Reading with your Toddler

Toddlers are on the move. It’s a fact. But don’t let that scare you from reading to your tot! As I wrote about in Why You Should Read to Your Toddler, listening to books and staying still while reading takes practice. Do not be discouraged and give up. Keep making it a part of your day (especially as a family!). One day your toddler will get there and will LOVE reading.

There are certain types of books that will especially win over these wiggly and distracted ones. I’ll share with you why these books instantly charm toddlers. After learning these tidbits, you will easily see out why certain books keep your toddler’s attention better than others.

Peppered within these explanations and tips are some toddler-approved books. But, I made an actual list of other toddler friendly books. These are tried and true books that appeal to toddlers. Toddlers will want to revisit them over and over again and, in most cases, you will, too.

book and reading Tips for your Toddler & You

Read and repeat. Rest assured, nothing is wrong with your child if she asks you to reread a book for the fifth time that day or demands the same bedtime storybook. It is not only comforting for your toddler, but healthy for her hear the same stories again and again. Rereading helps your child internalize the story. Then, one day, she will spontaneously retell it. Through the act of retelling, she will sharpen her narrative skills, that is her ability to explain something, a crucial skill needed in life.

How do we make those rereading times extra stimulating for us adults? Try to read in different intonations. Not only will it keep you on your toes to make sure you get the voices straight (if not, no big deal), your toddler will also respond to the change in voice. You can also interact with the story and pictures. No need to be a reading robot; you can stop and start at will and mid-sentence. Toddlers are beginning to respond to “what” questions. So ask questions and make statements while leaving them ample time to respond, typically 5-12 seconds. Make sure to, when you tot begins speaking, to listen and repeat or respond to what he says about the story or illustrations.

Pick short stories with rhyming, repeated phrases and with clear pictures. Toddlers have a short attention span. Do not expect your 18-month old to be able to sit through a reading of Madeleine. Although the art may be clear and understandable, the story itself could be too long. So rather than setting yourself up for disappointment, choose books that rhyme and are made up of short, repetitive phrases. The fewer the words the better able your child will be to focus on the story and pictures. You can even try wordless books! They can be daunting because you have to explain and supply the words, but try them; the photos are typically darling. All you do is “read” the pictures. Molly Idle’s Flora series is terrific as is Eugene Yelchin’s new Spring Hare

“Clear pictures” is a phrase I use to describe art that is basic, distinguishable, and with an uncluttered background. A blank backdrop helps a young child focus on the art. Of course, not every backdrop has to be empty to help your toddler learn to focus. But the art itself should be definable. Because toddlers make abstract art, it may make you think they would understand abstract art. But, they don’t. Share stories, even wordless ones, that have simple and understandable art that will help your toddler center on the words being spoken and on the action represented within the art. In other words, you are helping to show your toddler that art has meaning, and it relates to words in the book.

Talk to your child about the pictures if she can’t sit for the words. Wordless books are pretty obvious: you have to read those pictures, but if your little one can’t sit through you reading words, no biggie. Just treat the book like a wordless one and talk about the pictures. Ask your tot to point out what you say, e.g. items that are a certain color. You want to create a warm, inviting feeling about book reading so aim for that, not trying to read through the actual words.

Be on the look-out for books with actions and singing built into them. Thankfully many books are being published that are traditional songs or action rhymes. These ones will literally engage your toddler. Toddlers learn best through movement. So tap into that inherent need to move by reading books that beg to be acted out, like Bear Can Dance.

Choose books about concepts, identifiable things, and routines. The more familiar a subject is the more the toddler will enjoy the story. Concepts are also very basic and are encountered by your tot every day, even during one hour! Concepts include colors, sounds, shapes, numbers, and letters. Book about routines, such as bath time and naps, are great because they show your toddler that he isn’t the only one to NOT like to take baths. Pets, families and special events are other subjects you can explore in books.

If you can, buy a few interactive books. Interactive books are those with flips, pop-ups, textured areas, stickers and movable parts. The very nature of these books invites toddlers to play with them. Some authors have created books where it tells you what to do to the book to make events in the book happen. Herve Tullet’s Press Here and Christie Matheson’s Tap the Magic Tree are excellent examples: you shake the book, turn the page an magically the white turns black. The crux of these interactive books is to expose your toddler to the fun books can possess.

Pick books that are of an interest to your child. If your little one loves balls, then seek out books about balls or that has balls in them. If your tot likes Thomas, then get him a Thomas book, but also look at other books about trains. If you are going to be moving, having a new baby, or will begin potty training, then books can be a terrific avenue to open up a discussion about those topics. Use them to help make a transition or to show and comfort your toddler that other kids are going through the same thing…and turned out ok.

