Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reading with Your Child: Toddler X's Top Picks for a Wonderful Early Library

There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all. 
– Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis  
I don't know if I was born with an innate love of reading, or if the countless hours spent reading with my parents as a child created it in me, but one thing is certain: from my earliest years, I loved words, I loved language, and I loved to read. As I entered school, it became clear that literature, writing and language arts would be my best subjects; in college, I majored in English, and in law school and my legal practice, reading (at that point, research) and writing were my strongest suits.

But through the hundreds of books, the thousands of pages, I've read as an adult, no books have touched me as deeply or stayed as thoroughly ingrained in my heart and mind as those I read when I was a child.

When I found out that I was expecting Toddler X, one of the first things I did was begin amassing a library for him. I searched on Amazon and in used book stores for my childhood favorites, and began seeking out new books that would become our own favorites. Well before he arrived, his first bookshelves were already well-stocked.

Here are our big "hits" of the past year and a half (say, 15 months onward) -- the books that have helped Toddler X form a habit of reading, and have made it one of his needs. Some are great literature (in a toddler sense); others are just great fun. But all of them come with a heartfelt recommendation from the X Family. We hope you and your toddler enjoy many hours of reading as well!

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Our "I Love You" Books

While most of this list won't fall into any particular category, I do want to share our concept of "I love you" books. From about 18-24 months (and sometimes still today), Toddler X had a tendency to choose bedtime reading that wasn't particularly nurturing and cozy (Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, for example), while I still had that vision of reading quiet, sweet books to my dreamy toddler. I came up with the idea of "I love you" books as a solution to this disconnect. Toddler X would get to choose whatever books he liked for our primary bedtime reading, but the last book before bed had to be one from a list of my choices that really lent themselves to a soft, calming voice and a cuddly position. He got his books; I got my snuggles, and always sent him off to bed with the confidence that he felt adored.

Here are the special books on our "I Love You" list:

You Are My I Love You: I distinctly recall picking up this book off a table at the Barnes & Noble on Stevens Creek, drawn perhaps by the cover, perhaps by the title, while Toddler X played at the train table nearby. "I am your parent; you are my child. I am your quiet place; you are my wild." The cadence and the beautiful illustrations got me immediately, and by the time I reached the last page, I had tears in my eyes. Needless to say, this book came home with us that day, and has been a favorite ever since. The entire book perfectly sums up parenthood to me, and the last two lines just bring it all home. I now give this as a baby gift to all my friends who are first time parents; if you don't have it already, I highly recommend that you pick this one up.

I Love You, Stinky Face. While the previous book is an earnest reflection on parental love, I Love You, Stinky Face takes a more lighthearted route -- with sweet, hilarious results. In reading this, you have to put some emotion into it -- "But mama, but mama" -- and your toddler will fall in love, as mine has. The illustrations are, again, funny and memorable, and the images indelible. This was one of the first books that Toddler X memorized portions of because they're just so funny and sweet. This is one book I'm happy to read again and again.

Guess How Much I Love You. I'm guessing most readers already have this book -- it's a classic, and for good reason. Yet another book about a parent's love for his child -- this is the "I love you book" section of my list, after all -- everyone enjoys hearing Big Nutbrown Hair "one up" all of Little Nutbrown Hair's proclamations of love. Toddler X wasn't a huge fan of this book when he was younger, but now that I figured out that he likes to be bounced as the rabbits bounce, have his arms stretched as the rabbits stretch theirs, and have his feet lifted toward the sky when Little Nutbrown Hair does, this has become a favorite for both of us. The last line of this book is one of my favorite lines in children's literature.

I Love You Through And Through. This was a gift from Grandma X to Toddler X, and while it's not as much a beautiful story as the preceding books, it's a very sweet, toddler-friendly love book. This was one of Toddler X's favorites at maybe 15-20 months -- he loved watching and asking about the Teddy Bear's reactions to the little boy's behavior on each page. It's also a fun book for working on body parts -- Toddler X liked identifying his "top side" and "bottom side". :)

Thank You Bear. I love this book. It was another great bookstore find -- the darling illustration on the front caught my eye, and the simple, lovely storyline pulled me straight through to the end. While this book isn't a declaration of love like our previous "I love you books", it's a story of friendship and kindness, and it's peaceful and beautiful. This was another one that Toddler X memorized early -- he loved the responses from each of the animals Bear interacts with, and would repeat them in the exact voice I used for each. Highly recommend.

