I have been a parent educator for almost 20 years (and a parent for 23). These are some of my favorite toddler books, guaranteed to appeal to children from age 1 to 3. (For tips on early literacy, check out how to read to a child, how to get a child excited about reading, and activities that build literacy skills.)
Best collection: The 20th-Century Children’s Book Treasury: Picture Books and Stories to Read Aloud is a collection of some fabulous stories! If you want one book to take on a trip, or one book to keep at Grandma’s house, this is it! It includes such things as Goodnight Moon, Madeline, Freight Train, Mike Mulligan and the starred books below.
10 Rubber Duckies by Winburn is a great count-down book to sing/read, where you start with 10 rubber ducks, and one-by-one they fall in to the tub. Great for number learning.
A Is for Angry: An Animal and Adjective Alphabet by Boynton. Great Boynton pictures and lots of fun dramatic reading: “L is for LOUD lion!! O is for outraged opossum.” Also good for teaching adjectives about feelings and behaviors.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Love the predictable rhythm of this book. Kids love being able to predict what will appear on the next page.
The Cat in the Hat. There are lots of great Dr. Seuss books, but this is our family’s favorite. When you’ve read it many times, start asking your child to predict the lines:
Say “the sun did not….” and your child will shout “shine!”
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.* Rollicking rhythm – such fun. Helps with memorizing the order of the alphabet. Be sure to get the full version, not Chicka Chicka ABC, which is shortened. Easy to memorize and recite.
Dear Zoo. A fun lift the flap book about all the ridiculous things a zoo might send before realizing that the best pet for a child might be a puppy. Your child can practice animal sounds when you lift each flap. (Animal sounds may be one of the first “right answers” your child learns – before they can speak many words at all, they can answer the question “what noise does a _____ make” and they feel so smart when they know!
Good Night, Gorilla*. This is an outstanding example of a wordless book – where you make up the story as you read it – it’s good practice for a child to learn how to interpret pictures.
Llama Llama Mad at Mama. Cute book, which also shows a child throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store and how the mother responds in the moment and also makes better plans for future trips.
Love You Forever. I gotta say – you either love this book or hate it. The haters find it weird and creepy that the mother watches over her adult child “like a stalker”. I take that part as more metaphor… What I see in this book is an incredibly sweet testimony to how the love of a parent remains just as strong as her child goes through all the developmental stages that carry him away from allowing her to expres that love as openly. It makes me cry every time. (Note: make up your own tune for the lullaby – it’s sweeter to sing it than read it.
The Monster Bed. One of the obscure books on this list, but oh so good! Fun rhyming rhythm, fun story – I’ve never had a kid who is afraid of monsters under the bed (maybe because I read this story to them so many times!), but this might be a useful if you did.
Old MacDonald’s Farm (Poke-A-Dot!). I would never have thought I would recommend a gimmicky book like this one – where you poke at these little plastic dots and they “pop.” But, this is a fabulous book for teaching one-to-one correspondence in counting. They can pop each bubble only once, counting as they go, and can see if they miss one. The fact that it’s a familiar song also makes it enjoyable.
Owl Babies. Best story for preparing a child for starting preschool or any other event that you worry might cause separation anxiety. This is also a great book for teaching emotional literacy – read it with drama as the owls get progressively worried about when / if mama will come back, and then the pure joy when she does.
The Stephen Cartwright 123. This was sold through Usborne books, but you can sometimes find used copies via Amazon and other booksellers. My favorite counting book of all time. Great rhyme and rhythm for reading aloud, and LOTS of details to reward repeat readings. For example, on the number 7 page, there’s seven of everything… 7 characters, 7 windows, 7 vases, and more items to count. At the bottom of each page, there’s a picture of all the characters we’ve met so far so you can review who’s who. On each page, there’s a hidden rubber duck to search for. Also has a British flair.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Introduces the life cycle of the caterpillar / butterfly, and does a nice job of building the story of the days of his life as he eats and grows. Again, very memorizable. Memorizing is a fabulous life skill to have, which is becoming less common in the Information Age…
Where the Wild Things Are*. Children love to take risks of various sorts. At some point, most children dream of running away to somewhere they’re in charge and make all the rules. This book makes that fantasy come true, and then ends with the child choosing to return home. It’s a nice wish fulfillment exercise for kids.
Winnie-the-Pooh*. These stories are much longer than most other stories you read to toddlers, but they are so sweet and gentle that it works, and it gives your child experience with listening to and following a longer story.
For advice on almost every topic related to parenting a child from age 1 to 5, just click on the links in the right-hand side bar. Especially be sure to check out the Fun With Toddlers series, which includes songs, book recommendations, activities and crafts all tied in to particular themes, and the Cheap Dates with Toddlers series – some of these are specific to the Seattle area, but many are available anywhere you live.
Note: If you click on any of the links to books above, it will take you to Amazon to learn more. You can buy them there (I receive a percentage of the proceeds – this helps support my work here) or I actually recommend getting them from your local library! When my youngest was three-years-old, we only owned 10 – 15 favorite books we read over and over again, but we also went to the library at least once a week and get 10 – 15 new books, which kept me entertained as well as broadening his horizons and establishing the tradition that the library is one of the coolest places to go.