Toddlers are active, curious, busy little people, intensely engaged in learning about the world around them. Books help them make sense of what they see, hear, think, and feel. Still, there’s a vast gap between a one-year-old who’s just started to speak in short sentences, and a three-year-old who can recite the alphabet—possibly backwards. That means that the best books for this diverse group meet them where they are, but also encourage them to stretch their abilities, staying relevant as kids grow.
Toddlers like repetition, word play, and bold pictures, and since they have an innate sense of the ridiculous, any book that tickles their funny bones is sure to become an enduring favorite. Below, we’ve rounded up 36 both recent and tried-and-true books for toddlers, in eight categories.
1. What Are Stars Written and illustrated by Katie Daynes, Usborne Books, (2+)
Toddlers just beginning to notice the lights twinkling above their heads at night are filled with questions, which this lift-the-flap book provides answers for—at just the right level for them to grasp. $12, amazon.com.
2. Black Bird Yellow Sun Written and illustrated by Steve Light, Candlewick Press (0-3)
Deceptively simple, this book of colors will get your tot making up her own stories about what that black bird is up to in the green grass and under the purple grapes. $8, barnesandnoble.com.
3. Touch Think Learn: Vehicles Written and illustrated by Xavier Deneux, Chronicle Books (2-4)
The one-to-three-year-old-set will love exploring the outsides (and insides) of some of their favorite modes of transportation in this cool cutout book. $15, amazon.com.
4. Baby Goes to Market Written by Atinuke and illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, Candlewick Press (3-6)
Toddlers love stories about infants and relishing their own non-infant-ness, and they’ll delight in counting down the fruit that a hungry baby eats on an action-packed market trip. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
5. Alligators All Around Written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, HarperCollins (4-7)
Sendak’s family of alligators has been charming kids for generations, and this sturdy new board book edition stands up to tons of joyful, tooth-gnashing ABC practice. $8, barnesandnoble.com.
6. Roary the Lion Roars Too Loud Written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Alex G Griffiths, Little Simon (2-5)
Is any concept more frustrating for exuberant littles than the “inside voice?” Dyckman’s loud, small lion helps kids practice being their best selves…a tad more quietly. $9, amazon.com.
7. A Good Day for a Hat Written by T. Nat Fuller and illustrated by Rob Hodgson, Abrams Appleseed (3-5)
The exploits of a cheerful bear as he swaps out his hat to meet the ever-shifting weather are hilarious—but children also get the message about changing gear to suit rain, sun, and snow. $16, barnesandnoble.com.
8. Escargot Written by Dashka Slater and illustrated by Sydney Hanson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (4-6)
Kid lit’s most adorable snail will have tiny kids laughing, loving gastropods and working up to trying a despised vegetable all at the same time. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
9. Hello Hello Written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, Chronicle Books (3-6)
Some of the wildest, weirdest animals from around the world teach tykes about color, texture, pattern—and some opposites for good measure. $18, amazon.com.
10. From Head to Toe Written and illustrated by Eric Carle, HarperCollins (4-8)
What could be more fun than learning what the parts of your body can do as you wriggle, stomp, and clap alongside some jungle animal friends? $8, barnesandnoble.com.
11. Mon Petit Busy Day Written and illustrated by Annette Tamarkin, Little Simon (2-5)
There’s a ton for tots to lift, turn, and shift in this busy flap book overrun with ladybugs, matching pairs, and speeding animals. $15, barnesandnoble.com.
12. Say Zoop Written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet, Chronicle Books (3-5)
The latest interactive title by the French illustrator has readers touching, whispering, singing and pretending to be birds in a 2-D game that will never turn out the same way twice. $16, barnesandnoble.com.
13. This Book is Magic Written and illustrated by Ashley Evanson, Grosset & Dunlap (3-7)
Super-beginner magicians will feel oh-so-successful when they tap, rub, and incant over the pages to make unexpected things happen. $15, amazon.com.
14. Each Peach Pear Plum Written and illustrated by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Penguin Young Readers (1-3)
This book owes its enduring popularity to the fact that kids don’t just scan the detailed images to find characters from classic fairy tales—they also unearth a whole new, wordless story to talk about and expound on. $7, barnesandnoble.com.
15. Sheep 101 Written by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (4-8)
Counting sheep has never been so counter-productive, and every bedtime-procrastinating toddler will clamor to have this next-level silliness launch them towards sleep. $18, barnesandnoble.com.
16. Love You Forever Written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Sheila McGraw, Firefly Books (4+)
After days filled with adventure, lull a new generation of readers off to sleep with the pop-up version of this reassuring bedtime classic, sure to bring soothing dreams. $25, amazon.com.
17. The Going to Bed Book Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton, Little Simon (1-2)
Boynton’s goofy, loveable hippos and chickens are the perfect sleep-avoiding companions for your tiny night owl—and your child will let you know it, every single night. $6, barnesandnoble.com.
