Dr. Seuss’s birthday has come and gone, and with it, all the celebratory pink ink yink drinks, the cotton candy truffula trees, green deviled eggs, banana-and-strawberry cat’s hat skewers, and the one fish two fish Swedish fish encased in blue Jell-O. Now that we’re done worshipping at the altar of Geisel, we can set the vaguely disturbing psychedelic drawings aside and focus on some less-heralded—yet still highly praised—books for the three- to five-year-old set.
Making a list of great children’s books is a tricky proposition. Current parents of preschoolers would do well to ignore my suggestions and stick with what works for their own families. I mean, how could I ignore “The Giving Tree”? Or “Caps for Sale”? “Where the Wild Things Are”? “Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site”?
But for anyone who is looking to buy a book for a young child, or is starting to build up a book collection for a baby, I’d like to humbly suggest the books that have served us best over the last few years.
Best to Read Aloud in General
I volunteer at my daughter’s school to read books during quiet time. Nothing focuses the mind more than carefully choosing books that will engage the attention of a rowdy bunch of four- and five-year-olds. I choose the books I can really get into—the ones I can imbue with theatrical flair.
“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” Mo Willems is a master of the silly. In addition to his Pigeon series, he also has the Elephant and Piggie series (and more). Personally, I prefer his most well-known book, especially to read to a whole class. The kids can shout “NO!” each time the pigeon makes his desperate request for the one thing he wants more than the entire world: driving a bus. They can be the authority figure, executing the bus driver’s wishes, while I, the reader, start bargaining, begging, and flailing—on to a full-blown tantrum—in a wonderful role reversal.
My two favorite parts of this book? First, the final loud tantrum. I toss the book into the audience, fall to the floor, and start kicking and screaming. Then I huff and puff, pull myself together, and begin reading anew. Second is the way the pigeon pokes his head in from the side of the page from time to time, inquisitively and breathlessly waiting for an answer. Be sure to pop your head out too, hesitant and plucky at the same time.
“Llama Llama Red Pajama.” The Llama Llama series is another relatively recent, well-known set of books. Llama is your typical young child—er, llama. He has to learn to share. He has to learn to be patient during shopping expeditions. Also, most applicable to my rambunctious spawn, he has to learn to stay in bed without all the muss and fuss. (Results may vary. My children have not yet learned anything from little Llama).
What I like best about “Llama Llama Red Pajama” is that the tone and emotions change throughout the book. At first, while waiting for his mama to come back and tuck him in during bedtime, Llama gets frustrated with the delay. Then a bit angry. Then furious. Then he begins to fret. (“What if Mama Llama’s gone?”) Finally, he exhorts his mama to “Run Run RUN!”
Any parent can identify with the next page, when Mama Llama drops her phone (her landline cord phone), leaves her sink full of dishes and her faucet running, and bounds up the stairs in a panic. Then we see her simultaneous exasperation and relief when it turns out little Llama is just engaging in his usual “Llama Drama”: “Baby Llama, what a tizzy. Sometimes Mama’s very busy. Please stop all this Llama Drama and be patient for your mama.” Baby Llama’s look of chagrin and defeat warms my disciplinarian soul.
“The Monster at the End of this Book.” Finally, a book that existed when I was a child. Pro-tip: Get this one, the original. Don’t get “Another Monster at the End of this Book,” which co-stars that tricycle-riding hellspawn, Elmo. As usual, he sucks all the humor out of the story.
This is another gem of theatrics, as Grover tries to build walls and chains to keep himself safe from the Monster. It’s really not that easy. Grover’s finest moment of annoyance is when the reader—who is turning each page despite his desperate pleas to not reach the end of the book—knocks down a brick wall. “Do you know that you are very strong?” Grover asks deadpan (ideally in his very Grover-like voice).