Visit your library and attend library programs. As a librarian, I naturally had to include this one. But more so as a mom I include this tip. I work in a totally different part of North Texas from where we live. So, my son uses his local library more so than mine (he actually only “uses” my library by me bringing home books for him). We attend Saturday Story Times together as a family when I’m not working.

toddler at lib puppet
Theo attending one of our local library’s Saturday Story Times. They always let the kids meet the Story Time Mascots at the end.

I love going to the library. Not only do you get to sample a bunch of books before deciding if you want to purchase them, but by attending library programs you and your toddler get introduced to great books you may never have tried before. During library programs either for the entire family or specifically for toddlers, you get to learn new songs and activities that will tickle your toddler. These are things you can repeat at home. I can’t tell you how many times I repeat one stanza from a song we heard in story time at home. It helps reinforce what was learned and is just plain ol’ fun!

Did I mention these times are free? Or that the library and its programs have no other objective than to give your child a head start in literacy? That it isn’t trying to sell you or your child anything? Rare nowadays, but so special. I always look at attending story times with your toddler as a terrific bonding experience. Okay, if your child can’t sit still during story time, keep trying! He will, trust me. I used to leave with my son when he got wild all the time, but now he does fine.

Leave books everywhere! Think of books as expendable commodities. This is okay. Yes, children need to learn proper book handling skills but the more they are around books in a positive way the more likely they will want to use them. That is why interactive books are great and also why just leaving books everywhere helps. Owning these books is key: if they rip a page or bust the binding, you can just tape it up. Leave books in the bathroom, bedroom, living room, in the car, in your bag. And remember to show your tot that you still pick up after “reading” those books. You could help clean up the scattered books by singing this ditty I made up:

Where oh where has my little books gone? Oh where oh where could they be? With the pages worn and the binding loose. Oh where oh where could they be?

Do try to challenge your toddler. While some of our toddlers can sit through a reading of The Velveteen Rabbit, others are lucky to get through Higher, Higher! Again, I liked trying different books when my son was a toddler; I always picked books that were longer than normal because I wanted to increase his appetite, so to speak. And it worked. But do not feel pressured to introduce longer picture books. Go at the speed your toddler is at and little by little through repeated, routine exposure she will beg for more readings.

So challenge your toddler but don’t force it. You can always just point out the pictures if the text ends up being too much!

22 Books for Toddlers

In addition to the books mentioned above, here are some tried and true toddler appropriate books. Let me know how they go with your tots!

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer

George has a problem. He is a dog but doesn’t sound like one. He can sound like a pig, a cat, a duck and other animals. His fed-up, worried mom brings him to a doctor who solves the problem. Or does he?

Freight Train by Donald Crews

A must-read for every train-enthused child. Crews give each train car a specific color. Together the train makes a rainbow pulled by a black tender and steam engine. Kids will delight in watching it move as a blur through tunnels, bridges, and cities.

Flower Garden by Eve Bunting

Written with a jaunty rhythm, join a dad and his little daughter as they go to the grocery store and trudge back to their apartment home with a bunch of planting materials. The father-daughter pair make a special flower garden in a planter for the girl’s mother. It turns out to be the mother’s birthday gift.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

One of Willems most well-known and beloved picture books. In this silly book, the listening audience is asked to make sure the Pigeon doesn’t drive the bus–no matter what he says. The Pigeon asks and pleads to the audience to let him drive the bus. This book can be a hit or miss as not all kids are into this type of interaction. Just make sure to explain that your toddler should always tell him “NO!” and have fun.

Max’s Dragon Shirt by Rosemary Wells

Part of the “Max and Ruby” series, Max needs a new pair of pants. His mom gave his sister Ruby $5 to buy new pants. The problem is, a dragon shirt also costs $5 and that is what Max really wants. Ruby decides to try on lots of different outfits, much to the boredom of Max. He eventually slips away and Ruby has to find him. She does locate him, but he isn’t wearing new pants. Instead, Max is wearing that dragon shirt and with ice cream dripped all over it! Toddlers will love Max in his boldness and relate to the trouble he causes by just trying to get what he wants.

Ten Kisses for Sophie by Rosemary Wells

“Sophie” is a new mouse series by Wells. In this book, Sophie is helping her mom make candy kisses for her aunt’s birthday. There are exactly enough for everyone to have one–until a cousin comes last minute. Sophie is sad she has to give up her kiss, but Granny suddenly goes on a diet where she can’t have her kiss. A sweet story reinforcing familial bonds, love, helping out, and being rewarded.

