Books that Sing

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Nancy Stewart, a local kids’ musician (check out her work and her upcoming show schedule at

On her Sing with Our Kids website, she has created a song library ( which includes lyrics and .mp3 audio recordings of lots of great traditional kid songs. This site is great for everyone, but I imagine this would be an especially useful resource to parents who have moved to the U.S. from other countries, and want to become familiar with those songs that “everybody knows” that always seem to get sung at library story-times and other places families gather. [Note: I also have lots of song lyrics here.]

Nancy Stewart has been doing a lot of work in 2012-13, in partnership with the Mercer Island library and Island Books, to explore benefits of music, and ways in which singing can be used to enhance early learning and literacy skills. She has lots of great information on her Sing with Our Kids website. What I think is especially unique and special is her “bookshelf” page (

She has collected lists of recommended books that fit into four categories. Here are the categories, benefits of sharing these types of books with kids, and my personal experience with my almost-three-year-old son Ben. [Note: If you click on the links below, they will take you to Amazon, where you can read details and reviews about the books. You can then get them from your local library. If you decide to buy them from Amazon after clicking on my link, I will get a small portion of the proceeds – this helps support my work here….]

Books Based on Traditional Songs and Books Based on Original Songs. These are picture books which illustrate traditional songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Old MacDonald’s Farm, and The Wheels on the Bus, or original songs like Baby Beluga and Puff, the Magic Dragon. Some books contain ONLY the familiar words, some add additional verses, like a The Bear Went Over the Mountain that adds verses about the five senses and the four seasons. Some add a whole new (and entertaining) twist to a known song, like I Know a Shy Fellow who Swallowed a Cello.

Children get excited when they realize that a book contains words that they already know, and enjoy seeing illustrations that go along with the song – creating beautiful new images that can play in their head anytime they hear that song. These books also help with a key reading skill: “Print awareness” is about noticing print, and understanding how those marks on a page are associated with the sounds that they hear and say. When a book contains the familiar words of a well-known song, and you sing it through while pointing to the words, the association becomes clear.

My son knows the song “Five Little Ducks” very well – we have lots of rubber duckies, so we sing it in the bathtub all the time. (As a side note: this song is a fabulous tool for teaching: counting in reverse, subtraction, and the concept of zero.) We checked out from the library two different book versions of the song, and he loves to “read” them. Because he already knows the words of the song, and he can tell by the pictures what part of the song is represented on each page (4 little ducks came back…) he can flip through the book, telling it himself, which he’s very excited about. And the books divide up the verses on the pages differently, so he’s had to learn two different systems for when to turn the page. It’s really reinforced his awareness of how books work.

Picture Books with a Song in the Story. These are stories where a song is woven into the storyline, and repeats throughout the book. As you read through the story, each time you sing the song, your child will tune in more closely to your reading, and soon start humming along or singing along. Being able to predict what will happen is a very empowering thing for a young child – they rarely know what’s happening next, so there’s great joy in knowing! There are also countless books that feature repetition of a similar phrase, or a refrain that comes up again, such as Jump Frog Jump and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? The repetition and learning of a song or refrain also helps to develop your child’s memory.

One of our family’s favorite books is Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. At the beginning of the book, a mother sings a lullaby to her baby, then her baby grows and grows into a challenging toddler, and she sings it again, and again when he’s a child, a teenager, and an adult. We then see him sing the song to his own baby, and then to his dying mother. My son knows the melody and will hum along with it when we read the book, but he prefers the funny parts of the story (like where the toddler flushes things down the toilet!). My girls, who are 16 and 20, still remember the book from their childhood, and could sing the song to you if you asked. Now, they certainly memorized other books from their childhood, but the ones with the repeating refrains are definitely the best early memory builders.

Books with a Beat. While they’re not necessarily songs, some books are written with such a strong rhyme scheme and rhythm, it’s impossible to read them without getting into the sing-songy rhythm. As Nancy Stewart says “Rhythm is the foundation of music and language. [These books] help build a sense of rhythm with lots of repetition of words, phrases, sounds and sentences…. They draw children into the rhythm of oral language.” These help children to recognize rhymes, which can make it easier to grasp word families when starting to read (once you read pig, it’s easy to figure out big, wig, dig). They begin to recognize words when the same word is used repeatedly on a page, which then lays the foundation for figuring out what the other words are that fit around that one. And these books are FUN, which means kids may want to read them over and over again, and easy to memorize.

My family loves Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin. It goes through the alphabet, beginning “A told B and B told C, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree. Whee said D to E F G – I’ll beat you to the top of the coconut tree.” The rhythm is infectious, and due to the alphabetical order and the musicality of it, I memorized it after just a few readings with my daughters, and could still repeat it word for word for my son many years later. Ben also loves it and has memorized the whole thing and will recite it word for word. Remember, he’s not yet three years old! He likes to look through the book, and point out each of the letters in the book, which has helped reinforce his knowledge of letters, it’s also helped him with learning alphabetical order. Sometimes he’ll play with his magnet letters on the fridge and work on putting them in order while he says the words of the story. By the way, if you like Chicka Chicka, check out the videos on YouTube. LOTS of people have created a pretty wide variety of videos – some professional looking, some not so much, but most are very enjoyable. But there is one awful one where the narrator seems to have missed the rhythm of the book completely – I don’t know how you could not hear the rhythm in the words, but apparently it’s possible!

If you’re looking for some books that pair a great traditional song with beautiful illustrations, and have a lovely animated video version of the book, check out Barefoot Books YouTube channel. I recommend Over in the Meadow, Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush, and If You’re Happy and You Know It.

5 thoughts on “Books that Sing

  1. Pingback: How to Read to a Child | Bellevue Toddlers

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