Reading to young children is a pleasure for Mary, who needs to streamline her home library but will never part with the best board books
Hands down, books are my absolute favorite baby gift. There's something so special and intimate about passing along a special board book that you read, in some cases millions of times, to your own kids when they were babies. Little ones can have too many toys, too many personalized blankets (as cute as those are). . . but to my mind, never too many good books.
The 10 Best Board Books to Start With
Choosing 10 favorite board books for this page was tough. There are so many wonderful, enduring works for babies and toddlers (lucky them!). But after much fussing and fretting, I finally pared my list down to 10 beautiful books that should be tucked into the diaper bags, stacked on the bookshelves, and (let's face it) on occasion mashed between the curious little teeth of every boy and girl under 3.
1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
I can't decide what I love most about this awesome book. Eric Carle's vibrant collages, with that memorable payoff at the end? The world's cutest counting lesson? The way Carle has singlehandedly taught generations of children, years before their first science class, how caterpillars become butterflies? Or do I just love the way that little critter packs away the food? (Can't we all relate? It's like Thanksgiving dinner! Except we humans don't have the impending-metamorphosis excuse ;) ) I'm sure there are even toddlers who've upped their fruit and veggie intake because of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This book rules! There's even a waterproof version out now that I wish we'd had for bathtime. And while I generally don't love the way children's books get turned into a million toys, stuffed animals, nursery decor, apparel and the like, I have to admit Eric Carle's work looks great on just about everything—so if your child gets hooked on this book, you'll have aesthetically pleasing, book-related gift ideas to pass on come Christmas and birthday time. My firstborn's colorful caterpillar toy earned top-tier status the second that Carle book took root in his sweet baby heart.
2. Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown
Arguably the best-known board book ever, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown—who, by the way, was quite a fascinating person—gets more props than this pick. (And if the Goodnight Moon book is truly your jam, check out an interesting "everyone's a critic" side story here. And the new Goodnight Moon Milestone Edition board book, with themed milestone cards to photograph your baby with as they reach each one.)
But it's her Big Red Barn that really grabbed my kids. Gentle and rhythmic, it builds a lot of learning (animals and their sounds, colors, relative sizes, and more) into a sweet slice of farm life. This was one of the first books my children began seeking out and "reading" on their own, as toddlers. I never got tired of reading it to them, either. And isn't that the mark of an awesome board book?
Note: Along with this one and The Runaway Bunny (see below), there's Brown's Good Day, Good Night board book that was just published in 2019. Taken together, this trio of books proves beyond a doubt that she's a master at providing high-quality reading for babies.
3. Time for Bed by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer
This may not be the best-known bedtime story out there, but I'm not its only fan: the Daily Telegraph named it one of its 100 all-time best children's books. Ease a reluctant toddler into bed with these gorgeous watercolor paintings of baby animals cuddling with their parents. From sheep to snakes, critters are shown safe and secure in their habitats, ready to nod off. The rhyme scheme by Fox, a beloved children's author from Australia, is simple and soothing, like a lullaby. Sweet dreams! (Note: For the 3- to 5-year old set, Fox and her Time for Bed illustrator, Jane Dyer, recently reunited after 26 years to publish the wonderful Roly Poly, about handling the arrival of an unsolicited younger sibling. Dyer's artwork, centered on needle-felted wool bears in various scenes, is a perfect pairing with Fox's sensitive, charming and frankly helpful story.)
4. The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and Jan Brett
At dinner recently with close relatives, we realized that although our kids have all outgrown board books (some by many years), all the adults at the table could recite this quirky-classic Edward Lear poem from 1871 in its entirety. Why? Jan Brett's delightful Caribbean-style illustrations made the rhymes sing for our kids—and us parents—when they were little. Everything this brilliant children's artist does is worth collecting: The Mitten is a stone-cold winter classic and, along with her The Hat and Gingerbread Baby board books makes an ideal Christmas gift, in the form of the three-in-one gem Jan Brett's Little Library. But if you're not familiar with Jan Brett books, The Owl and the Pussycat is a great place to start.
5. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
For a child, there's nothing like waking up to find the world blanketed in silvery white snow—a feeling captured perfectly in this 1963 Caldecott winner by Ezra Jack Keats. The plot is simple and timeless: A little boy wanders in the snow, making footprints and angels, and tries to save a piece of the experience in the form of a snowball. It all makes you pine for the days before scheduled playdates and extracurriculars, when kids could meander and explore. I love Keats's classy, playful mixed-media illustrations so much I once bought a pack of notecards featuring them—and promptly used them all up for teacher thank-yous and congratulatory notes to new parents. The fact that this was a groundbreaking book in terms of racial representation only enhances its beauty. If—fingers crossed—The Snowy Day gets your family hooked on Ezra Jack Keats, check out his wonderful Whistle for Willie board book as well. And a beautiful hardcover, Keats's Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury, collects the Brooklyn native's most celebrated stories in a good-value gift for young children who have just graduated from the board book stage.
6. The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
I don't know what the psychologists think about this classic book: Is Margaret Wise Brown playing apologist here for overprotective, controlling moms? Nah. It's just an incredibly poetic depiction of how strong the bonds of love are between parent and child—and how those are "portable." A little bunny teases and tests his mama with "what if" scenarios about running away. She responds with one imaginative comeback after another. I especially love the idea, illustrated beautifully, that if the bunny turns himself into a bird, mom will become a tree for him to fly home to. This is one of the best baby board books for making a little one feel safe, secure and oh so loved. That earns it a top bedtime story books spot on the list.
7. Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
It's closing time at the zoo in this near-wordless tale. The zookeeper locks up and is promptly pickpocketed by a mischievous young gorilla, who uses the keys to free his animal pals one by one. They all quietly follow the zookeeper home, and in the best one-page intro to the critical skill of inferencing -- an underrated early literacy element -- that a 2-year-old will ever get, the zookeeper's wife discovers they've joined the couple in bed. The boldly colored illustrations are great, and kids will love finding recurring elements in each (the little mouse, the pink balloon). My oldest son got this as a gift from one of his aunts, and it quickly became a favorite.
8. The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss
The colors are spare, the drawings simple. What makes this book a must is its message: Have faith. Keep trying. Believe in yourself. In this Ruth Krauss classic, a little boy plants a carrot seed that nobody else believes will come up. Reading this, you kinda want to punch those naysayers in the nose, but none of it matters when, in a thrilling climax for little listeners, a gargantuan carrot pops up to reward our hero's efforts. So there! :-) For a family with a preschooler who likes to help out in the yard -- or who could be inspired to develop such an interest -- it would make such a cute gift to bundle this book with a pair of gardening gloves for kids and a packet of carrot seeds, or whatever kind of veggie seeds are most likely to take hold in their particular part of the country. Tip: Don't miss another charming classic by Krauss, A Hole is To Dig, featuring early drawings by Maurice Sendak.
Read More From Wehavekids
9. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
Another masterpiece in illustration from Eric Carle (subject of—how fun is this? a new "play-and-learn exhibit" that travels from town to town), here's a book that's inspired a thousand preschool art projects. Colorful tissue-collage characters nudge readers through a sweet, simple story that incorporates rhyming, colors, and animal identification. After a few readings, wee ones will love predicting which creature is coming up next. Also fun for a memory game—how many can they recite in sequence, without looking? (Be forewarned, your 2-year-old will probably beat you at this game!)
I've never met a toddler who didn't love this book or its equally fun companion, Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? (Another of my favorite Eric Carle books and, like Brown Bear, a co-write with Bill Martin Jr. Hooray for collaboration!) If you're looking for Spanish board books, Oso pardo, oso pardo, ¿qué ves ahí? is, happily, among the collection of classics available.
10. Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss
Parenting (or teaching) little kids, there are days when you just want to cross the finish line and collapse into bed. What happened—you wonder, scraping pureed peas off the wall—to that relaxed, playful parent you'd hoped to be? Prescription: a little no-holds-barred nonsense. And who else but Dr. Seuss to deliver it? While it doesn't sit atop the list of bestselling children's books of all time like the author's Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, the story of multi-talented Mr. Brown can imitate not merely a mooing cow, but a frying egg, a squeaky shoe, a gum-chewing hippo, a smooching goldfish. And so can you, when you read this splendidly silly book—referred to simply as "Brown Can Moo" by my eldest, at board-book age—to your kids. Ham it up! You'll feel much better. Gift tip: The Little Green Box of Bright and Early Board Books, for under 10 bucks as of early 2021, is a great deal and includes mini versions of Mr. Brown along with Fox in Socks, There's a Wocket in my Pocket!, and Dr. Seuss's ABC.