Looking for Bongo by Eric Velasquesz

Bongo is missing! Who took it? His nameless owner gets creative after he finally locates Bongo. By tying a string on his wrist and to Bongo, the boy figures out who the stealer is. It shocks not only the person who is stealing Bongo, but the reader. Written with Spanish phrases, it is a joy to read.

Jump, Frog, Jump by Robert Kaplan and illustrations by Byron Batron

Frog has to jump away from all sorts of creatures trying to get him. Toddlers will love calling out “Jump, frog, jump!” to encourage the frog. In the end, after the frog is captured, he is then freed by a child who whispers, “Jump, frog, jump.” A winner for toddlers with its smart, bold illustrations and repetitive, built upon phrases.

Round is a Tortilla: A Book of Shapes by Rosanne Thong and illustrated by John Parra

One of many that Thong and Parra teamed up to do to help young children learn concepts. This particular book is about reinforcing shapes and to show children that shapes are everywhere! What’s nice about this book is it will introduce your toddler to a few Spanish words and to some Latino culture.

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost with photographs by Rick Lieder

Let your toddler get a close-up glimpse of insects he probably would not be able to view. With simple phrases and captivating photographs, it is a terrific book to bring nature indoors. This duo has a few others completed in the same vein, including one on birds. Check them all out. They are very beautiful.

Mouse Paint by Ellen Walsh

Watch 3 mischievous albino mice mix in pots of primary colors and make a mess! They also mix themselves up in those primary colors and turn, ta-da, into the secondary colors. The paint makes their coats stiff so they wash themselves clean. The mice then color the walls with the colors.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat by Jane Cabrera

Enjoy Cabrera’s pastel-colored pictures while you sing different stanzas to the popular song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” An excellent book to act out during the read or afterwards. Also, there is a lot hidden in the art that you can always point out and discuss.

The Babies on the Bus by Karen Katz

It is of course nice to just sing “The Wheels on the Bus” espeically as you go throughout your day. But reading this version is just deligtful! Don’t forget to move your toddler to the do the actions or have her try to do the actions on her own.

Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

Reminiscence of Goodnight, Moon, Ten, Nine, Eight is a perfect bedtime story. A little girl counts different items in her bedroom in preparation of sleeping. Her father is present to help her get ready for slumber.

Chick, Chicka, Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and illustrated by Lois Ehlert

A terrific alphabet book full of alliteration and drama! Watching as letters move up and down a coconut tree. I recommend watching the animated version of this book–the singer makes just reading the book so delightful! You’ll want to learn how to read-sing it the way she does.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle

High in repetitive phrases and filled with simple collage pictures on a white backdrop, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (and the other picture books like this one that Martin and Carle did) is the quintessential toddler book. Kids love the rhythm of the words and watching which animal sees which one. This book also helps with color identification.

A Hat for Minerva Louise by Janet Morgan Stoeke

Minerva Louise wants to enjoy the winter landscape, but it’s too cold! She tries to find items to help warm her up. The things she finds will amuse all toddlers because they realize the items are not really clothing pieces. However, the last item she finds is a piece of clothing and it does keep her warm, but the way she wears it is not conventional. It will humor young children.

Lola at the Library by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw (series)

Every Tuesday, Lola visits her library with her mom. They get books, attend a story time, and eat a special treat. A wonderful book to use in introducing the library and the joys of book sharing for a family.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

A classic! Your toddler will delight in watching a caterpillar transform into a butterfly. Join it in its process: look at the foods it eats (of course a real caterpillar wouldn’t eat it, but we can let that go for now), why it gets a stomachache, and the cocoon it makes. A simple book to use to introduce not only transformation, but also the days of the week.

Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes

A gentle, perfect-for-bedtime story about a kitten who wants that bowl of milk in the sky. We know that bowl is really just the moon, but not kitten. Watch as the comedy develops and ends with her coming back to her starting point–and finding a real bowl of milk waiting for her at home. This book won the 2005 Caldecott.

No, David! by David Shannon

This book is all about the things little David shouldn’t do–every page has a “No, David!”-type saying with a picture of David doing something naughty. Kids will relate to little David (see the above spread). You will relate to the person saying “no” and may even get teary-eyed at the end when his adult gives little David a hug reaffirming love for him. No, David may not look like a 1999 Caldecott Honor book, but the more times you read it (as your child will demand you to do!), the more you will come to see Shannon’s mastery of art.

Wiggle by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Scott Menchin

A perfect book to get the wiggles out of your wiggler! Have your kid wiggle anyway he wants whenever you read the word “wiggle.” At the end, he will need a break–or maybe more re-readings because it’s so much fun wiggling!


What is your toddler’s favorite book to read? Do you ever get repeated reading burnouts?

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