I consider myself fairly witty, but I can’t hold a candle to this Amazon review of the book:
The premise — that, with the turn of each page, the reader brings self-described ‘lovable, furry Grover’ closer to danger at the hands of the title monster — allows one to question the very nature of free will and destiny. Is Grover doomed to encounter the monster? The conceit that it is the act of turning pages — the literal act of reading itself — that causes the ending to come about inevitably leads to the question: Would the book end differently if one didn’t finish reading it? … Thus, turning pages moves the reader and Grover not only forward in time, as in most traditional literature, but also forward in space, leading to the perilous End of the Book. Lastly, TMATEOTB is about how we are ultimately at the whim of the cosmic forces that shape our lives. …
In the end, the Monster is himself. How existential.
“The Gruffalo.” “The Gruffalo,” like most books on this list, has won many awards. One of them is the Blue Peter Award for the Best Book to Read Aloud. (Apparently “Blue Peter” is a children’s show in Britain. I must be 12 years old because I giggled at that a bit. )
I love all of Julia Donaldson’s stuff. She is a playwright as well, and much of her children’s work has been adapted to stage and screen. I highly recommend you check out the Gruffalo movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime (it was originally broadcast on BBC One). Although I like doing the voices in the book, the movie does it better. (My Fox is a deep-voiced robot-sounding thing, and my Gruffalo sounds a little soft in the head.) It’s great on its own, but what knocks it out of the park is Helena Bonham Carter as the mother squirrel and the narrator.
While you’re at it, check out the film adaptations of “Stick Man” and “Room on the Broom.” “Stick Man” stars our favorite hobbit (and Sherlock’s sidekick), Martin Freeman. “Room on the Broom” boasts Simon Pegg and Gillian Anderson.
I actually prefer the movie version of “Room on the Broom” to the book, due to the feisty cat who doesn’t want to share his witch. (That subtext is lost in the book itself). “Stick Man,” however, although hilarious (“I’m STICK MAN!” he cries at many points in the movie, once memorably to a just-hatched swan), makes me upset, because his family fears him missing or dead for an entire year. Where’s the stick police? Why aren’t they on the case? Did Stick Woman stare out a window day after day? Did she think her husband had gotten himself a stick mistress? Or did she suspect foul play?
After he returns, is he going to venture out again for long runs in the morning? Sounds kinda dangerous for a stick man, if you ask me.
“Moo, Baa, La La La” and “But Not the Hippopotamus.” I think I’ve memorized every Sandra Boynton book we own. That’s good, because these were my babies’ first books, and they were liable to rip them from my hands and start chewing on them as I attempted to read. “Moo, Baa, La La La” to me is the best to read aloud, although others may disagree. What makes it awesome is that we are raising an entire generation of children who believe, quite seriously, that pigs say “La La La.”
The Boynton book that makes me giggle the most, however, is “But Not the Hippopotamus.” The Hippopotamus’s lurking reminds me of Buster Bluth. (A Milford man must be neither seen nor heard). And the final chorus of “BUT YES THE HIPPOPOTAMUS!” is a triumphant rally, until that last, cruel twist. Poor armadillo.
Say it with me. I recommend a vaguely posh and haughty British accent: “But not the armadilloooooo.”
Best Read-Aloud Books for Bedtime
No, “Go the F to Sleep” is not on this list. I have indeed tried to read it to my children (omitting the curse words), but that didn’t go so well. NB: Jennifer Garner reading this book is only the cutest thing ever. (Yes, if you click the link, profanity awaits).
“The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep.” My boy’s arrival transformed bedtime from “that wonderful sigh at the end of the day that cements your belief that you are a perfect mother” to “mother of all that is holy, why is my second-born kicking and biting and rolling onto my face and ow! Just go to sleep kid. Man, this crib is uncomfortable for a grown adult.”
Enter the mental mind-screw that will henceforth be referred to as “The Rabbit.” Swedish psychologist Carl- Johan Forssen Ehrlin self-published this book in order to slowly worm into the minds of every man, woman, and child on Earth. Like the virgins that survive the Halloween series, only good children who go to sleep on command will avoid being turned into an extra from “The Walking Dead.”