(Note: I made this best board books list before the Dr. Seuss controversy that emerged in spring 2021—go here for info if you were resting under a rock and missed it—but have to admit to some relief at not seeing Mr. Brown on the "don't reprint" list.)
What's Your Fave?
Bonus Top 10 Reasons to Read to a Baby
If reading stories to babies seems a bit thankless at times—yes, they often want to chew on a book rather than listening—keep these benefits in mind:
- It boosts vocabulary. (The more stories you read aloud, the more words a child will be exposed to.)
- It teaches about communication.
- It builds listening skills, attention, and memory.
- It introduces early learning concepts (numbers, letters, colors, shapes) in a fun way.
- Reading stories to babies encourages independent reading down the road: Kids who are read to in their early years are more likely to read themselves, at the appropriate time.
- It can soothe nerves and decrease stress (both yours and the baby's).
- It promotes social and emotional development, as baby hears you using different emotions and expressive sounds in reading aloud.
- It gives little ones information about the world around them, from homes like theirs to the zoo, the circus, a jungle, a farm...
- It sparks an enjoyment of art, through illustrations using a variety of media.
- Best of all: It makes a connection between books and the things your baby loves most—your voice, and the feeling of being close to you.
(Adapted in part from "Reading Books to Babies" at kidshealth.org)
Reading to Babies in the Womb
Whether you choose from this best board books for babies list or go for some other reading material, some studies suggest that reading to babies in the womb—especially in the third trimester—could deliver benefits to both baby and parent-to-be. (I have to admit, I didn't do any of this during my pregnancies. But now that I've learned about it, I kind of wish I did!) Here are some good tips on the hows and whys of reading aloud before delivery day. (Spoiler alert: The benefits are less about future IQ scores and academic achievement, more about emotional health and bonding—in other words, the best kinds of benefits.)
Board Books Are Not Just For Babies
Think twice before putting your family's favorite board books into deep storage after the kids have passed through their infant/toddler stage. They can be excellent sources of reading for preschool children who are inspired to learn to read before kindergarten (not that that is mandatory, typical, or part of any school's checklist for kindergarten readiness—but it does sometimes happen).
Sources and Further Reading
From Cleveland Clinic: Rationale for why it's never too early—or too late! to start reading to babies
From Zero to Three: An ages and stages guide to reading for babies
From Scientific American: Specific advice on which types of stories are best for reading with babies, for maximum benefit
From Psychology Today: A writeup on recent research to help parents and other caregivers choose the best board books for babies, including the importance of reading quality, not just quantity, and the age at which babies begin to hear stories
For a homeschool preschool curriculum around board books (and other books), check out the preschool printables from this homeschooling mom of 7 who loves Brown Bear, Brown Bear as much as I do :)
And if you'll allow one more Margaret Wise Brown profile—and are up for some possibly big surprises about this complex and visionary writer—here's a brand-new piece to enjoy.
Want to keep up with the latest and greatest in kids' lit for the littlest listeners? Kirkus Reviews is a great source. (Idea: For end of year teacher gifts in preschool and beyond, give copies of your kids' favorite books. Virtually all teachers want to expand their classroom library, and this can become a family tradition each year, with kids inscribing a signature and, as their writing skills develop, a brief message to teacher on the inside cover.)
I love the trend toward high-quality interactive books for toddlers, and this New York Times article showcases five good picks.
Ready to part with some gently used board books? Look for a nonprofit organization in your area (like Bernie's Book Bank for Chicagoland) that gets children's books to kids in need. Not sure where to donate books? Here's an interactive map of organizations nationwide that accept them. Also reach out to preschools in your community, as they might welcome your donations--especially in areas where teachers often dip into their own limited funds to build a classroom library.
Finally, create a custom board book for your little one through shops like this one or this one. What wonderful end of year teacher gifts these could be, too! When visiting or volunteering in the preschool classroom, for instance, take a few photos (with the teacher's permission, of course) and then craft a simple story about daily routines. Voila, a wonderful addition to the classroom library that can help ease new students into their preschool community.
