holiday gifts 2022

The Best (Strategist Approved) Children’s Books

Photo: The Strategist

After speaking with tons of parents and child-development experts, we noticed some trends in the advice they gave about shopping for kids. Whether they were talking about the best gifts for 6-month-olds or 6-year-olds, our expert sources warned that anything you give to a child is also a thing you’re giving to their parents. So while popular toys that play “Baby Shark” on repeat might be met with cheers from a toddler or an elementary schooler, they may not be as appreciated by Mom and Dad. However, if the child you’re buying for receives a beautifully designed (and age-appropriate) book, both kids and adults will likely begin to think of you as their favorite. To help you find the best kids’ board books, picture books, chapter books, and even cookbooks, we sifted through everything we’ve written about before. Below, 33 children’s books that would also make great gifts for all the kids (and, in turn, parents) in your life.

For babies

In our gift guide for 1-year-olds, educator and home-school mom Britt Hawthorne mentioned “quiet books,” which have soft pages and offer lots of stimulation by way of texture, bright colors, and pieces for them to manipulate like a zipper or pull. These books tend to be made of felted or quilted material, and keep little hands and minds occupied — ideal for new and experienced parents alike.

Strategist writer Lauren Ro bought this board book after having her second child, inspired by a story she wrote about the best board books for babies. “It’s a bit larger than the other high-contrast baby books we have, which makes it easier for him to look at, and the bright, swirly colors and sweet characters (a frog, fishies, kitties, watermelon) absolutely mesmerize him (as the book’s subtitle promises),” she says. “He focuses the whole time we’re reading it to him and sometimes cracks a smile. It’s too cute.”

Leadership speaker Jovian Zayne came across these books after googling “books kids can’t ruin.” They’re good for teaching your baby simple words and phrases and are made from a rip- and tearproof material that’s washable.

The popular baby books are ubiquitous at baby showers, so we set out to recommend a few less obvious (but still good) options. One that came up was Rhymoceros, mentioned by Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio. “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. It has textured illustrations, which was engaging for her little ones.

When writing about the best board books for babies, Ro learned that newborn babies are still developing their eyesight and see the world in black and white. For that reason, she wrote that this highly graphic book — which unfolds accordion-style so babies can stare at it during tummy time — is another great one for infants.

According to the child development experts we spoke to about the best gifts for 6-month-olds, babies at that age really love looking at pictures of other babies. “They are starting to be more inclined to pay attention to a book and they’re starting to notice other babies’ faces,” says Sarah MacLaughlin, senior writer and training specialist of Zero to Three. This board book will both stand up to drool and mesmerize your little one.

Patricia Cantor, a professor of early-childhood education at Plymouth State University, told us she likes this board book that encourages language-enhancing interaction between babies and caregivers. “Babies really learn language when you use a word while matching it to an action or an object. So if you’re reading the book Clap Hands while actually clapping your hands, they’re gonna pick up that language much faster,” Cantor says.

This die-cut board book, which came recommended by Brooklyn Public Library’s Rachel Payne, is kind of like an interactive work of art that’s designed to introduce your little one to colors. Hold it up to a window or a lamp and explore how the light changes through each translucent circle.

For parents who think it’s never too early to encourage mathematical thinking, this book about a little elephant and his building blocks is just the ticket. Plus, it features repetition and rhythmic cadence that will hold 1-year-old babies’ attention, according to MacLaughlin.

For toddlers

If you’re looking for ways to celebrate diversity early on, this book by Todd Parr came recommended by Lisa Knowlton, the children’s buyer at 192 Books, and Emily Woods, who runs children’s marketing and school partnerships at McNally Jackson, when we asked about the best books for LGBTQ+ families. It showcases lots of different kinds of families — families with two moms or two dads, big families, and clean and messy ones too. “The general message is that all families are not the same but they basically and ultimately all care about similar things like love,” says Knowlton.

