Happy Hippos: Favorite Picture Books Starring Hippos
Residents of sub-Saharan Africa, hippos may be among the world’s most dangerous animals, but they’re awfully cute. Perhaps that’s why they lend themselves to starring roles in so many silly picture books. Here are some of my fiction and nonfiction favorites for young children. All are in print and should be available from your local library or favorite bookstore.
But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton (1984)
A shy hippo stands on the sidelines as animal pals have fun together. But when they notice that she’s left out, they find a way to include her. With the silly rhymes and cartoon illustrations for which Sandra Boynton is beloved, it’s no wonder this board book is a classic. In fact, quite of few of Boynton’s most enduring characters are hippos—also check out Hippos Go Berserk! (1977), Belly Button Book (2005), and Happy Hippo, Angry Duck (2011).
George and Martha by James Marshall (1972)
Hippo friends George and Martha star in five short stories about friendship in this first book in the classic series. Their adventures are often silly—especially when combined with George Marshall’s humorous illustrations—but they always end with a practical conclusion that emphasizes the value of friendship.
Hello, Hippo! Goodbye, Bird! by Kristyn Crow, illustrated by Poly Bernatene (2016)
Bird wants to be friends with Hippo, but Hippo wants nothing to do with Bird—even when he proves he tells great jokes, keeps the bugs away, and can be an umbrella for Hippo. What will it take for Hippo to be Bird’s friend? This is a very silly story about friendship; between the illustrations, Bird’s jokes, and Hippo’s noises, it is sure to leave young readers giggling. Plus, though this is never explicitly discussed, it offers a perfect opportunity to talk about (and share some photos of) the real symbiotic relationship between hippos and oxpecker birds.
Hilda Must Be Dancing by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Suzanne Watts (2004)
Hilda Hippo loves to dance, but she’s so big that she makes quite a commotion when she practices her moves. Her friends try to suggest other hobbies, but none compares to dancing until a water buffalo recommends swimming. Author Karma Wilson’s signature rhyming text is a treat to read aloud, and little ones will love hearing (and saying) all the sounds Hilda makes while dancing.
Hippos Are Huge! by Jonathan London, illustrated by Matthew Trueman (2015)
This is a fantastic nonfiction book that reads like a picture book. That means that you can read the primary narrative text and skip the more detailed factoids that appear on each page in smaller print—or if your little one is fascinated by a particular page, you can read the extra facts, too. The illustrations are wonderful, capturing the enormous size and ferocity of hippos as much as their cuteness.
Hot Hippo by Mwenye Hadithi, illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway (1986)
Hippo is hot, and more than anything, he wishes he could live in the river. So he goes to visit the god of Everything and Everywhere to ask if he may live in the river. Although Hippo is eventually granted permission, it comes with some very peculiar requirements. This vividly illustrated pourquoi tale—the story of how hippos came to spend their days in water and their nights on land—is a fantastic read-aloud.
Mouse and Hippo by Mike Twohy (2017)
One day an artistic mouse sets up his easel on a large rock at the edge of a lake—only to find (when he ends up in the water) that the rock was actually a hippo’s back. The hippo saves the mouse, returning him to dry land, and the two form a sweet and very funny friendship as they paint portraits for each other. Little ones will be charmed by the animals’ relationship and tickled by the questions of perspective that their portraits bring up.
Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu, with photographs by Peter Greste (2006)
This is the true story of Owen, a baby hippopotamus from Kenya who lost his family when they were all swept out into the Indian Ocean by a tsunami. Rescued by the residents of the closest town, Owen was adopted by a nearby animal sanctuary called Haller Park. That’s where he met Mzee, a 130-year-old tortoise, who would become his adopted parent and best friend. This touching true story is filled with amazing photographs of the two friends and their home in Kenya, as well as facts about the animals and the natural disaster that orphaned Owen. Although the text will be too long for some little ones, they will be fascinated by the amazing story.
The Truth about Hippos by Maxwell Eaton III (2018)
A trove of hippo facts wrapped up in a cartoon package with lots of silly hippo jokes. For preschoolers who love animals, this book will not disappoint, but adult readers will also be pleased to discover plenty of serious information hidden amid the kids’ comedy.