Take it from someone who works at a library—some books you buy, some books you borrow, and some you ignore.
Here are 20 picture books that have earned a space on the shelves in my children’s rooms. They come toddler/infant-approved.
While I don’t make any book recommendation lightly, every child is different. So you might want to read them with your kid before you purchase anything. What my kid loves, yours might loathe, and vice-versa. Fortunately, I know a place where you can borrow books for free.
1. The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
The journey of an unwanted imaginary friend and the child who befriends it. The illustrations are lush and the creativity is off the charts. Santat deserves his Caldecott Medal.
2. My Garden by Kevin Henkes
A pretty picture book filled with memorable images: strawberries that glow like lanterns; seashells that grow on the vine; and tomatoes the size of beach balls.
3. My Elephant by Petr Horáček
The story of a little boy with an excellent imagination (or a hyper-destructive pachyderm friend.) If your kid likes elephants—and I suspect that most do—they’ll like this book too. Also recommended: Horáček’s Animal Opposites.
4. Tap to Play by Salina Yoon
A picture book that encourages interaction. The story guides your child through a series of tasks—tipping the book left or right, flapping its pages like wings—and makes reading a more active experience.
5. Museum Shapes by The Metropolitan Museum of Art
What you’re expecting: one of those baby-Mensa traps that parents buy but children never use. What you get: a fun book that teaches kids how to spot shapes everywhere.
6. Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri
I don’t want to spoil anything, but this book—about a thieving raccoon with a pizza jones—has one of the greatest sight gags ever committed to page.
7. How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague
Jane Yolen competes with Thomas Hardy and Dr. Seuss to be the best-represented author on our shelves. Her Dinosaur series with Mark Teague teaches manners and paleontology without being trite. How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You is the best of a spectacular bunch. Also recommended: Yolen’s Not One Damsel in Distress should come automatically with every Disney Princess dress.
8. Zen Shorts by Jon Muth
Beautifully illustrated—every page could be a poster. Your child will fall in love with a panda named Stillwater and may inadvertently learn something from his Zen and Daoist parables.
9. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear books are classics, but The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse is the Eric Carle book that gets the most burn in our house. It teaches colors, animals and stretches a child’s artistic imagination. Plus, it’s short enough so you can indulge your kid when they want to re-read it seven or eight times.
10. Waiting Is Not Easy by Mo Willems
Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series is the best thing to happen to picture books since Dr. Seuss. Waiting Is Not Easy is a personal favorite. It teaches the value of patience and ends with a moment of sublime beauty.
11. Chalk by Bill Thomson
This book has no text. Instead, it relies on its illustrations to tell the story of three young kids who get into some trouble while playing with chalk. Without words to distract or discourage, it’s the perfect book for your toddler to “read” to you.
12. Monsters Love Colors by Mike Austin
An energetic book that’s silly in the best sense—perfect for teaching kids about primary and secondary colors.
13. Frozen: Do You Want a Hug by Kevin Lewis and Olga Masqueda
I know, I know. Recommending a Disney book makes me basic. But if your kid won’t let “Let It Go” go, then they’ll like this interactive picture book.
14. I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley & E.B. Lewis
Natasha Anastasia Tarpley’s tale reminds us that no part of ourself should be taken for granted. And E.B. Lewis is a treasure. The way he transforms an afro into a globe or thick curly tendrils of hair into a forest’s canopy is visual poetry.
15. Spot’s ABC by Eric Hill
Every children’s bookshelf should have an alphabet book or two. Spot’s ABC is great for young kids with its colorful illustrations and easy-to-follow design.
16. That’s Not My Puppy by Rachel Wells & Fiona Watt
Those Usborne touchy-feely books may seem formulaic or even puerile, but they really work. They add tactile elements—furry ears, a puppy’s shiny collar—which engage babies in a way that words and even illustrations might not. (Just don’t let your baby chew them too much.)
17. The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone & Michael Smollin
A Sesame Street classic and a great way to teach your child the concept of irony.
18. Animalia by Graeme Base
Another alphabet book but your child won’t make it to “Z”—not on the first try. Instead, they’ll get lost in the sumptuous and detailed illustrations. If you’re doing it right, you’ll get lost with them.
19. What Do You Do With A Problem? By Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom
This book has the potential to be the new Oh, the Places You’ll Go—a children’s book with lessons that adults of all ages can appreciate.
20. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Don’t blame me if your child vandalizes their bedroom with purple crayon.
I’d love to know your picture-book recommendations, as well. The kids are always hungry for more story-time fodder. Comment below or tweet me @jasonmarklea.