Today I’m sharing some of my absolute favorite picture books for 3 to 5 year olds. These are picture books that you will want to read to your child again and again. These are books that, if your preschooler grabs one off the shelf again (!) and brings it to you to read again (!), you’re not going to cringe. You’ll say, “Sure, I’d love to read that book to you!,” because a good picture book is appealing to all ages, not just little ones.
In the world of books, you will find rows upon rows of picture books. But not all picture books are created equal. I posted last week about what to look for in a good picture book. If you haven’t read that post, I encourage you to do that.
OK, let’s dive into my top ten (or twenty) picture books.
1. The Alfie books by Shirley Hughes
And now you know why I’m saying “10 or 20” favorite books, because many of these authors have written several great picture books. Shirley Hughes is just such an author. She’s written several books about Alfie and his everyday life as a preschooler. I have a collection of her stories, but you can also get them individually. Alfie Gets in First is all about when Alfie and his mom are coming home from grocery shopping and Alfie runs in the door ahead of everybody else. Then he slams it shut and somehow it locks. Now he and the keys are inside and everyone else is outside. It seems like a simple situation, but you know that with preschoolers, nothing is quite as simple as it should be. I love the illustrations in this book, because you’re watching what is happening inside as well as outside that door. There is much to see and gentle life lessons to absorb in this sweet story.
Some of the other stories about Alfie include Alfie’s Feet, in which he gets new rain boots, and An Evening at Alfie’s, in which a water pipe bursts and Alfie helps the babysitter. Another thing I love about these stories is how the author portrays the adults. They take everything in stride and deal with situations calmly and realistically; they let the children explore and learn, but they don’t hover; and they don’t talk down to the children. The parents in these stories are a perfect illustration of what Charlotte Mason called Masterly Inactivity. Keep an eye out for all the Alfie books.
2. Chester the Worldly Pig by Bill Peet
Bill Peet was one of the old school, hand-drawn animators for Disney, and his books reflect that dedication to a good story and detailed yet fun illustrations. He has written and illustrated many good picture books, but my favorite of his is Chester the Worldly Pig. It’s all about a pig who comes to the decision that he must somehow make himself special if he is to avoid the butcher. So he teaches himself to balance on his snout and joins the circus. Things do not go at all as he hoped they would, but in the end everything turns out fine—thanks to a fabulous surprise ending. No spoilers here! You’ll have to read the book to find out what saves Chester from becoming bacon. You’ll love it!
Other titles by Bill Peet include The Ant and the Elephant, Kermit the Hermit, and The Caboose Who Got Loose. One note: some of these books are written in rhyme. Writing a good story in rhyme—rhymes that convey the plot in a compelling way and yet are easy to understand—that’s difficult! Many picture books that are written in rhyme come across as stilted and stiff or contrived. I’m a bit picky about picture books in rhyme, but Bill Peet does a good job. His wonderful, rhyming story lines are easy to read and easy to listen to.
3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
This one has somewhat sparse text and a simple story but deep ideas. It’s all about a tree and a little boy. The boy grows up playing in the tree, and the tree loves the boy. But as the boy grows older, he thinks he needs other things to be happy—things like money, a house, and travel. Each time he tells the tree about his need, the tree offers what she has that can help meet that need. In the end, the boy, now an old man, is content once again to just sit quietly with the tree who loves him. I especially love the illustrations; they, too, are simple yet convey many ideas.
4. The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio
This story is set in France. A lion lives happily at the zoo with various people who come to see him regularly and say, “Bonjour.” He especially likes the keeper’s son, François. Then one day the lion finds the door to his cage open and decides that it would be polite to return the favor and go visit his friends at their homes, so he wanders into the town. As you might expect, a lion’s presence in the middle of town causes quite an uproar. In the end his little friend, François, recognizes him and quietly walks him back to the zoo. It’s a fun book that has delighted children for more than 60 years.
5. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Another book celebrating its 60th anniversary is Harold and the Purple Crayon. This book will encourage the artist within your child. Harold decides to go for a walk in the moonlight, and he takes his purple crayon with him to draw his whole adventure. The text is simple but contains a few delicious puns that make me smile every time I read this book. And the interplay between the main character and the drawings he makes is just brilliant! It’s a classic.
6. Katy No-Pocket by Emmy Payne
Katy is a kangaroo with a problem: she has no pocket in which to carry her baby. She checks with other mother animals to find out how they carry their babies, and she tries those alternate ways but to no avail. Then the wise old owl gives her a helpful idea. I won’t spoil it for you. Just know that the book has a very happy ending and communicates a helpful life lesson about feeling sad but actively looking for a solution. That’s an important concept for preschoolers to grasp.
7. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
No list of preschool book favorites would be complete without mentioning at least one Robert McCloskey title. And I’m surprised how many young parents have never heard of him! Robert McCloskey wrote Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine and several other delightful books that should be on your preschooler’s bookshelf. In Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard search for just the right place to raise their family. Once the ducklings have hatched and Mrs. Mallard is satisfied with their progress in swimming and following her in a line, she sets out to lead them across town to meet Mr. Mallard at a certain park. But crossing busy streets presents a problem, and they end up with a police escort to help them all get safely to the park. As with many great picture books for this age, the plot centers on a simple, everyday occurrence and brings it into vivid detail for your child. Look for the other books by Robert McCloskey too. The stories are just as good and the illustrations just as lovely.
8. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Burton
There is some kind of strong connection between young children and this book. It’s been that way for many years. They may not understand all of the details about the differences between a steam shovel and a diesel engine, but they definitely understand the challenge at the center of the story. And they love this book! Mike Mulligan did a lot of work with his steam shovel, Mary Anne, and he took very good care of her. But soon the new diesel engines began getting all the jobs and nobody wanted a steam shovel anymore. Mike was certain that Mary Anne could do the work just as well and just as fast, so he set out to prove it. The challenge: dig the basement for the new town hall in just one day. As people gather to watch them work, Mike and Mary Anne work a little faster and a little faster, and when the sun sets that day, . . . . Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Do you remember that previous post that I mentioned on How to Choose a Good Picture Book? In that post, I use this book as the example for all five characteristics of a great picture book. It is a timeless classic. And be sure to check out other titles by Virginia Burton, like Katy and the Big Snow and The Little House. Those are great ones too.
9. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
The Story of Ferdinand will take your child to sunny Spain. Ferdinand is a bull who has a unique personality. He would much rather leave the running and fighting to the other bulls; his happy place is sitting under a cork tree, smelling flowers. When some men come to the field to select the fiercest bulls for the famous bull fights, Ferdinand mistakenly gets chosen. The bullfighters don’t quite know what to do with him once he gets in the ring. A fun story about different personalities and being yourself.
10. The King’s Stilts by Dr. Seuss
For many of us, when we think Dr. Seuss, we think The Cat in the Hat. But this picture book is vastly different from that easy reader. The King’s Stilts can take about 20 minutes to read aloud in one sitting. It is a longer, more involved story with just the right blend of imagination and common sense. The king is a very hard worker, and his kingdom is run quite efficiently. But if the king knows the importance of working hard, he also knows how important it is to take breaks and play. Every day after the work is done, he sets aside time to play on his red stilts. One day a disgruntled courtier, who thinks it is unseemly for a king to play (and especially on stilts) takes those stilts and hides them. The king tries to keep up his work and continue to rule his kingdom well, but little by little he loses focus and energy, and the kingdom falls into disrepair. Soon it is facing danger from an outside threat. How the king finds his stilts again and rises to save the day, I’ll let you read for yourself. The King’s Stilts—one of the lesser known Dr. Seuss titles, but a great one.
All right, those are ten (or so) of my favorites, but can I throw in some bonus titles? It’s hard to narrow these down!
11. Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman
Norman is a mouse who works as a doorman at a museum, while trying to avoid the human security guards. His door is for other mice who want to visit the museum. When the museum holds an art contest, Norman decides to enter. His sculpture wins, but no one knows who entered that sculpture, because Norman tries so hard to stay out of sight. How he is discovered and what he chooses for his prize make a sweet ending to the book. And of course, look for other books by Don Freeman, as well. He wrote Corduroy, Pet of the Met, and Bearymore, to name just a few.
12. Pretzel by H. A. Rey
When most people hear “H. A. Rey,” they think of Curious George. Yes, that’s right, but H. A. Rey also wrote other books. Pretzel is one of my favorites. It’s all about a dachshund puppy who grows much longer than his brothers and sisters. He grows so long that he can form himself into a pretzel; thus, his name. When Pretzel sees Greta, a little girl dachshund, he is smitten and tries his best to win her heart. He gives her gifts and shows off his accomplishments, but Greta is not impressed. It is only when Greta gets into a distressful situation and Pretzel rescues her, that she agrees to marry him. But she makes it clear that her choice is not because of his looks or his gifts; it’s because of his character. And my favorite part is that the last page reads exactly the same as the first page, but in between you and your child have come full circle. You’ll see what I mean. A short, sweet story.
I mentioned that H. A. Rey also wrote the Curious George books. In case you’re wondering, my favorites are Curious George Takes a Job and Curious George Rides a Bike. There are lots more that look like they’re written by Rey; but if you look closer, you’ll find that they are only based on his character, Curious George. (Who was originally going to be named Curious Fi Fi, by the way. But that’s a whole other book.) Many of the Curious George books around today are written by other authors, and I don’t think they are nearly as good as the ones H. A. Rey wrote. Curious George Takes a Job and Curious George Rides a Bike have a certain quality that those newer knock-offs don’t have. See what you think.
13. Imogene’s Antlers by David Small
Here is the slam-bang finish—literally! Imogene wakes up one morning to find that she has grown antlers on her head. The book follows her through that day and demonstrates how the various members of her household react to her antlers. Now, let me say that in this book, the mother figure’s response is more for comic relief than for a good example; but the other adults take it all in stride, and I really enjoy this book. I’m not going to tell you how it ends. You’ve got to read it for yourself to truly appreciate the ending. Slam-bang finish, I promise.
All right, that is my list of top picks for picture books for ages 3 to 5. I know I mentioned more than ten, and I’m pretty sure there were more than twenty if you include the additional titles by some of the authors. Let’s see, twenty picture books—that should provide a few reading sessions and bedtime stories. Enjoy!