By the time my kids were two, even my favorite classic board books were starting to get a litttttttle old. Don’t get me wrong — I love Goodnight Moon, everything Eric Carle and Where the Wild Things Are as much as the next person (really, I do), but sometimes the best books for toddlers are the ones you haven’t read yet.
If you’re in a bit of a book rut with your tot, here are some fun, (at least somewhat) lesser-known books (from today and yesteryear) to get you back in your groove.
The Best Books for Toddlers
The Circus Ship, Chris Van Dusen — Small-town Original Pick
I may be biased (this is a local author/illustrator in my neck of the woods), but this is one of the most fun reads for toddlers, IMO. Based (very loosely) on a real story, this rhyming book with unbelievable illustrations tells the story of a troop of circus animals who swim to a nearby island after a shipwreck.
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, Oliver Jeffers — Green Pick
From the creator of The Day the Crayons Quit and Stuck, this book is a beautiful and sweet guide to being a human on a shared planet. Written to teach Jeffers’s own son about space, place and humanity, Here We Are is an elegantly simple introduction to the world around us with underlying messages of unity, grace, and diversity. (Pssst — Apple TV+ now has a short film adaptation, and it’s as sweet as the book!)
It’s Up To Us, Christopher Lloyd, with 33 illustrators from around the globe (!) — Green Pick #2
I love this book so much — it’s an absolutely gorgeous picture book that not only teaches children about the world around them (nature, plants, animals, people, etc.) but also introduces the science of climate change in an approachable way. With an uplifting message of change, an empowering display of diversity, and a beautiful array of different artistic styles, this is a real keeper. (Especially with its amazing illustrations, young toddlers will love this book, but the written content is probably best suited for the 4/5+ crowd.)
The Lion and the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney — Wordless Picture Book Pick
This wordless adaptation of one of Aesop’s fables depicts the unlikely friendship between a lion and a mouse on the African Serengeti. Features striking illustrations and vivid facial expressions, this is a fun book to talk through with little ones who like to piece things together on their own.
The Little Mermaid, Jerry Pinkney — A Beautiful & Welcome Retelling
This 2020 release from Jerry Pinkney is a beautiful and empowering retelling of the little mermaid that features a Black mermaid, Melody, as the adventurous and bold main character, and puts friendship — rather than puppy love — at the center of the table.
Julian is a Mermaid, Jessica Love — Defying Gender Norms Pick
This magical book tells the story of Julian, a young boy who desires to transform himself into a mermaid. Love’s illustrations are a beautiful showcase of racial and generational diversity, and the story itself is an imaginative challenge to traditional gender conventions. Love this!
Elephant and Piggie books, Mo Willems — Series Pick
The Elephant and Piggie stories from renowned illustrator Mo Willems are universally fun and silly read-alouds with littles. Gerald the elephant and his friend Piggie are such lovable characters, and each story has simple but teachable moments that help young children learn about friendship, overcoming adversity, kindness, and creativity. Your toddler (and you) will definitely LOL with these. (Plus, at ~$9 for 5 books, the “biggie” book collection is a great value!) PS: Mo Willems’s Pigeon books are another huge hit…
It’s Okay To Be Different, Todd Parr — For Learning About Diversity
This brightly-colored book subtly introduces children to important topics like racial diversity, adoption, and disability rights. A favorite among early childhood educators, this book’s messages of inclusivity, diversity and acceptance make it a wonderful read (and source of conversation starters) for littles. *See also: The Family Book, also by Todd Parr, and Love Makes a Family, by Sophie Beer.
The Very Cranky Bear, Nick Bland — For Learning About Emotions
This funny, rhyming book about a bear who brings out all the grump after he’s awakened from hibernation by four unsuspecting animals never fails to crack kids up. With big, expressive illustrations, it’s also a great teaching tool for talking about emotions — plus the storyline highlights the importance of kindness, listening, and empathy.
Story Boat, Kyo Maclear, illus. Rashin Kheiriyeh — A Book About Refugees & Migration
This timely book about a family of refugees who are forced to migrate is important, evocative, and hopeful; critics have hailed Story Boat as a gentle gateway into the refugee experience (and crisis) for young children.
The Napping House, Audrey Wood, illus. Don Wood — A Book About Waking Up for Sleepy-heads
This lovable story about a big pile of snoozing people and animals who eventually wake one another up is so fun to read while snuggling. With it’s quietly rising color tones, we love it for rainy days, post-nap time, or in the mornings.
The Lorax, Dr. Seuss — Green Pick, classic edition
This classic Dr. Seuss book about one creature’s determination to save and then restore a natural resource and landscape feels so timely right now. Like any Seuss story, it’s a fun read, and it’s steeped in environmentalist values like preservation, kindness, empathy, and generosity. [Also: there’s this.]
PSA: As many of you may know, Dr. Seuss’s legacy has recently been called into question after Seuss Enterprises pulled six of his titles from publication for including racist character depictions. I remember learning about Dr. Seuss’s complicated history — including his numerous racist political cartoons during the WWII era — while I was in grad school; and I personally think it’s important to be aware of. As most editorials note, Seuss himself was a liberal progressive, and much of his body of work was ahead of its time — but it is impossible to ignore the racism present in his artwork (nor should we).
For some, Seuss’s reliance on stereotyped caricatures to portray people of color is grounds to avoid his works altogether; for others, the important lessons that books like The Lorax, The Sneeches, or Horton Hears a Who! teach young people are no less valid. For two interesting and differing editorial perspectives on this, read here and here.
The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler — For Kids with Big Imaginations
Kids love this rhyming book about a clever mouse who invents his intimidating “gruffalo” friend to scare off would-be predators. Spoiler alert: the mouse is in for a big surprise.
The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, Paul Goble — A Gorgeous Story About Horses & Freedom
This lyrical book about a young Native American girl’s love and care for her horses reads like a poem paired with gorgeous illustrations.
Giraffes Can’t Dance, Giles Andreae — A Fun, Inspirational Read
This book about a passionate dancing giraffe named Gerald will make you smile after even the toughest of days. It’s fun and lighthearted while also instilling confidence and teaching children that they can dance to their own tune.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury — A Book for Active Listeners
This favorite story about a family who spends the day trekking all over the place in search of a bear takes children on a mini-tour through different weather and types of terrain, and children love to act it out along the way.
Circle, Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen — A Whimsical Pick
The beloved finale in the shapes trilogy (which also features Triangle and Square), Circle teaches basic shapes and helps demonstrate for young children that staying calm and thinking things through usually goes a long way.
The Book With No Pictures, BJ Novak (yes, the author is Ryan from “The Office”) — It’s a book with no pictures, folks… superlative-in-title
This hilarious and unique publication turns the standard picture storybook upside down by dialing up the audio engagement — WAY UP. We like that it teaches kids that words are important parts of any story. For kids, this amounts to a completely different “reading” experience. And parents, prepare for the silly, playful, and inane.
More best books for toddlers — recommendations from readers:
The Pout-Pout Fish, Deborah Diesen, illus. Dan Hanna
A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Philip C. Stead, illus. Erin E. Stead
When a Bear Bakes a Cake, Jasper Tomkins
Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold
Jamberry, Bruce Degen
Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed, Emily Pearson, illus. Fumi Kosaka
Dragons Love Tacos, Adam Rubin, illus. Daniel Salmieri
Goodnight Tractor, Michelle Robinson, illus. Nick East
The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf, illus. Robert Lawson
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Judi Barrett, illus. Ronald Barrett
Do you have other books to add to the “best books for toddlers” list? Let us know!