Yard sale fans find the best board books! Opinions vary on how to clean these before handing them over to your child (Clorox wipes deemed safe for baby toys get many votes), but my preference would be to wipe down each page with a 70% rubbing alchohol wipe or paper towel sprayed with rubbing alcohol. It's an effective disinfectant but dries quickly enough that it shouldn't damage the book's cover and pages as much as, say, a bleach-and-water solution might. Be sure to separate pages for drying.
Have I included the board books most special to you and your family? Or have I left off a masterpiece?
© 2009 Mary
Please share your favorite board books...
MeInABook on November 11, 2013:
I think another great addition to your lens would be a place where we could all vote for our favorites. it would be interesting to see which ones juggle for the top 5 spots over time.
MeInABook on November 11, 2013:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a favorite in our house. Lots of great books here. Our kids used to cliimb up in our laps for a great story. I think reading to them a lot as a kid really helped them develop a love of reading. One of the best programs I've seen lately is the one at helptoread.net. A great phonics program plus reading to them constantly really hooks them in . Thanks for the great lens!
rooshoo on November 08, 2012:
Eric Carle is great. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is my favorite.
anonymous on August 01, 2012:
Lots of fond memories. Thanks for sharing.
intermarks on July 30, 2012:
I bought the book Mr Brown Can moo for my son, and he liked it so much.
antoniow on June 19, 2012:
Very nice lens, well done! squidlike
alex89 lm on April 02, 2012:
The Owl and the Pussycat was always my favorite. Thank you, this is fantastic!
smithlights on December 15, 2011:
I think Sandra Boynton writes my favorite board books. But your list is great too. Thanks!
nsixx99 on November 30, 2011:
Brown Bear, Brown Bear is an absolute favorite in our house. I love board books because my son is so hard on everything, thanks for the list.
Mary (author) from Chicago area on November 30, 2011:
@victoriuh: much still hasn't been done, but you may need to drill down on topics .... for instance, try crafting a 5 best board book list about farms - or cars -- or ballerinas .... you get the idea :) welcome to Squidoo -- it's a lot of fun!
victoriuh on November 29, 2011:
Lol, I just did a top 5 board books lens myself. I am new here and starting to realize almost everything has been done. You have three of my family's favorites in your list too. I agree that books are the best gifts!
Mary (author) from Chicago area on November 12, 2011:
@anonymous: thx for the heads-up! this confused me. but then I figured out that Amazon is now auto-listing (on pages like this one) the lowest price available thru its sellers for a new copy of each item. this would be fine, except that the sellers charge 3.99 shipping, so in reality, if you're ordering $25+ total in merch. and qualifying for free shipping, the "higher" Amazon price is often your best bet. for my book purchases, I do the math on this each time. it takes a minute, but you do save $ over time thru these calculations.
some of the most popular board books (e.g. Big Red Barn) might be cheaper at Walmart. otherwise, I think Amazon's pricing is competitive, whether thru its sellers or the regular prices. unfortunately it's hard to find the best board books under $6 - $7.
anonymous on November 12, 2011:
Not one of these books were the price indicated on the list. Each one is several dollars more per book than what squidoo.com shows as amazon price. Pretty disappointing ....
pats21wju1 on August 30, 2011:
Great lens! Really enjoyed the list of top Board Books!
Ruthi on July 12, 2011:
I agree, books are the best gift for wee ones. I also like to give puzzles.
anonymous on June 20, 2011:
Nice lens.Hands down, books are favorite baby gift. Thanks for sharing. strategic planning software
Shelly Sellers from Midwest U.S.A. on May 09, 2011:
Oh, I must say Eric Carle's books are some of the best ever! Great page and some of the books are new to me.
Nany Palacio on May 05, 2011:
Great squidoo lens! thanks for share this valuable information
anonymous on April 02, 2011:
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA+++++++++++++++. Nice Squid Lens. Chris
pacrapacma lm on March 15, 2011:
You've included some great books! I'm adding a link to this lens on my recent LOTD Reading Starts at Home lens in a plexo of Good Books for Children from other lensmasters. If you don't see it right away, check back. I might be still working on the plexo.
pacrapacma lm on March 15, 2011:
@anonymous: If a person looks for only the books with super saver shipping, there will be no cost for shipping. Linking to Amazon also gives a great way to see reviews of books. Buying through Amazon is only one option. I personally LOVE the extra information that Amazon gives to a shopper.