On the Night You Were Born. This book is just beautiful -- the wording, the sentiment, the elegant illustrations and the images it leaves us with. Toddler X was not into this book at all for a very long time, but I kept trying because I love it so much, and one day -- ta dah! He's interested in the bears dancing, the moon staying out until dawn, the geese flying home. I'm so glad my perseverance paid off because I feel so warm and grateful reading this to him just before bedtime -- and with the final words being, "You are loved", there really couldn't be a better "I love you book" to finish off a toddler's day.

Hug Talk about a sweet, simple book that anyone can relate to -- who hasn't needed a hug when one was nowhere to be found? While it's heartbreaking to watch this little monkey search for his favorite hugging partner (one guess who that might be!), the resolution at the end brings tears to my eyes every time. Toddler X and I do "Mommy!...Bobo!" fairly frequently before giving each other a big hug, so clearly the book is resonating. :)

Snuggle Puppy. Definitely the most energetic, rollicking (if you make it that way) selection from my "I love you books" list, Snuggle Puppy is just pure fun to read with your toddler. Make the song up to whatever tune you like -- if it works for you and your little one, you'll know it's right. "Snuggle puppy" is now one of my many names for Toddler X, thanks to this happy little board book.

Goodnight Moon. And yes, the ultimate in bedtime books makes the "I love you book" cut -- it's peaceful and calming, and though it's not a profession of love, mom or dad can definitely make her or his love felt when reading it. It's fun to look at the details of each picture with your toddler and to watch the moon rise from page to page. I can recite this book from memory, which is a good sign that it's been a very special book for my toddler and me. I'm guessing you already own it, but if not, it's something to add to a younger toddler's collection (an older toddler, reading it for the first time, might not appreciate it).

The Books I Loved as a Child

As I mentioned above, my parents read to me a lot when I was young, and I have many wonderful memories of those books -- my mom's Grover voice reading The Monster at the End of this Book, for example, or my dad and I assuming the roles of the great detectives, Sam Cat and Dudley Pig, in our day-to-day lives (to this day, my dad calls me Sammy as often as he calls me my real name). I'm so excited to share my childhood favorites with Toddler X. Here are the ones we have been enjoying:

Richard Scarry's Best First Book Ever! This might be Toddler X's single favorite book, and it was one of my own favorites as a kid. While this book does have a storyline -- following the Cat Family and their pal, Lowly Worm, as they go about their day -- the fun is all in the details. Each page has dozens and dozens of points of interest, all labeled with a word -- words for different parts of the house, the body, the town. Words for school and playground and the grocer. Words for colors and numbers and all sorts of other things. It's fascinating to see what your toddler gravitates to -- Toddler X loves the kitchen page, the tiny segment of one page where they show paints mixing to become a different color, the nursery rhymes, and the months of the year at the end. He could -- heck, he has -- read this book a hundred times. Though it's large, we find this to be a great book to take on planes or to restaurants -- just spotting all the fun items on one page could take your toddler ten minutes. If you don't have this book already, I highly recommend it.
Frog and Toad Storybook Treasury. Another childhood favorite of mine, I actually brought this book home from my parents' house one afternoon to read to Toddler X, and it never went back. He loves this book, and I enjoy reading it to him. The stories are short and easy for a toddler to understand, with concepts and actions that will make sense to them (older toddlers, at least) and lessons about friendship and generosity. Some day, I imagine Toddler X will use this to start reading, but for right now, it's plenty fun for me to read it to him.

