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A lot of baby-shower hosts ask guests to bring a favorite baby book as part of the gift or in lieu of a card. (Why do people always request that?!) This inevitably leads to multiple copies of Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. As great as those are, I want to give something that the parents-to-be aren’t already familiar with. What are some of your favorite nonobvious books that babies will love and adults won’t get sick of reading?
I love the idea of using a baby shower to kick-start a library for the new arrival. It’s a sweet practice that’s also a chance to make a gift more personal — not that a diaper pail, nipple cream, or a NoseFrida can’t be. You’re right that most people will already have the Eric Carles, Sandra Boyntons, and other classic board books lined up in their nursery, so here’s a list of some favorites from me and a few other Strategist staffers that are a little more unexpected (with a few picks from some of our children’s book coverage). The list includes titles for both the youngest babies and toddlers, because it’s never too early to start a child on their reading journey, and a lot of them happen to fall under the old classics category, which I personally prefer, but there are a couple more contemporary books in here, too.
Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio, whose daughters are 6.5 and 4 years old, loves this board book by Janik Coat that she received at her own baby shower. “Not only did it stand out as one I hadn’t seen before (and, importantly, didn’t receive duplicate copies of), it’s the perfect mix of simple concepts, good design, and clever, minimal text — an invaluable combo for parents who might eventually have to read them over and over again, once their kiddo starts to pick favorites,” she says. Another nice element is that many of the illustrations are textured, which she notes that her daughter “loved to touch and engage with starting around 6 months old.”
Babies love looking at other babies, and this book is filled with all kinds of adorable ones. It’s another favorite of Trolio’s, with “illustrations that are really layered and thoughtful in representing all kinds of babies and parents.” Plus, “it has a really pleasing cadence and rhyme structure” that her kids loved (her 4-year-old still asks to read it sometimes).
Here’s another one Trolio swears by. Like the others, it has “very minimal text, cool illustrations, and lots of opportunity to describe what’s happening without going nuts reading the same rhymes over and over.” First published in the ’60s, it tells the story of Rosie, a hen, going on a walk while a fox follows quietly behind her. The illustrations have that decidedly retro vibe, and as Trolio notes, “there’s a lot happening in the pictures” to keep little readers engaged.
This black-and-white book by Loryn Brantz (author of Feminist Baby) is Strategist U.K. senior editor Ailbhe Malone’s pick. Because of its high-contrast color scheme (with red accents), she says “it’s easy for babies to see” the illustrations. Plus, the lyrical text is a love poem to the child that’s as soothing and sweet as a lullaby.
These two by Japanese author and illustrator Taro Gomi are some of our family’s favorite books. (They’re also beloved by a couple of Strategist staffers, including senior writer Liza Corsillo.) We got them for our toddler when he was 10 months old after I reported this story on board books, and they’re still in rotation (he’s 3 now). My Friends follows a little girl traveling through her town and meeting animals, her teachers, and her classmates, all of whom she calls her friends. She learns various skills from them, including running, jumping, and playing. The writing is simple yet mesmerizing, and the artwork is exquisite, adorable, and cheeky. The same is true of Bus Stops. In this story, a bus goes along its route and drops off salesmen, a baseball team, a movie actor, a family, and other characters, before ending its day at the bus depot. We can’t get enough of them. And the fact that the characters are Asian makes the books even more meaningful to us.
For kids, like my son, who are obsessed with vehicles, this classic from Richard Scarry and his Busy World is chaotic in the best way. There’s a very minimal story line about a family of pigs going on a day trip, but the real excitement is looking at all the wacky cars, trucks, airplanes, buses, trains, and Scarry-specialty vehicles — and their drivers — they encounter along the way. You’ll see a pickle truck, an alligator car, a three-wheel beet truck, and “a wrecked car being towed by a BIG TOW TRUCK which is being towed by a little tow truck,” which is pink and belongs to Mistress Mouse Repairs. You don’t so much read this book as experience it.
A friend gifted this and a bunch of other books when Augie was first born, and it’s still a favorite. (We had recently put it away in storage, then Augie all of a sudden asked for it and we had to dig it back out.) It’s written by Ole Risom and illustrated by Richard Scarry (in a much softer, baby-friendly style) and tells the story of Nicholas the bunny through different seasons, but it’s really about appreciating nature. Augie loves the fact that he lives in a cozy, hollow tree.
Here’s another favorite of my son’s, but much more subdued. Written and illustrated by Donald Crews, the Caldecott Honor Book is spare and minimal in both art and text and follows the journey of a freight train and all its cars until it rolls off the page and into the distance. It’s a good way to learn all the different names of train cars, too (caboose, tender car, boxcar, etc.).
Colorful, gustatorial, and plain delightful, this book by Nigerian-born author and oral storyteller Atinuke is about a baby taking a trip to the market on his mother’s back. Because he’s just so cute and curious about everything on offer, the sellers sneak him treats like juicy oranges, coconuts, and cookies. It’s a counting book, so the language is rhythmic and really fun to read aloud (Augie loved it and we never got sick of reading it night after night).
This is obviously a classic (and a Caldecott Honor Book), but let me make the case that it’s a wonderful book for the under-3 set. My order history tells me we got this when Augie was 3 months old, and while we probably didn’t read it to him then, it’s been a favorite of his as a 1- and 2-year-old. It’s a (very short) chapter book, so it’s much more text-heavy than all the others on this list, but the stories are just so hilarious and entertaining (and moving) that they really hold the imagination of a tiny tot. The illustrations are incredible, too. My husband and I probably love this book, and the others in the series, more than our child does.
This is a gorgeous box set of the complete tales of Peter Rabbit and an excellent gift by itself. It comes with 23 (adult) palm-size hardcover books (which accounts for the price) illustrated with Beatrix Potter’s original watercolor art. Some of the stories are definitely dated and a little scary — there are guns and corporal punishment, and more than a few characters meet brutal fates — but it’s the old-fashionedness that makes them so whimsical. Augie particularly loves the original Peter Rabbit story as well as the Fierce Bad Rabbit (about a naughty rabbit who steals a nice bunny’s carrot and whose tail gets blasted off by a hunter — we pretend that the gun is a stick). Other stories are much longer with only a few pictures, but I’m hoping that Augie will grow into them. If I’m being honest, I will say that I wanted this more for myself than for Augie.
Here’s a contemporary book from Corsillo’s story about books to read during Black History Month (and all year long) that she says she’d personally want in her library. As one of the experts she spoke to for the story told her, it’s around 2 years old when kids start to understand similarities and differences, so starting the conversation early about race can help children develop empathy. “This board book is the first in a series of books meant to help parents start important conversations with clear, concrete language and beautiful imagery that young children can grasp,” writes Corsillo.
If you want to impart the wonder of our planet to a young friend, this beautifully illustrated book by the illustrator of The Day the Crayons Quit is another favorite baby gift, and one that Strategist contributor Jen Doll put at the top of her roundup of the best books for budding environmentalists. Oliver Jeffers wrote it for his own son, taking him (and readers) on a journey through water, earth, and sky, introducing us to the creatures and humans that make up Earth.
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