However bad of a parent I may be, no one can say my kids don’t have enough books. Since my older son was born about five years ago, we’ve accumulated the things non-stop: yard sales, gifts, friends who dump their toddler libraries on us en masse when their own kids get too old, not to mention weekly trips to the library. The number of kids’ books I’ve read has to be in the hundreds, the number of times I’ve read them in the thousands.
Most of these works are nothing special, a lot of them are terrible, and most of the good ones are the titles you (and everyone else shopping for the little tykes on your good list) would expect — classics such as Where the Wild Things Are and The Velveteen Rabbit; cute if formulaic series such as Little Critter and the Berenstain Bears; newer mega-sellers such as Little Blue Truck and Bear Snores On; everything by Dr. Seuss. But every once in a while, you stumble across a great book that’s a little less well-known.
Here are a few in that category, for those looking for titles a kid might not have already. Click the links to buy ‘em on Amazon. Fair warning: I have a strong preference for books that rhyme and aren’t too long for the attention spans of toddlers and their tired parents.
King Jack and the Dragon, by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury
This book is an absolute gem, a simple story about a little boy who plays knights-and-dragons with his friends and gets scared of the dark after they go home. The careful attention to rhyme, flow, and meter makes it a pleasure for the adult to read, and the artwork is adorable as well. Don’t forget to have the kids roar at the appropriate part.
If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen
Lots of kids have elaborate fantasies about building cool gadgets, and this book taps directly into that drive. “Jack from the backseat said to his dad . . . ,” it begins, and from there Jack describes a complex bit of machinery that smells good, comes with a snack bar, and is capable of both undersea and air travel. At one point my son had made me read it so much that I could mostly recite it from memory, and because it’s an impressively intricate piece of poetry, I didn’t mind.
Ginger Bear, by Mini Grey
This book takes the concept of Toy Story and applies it to a gingerbread man, or rather a gingerbread bear. A little kid makes a cookie, but his repeated attempts to eat it are foiled by his mother. When he goes to bed, the bear comes to life, cooks himself some friends to play with, throws a wild party in the kitchen that turns into a delicious massacre when the family dog arrives, and eventually flees to become part of a store’s window display. A remarkable testament to the resilience of the cookie spirit.
Smash! Mash! Crash! There Goes the Trash! by Barbara Odanaka
Remember being obsessed with garbage trucks? This book amusingly and colorfully describes the excitement of trash day and everything kids find so awesome about refuse-gobbling machines.
The Truck Book, by Harry McNaught
Unlike the other entries on this list, this is a book I frankly don’t like reading that much. It’s relatively long, the prose is just dry descriptions of how various trucks work, and the art is more functional than, well, artful. But apparently there was a time I felt otherwise, because my parents saved it from my childhood so they could give it back to me when I had kids — and my son fell in love with it as soon as he became old enough to appreciate a book. I had to tape the center of every page to keep it from falling apart. We’re not alone: There’s a New York Times article from a couple years back about this 1978 title’s inexplicable low-key staying power, and you can still buy new copies.
Okay, this isn’t a book but rather a magazine subscription. But it’s a great buy: Each issue provides information about (and beautiful photos of) some new critters, along with simple activities such as matching adult animals to their babies. The regular infusion of fresh material is a big upside, even in a house already brimming with books.