This deep psychological thriller begins with the lone survivor of the sleep that overtakes his siblings, and his mother. Together, they venture down to see Uncle Yaawwwwn, who might as well have Free Candy emblazoned on the side of his white van, given the happy dust he sprinkles over his unsuspecting victims.
Actual passage from the book: “Well on their way, Roger and you were getting even closer to falling asleep. You followed the little path down, down, to Uncle Yawn. The path down that he knew so well. He had walked there many times before. Just walked down, down, and down…That’s right… Good.” Even the illustrations are disturbing.
Some reviews say it doesn’t work, but I noticed a lot of the parents turn the audiobook version on and expect it to magically work. It’s not quite the potent drug it advertises itself to be.
We used to read the book to our children, which at least made them pay attention in a way an audiobook would not have. The first day or so, I had to read the book multiple times. Over time, the book acted more as a Pavlovian suggestion and my children were succumbing sooner and sooner—as was I. So I finally bought the audiobook, and now I turn it on through my phone and try to leave the room, lest I wake eight hours later. My daughter enjoys having the book put her to sleep. We call it “rabbiting,” as in “We gave Lucy a good rabbiting tonight.” My son, for whom we actually bought the book, adamantly refuses to be hypnotized. “NO WABBIT!”
“Snuggle Puppy.” Boynton has a few bedtime books, like “The Bedtime Book” and “Pajama Time.” The most touching, although not a stated bedtime book, is “Snuggle Puppy.” Many of Boynton’s books have been set to music, and the tune to “Snuggle Puppy” is saccharine sweet. I usually don’t do overly sentimental (“Guess How Much I Love You?” Gag) but I’m sold on this one. Especially when singing it to my boy, that adorable squishy snuggle monster so soft and sweet. (BRB. Gotta hug my baby).
“The Going-to-Bed Book” is great, but subversive. What heathen brushes his teeth in preparation for bed and then runs up to exercise? Basically, Boynton has been masterfully trolling parents for the last 24 years.
“Goodnight Moon.” Some of my fellow Federalist contributors think Goodnight Moon is creepy. I never really asked why. Is it the echo of surveillance culture? (Are the Bears in Chairs watching you?)
“Goodnight Moon” will always hold a special place in my heart because I have a huge board book copy (called the “Lap Edition,” which is such a misnomer because I have no idea how to effectively hold a child in my lap along with the book without the child’s head getting boinked). Boinking aside, though, I try to fulfill the Lap Edition’s purpose and seat my babies on me while I awkwardly brace the book against a wall or a pillow. My daughter was only a few weeks old when she started noticing books, and I have a precious picture of her at four months old with us reading the book. The book is so huge you just see her little eyes poking over the top of it.
The couplet of “Goodnight nobody. Goodnight mush” is masterful. It sends you out into the ether and then dumps you back into reality. Then, again, you rise, into the stars and the air, and then gracefully back down to sleep.
I’m not the only one who thinks “Goodnight Moon” is beautiful, in very weird unexpected ways: “The story has moved so close to the bunny as to become an experiential mirror of his drift and fall”
Best Educational Read-Aloud Books
“I Am Amelia Earhart” (et al). This series of books is called Ordinary People Change The World, by noted historian Brad Meltzer. He has quite a few of them, including “I Am Rosa Parks” and “I Am Abraham Lincoln.” The two we have are Amelia Earhart and Albert Einstein.
I bought the Amelia Earhart book for my daughter for Valentine’s Day when she was three. In effect, it’s my love story to her. I wanted her to open her mind to the endless possibilities of her life.
Amelia, at least the book version, is strongly (and awesomely) a tomboy. I have to admit, as someone who absolutely doesn’t mind being girly, with a daughter who also loves her sparkly dresses and snuggling baby dolls, the first part of the book sometimes rubs me wrong. Maybe it’s because my daughter was very young when I first read the book to her, so she took away the wrong message—some sort of subtext that it was not okay to like girl things. “I don’t wannna fly a plane!” she once exclaimed.
