DURING the early 1900s there were relatively few children's books. Illustrators such as Randolph Caldecott, L. Leslie Brooke, Walter Crane, and Beatrix Potter were very well known, and their books were readily available. But for many children, especially those outside England and America, there was not a large selection of reading material. Today, things are different. In fact, in the United States alone more than 2,000 children's books are published annually. Most of these books are reviewed, either positively or negatively; some make it onto the many ``this year's best'' lists; and a very select few are honored by the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery awards.
If you're not sure what books are available for children, one of the best things to do is check at your local library. Most libraries have a summer reading program in which your children may participate. A well-run, active children's department is a very good source of information.
Another resource is a bookstore. Many have strong children's departments, and there are quite a few bookstores across the country devoted specifically to children's books. Also, if there is a certain book that you want and it's still in print, many bookstores will order it for you.
There are also several invaluable guides to children's books.
One of the most accessible is ``The Read-Aloud Handbook'' (Penguin, $6.95), by Jim Trelease, who frequently gives lectures to parents, teachers, and professional groups on children, literature, and television. In his book, Trelease discusses various aspects of reading aloud to children, where and when to read to them, and how to interest nonreaders. He also includes a very extensive, annotated bibliography of books for children from toddlers through junior high. This book should be available in your library, but if it's not, you can order it through a bookstore. It's an excellent book, very readable, and it's well worth getting a copy.
Listed below are well-written books, many of which have won either the Newbery Medal or the Caldecott Medal and which offer hours of reading enjoyment. Some of the books are older; others are quite new. Many of these authors have written more than just the one book listed, and their other books are also worth reading. BOOKS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
George and Martha (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95), by James Marshall, is about two riotously funny hippopotamuses, learning what it means to care for and share with others.
Francis the badger is very determined that only bread and jam will make her happy in Bread and Jam for Francis (Harper & Row, $9.95), by Russell Hoban.
Madeline and her 11 schoolmates, living together in a Parisian boarding school, are adventurous, daring, and naughty. Madeline's Rescue (Viking, $13.95), by Ludwig Bemelmans, is a favorite among early readers.
Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings (Viking, $11.95) is a time-honored classic about a family of ducks making its way through Boston in search of a perfect home.
The Shrinking of Treehorn (Holiday House, $8.95), by Florence P. Heide, is a hilarious story about a young boy who is shrinking in size. As he grows smaller and smaller, his parents and teachers continue to ignore him and his problem.
Frederick, a little gray field mouse, gathers colors, stories, and dreams to sustain his brothers and sisters through the long winter in Frederick (Pantheon, $9.99), by Leo Lionni.
Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad are Friends (Harper & Row, $8.95) is the first in a number of books about the humorous, warm relationship between Frog and Toad.
Curious George, a mischievous monkey, is more fun -- and much more troublesome -- than a barrel of monkeys, as he tries to find out about everything in Curious George (Houghton Mifflin, $9.95), written by H. A. Rey.
The fantasy-adventure of The Amazing Bone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $7.95), written and illustrated by William Steig, tells the tale of a magical bone that rescues the heroine from robbers and a villainous wolf.
Millions of Cats (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, $8.95), by Wanda G'ag, is a tale about a man who brings home ``millions, and billions, and trillions of cats.''
In Amelia Bedelia (Harper & Row, $8.95), by Peggy Parrish, Amelia the maid insists on taking directions literally. She ``dusts the furniture'' with dusting powder and ``puts the lights out'' on the clothesline.
For more than 40 years, the adventures of Tim in Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain (Puffin, $3.50), by Edward Ardizzone, have enchanted and inspired children.
The hero of Harry the Dirty Dog (Harper & Row, $9.95), written by Gene Zion and illustrated by Margaret B. Graham, is probably the most well-loved dog in all children's books. Harry's aversion to soap and water and his hilarious escapades will delight and entertain young children.
Every child who is plagued by an older brother or sister will enjoy I'll Fix Anthony (Harper & Row, $10.95), by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Arnold Lobel.
Little Bear (Harper & Row, $8.95), written by Else H. Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is the first of a series of books using simple but important events of a child's life to tell warm, gentle stories about little bear and his family. BOOKS FOR READING ALONE
The Tucks, of Tuck Everlasting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.95), by Natalie Babbitt, have a remarkable secret: They have found the source of everlasting life.
Imaginative young readers will enjoy The 18th Emergency (Viking, $9.95), by Betsy Byars, in which Benjie has mistakenly angered the school bully. He realizes, however, that sooner or later he must face the consequences of his actions.
Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (Harper & Row, $10.95) is an exquisite story dealing with the friendship between a young boy and girl, and the tension their friendship causes at school, at home, and among their friends.
Summer of My German Soldier (Dial, $9.95), by Bette Greene, is a heartwarming story about a German prisoner of war hiding in a small Arkansas town. His presence is unknown except to a young Jewish girl.
Irma, the new girl in school, tells her classmates that she owns the ``biggest doll in the world.'' The Bad Times of Irma Baumlein (Macmillan, $11.95), by Carol Ryrie Brink, is a witty, perceptive novel about truth and friendship.
In Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.95), Meg must rescue her father by passing through another time dimension.
James, an orphan, lives with his mean aunts. But when a giant peach begins to grow in the backyard, James's life is changed forever. James and the Giant Peach (Knopf, $11.95), by Raold Dahl, will captivate young readers.
A 10-year-old girl must assume the responsibilities of caring for the family while her mother recovers from an illness. The Bear's House (Doubleday, $7.95), by Marilyn Sachs, will help children realize the need for greater understanding and patience with others.
The Hundred Dresses (Harcourt, $8.95), by Eleanor Estes, is the story of Wandra Petronski, who comes from ``the wrong side of the tracks,'' and is the brunt of classroom jokes about the 100 dresses in her closet.
The life of a black Mississippi family during the depression is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Cassie in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial, $12.95), by Mildred Taylor. Cassie's family refuses to give in to the threats of white neighbors, and the family refuses to give in to their prejudices.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Houghton Mifflin, $11.95), by Elizabeth George Speare, takes place in a Puritan community in colonial Connecticut. Kit, who was raised in the tropics, has trouble adjusting to the narrow-minded ways of her aunt and uncle, as well as the community she is now living in.
Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Dell, $2.50) is the tale of two young girls who are mistakenly left in the care of a scheming governess. It's high Victorian melodrama, and an exciting read.