Building the Ultimate Home Library:
Baby and Toddler
There are SO many amazing picture books intended for children from birth to age five. Some have heartwarming or funny stories; others have stunning illustrations. The best have both.
Still, how do you decide what's worth adding to your home library—knowing that your bookshelf space and book budget are limited—or even searching for at your local library?
The list that follows represents Part 1 of my top 100 picks for building a home library for young children. These are the books that I could not live without—as a children's book lover and children's librarian. Of course, most of us aren't able to go right out and buy 50 books at a time, but these are great options to check out from your library or put on your child's birthday or holiday wishlist while you slowly fill your bookshelves.
My list includes a lot of classics and quite a few stories that my contemporaries (shout out to my other 1980s babies) will remember fondly. But, of course, thousands of wonderful books are being published every year, and I've made sure to include some standouts from recent years as well.
The list is not organized in order of my love for the book. It is divided into three basic age groups (baby, toddler, preschool) and then alphabetized by title within those groups. That doesn't mean your children won't still love a book when they're older or be ready to read a book before they've reached a certain age. The age divisions are just meant as a very general outline (and, honestly, a lot of the books here could have fallen onto either the baby or toddler list depending on the reading experience you have in mind—I read Brown Bear with my four-month-old all the time).
I hope you discover some new titles, are reminded of some old favorites, and feel inspired to build your little one's library. And don't forget to check back next week for all my preschool picks!
Singing to your baby is fundamental to early literacy, so a book that you can either sing or read together is a great first choice. This is a personal favorite. I love the song “Baby Beluga,” and Ashley Wolff's gentle illustrations of the "little white whale on the go" are the perfect complement to Raffi’s lyrics. A number of Raffi’s other most beloved songs have also been made into board books, but if Raffi isn’t a favorite of yours, try some of Jane Cabrera’s colorful takes on classic tunes like Row, Row, Row Your Boat and If You’re Happy and You Know It.
Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Award winner John Steptoe captures the essence of so many sibling relationships in his classic Baby Says. With minimal text and compelling illustrations, he tells the story of a baby who is determined to capture his older brother's attention—even though his brother just wants to be left to play in peace. This is a satisfying story for both older and younger siblings.
For the first couple of months of their lives, babies have poor color vision. However, they do see and respond to bold black-and-white images and patterns, which help to stimulate the optic nerve. With this in mind, Tana Hoban created a range of board books filled with this type of image. My favorite, Black & White, features simple, high-contrast black-and-white images in an accordion format that allows the book to stand on its own, making it perfect for tummy time.
"I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet. They sent me a . . ." This brilliantly simple lift-the-flap book begs for child interaction, and it might even be one of the first books your little ones memorize as they grow up. This is one of those books that can transition from baby to toddler to preschooler with ease. Children love guessing which animals the zoo has sent and why they may not make the best pets.
5. The Everything Book (2000) by Denise Fleming
As its name implies, this book is filled with everything—rhymes, color and shape words, and even a counting game. Denise Fleming's characteristic colorful, textured art makes each page a delight to look at for babies and adults alike.
Babies love to look at pictures of other babies, and this book is chock-full of babies. Marla Frazee is a favorite illustrator of mine, and her depictions of diverse babies and families are a perfect complement to Susan Meyers's gentle rhyming text.
This is a simple, colorful story about a train moving down the tracks. Donald Crews's text is spare and elegant, as are his illustrations, which earned him a Caldecott Honor. This is a perfect book for babies and toddlers who are fascinated with vehicles of all kinds, especially trains.
This beloved near-wordless picture book follows a zookeeper as he says goodnight to the animals in the zoo. A naughty gorilla follows behind, making mischief as he goes. Narrate the story with your child, look at the pictures, and wait for the giggles.
9. Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
This is a perennial favorite for babies. That's because it is a simple, relaxing bedtime story with colorful, attractive illustrations. The Runaway Bunny is another comforting classic by Margaret Wise Brown.
This is just one of many beloved board books by Sandra Boynton—I could have picked any of them for this list! Her catchy rhymes and silly animal characters are always favorites among young children. Some of my other picks by Boynton are The Belly Button Book and Snuggle Puppy.
This is the original touch-and-feel book. Little ones love touch-and-feel books—books that include textured materials and other interactive elements. I remember being fascinated with Pat the Bunny as a young child, and it continues to capture the attention of babies today.
With simple rhyming text and die-cut pages, this board book is a favorite for babies and toddlers, who can peer through the die-cut "windows" to guess the identity of the hidden creatures. The illustrations are vibrant and eye-catching.
Babies from around the globe are united despite their differences by the fact that they all have ten little fingers and ten little toes. Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury are a dynamic duo: the rhyming text is simple but memorable, and the watercolor illustrations are just fantastic.
Parents and children of all species get ready for bed in this quiet, comforting story. This is, in my opinion, the perfect bedtime book for children of all ages. The rhyming text is soothing, and the illustrations are lovely.
Every home library should have at least one collection of Mother Goose rhymes. Rhymes appeal to babies and young children, and Mother Goose has stood the test of time for a reason. This is my favorite Mother Goose collection because I adore the art of Tomie DePaola. The (VERY) abbreviated Tomie's Little Mother Goose is a nice board book adaptation, but just beware that you'll be getting 16 pages of rhymes as opposed to the original 128.