Once I reassured her that her life choices (to be a mama) were acceptable, she calmed down. Now she wants to be a “Mommy and an astronaut,” so I don’t think Amelia bothers her as much anymore. But I love the overall strong-woman message: Don’t let someone stop you because you’re a girl. Yes. I absolutely believe that, and that is indeed what first drew me to the book.
Einstein is great, too, although the main thing my children took away from the book is that his hair is AWESOME! (yes, he shouts that in the book).
“I’m a Big Sister” / “Brother.” My children were born 13 months apart, so I have the distinct memory of trying to read this book, which is not a board book, to my daughter at an age where I was afraid she’d tear the pages. I’ve recommended this book to many parents of children who were two years old or younger who were about to be elder siblings.
The language is very straightforward and simple, and focuses most on how the baby cannot yet do the things the toddler or preschooler can do. The boy and girl versions may not be necessary for older children but help minimize confusion for the younger set. This and Joanna Cole’s “My Big Girl / Boy Potty” are excellent.
Since we’re talking about three- to five-year-olds here, many other big sibling books are useful (Lucy happens to have one called “I’m Going to be a Big Brother” that goes into detail about anatomy and how the baby will be born), but you can’t really go wrong with this one.
“The Magic Treehouse Series.” I see this recommended a lot for kids just starting chapter books, but it also works well for pre-readers who are nevertheless interested in having chapter books read to them. I can’t get my daughter into most chapter books (including, sadly, “The Boxcar Children”), but this series is, well, magical.
For the uninitiated, a brother and sibling encounter a magical treehouse full of books that lead them to different points in history. There’s more to that—riddles and missions—but the basic takeaway is that each book delves into a different subject. This series is a great opportunity to reinforce information in your child’s life, if he, for example, has it read to him at four, then reads it to himself at seven, then encounters the supplemental books that provide more hard information to go along with the adventure.
Best For Emerging Readers
The I Can Read Series. There are a lot of these on the market, including Step Into Reading. For the most part, I’m a fan of the I Can Read Series, because they still do seem simpler for a child who is at best an “emerging” reader. Mine isn’t great at sounding out words and has her own sight-word approach to things, and the earliest I Can Read books are great for her.
We use the ones that are below Level One/Beginning Reader—the My First Shared Reading books. Technically they are intended for parents to read to their children, but we use it as the actual “Step One.” They now have a level called My Very First that is intended for my daughter’s reading level, so I am excited to try those out as well.
The Step Into Reading books are good too, but generally too complicated even at Step One, with the notable exception of their Step One Berenstain Bears books that are specifically designed to introduce concepts like size (“Big Bear, Small Bear”) and math (“Bears on Wheels”). Those are incredibly simple books. However, I try to avoid the Berenstain Bears because I still fear they are evidence we are part of a parallel universe (link beware: conspiracy theories ahead).
BOB Books. This series is perfect for beginning phonics, with an emphasis on patterns such as consonant-vowel-consonant (Mat, Bat, Sat). I recommend buying them in full sets. Set One was an excellent way to get my daughter interested in reading, and now Set Two is helping her proficiency.
Because they start out so simple, they are great for confidence—similar to the Dick and Jane books, although they aren’t as pattern-based. We use Dick and Jane as well, because my daughter knows she can pick one up and read it immediately. However, the vagueness of the sentences—“Uh-oh, Jane. Uh-oh Sally”—confuses her.
“Are You My Mother?” I couldn’t figure out a category for this, unless I called it “The Best of P.D. Eastman.” This was my favorite book as a child. As an adult, the vacuous look on the kitten’s face (who is not, indeed, the baby bird’s mother), makes me want to pet it and punch it at the same time. (Not because it makes me mad, but because it’s so cute I can’t stand it). “Go, Dog, Go” makes me wonder what kind of acid trip Eastman was on when he wrote it; “Are You My Mother” is tender and sentimental.