After growing up in a family that loved books, I remember being so happy when I had my first son, because now I could read to him! And when he was a few days old, I grabbed a board book and started to read it . . . until I realized that his eyes didn’t focus on the pictures. I was, perhaps a little over eager, so I decided to delay the introduction to books a little more.
When he was ready to read? We started with board books. Dozens and dozens of them over the years.
And after five boys, a few books emerged as clear winners. These had the most compelling plots, the most engaging illustrations, the most rollicking rhymes. My boys asked for them again and again, and I didn’t care how many times we read them, because they kept my attention.
In some cases, we wore out two or three, but I always figured that something that has been loved to death is worth replacing. Far better to have to spend another $7 than have no love of books!
Here’s a baker’s dozen of our family’s top board books. These are books I consider giving as baby shower gifts, the absolute hits for the youngest readers.
1. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd. There’s a reason this is one of the most highly ranked children’s books. It hits all the right notes. A lovely rhyme. A grandmother knitting. A clock ticking the minutes away. A gradually darkening room (such sublime subtlety!). A hidden mouse to find on every page (and it’s not always an easy find, which gives it a triumphant sense of triumph). I have read this hundreds of times, and it remains a comfort, and not a boredom. Two other popular board books by this author: The Big Red Barn and The Runaway Rabbit.
2. Good Night, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann. A play on the more famous title, I might like this one even a little more. The titular gorilla steals the zookeeper’s keys and releases the animals. They all follow the zookeeper home, where they settle in for the night . . . until the zookeeper’s wife takes them back to their proper places (how appropriate). The charm of this is in the details: the silhouettes in the neighbor’s house: first one, then two, then three, as they observe the evening drama. The pictures on the wall of the zookeeper’s house — so many animal pictures. The balloon that escapes and keeps showing up. Even the title has a comma where it belongs! Love it.
3. The Berenstain Bears Inside Outside Upside Down, by Stan and Jan Berenstain. A bear cub goes into a box, which is loaded, upside down on a truck, and heads to town. This is so simple, and yet its addictive in its repetition, in its humorous illustrations. The boys would read this one again and again. Another well-loved favorite board book: Old Hat, New Hat.
4. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, by Al Perkins, illustrations by Eric Gurney. Monkeys use their fingers and their thumbs as they drum and hum, and pick apples and plums. Surreal? Absolutely! But such a great beat throughout. Rhythm and rhyme are both incredible for building pathways in the brain.
5. Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?, by Dr. Seuss. This book of wonderful noises is available in a longer, picture book form, and an abridged board book. As an English major, I tend to be a bit of a snob about abridgments . . . but I actually prefer the shorter board book version. It’s such fun to make these sounds, and enjoy these rhymes. A delightful book to share with a young child. Another board book by this author that I prefer in abridged form: Ten Apples Up on Top (written as Theo LeSieg).
6. Jamberry, by Bruce Degen. A boy and a bear travel through Berryland, enjoying strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries. Lilting rhymes and clever illustrations. Watch for crackers and butter in place of lily pads, jelly rolls planted near a raspberry jam skating rink. Young children eat this one up!
7. The Secret Birthday Message, by Eric Carle. The birthday boy goes on a scavenger hunt of shapes to find his birthday present. Strategic die-cut pages make this book a hoot. The author has produced many books with his signature hand-painted paper, cut into shapes for colorful collages. This is our favorite, though The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a close runner-up.
8. Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt. The classic of picture book exploration. Stroke the fur, feel the scratchiness of daddy’s unshaven face, smell the perfume, look in the mirror, and more. Catching a glimpse of a child’s chubby face, leaning towards the little reflection . . . it always made me smile.
9. Fiesta! by Ginger Foglesong Guy, illustrations by Rene King Moreno. Two children go to buy treats to fill their piñata, as they prepare for a party. Darling book, in Spanish and English. A happy, feel-good book.
10. Tumble Bumble, by Felicia Bond. When a tiny bug goes for a walk, he keeps meeting new friends. We can all use a book that ends with “Hooray!” By the author of the popular “If You Give . . .” series.
11. The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. Such a lovely fable about having faith and doing what must be done. A minimal color palette. By the author of Harold and the Purple Crayon, which is also a delight.
12. Tails, by Matthew Van Fleet. My boys loved their way through two of these books. Pull tabs, liftable flaps, fur, scratch-and-sniff. There’s something about the tactile surprises that made this an instant hit.
13. Barnyard Dance, by Sandra Boynton. She writes the most upbeat board books. This was a favorite at my house, because it’s active, with stomping and clapping. On the other hand, I think girls in general prefer But Not the Hippopotamus because it has the best plot. And you might want to check the album Philadelphia Chickens (free streaming version available) which has quite the amazing lineup of performers, singing quite the amazing songs.