Corduroy. Wow! As I write this list, I'm realizing that almost all of Toddler X's favorite books -- and ours to read together -- really are the books of my own childhood! Corduroy and its sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy, were two of my favorite stories when I was young, and two books that I was eager to get for Toddler X. I can still distinctly recall my mom's "Corduroy voice" when reading these books to me, and I hope that 30 years down the line, Toddler X will remember the same thing. (Funny note: less than twelve hours after I typed this, my mom came over to watch Toddler X, and I walked into the living room to find her reading Corduroy to him -- and her voice as she read, "I guess I always wanted to climb a mountain!" was exactly as I remembered.)

Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Mr. X and I both remember Cars and Trucks from our own childhoods, and this was an early addition to Toddler X's library. This book, like the other Richard Scarry books that make my list, offers a great opportunity for toddlers to figure out what they are interested in, rather than just having to follow a specific story and related illustrations. There might be a silly pickle car and a crazy alligator car drawing your attention on a given page, but your toddler might just be fascinated by the four little mice in a miniature yellow bus. Cool! While the book does have a storyline about the Pig Family's outing, for the most part it's just a free-for-all of fun identification and discussion with your toddler. We have read this book a zillion times (and there are a lot of pages...you may just find yourself "unintentionally" turning four or five together to try to get through it), but it's still fun. And a cool tip that any of you who grew up with this book probably know: your little buddy Goldbug -- you'll meet him early on -- can be found on every page of the book. Happy searching!

Make Way for Ducklings. Oh boy, do I love this book, and am I glad to have an excuse to read it often! This, too, was a favorite from my childhood, and I distinctly recall the first time I read it as a mother, when Toddler X was just a few months old -- I had tears pouring from my eyes as the proud Mrs. Mallard led her line of ducklings through Boston to the Public Garden. Maybe it was hormones, maybe it was my new perspective as a mother, but this story suddenly became richer for me as I read it to my own child. If you haven't read Make Way for Ducklings since you were a kid, it's time to revisit this classic.

Harry the Dirty Dog and No Roses for Harry!, Harry, the white dog with black spots who is the star of this series of books, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I remember the delight of Harry's family discovering that the strange dog in the yard is Harry in the former, and the amusing discovery of what happened to Grandma's hand-knit sweater in the latter, as clear episodes in my own childhood. It makes me so happy to see Toddler X enjoying those very same parts. There are more Harry books out there, but these are the two I know and love.

The Monster at the End of This Book. Reading this book with my mom is truly one of my fondest childhood memories -- she had a perfect Grover voice, and I made her use it again and again and again. Now it's apparently time for payback, as Toddler X would happily listen to this story ten times in a row -- and yes, he wants my Grover voice every time. Hopefully, in the future, his memories of these Grover-infused story times will be as positive as mine are.

Richard Scarry's The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries. I couldn't include my sweet memories of reading Grover with my mom, and not include the equally special memories of reading about the exploits of Sam Cat and Dudley Pig, the great detectives, with my dad. When I was a very young child, I insisted that we assume those roles in our day to day outings, and my dad still recalls the strange looks people would give him when I'd walk up to him in public and say, "Hey Dudley, we have a mystery!" Indeed, as I mentioned above, I am, and always will be, Sam Cat to him, and reading the Great Pie Robbery and the Great Supermarket Mystery (both of which are included in this volume) was what started it all. We bought this book for Toddler X as soon as he was able to sit through longer stories -- unlike some other Richard Scarry books, this one is story-based -- and he absolutely loves it.

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile Storybook Treasury. I can't believe I almost left my beloved Lyle off the list! This book delighted me as a child, and after reading it to Toddler X for the first time last week, I was pleased to find that it still delights me now! The Primm family and their pleasant and sophisticated reptilian friend are just hilarious, and the name of Lyle's former "boss" -- Hector P. Valente, Star of Stage and Screen! -- is so catchy that it's stuck with me since childhood. If you like the older style of children's writing, definitely add Lyle to your library.

Dandelion. This book is adorable, and was one of my/my mom's bedtime favorites when I was little. Poor Dandelion -- all he wants to do is impress a pretty girl, and he makes an awful mess of it. It's a great lesson in accepting yourself as you are, and remembering that true friends will do the same.