Mary (author) from Chicago area on February 23, 2011:
@anonymous: We are lucky to have a local independent bookstore in our small town; many do not, and the closest thing they have is a large chain like Barnes & Noble. Not sure I see a difference between those chains & Amazon. Our local store, while charming, also has quite a limited selection of board books -- probably fewer than half my top-10 list is represented there. I personally love Amazon and take advantage of the free shipping for $25+ by combining products in one order. But for just one book, you're right -- the shipping is probably not worth it.
Thanks for the visit!
anonymous on February 23, 2011:
Great list of books. I'm disappointed you let this site act as a springboard to Amazon. The prices listed are deceptive because they do not include shipping. Children's board books are inexpensive - go to your local, independent bookstore to buy books and teach your children the value of supporting a business that supports the community they live in.
lemonsqueezy lm on February 11, 2011:
You have selected 10 very good books. "The Carrot Seed" is an oldie but goodie that I still need to get for our home collection. *blessed*
anonymous on November 25, 2010:
Great lens. I love the illustration at the top of the page of the Owl and the Cat.
poutine on October 01, 2010:
Excellent choice. Not easy to keep it to 10.
poutine on October 01, 2010:
Excellent choice. Not easy to keep it to 10.
eridqua on September 10, 2010:
Certainly tough to narrow it down to a top ten! The Sandra Boynton books are some of our family's favorites.
Linda Hoxie from Idaho on April 27, 2010:
These look like a great selection of childrens books, well chosen! :)
Delia on February 13, 2010:
very cute lens...5*...I always "make" a book and illustrate and write as the baby being the subject, I make a foldout flower with the babies photo in it...they are a big hit.
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on December 07, 2009:
I just stopped by to wish you, and those who surround you with love, a very merry holiday season. Many blessings in the New Year.
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on November 28, 2009:
These are all wonderful!!! My son still has his copy of The Runaway Bunny, Mr Brown Can Moo, Can You and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. My daughter loved Goodnight Moon. She still quotes that book! Great Lens, Wonderful books!!!
Anahid LM on November 27, 2009:
Hi: I read the sumaries of your board books, I want to get something for my grandaughters, I gave you 5 stars and I will lens roll ,great work. thanks Anna
writergirl2911 on October 24, 2009:
Enjoyed seeing the books you included on your list. I agree - it is tough to narrow it down. I added your lens to mine - it's my first and is a list of 11 toddler books my little girl had chosen as her favorites (at least right now) :) Feel free to stop by and let me know what you think if you get a moment: http://www.squidoo.com/toddlerboardbooks
anonymous on October 20, 2009:
Hi! It's nice to find another books for babies' lens! Hope you can visit my lens:Books For Babies!
oztoo lm on October 07, 2009:
What a great collection. I can see why it was so hard to choose a top10 selection. 5*****
Tom Fattes from Naperville, IL on October 06, 2009:
Great selection of books. Lensrolling to my Eric Carle lens.
seashell2 on October 06, 2009:
Awesome selection you've chosen here! I loved the Owl and the PussyCat! Fun books!
LindaBee LM on October 06, 2009:
A great selection of books. I will be reading many of them to my granddaughter.
Holley Web on October 05, 2009:
I actually still have Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? from childhood! It was one of my favorites and was excited to see it here! This is wonderful! What a great collection of books for children. Makes me glad I stopped in :)
Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on October 05, 2009:
Good job! you used one of my ideas in your bonus, but I had already decided to do something else. Some of my favorite board books were on your list. I think the Carrot Seed is my favorite.
Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on October 05, 2009:
Dianne Loomos on October 05, 2009:
You've chosen some really great books here. Brings back a lot of memories!
WindyWintersHubs from Vancouver Island, BC on October 05, 2009:
Wonderful! Great Ideas for Gifts and Everyday! :)
myraggededge on October 05, 2009:
Aw... they are lovely. There's something special about board books. I can even remember my own from forty....er..something years ago!
Heather Burns from Wexford, Ireland on October 05, 2009:
Oh my gosh, how delightful! Several of these are my faves too. I will be sending some to Lily. Thank you so much for your cheerleading of my lens about her too! Beautiful lens!
Treasures By Brenda from Canada on October 05, 2009:
Beautiful, you've managed to include many of our favorite books on your list...the difference being that they weren't available as board books when my guys were little! Blessed.