Let’s talk (good) books for the under-5 set

By Sarah Bessey

Last night, when I did my final rounds to check on the tinies before going to bed, I discovered that my four year old daughter was sleeping with her books.


There were two under her pillow, three in the bed and her entire Beatrix Potter collection was displayed throughout the room like the library.

To be honest, when I got pregnant with my eldest, one of my first stops was not Babies R Us or a baby boutique store. Rather, I went to the bookstore and browsed my old favourites, hardly able to believe that I was going to get to read children’s literature again. Everything from Anne of Green Gables to Little Women and the Little House books, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit and Charlotte’s Web found their way back into my house, stacked next to children’s poetry and picture books.

As book devourers (is that even a word?) ourselves, we read constantly to the tinies. They love their books, paging through them, setting them up to read to their stuffed animals, sitting across from each other to “read” to each other. It doesn’t take much for the tinies to memorize books. Even my nearly-two-year-old is in on the action, “reading” along with us and his hands down favourite is “The Little Engine That Could.” Anne can memorize books in just two or three readings, then content to sit by herself with her books, turning the pages and reciting the words, now “reading” to Joe.

I used to think that as long as a kid is reading, it doesn’t really  matter what they’re reading (within reason). So it might not be the greatest literature but if they like nothing but books-based-on-TV-shows then whatever, it’s a book. Pick your battles, right? I’ve read my share of crap (the forbidden R.L. Stein novels in junior high come to mind). Even now, I like a little brain rot or chick lit now and again myself. I’ve survived very bad literature and am a semi-sentient human being most of the time.

So we had some Elmo books, a few Dora the Explorer pop-ups, some simple books with boring story lines and repetitive language. But I’m changing my mind about those books.

I’m not sure why but I see that they love the harder books, the deeper books, the ones without big colourful and mind-numbing illustrations. They seem to like the detailed illustrations of older books instead of big primary colours in simple shapes. The language and the subject matter, the story and the pace of the older, classic books just make us happy.

I suppose that they are classics for a reason, aren’t they?

So I’ve slowly been purging the house of Dora the Explorer, Elmo and other lame excuses for books. They haven’t been missed. Not by the tinies and certainly not by me. (Honestly. Who can read those books repetitively – the only way children want to read, it seems – without wanting to repeatedly bang one’s head on the wall?)

We’ve been reading old favourites, award winners, books beloved by generations. We read about Ferdinand and Sal, Madeleine and Peter. We read about ducklings and little houses that want to be in the country.

Here are our current favourites:

  • The Little House: Her Story by Virginia Lee Burton
  • The entire Peter Rabbit book collection by Beatrix Potter
  • Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  • Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
  • Two Little Gardeners by Margaret Wise Brown
  • The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
  • Madeline by Ludwig Bemmelmans
  • The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier
  • Stellaluna by Janell Cannon
  • Sleepy Bears by Mem Fox

When they love to read, why not read good books? Why not read books that make you think, make you learn a new word, a new fact? Why not look at picture books that can keep your eyes glued to the page, just soaking in the details, for minutes at a time?

I might even have to say good bye some of my guilty pleasure British chick lit if this keeps up.

What are some of your favourite classic books for the under-5 set? Anything that your tinies love to read that we need to add to our library queue?

Sarah blogs at Emerging Mummy.

25 Responses to Let’s talk (good) books for the under-5 set
  1. Michael
    September 17, 2010 | 1:40 pm

    1 Fish 2 Fish: simple and fun and effective. they learn colors, learn how to finish the sentences..this one has a little star, this one has a little car…

    Actually, most Dr. Seuss stuff is great. Cat in the Hat…Green Eggs and Ham…Horton Hatches an Egg…aaauuugh, I need a toddler to read to now now now.

    Heckedy Peg and King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub are beautifully illustrated and fun.

    If they’re close to five, lots of the Harry Allard and James Marshall stuff is fun. My kids loved The Stupids, because they got to laugh at the dumb things they did and everyone had a good time anyway.

  2. Colleen, Baby Bellhop
    September 17, 2010 | 4:48 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing such a great list! I love stumbling across book recommendations because it can be overwhelming to find the gems 🙂

    My son is 2, and a few of our favorites are these:
    Duck on a Bike
    The Napping House
    Goodnight Moon
    Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin (great for Halloween coming up!)

  3. Hannah
    September 17, 2010 | 5:05 pm

    Mmm, love this topic. Let’s see:

    Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney
    Ox-Cart Man – Donald Hall
    Brave Irene – William Steig
    Amos and Boris – William Steig
    Gossie (and friends) – Oliver Dunrea
    Frog and Toad (series) – Arnold Lobel
    Bear Snores On (Karma Wilson)

  4. Anitra
    September 17, 2010 | 9:54 pm

    I like any Dr. Seuss except Cat in the Hat (not sure why).

    I am a huge fan of some of the older Sesame Street books, like “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book”.

    My husband introduced us to a childhood favorite, “The Fire Cat” by Esther Averill; it’s quickly become a favorite for the whole family.

  5. Junglewife
    September 17, 2010 | 11:44 pm

    My 2 and 4 year olds currently love:
    Home for a Bunny (Margaret Wise Brown)
    Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
    Anything Sandra Boynton (especially Snuggle Puppy and the Little Pookie books)
    Goodnight Moon
    Brown Bear, Brown Bear (Eric Carle)
    A is for Salad (it’s a hilarious, unexpected way of approaching ABCs)

  6. Junglewife
    September 17, 2010 | 11:45 pm

    Oh, and how could I forget “Is your Mama a Llama?” Love that one, too!

  7. Aisha
    September 18, 2010 | 6:38 am

    Chapter books:
    — The classic Winnie-the-Pooh stories (not the Disney version books) and A.A. Milne poems.

    — The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.

    — Charlotte’s Web.

    Picture books:
    — Dr. Seuss books.

    — Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney.

    — Time of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey.

    — Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen.

    This is just the short list of our favorites.

  8. Mozi Esmes Mom
    September 20, 2010 | 3:20 am

    Hmmm… maybe it’s time to check out those Robert McCloskey books again! The first time through, my daughter didn’t have much patience for them – I assume because of the lack of color. But today she pulled out the Peter Rabbit collection, which she has never been known to do voluntarily before. So maybe it’s time!

    She’s been a Dora/Barbie/Disney Princess kinda gal; I wonder if age is a factor and they like the bright pictures up to a point and then start appreciating the words? Right now (3yo) she likes fun stuff like Skippyjon Jones, Fancy Nancy books, The Paper Bag Princess, Duck for President, Mrs. Wishy-Washy’s Christmas, and the new Chicken Big, as well as anything pink and princessy. Frank Asch is a favorite author, too. Animals that talk are a big plus. She still pulls out the bright Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle board books from time to time, and The Berenstain Bears intrigue her. And the elaborate paper cut book, Winter’s Tale by Robert Sabuda, is a treasure in her mind.

  9. Linda Cramer
    September 20, 2010 | 3:52 pm

    Good Night Moon was a favorite at our house. Our kids loved reading it, then we’d take them outside to see if we could see the moon and say good night. It was a fun tradition.

  10. Hannah
    September 22, 2010 | 5:56 pm

    I remember all those! I was a voracious reader and begged my mom to teach me to read at age 4. By the end of kindergarten, I had completed the entire Little House set. I really hope my children love reading as much as I did.

    Some other favorites were (are…):
    Officer Buckle and Gloria
    When the Fly Flew In
    The Giving Tree
    Understood Betsy

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