Books I Recently Discovered
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I can't believe that I'm putting this first. A few months ago, I would've said that this book was really annoying, and that I didn't understand all the fuss. Toddler X and I tried reading this in his early toddler months, and neither of us enjoyed it. But fortunately we tried again, because wow, is it ever a hit at 2 1/2! Toddler X loves the "baby letters" (lower case) and their race up the coconut tree, and he especially loves their emergence from the pileup in the middle (skinned knees, stubbed toes, loose teeth and all). And I have to say, I'm starting to enjoy reading it as well. There's a reason this is such a popular book -- if it's not speaking to you now, give it a few months and try again. You might be surprised.

One Drowsy Dragon. This has been a favorite of ours for well over a year now. I put it down for a few months -- hey, even the most devoted parent needs a break! -- but we picked it up tonight at bedtime, and it's as much as hit as ever. The frustrations of the poor title dragon are hilariously stated and hilariously illustrated, with great sounds effects on every page -- parents, you must do all the sound effects! A great book that not many people have heard of.

I Ain't Gonna Paint No More! Like Chicka Chicka, this is a book I didn't love the first time I read it (maybe I just don't have the beat?), but as I've watched Toddler X's enjoyment of the pictures and the words -- particularly the critical "What?!?" -- I've started to love it too. If you can get past the (intentionally) bad grammar and get into the rhythm, you'll really enjoy this book -- the illustrations are amazing.

How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? We are loving the "How Do Dinosaurs..." series of books, and this one is our favorite. The darling illustrations of dinosaurs (with some pretty extravagant names!) and their proud human parents, plus the fun cadence of the text, make these books a joy to read. We also have How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs? and How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You?, and there are over a dozen other offerings in the series, which presumably follow a similar format (asking if dinosaurs undertake actions, express emotions or perform chores in a less than desirable way, then explaining that, in fact, they perform perfectly). Super cute series, and if your toddler is doing something like starting school, feeling ill, clashing with the cat, etc., these might be a good tool for pointing him or her in the right direction.

Good Night, Gorilla. A funny, charming book that toddlers and parents alike will enjoy, and one that Toddler X always want to read after a visit to the zoo. I read this to my niece when she was young, and when I found out I was expecting my own child, I knew I had to add this to his library. It's simple and cute, and toddlers love following along with the night watchman as he bids goodnight to the animals, all the while knowing something that he doesn't know.

Nursery Rhymes: Well-Loved Verses to Share. Toddler X really enjoys hearing and learning nursery rhymes, and this is by far the best book I've found. Its adorable cover and pages are thick and well-made, and feature fun illustrations of classic rhymes with raised details and accents. The little ribbon that ties the book closed is a nice finishing touch. All our favorite rhymes are in here, as well as some bizarro ones I'd never heard of before. If you're looking for a pleasant book of rhymes to teach your toddler, this is a great one.

Name That Dog! This cute and clever book was an unexpected hit with Toddler X -- I bought it without reading it, several months before he was even born, and when I finally glanced inside, I thought the fun poems would be way over his head for several years. Not so! He loves them, and so do I. There are poems and dog names for every letter of the alphabet, with a cute breed illustration for each (Rex, the Saint Bernard, is my personal favorite; Toddler X's is YoYo, the Boykin Spaniel). The poems are of all different styles, from haiku to sonnets, and all are pretty smart. If yours is a "dog family," this is a fun book to have.

Waddle! Unlike all the books listed above, the storyline isn't the main draw with Waddle -- it's just a basic little rhyme about the movements of some animals. No, the big deal here is actually the "Scanimation" pictures that accompany the rhyme -- with the turning of a page, you see animals, in color, scamper, jump, flap and yes, waddle. It's a pretty cool "technology" that toddlers get a kick out of -- and yours, like mine, will no doubt love the last page. A fun alternative if your toddler isn't really into the story aspect of books yet, but might be interested in the neat moving pictures

