.
This rip-roaring adventure story is just as exciting today as when it was first published, and makes a great book for summer reading. The book will appeal to both girls and boys who like their plots filled with action and tinged with danger, and it's a great choice for upper middle grade readers in particular.