I’m sure you enjoy snuggling up to a little warm body to read as much as I do. Every bookshelf needs a few classics but whether you hate following the crowd or just can’t take the Very Hungry Caterpillar one. more. time., I have some quirky alternatives for you to look out for at the library or book shop, all chosen for their high quality language, illustrations and grown-up appeal.
Welcome to this very personal selection of 10 classic books for toddlers and some (to my mind) more interesting alternatives. I warn you, it may be contentious and you are more than welcome to disagree! Click on the image of each book for more details.
The Classic: Dear Zoo
Very simple pictures, flaps to lift and an easy to follow, rhythmical story. It’s a classic for a reason and your child will soon know their elephants from their monkeys. It’s a must have!
The Contender: Daddy Hug
The same super-simple structure but with much better illustrations, still simple and razor sharp for little eyes but with awe-inspiring realism. Perfect from age 1 or even younger but Daddy will still be offering this at bedtime when they’re 5. Ask me how I know! The Mum equivalent Mummy Mine is just as lovely.
The Classic: Where’s Spot
A classic because the illustrations are simple and cute but the plots are so banal it’s enough to make you want to bludgeon your head with a cudgel by the third reading. No, I don’t like Spot. Does that make me a monster? If it has to be a dog, let it be….
The Contender: Hairy MacLarey
First of all, it’s in rhyme which will hold your little one’s attention much longer – long enough to develop something approaching a plot! Second, the illustrations of the lovable mutt and his friends are way better and full of fun. Warning, you’ll never see a Dachsund again without you and your child saying “Oh look, it’s Schnitzel von Krumm with the very low tum”. There are loads of stories in this series (the collections of 5 Hairy MacLarey stories are much better value than buying them individually) and they’re all great fun.
The Classic: The Very Hungry Caterpillar
You can’t not, really and the pictures are artistically admirable. The format with the holes is spot on really (get the board book version for durability!) but if you’re into counting things and like beautiful pictures, also try…
The Contender: Ten Little Fingers
Illustrated by the incomparable Mem Fox (also see the gorgeously quirky Australian classic Possum Magic and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge for older pre-schoolers), this is a simple tale with a repeated rhyme with children from around the world and their “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Tiny toes”. You HAVE to have your child on your lap for this one for the “three little kisses on the end of its nose”.
The Classic: The Owl and the Pussy Cat
It’s catchy, it’s loopy and it comes in hundreds of different formats. We loved this edition but this isn’t really an optional book for any child in the English-speaking world, to my mind! However…
The Contender: The Jumblies
Less well known but equally delightful by the same talented author, this edition of the Jumblies has the most gorgeous water colour and collage illustrations and will have your child chanting along with the refrain. “Far and few, far and few are the lands where the Jumblies live!” A delight. And yes, I am always a sucker for excellent artwork in children’s books.
The (modern) Classic: The Gruffalo
Maybe it’s because I have an aversion to anything that comes with merchandising but, good as it is, the Gruffalo has been done to death. Everywhere. I could never read it again and be perfectly happy. It’s not bad but it muscles other books out of the market, even to the detriment of other Julia Donaldson books.
The Contender: Stick Man
Full of clever quips about family trees and unexpected puns for the adult reader, Stick Man’s adventures are a little more interesting than the Gruffalo, but with the same illustrator which might encourage your child to branch out a little. To be honest, I prefer the Julia Donaldson’s which don’t have Axel Schaeffler as an illustrator (The Paper Dolls? It’s magical!) but that is just a personal preference.
The Classic: Each Peach Pear Plum
The Contender: Toddle Waddle
A lesser know Julia Donaldson with the same pleasing rhythm and “Let’s see what happens next” factor as Each Peach but with clearer illustrations. It has the same slightly daft scenarios. This is one they’ll want again and again.
The Classic: The Tiger Who Came to Tea
All of Judith Kerr’s books, including the wonderful Mog series, are beautiful although they look very dated now with pictures straight out of the late 1960s and gender stereotyping to match the era. This tale is delightful to a toddler – why shouldn’t a tiger come to tea after all? – but to my mind, the mother is just spinning a yarn to explain away the results of a very bad day! (Certainly that’s the main reason we occasionally end a day with a dash to the chippy!)
The Contender: Tiger, tiger
A rhythmic and simple tale about a tiger who is frightened into a tree and is found there by some curious Indian villagers. The black and white illustrations and flowing language will please a child as young as 1 but it will have longevity and there are some quirky bits of language in there “Send him to the zoo? Stick him up with glue? Paint him an electric blue?” that will make tots giggle every time. *Spoiler alert* The tiger escapes in the end! A huge hit in our house.
The Classic: We’re going on a Bear Hunt
This is actually a classic cub scout type story for slightly older children to be told around a camp fire. It frightened both mine as pre-schoolers so we never bought a copy! Fine in daylight for the less sensitive child. Not a good bedtime pick though!
The Contender: Down in the woods
Bears a plenty, plus rabbits, toads and hedgehogs, all going off to sleep with their Mummies. Perfect bedtime reading and fabulous language. There are hedgehogs “snuffling for snacks in the mossy grass” and toadlets “settling softly in the goo-glup mud”. Fun, interesting, quirky and, best of all, CALMING! A beautiful book.
The Classic: That’s not my dinosaur (et al)
I get these. They’re popular with tots because of the fun textures but for the adult? Shoot me now! Borrow from the library and exchange often.
The contender: Happy Baby
Toddlers love flaps to lift and little mirrors in books. This one is a fun introduction to recognising and expressing feelings such as happy, sad, grumpy, excited and hungry! Carefully made by the expert paediatrican Miriam Stoppard and enormous fun from 6 months onwards.
The Classic: The Cat in the Hat
Dr Seuss is a bit of a Marmite author; you either love him or hate him. But if you love him, the Cat in the Hat (or, even better, Fox in Socks) are kind of a must and are excellent for developing pre-literacy skills as read-alouds.
The Contender: Mister Magnolia
Quentin Blake does nonsense just as well as Dr Seuss and the illustrations (his own) are just as silly and goofy. Follow along with the daft rhymes. We never find out why “Mr Magnolia has only one boot” but his generous friends have him adequately shod by the end of the book.
Bonus choice…Zed’s bread
I couldn’t not include this one. If you have a child who prefers factual books but you still want the flow of a story, this little tale about a boy baking bread with his big brother will enchant from 18 months up. There are 3 double spreads at the end about different sorts of bread from around the world. We made it an adventure to try all of them and, by age 2, Tintin knew his focaccia from his naan and his bagel from his panetonne. On each page, there’s a repeated phrase of “I love making bread” said Zed which tinies love to join in with. I believe it’s out of print but new copies are still available on Amazon.
So, what are your favourite books for tinies? Which titles can you not imagine a child missing out on? Comment away!
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