How To Choose The Best Book For Toddlers

Toddler reading book

Have you noticed that your toddler is starting to pick up books he was never interested in before? When toddlers reach a certain age, they begin to show interest in books that were uninteresting to them before. For a toddler? Picture books!

Picture books are rich in context and vivid in their visuals. They use fascinating metaphors that connect children’s imagination to the real world. A good picture book comes with layers of interpretation and emotions using a simple storyline.

When choosing a suitable picture book, I look for these 3 things. Let’s take a look. If you want to jump straight to my recommendation, head to the bottom of this article.

1. Books with links between visuals, text and layout

A good picture book uses visuals and text to bring the story to life. The text and visuals provide context to each other. When read separately, they may not make sense. The intent is to provoke the imagination of the young reader.

As your toddler turns the pages, the text, or the visual, it forms the scene of the page, leading to multiple interpretations of the story. 

Let’s look at a page from the book Duck, Death & the Tulip, written by Wolf Erlbruch.

‘Oh, I have been close by all your life – just in case.’
‘In case of what? Asked the Duck.

The last line in the conversation between the ‘Duck’ and ‘Death’ ends in suspense. You might ask if ‘Duck’ will die on the next page or has ‘Duck’ died already?  The visual provided no clue at all.

Let’s take a look at another interesting example, the cover of the book.

What do you see? At first, you might say, the duck looks stiff and is looking upwards. Very much alive. If you turn the book horizontally, is the duck lying flat? Like a corpse?

The text and visuals make children guess, check, and analyze the hidden messages between the lines. And as the pages turn, the story hooks the reader and immerse them into a drama. This is where the imagination runs wild.

It can be equally immersive for the child as for the adult. We could say that texts and visuals in the book are interdependent. It would be rare to find good picture books that describe exactly what the drawings are about.

Click here to get a copy from Amazon.

2. Simple yet written for higher-order thinking

We were delighted when our toddler could recognize words and point them to the relevant pictures. But I also notice that sometimes, toddlers could remember or memorize the words we have been repeating.

He may understand little of how to use the words or what they mean. This becomes evident if there’s hardly any meaningful conversation between the two of you.

While some may think that children must start by memorizing words to start reading, this holds little truth. Observing children often find them using the whole spectrum of cognitive thinking even as early readers.

They question what is not logical to them. Their curious minds are asking questions to solve problems. They can analyze or compare things, even as young as two years old. This process refers to what Bloom calls ‘higher order of thinking.’ [source]

Picture books may seem simple to an adult’s eye at first. But when read closely, the different themes weave into the story, offering some level of complexity.  This is intentional to nurture higher-order thinking. For example, there are two lines from the book ‘Last’ written by Nicola Davies.


“She is not mama. But she smells beautiful.”

The text is simple. Not difficult for a young child to read. You could even feel the emotion of the animal in the story. With these two lines, one could explore:

If she is not mama, who is she then?

What does your mama smell like to you?

Why is she looking for mama?

What happened to her?  

And these questions can be asked by a child or by the adult reading to them. The answers go beyond ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ It requires the child to think about the context and even asks more questions to formulate their answers. It’s just like how we solve day-to-day problems in life.

Think back to the last time you read a book with texts and pictures that says, ‘Jack has a brown dog. The dog’s name is Milo’. How did you feel? Did your mind wander beyond the two lines?

As the famous writer Roald Dahl says in his interview with BBC3. “If a child picks up a book and likes it – that’s not the end of it. It’s read at least four, five times, sometimes fifteen times. And each time, it’s got to stand up to that.

Click here to get a copy of Last on Amazon.

3. Big themes and beyond fairy tales

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you need to have a difficult conversation with your young child? Especially on topics such as death, depression, or even to explain what life means?

Good picture books weave a lot of the social norm or real-life situations into the storylines. Metaphors such as dragons, unicorns, magic beans, ghosts, or talking trees depict real-life stories or characters.

Often life and death situations are such a BIG topic to discuss in class with children.

But in the book Duck, Death & Tulip, Erlbruch has tackled this topic in such a paradoxical way, making one wonder if Death is scary or funny.

In the book, ‘Death’ was portrayed as a talking walking skeleton with a long coat. He follows Duck around and answers all of Duck’s questions. Sometimes the dialog feels cold and scary, sometimes it’s funny.

An example, the conversation between Duck and Death after Duck fell asleep next to Death.

‘I’m not dead!’ she quaked, utterly delighted.

‘I am pleased for you,’ Death said, stretching.

‘And if I’d died?’

‘Then I wouldn’t have been able to sleep in,’ Death yawned.

How ironic of ‘Death,’ you could only smile. Hardly scary but instead gives a moment for the reader to reflect. They provoke emotions like sadness in death, which goes deeper than Snow White’s death. It allows children to portray or even express their own feelings or empathize with the story’s characters. It makes children question feelings, beliefs, value systems, habits, and even decisions.

You will find, such stories do not have the usual predictable ‘happy endings’ as in real life.

Recommended books to buy for toddlers

These are some picture books that I recommend that you get for your child, or if you’re looking to buy a gift for another child, these books are excellent.

1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

A tree of life is a book that allows children to discuss the relationship between the tree and the child. There are so many layers to the storyline. Is it about a parent and child relationship or religion? Maybe it could be about the environment.  The ending was left open and, to some, perhaps conflicted too. A book that even adults could hold a good debate.

2. Wolf Won’t Bite! by Emily Gravett

A good book that is infused with humor. A story themes cover the responsibilities of having a pet, thoughts about circus animals, or perhaps bullying attitudes.  The author has given the story a funny twist from your usual fairy tales of the three little pigs and the wolf.  In this case, the wolf’s role is reversed and not a predator, which we usually find in fairy tales.

3. Duck, Death and the Tulip

I’ve already described why this book is good in detail earlier. Check it out if you haven’t already.

4. Last

I’ve also described this book in detail earlier. Scroll up to check it out if you haven’t already.

Do try these books with your child. You might first judge these books as either too simple or too complicated. Could you give them the benefit of the doubt?

Picture books can be read merely without too much interpretation and explored again when children are more ready to go deeper. That is the beauty of picture books. 

Just in case, I have put together a simple guide for choosing a book. It is NOT a must-follow guide. The key is to nurture the child’s interest and allow them to pick the book themselves eventually.

Note to readers: Ages can overlap.

0-3 years oldPicture books that have bold pictures and colors, and simple words.  Some of these books could have around 60 – 100 words. 
4 to 8 years oldBooks that have more detailed pictures, texts that form sentences or phrases. Or even books that have no text.  The idea is to start nurturing their imagination and open them to questions.
8 years old and beyondSwitch to chapter books. Some of these can be simple, like comics or a book with more than 10,000 words.  A lot will depend on how well the child has progressed in their reading.

J&E

James & Esther have been married for three years, have a baby boy named Nathan. Esther has a diploma in early childhood education and has been taking care of babies and toddlers since her early teens. She was a kindergarten and school teacher for many years, but today, she is a full-time mom taking care of Nathan at home while furthering her studies in early childhood education.

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