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Best Books for Toddlers

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

Circus Ship toddler book

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. 

circus ship book

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, Oliver Jeffers — Green Pick

here we are book

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+ also has a short film adaptation, and it’s as sweet as the book!)

here we are hard book

It’s Up To Us, Christopher Lloyd, with 33 illustrators from around the globe (!) — Green Pick #2

its up to us book

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.)

its up to us uplifting book
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The Lion and the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney — Wordless Picture Book Pick

the lion and the mouse picture book

This wordless adaptation of one of Aesop’s fables depicts the unlikely friendship between a lion and a mouse on the African Serengeti. Featuring 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. 

lion childrens book

The Little Mermaid, Jerry Pinkney — A Beautiful & Welcome Retelling

Best Books for Toddlers the little mermaid

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.

little mermaid great book
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Elephant and Piggie books, Mo Willems — Series Pick

Mo Willems Elephant and Piggie childrens book

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…

Best Books for Toddlers elephant and piggy

It’s Okay To Be Different, Todd Parr — For Learning About Diversity

it's okay to be different

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; Love Makes a Family, by Sophie Beer; Bodies Are Cool, by Tyler Feder; and our complete list of children’s books that celebrate diversity and activism.

its ok to be book
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The Very Cranky Bear, Nick Bland — For Learning About Emotions

very cranky bear toddler book

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. 

Best Books for Toddlers Bland

Story Boat, Kyo Maclear, illus. Rashin Kheiriyeh — A Book About Refugees & Migration

Best Books for Toddlers story boat

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.

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The Napping House, Audrey Wood, illus. Don Wood — A Book About Waking Up for Sleepy-heads

Best Books for Toddlers the napping house

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 its quietly rising color tones, we love it for rainy days, post-nap time, or in the mornings.

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The Lorax, Dr. Seuss — Green Pick, classic edition

Best Books for Toddlers the lorax

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

Best Books for Toddlers the gruffalo

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

Best Books for Toddlers the girl who loved wild horses

This lyrical book about a young Native American girl’s love and care for her horses reads like a poem paired with gorgeous illustrations.

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Giraffes Can’t Dance, Giles Andreae, illus. Guy Parker-Rees — A Fun, Inspirational Read

Best Books for Toddlers giraffes can't dance

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.

Best Books for Toddlers inspirational

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury — A Book for Active Listeners

Best Books for Toddlers bear hunt

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

Best Books for Toddlers circle

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

Best Books for Toddlers the book with no pictures

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. 

Best Books for Toddlers no pictures

More best books for toddlers — there are SO many!:

The Different Dragon, Jennifer Bryan, illus. Danamarle Hosler

Tomatoes for Neela, Padma Lakshmi, illus. Juana Martinez-Neal

The Path, Bob Staake

All Bears Need Love, Tanya Valentine, illus. Adam Taylor

Dude!, Aaron Reynolds, illus. Dan Santat

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!

See also: Best Board Books.

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