Karen Katz (like Sandra Boynton) is the queen of baby board books. In this popular title, lift the flaps with your child to find and identify some of Baby's body parts. Other favorites by Katz include Counting Kisses, Peek-a-Baby, and Zoom, Zoom, Baby.
17. Where’s Spot? (1980) by Eric Hill
In this classic lift-the-flap book, help Spot's mama look for him in different hiding spots around their house. This is the first in the series of books about the iconic yellow dog.
You may already have Brown Bear in your library, but just in case you don't. . . . This classic book has gorgeous, colorful animal illustrations by the king of children's book illustration, Eric Carle. The predictable, repeated sentence patterns are a delight to young children, who are able to join in the reading experience. Prepare yourself to read this book (and the other similar titles by this duo—Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?)—over and over again.
19. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989) by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert
From the author who brought you Brown Bear, here is an alphabet book that is much more interesting than your typical ABCs title. The memorable rhymes and letter antics are so much fun that you will happily read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom over and over again. Plus, Lois Ehlert is a genius when it comes to colorful, simple collage illustrations.
Mr. Horse invites his barnyard friends to take a ride on his back. They want to go faster and faster, but will they be able to stay on? With simple text, evocative language ("clippety-clop"), and humorous illustrations, this book is always a hit with the toddler crowd.
In this first title in the series, Gossie, a little yellow gosling, loses her favorite red boots and searches everywhere for them. The Gossie books use simple text, bright and charming illustrations, and a small square format that make them a favorite for babies and toddlers.
In this nearly wordless picture book, a mother duck searches for her missing duckling. Observant young readers will follow the missing duckling's progress along each page. The illustrations are colorful and engaging.
After making a terrible mess, a young boy assures the reader over and over again that he "ain't gonna paint no more." I adore this book, from its silly rhymes to its colorful, boisterous illustrations. I have always preferred to sing the words (try it—it's lots of fun). The best part is that the rhymes allow young listeners to guess which body part the messy little artist will paint next. I have used this in storytime more times than I can count—always to rave reviews.
A rabbit and a mouse grow a beautiful vegetable garden, but when a group of birds comes to have a snack, will the rabbit and mouse choose selfishness or kindness? The text of this story is spare but elegant, and the pictures are quite simply incredible. Kadir Nelson’s cast of animals is realistically painted yet hilarious, their emotions clearly telegraphed on their evocative faces. This is a modern-day classic.
25. Is Your Mama a Llama? (1989) by Deborah Guarino, illustrated by Steven Kellogg
A little llama surveys his friends to find out who their mamas are. The rhyming text turns this book into a guessing game for little ones. Can they listen to the clues, look at the darling pictures by Steven Kellogg, and fill in the missing rhymes?
26. I Went Walking (1989) by Sue Williams, illustrated by Julie Vivas
There's a touch of Brown Bear in I Went Walking, but this book still stands out in terms of quality. The question-and-response text, charming illustrations, and opportunities for children to guess the next animal to join the bunch make this title a winner.
When a little truck gets stuck in the mud while lending a hand, all his animal friends rally around to help get him unstuck. Animal sounds? A friendly truck? This is toddler gold. Add to it surprisingly catchy rhymes and charming pictures, and it's no shock that Little Blue Truck and its sequels have become so popular.
It might seem a little silly at first glance, but this first Llama Llama book is actually a touching story about the bedtime ritual, separation from parents, and the fears that whole process can unearth in little ones. The warm, often funny rhyming text and sweet illustrations of mother and child llama make this a comforting bedtime favorite. There is also an amazing Llama Llama song that you can find on YouTube if you'd like to sing along to the story.
In three very short stories, adults share their love with the babies in their lives. These stories capture the warm, comfortable relationships between three babies and their father, grandmother, and mother—which are only magnified by Vera Williams's colorful painted illustrations. This is a book that is filled with joy in its text and images.
Celebrated for their vibrant collage illustrations, all of Lois Ehlert's books are a feast for the senses. Planting a Rainbow follows a mother and child as they plant bulbs, order seeds, and purchase seedlings, resulting in a colorful flower garden (with all the plants helpfully labeled). The concluding pages are graduated (each slightly longer than the one before it), revealing the flowers in the garden in each rainbow hue.
A little girl and her father begin their nightly countdown to bedtime with “ten small toes” and conclude with “one little sleepyhead.” This gentle bedtime story, a Caldecott Honor winner, is the perfect addition to your own nightly ritual.
Like Brown Bear, also illustrated by Eric Carle, you probably already have The Very Hungry Caterpillar in your library or are familiar with it from your own childhood. But just in case you hadn't thought of this title yet, this is the beloved story of a caterpillar who emerges from his egg in search of food and, eventually, when he has satisfied his hunger, turns into a beautiful butterfly. Countless children have learned about how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly from this title, while being captivated by Carle's colorful collage illustrations and die-cut pages. Another super title from Eric Carle for toddlers and preschoolers is From Head to Toe.
This is a storytime favorite. A young family goes off on an adventure in search of a bear. The repetitive words are fun to chant together with your child—and even more fun to act out.