My toddler (AKA Little Man) has loved books since he was a few days old. When he was a newborn, I remember holding him with one hand and my Kindle with the other. When he was five months old, he already knew when to turn the pages of his favorite book: Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle and for a long time, it was easy to choose books that would resonate with him.
Now he’s in full-on toddler mode, and finding books he can relate to is a much bigger challenge. Toddlers have unique cognitive and emotional needs that often aren’t addressed in baby board books or picture books for older kids. These young readers need books with dynamic characters facing conflicts that they can understand and relate to. Not all picture books fit the bill.
Enter my “toddler tested” list below. These are five picture books that, when all else fails, I know will grab (and hold) Little Man’s attention. More sophisticated than board books and high on entertainment factor, these are my go-to books for bedtime, sick days or a weekend afternoon read with my son. Added bonus: they’re fun for grown-ups too, so I don’t get annoyed having to read them again… and again… and again.
Five Books for Toddlers
This book is so sharp, so well-crafted, that I use it as part of my opening lecture for teaching writing to adults as an example of a perfect character arc. In this book, author breaks the “fourth wall,” telling readers not to let the Pigeon drive the bus. The rest of the book is Pigeon begging and pleading to until he has a full-on melt-down. Why does it work so well for toddlers? As parents, we find ourselves having to say “no” a lot. This book allows us to flip the script, letting the kids be the ones to say “no” to Pigeon as he loses his cool.
Written by: Jane Yolen
Illustrated by: Mark Teague
Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have collaborated on several Dinosaur books, but this is one of my favorites. It’s often difficult for toddlers to express when they’re angry. They’re still too young to make sense of their emotions and small frustrations can often lead to massive melt-downs. In this book, Dinosaur learns to count to ten and stay calm when things don’t go his way.
By: Mike Curato
This is perhaps my favorite book on this list because of its simple elegance. Little Elliot is a small elephant who lives in a big city. Just like toddlers who might feel overwhelmed and lost in the big grown-up world, little Elliot deals with similar frustrations as a small elephant in a very big city. The illustrations are beautiful, the story is concise and so tightly written, yet overflows with emotion. Full-disclosure: every time I get to the part where Elliot meets Mouse, I tear up. Every. Single. Time.
By: Mo Willems
Mo Willems has definitely cornered the market on books for toddlers. Not only are his Pigeon books great, but the Knuffle Bunny series is priceless. In this book, Trixie and her daddy go to the laundromat and when they leave she can’t find her stuffed toy, Knuffle Bunny. Even worse, her daddy can’t seem to understand what’s wrong. I love the mix of photography and illustration, plus the story is one that any kid can relate to: losing a favorite toy.
By: David Weisner
My son literally squealed with joy when he unwrapped this book last Christmas. Not only is the cat on the cover the spitting image of our feline, Office Cat, but because this book doesn’t have many words, it’s a story that Little Man can read “by himself.” I love how the different languages (aliens vs. bugs) appear differently in the speech bubbles. I can almost hear what the characters are saying. The wordless format is great for toddlers because I can “read” a simpler version to him when he’s young, then make it more elaborate as he gets older. The story is quite sophisticated, though, so I suspect this book will continue being a favorite well into his elementary school years.
That about wraps it up: five books that have helped me entertain a screaming toddler on more than one occasion. Do you have any other go-to books for the toddler set? Please share in the comments. Seriously, I could use all the help I can get!