Little Blue Truck, Awww...who doesn't love the Little Blue Truck, with his cheerful "Beep!" and herd of animal friends? This was one of the key books in our transition from Toddler X not liking to read, to completely loving it. The rhymes and animal sounds in this book are cute and fun, especially for young toddlers, and the "moral of the story" is an easy one to explain. The cadence bugs me at a few points -- I feel like changing a few words around could make it so much easier on the tongue -- but overall, this book is a joy. I do NOT recommend the sequel, Little Blue Truck Leads the Way. I thought it was a complete failure, in rhyme and storyline, compared to the original, and actually gave my copy away.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear. Another big "Awww" for this sweet book and its unusual perspective of the narrator talking to the mousey protagonist. This book has been in our rotation for well over a year now, and we still enjoy it whenever it comes out. It has also provided us with a great technique to get Toddler X to try a new food that he's not enthusiastic about -- I just divide it between us and say, "Cut it in two, share half with me...and we'll both eat it all up. Yum!" Without fail, as soon as I eat mine, his goes in the mouth as well. Useful trick derived from a very cute book. (We also have Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear!, which is pretty cute as well and would be a fun holiday present.)

Jamberry. All members of the X Family love to read this delightful book, with its joyful rhyme scheme, fun made-up words and darling illustrations, in which you discover new features and subtleties each time you look. This is another one that Toddler X memorized early -- how can you not want to commit phrases like "Boomberry, Zoomberry, Rockets shoot by!" to memory? -- and still enjoys over a year after our first reading. An absolute favorite of ours.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.Our whole family enjoys this book, which traces the labor negotiations between some hard-working (and typing) cows and the farmer that owns them, with Duck serving as a "neutral party." Toddlers love repeating "Click, clack, moo...Clickety, clack, moo" on each page, and the book's finale is great. We also love -- maybe even more -- another book in the series, Giggle, Giggle, Quack -- it's hilarious. However, it looks like Giggle, Giggle, Quack may not be available independently on Amazon. There's a boxed set that includes Giggle, Giggle, Quack; Click, Clack, Moo; and Dooby Dooby Moo, and while I haven't read that third one, I imagine it's a joy too.

Press Here. This is one of the coolest books I've ever seen -- just totally unique. I don't want to give away the "story" to those who haven't read it, so I'll just let you know that it's lots of fun, and if you don't want to read it again and again and again, don't say the last line to your toddler. :) Toddler X loves this one, and so do his parents.

Where Is the Green Sheep? I picked up this book because I thought the cover was cute (yes, I admittedly do judge books that way -- initially, at least), and I was so happy to find that the story and illustrations inside matched the promise of the front. It's a fun, rhyming search for the green sheep, with stops at all the opposite (or sort of opposite) sheep on the way. The illustrations are really cute and Toddler X likes listening to it (and filling in "the ______ sheep" on each page) as much as I enjoy reading it. A great board book to pick up.

(Almost) Anything by Sandra Boynton


Like most toddler families, we have a dozen Sandra Boynton board books, all filled with the adorable animal illustrations and amusing text that are her trademarks. Toddler X loves all of them, but I personally don't get too excited about reading Doggies or A to Z for the millionth time (I need a story of sorts!). Here are my top picks from her many offerings:
There are also some great Sandra Boynton gift boxes that include several of the books -- this set and this setseem to have the best selections.

Books for Younger Toddlers
Depending on your young toddler's degree of wiggliness, he or she may not be ready to sit still for an actual story at this point. Toddler X's favorites in the days when his attention span was limited included the Sandra Boynton books above, as well as the following:

The That's Not My... Series of Books


Toddler X loved these sweet "touchy-feely" books by Usborne, particularly That's Not My Train and That's Not My Bunny, when he was just starting to take an interest in books. I wouldn't buy these for a 2 1/2 year old, but for a 12-15 month old, these are fun starter books. If you're interested in these, check out my friend Karen's page -- she's an Usborne consultant, and can help you find the books that are just right for your toddler.

The If I Were... Series of Books

Similar to the Usborne books above, the If I Were books offer younger toddlers fun tactile sensations in a very cute, very compact package. The notable difference between these and the Usborne books (aside from the presence of a tail on these ones) is that the If I Were books are produced by Jellycat, the maker of the softest, floppiest stuffed animals around, and are written to coordinate with the stuffed animals. We got several gifts of book/stuffed animal pairs when Toddler X was a baby (hippo, duck, puppy, bunny), most of which have sadly rotated out of production by now. You can see the current offerings by taking a look at the If I Were a Cow... link. Again, these are great for young toddlers, not 2 year olds.