Feelings, and Feeling Different
18. Dad By My Side Written and illustrated by Soosh, Little Brown Books for Young Readers (4-8)
There’s nothing more comforting to the very small than a larger-than-life (but gentle) dad who can hug sadness away and expel monsters from under the bed. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
19. Jabari Jumps Written and illustrated by Gaia Cornwall, Candlewick Press (4-8)
Toddlers work hard to build new skills, and just when they’re ready to try them out, they realize they’re not ready at all. Your little ones will identify with the nervous protagonist of this story, and feel emboldened by his ultimate bravery. $16, barnesandnoble.com.
20. Wallpaper Written and illustrated by Thao Lam, Owlkids Books (4-7)
For shy boys and girls, meeting new friends is challenging. In this vividly collaged wordless book, assistance comes from an imaginary helper who shows young readers that the effort pays off. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
21. The Rabbit Listened Written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld, Penguin Young Readers Group (3-5)
A lot can go wrong in the very long day of a very small person. The message she’ll take away from this lovely, spare book: If she can find her words and use them, a good listener can make things better. $18, barnesandnoble.com.
22. Here, George! Written by Sandra Boynton and illustrated by George Booth, Little Simon (1-5)
This old dog has a secret he keeps from the family that loves him—and it makes him special! Repetition of scant words and Booth’s endearing line drawings set up a punch-line payoff guaranteed to cause shrieking and dancing with every re-read. $8, barnesandnoble.com.
23. The Carrot Seed Written by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Crockett Johnson, HarperCollins (4-8)
For over 70 years, Kraus and Johnson’s simple story and spare art have been showing tots that patience and optimism yield worthy results. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
24. Rufus: The Bat Who Loved Colors Written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, Phaidon Press (3-6)
A bat that likes colors is an unusual bat indeed, but the message he delivers to children struggling with fickle peers is that a true friend likes you because of your differences. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
25. Fantastic Flowers Written and illustrated by Susan Stockdale, Peachtree Publishers (2-6)
Wee ones will want to look long and close at these images of vividly colored and patterned flowers, to see what else is hidden among their petals. Backmatter details each exotic species, for when they want to learn more. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
26. Beautiful Birds Written and illustrated by Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker, Nobrow (3-7)
When tots are ready to take a break from the action, this eye-popping collection of exotic birds provides them with many minutes of deeply enriching quiet time. $20, barnesandnoble.com.
27. Jump, Leap, Count Sheep! Written and illustrated by Geraldo Valério, Owlkids Books (2-5)
Introduce kids to the members of an unusual menagerie of Canadian wildlife—and practice counting to 10, too. $17, barnesandnoble.com.
28. Baby Animals Playing Written and photographed by Suzi Eszterhas, Owlkids Books (3-6)
Up-close pictures of frolicking cubs and calves by an award-winning photographer are irresistible, and let children talk about the ways in which play is the same—or different—from one species to another. $15, amazon.com.
29. Waiting for Wings Written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert, HMH Books for Young Readers (4-7)
Ehlert’s classic collaged exploration of butterflies—from larvae to beautiful flyers—gets mini naturalists out searching for wonders in their own backyard. $13, amazon.com.
30. Grains of Sand Written and illustrated by Sibylle Delacroix, Owlkids Books (4-7)
Every child dreams of making summer vacation last forever and this clever book shows them how by using a handful of sand and their imaginations. $17, amazon.com.
31. This is Sadie Written by Sara O’Leary and illustrated by Julie Morstad, Tundra Books (3-7)
Bring the board book edition of this peek-at-a-girl-who-can-shape-shift-and-soar anywhere young readers need some inspiration to be their most creative selves. $18, barnesandnoble.com.
32. The Snowy Day Written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, Penguin Young Readers Group (3-5)
It doesn’t matter that it’s Spring; your tiny snow lover is already dreaming of all the fun she’ll have after the first Winter blizzard—and this favorite read will help her plan it while she waits. $18, barnesandnoble.com.
33. Animal Ark Written by Kwame Alexander, Mary Rand Hess, and Deanna Nikaido and photographed by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Society (4-8)
Tykes will get sucked in by this book’s stunning animal imagery, and play out the action Alexander describes in his engaging and poignant poetry. $16, barnesandnoble.com.
34. Summer Evening Written by Walter de la Mare and Illustrated by Carolina Rabei, Faber & Faber (0-5)
Spare in words, very young kids get an easy intro to poetry from this single verse by the British writer, as well as an idyllic look at farm life. $16, barnesandnoble.com.
35. Firefly July Selected by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, Candlewick Press (4-8)
Now available in paperback, these short poems about the seasons encourage children to sit still and savor—as much for the sounds of just-right words strung together as for the rich illustrations. $8, barnesandnoble.com.
36. Where the Sidewalk Ends Written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein, HarperCollins (4-8)
Even the tiniest children continue to be dazzled and delighted by the fanciful poems and hilarious sketches by the master of silliness—44 years after the work was first published. $19, barnesandnoble.com.