The Spot Books


Spot was one of Toddler X's favorite characters in his early toddler months, with Where's Spot? probably being his favorite book (and boy, did he maul that one -- I don't think there's a lift-up flap that hadn't been "lifted" entirely off the page by the time he was 18 months). Spot is easy for a toddler to love, and these books have sweet, simple stories that appeal to younger children.

Our other Spot favorites include Good Night, Spot and Spot Loves His Mommy, but there are a dozen other ones you can choose from by following those links.

The Five Little Monkeys Books

Another set of books we enjoyed when Toddler X was a younger Toddler X was the Five Little Monkeys series. These were never my favorites to read, and the stories don't give you much to work with, but man, do kids ever love them! Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and Five Little Monkeys Jump in the Bath were our favorites, but there are plenty more to choose from.

The Cleo Books


These are probably my favorite of the young toddler genre, and could definitely be read with older toddlers as well. They feature a darling kitten, Cleo, on her sweet, kittenish escapades. The illustrations are adorable, and the rhymes are easy and fun to read. These are books that any toddler would enjoy, particularly if you have a cat in your family. Our favorite is Come Here, Cleo!, but there are plenty of others.

Slightly More Grown-Up Books Worth Buying

One and Zero. These are two incredible books. I had the very good fortune to meet the author, and to hear her read and explain the inspiration behind her works to a group of students, a couple of years ago, and both One and her subsequent Zero really stayed with me. With the most simple of illustrations and storylines, they teach children about standing up to bullies, respecting themselves and their friends, appreciating the uniqueness of each person, and working together to create a greater whole.
I added my signed copies to Toddler X's bookshelf before he was born, not expecting to read them together until perhaps grade school, but when I pulled One out earlier this year, he was entranced by the bright colors and numbers, and these are now two of his most requested books at bedtime. I definitely recommend these for any family's reading list -- the lessons will become far more meaningful as your children grow older.

I Want My Hat Back. This has to be one of the more amusing -- to adults -- children's books ever written. I was actually standing at Barnes & Noble, holding this book, when I went into labor with Toddler X. A year later, at a reception at Hicklebee's, I shared that story with the author, Jon Klassen, and received a book inscribed to Toddler X, with the note: "The book that started it all." Anyhow, this story is all around hilarious -- your kids will like it because they think they understand the poor bear, woefully looking for his missing hat; the adults will laugh out loud when they see where the story is going.

The sequel -- This Is Not My Hat -- is very similar and equally funny. It, too, will go right over the kids' heads, in a good sort of way.

So there you have it: some of Toddler X's (and my) favorite books. Amazingly, this isn't even the full list of the books we read frequently -- we have a lot of Dr. Seuss and other favorites in the mix as well -- but these are most of our top picks. If you have any questions about these, or need a specific recommendation, I'd be happy to help.

And I'd love to know -- what favorites of yours aren't on the list? I'm happy to create a section with my readers' picks as well.

Happy reading!


  1. "Cows in the Kitchen" by June Crebbin (great for 2-3 year old)

  2. Thanks for all the great recommendations! And flashbacks to my childhood (Richard Scarry and Grover were my go-to's!) A recent favorite of my daughter's are all the Pigeon books by Mo Willems.

  3. Thanks, Mark and Teresa! I'll add those in.

  4. I love your list so much - thank you for sharing your favourites. I would suggest to your devoted fans getting some books by Julia Donaldson - every English toddler has 'The Gruffalo', 'The Gruffalo's Child', 'The Smartest Giant in Town' etc. on their bookshelves, but she's less well known in the US. However, most libraries do stock her best sellers.

    1. Heather, several readers have mentioned Julia Donaldson. I'll need to add her books to our library!

  5. Just so you realise how popular you are pretty much every book on your list has been checked out of Sunnyvale Public Library. One book has 10 holds on it already!!!

    1. How funny! It may just be because they're wonderful books. :)

  6. What is the name of the book (baby moods) featured in the picture?


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