For bedtime there’s Good Night, Gorilla, which came recommended by assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research Dr. Alexandra Figueras-Daniel and Shannon Lockhart, a manager at education-research foundation HighScope, in our story about the best gifts for 2-year-olds. What makes this book good is the recurring themes and word repetition, says Lockhart, noting that it keeps kids engaged.

We have included Eric Carle’s gorgeous and charming story about a caterpillar who eats its way through an entire picnic in several gift guides before, including one with the best gifts for 2-year-olds. It encourages curiosity about science and nature, has cutouts that kids can put their fingers through, and the story is simple enough that children and parents can improvise as they read together.

In her story on the best books for teaching kids about the environment, author Jen Doll says that this picture book (from the same illustrator who created The Day the Crayons Quit) is one that can help any parents teach their little ones about the world — from Earth to space to humanity — and how they should treat it. Doll adds that the author created the book for his own son, so you could say it’s fully user-tested.

Press Here, which was also included in our gift guide for 2-year-olds, teaches toddlers cause and effect. Each page has a new proposition for interactive play.

In this sweet board book by Japanese author Taro Gomi, the main character learns to run, jump, and swim from her friends the horse, the monkey, and the fish. It has a repetitive sentence structure that makes it great for reading aloud to toddlers.

There’s lots to look at and study in this metropolitan-themed board book. “Each page is cut into the shape of a letter of the alphabet, creating a sort of peek-through guessing game around the letter form itself,” says Vina Castillo, a co-owner of Kew & Willow Books.

To help a child get comfortable with other languages at a young age, consider this colorful book by beloved French author and illustrator Soledad Bravi, which contributor Pamela Druckerman (the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting) says will “teach your child that Parisian ambulances go pinponpin and that glou-glou is the sound of a French kid drinking.”

For 4- and 5-year-olds

Whether they’re helping to make actual or pretend tacos, 4- and 5-year-olds will love flipping the flaps on each page of this interactive cookbook, which was featured in our story on the best cookbooks for kids.

Sendak’s classic is a foolproof choice for 4-year-olds, according to George Sachs, a clinical child psychologist and the founder of the Sachs Center, whom we spoke to for our gift guide for children that age.

Another classic option is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which made our list of books that will turn kids into environmentalists. The book’s true meaning is still up for debate — some have said it’s a thesis about parenting while others take it as a more straightforward book about how we treat nature. Either way, it’s sure to keep your child entertained.

When we asked parents about their and their kids’ favorite books, Neel Premkumar, a father of twin daughters and the founder and CEO of Forto Coffee, mentioned Maddi’s Fridge. The book is a story about friendship that Premkumar says “teaches kids to realize that not everyone may be as fortunate as them and to think about and care for other people.”

B.J. Novak’s bestseller has popped up on a few of our lists, including the best gifts for 4-year-olds. It’s a kid favorite that uses onomatopoeia to hilarious results, like getting adults to say goofy, silly stuff.

Nonfiction kids’ books are often wildly underrated. But this visually arresting book about sharks made its way onto our list of best gifts for 5-year-olds because of the way it stokes kids’ curiosity.

For 6- to 9-year-olds

When we asked educators about the best books for first-graders, Kazz Alexander Pinkard, an executive director of Hit the Books, an after-school nonprofit in Harlem, mentioned The Day the Crayons Quit and its sequel The Day the Crayons Came Home because of the diverse characters and their differing personalities. “I love the idea of the crayons and the rainbow reflecting the differences between people and attitudes and roles in society,” he says.

Several librarians we spoke to for our roundup of the best children’s books for 6-year-olds told us they can’t keep books by Mo Willems on their shelves. This one, which won the Caldecott, is about a cheeky pigeon who won’t take no for an answer.

This title comes from Doll’s list of the best children’s books to teach kids about feminism. Not only does it explain electoral politics (particularly timely given we’re in an election year), it also tells the story of a well-qualified girl vying for a position against a boy who barely tries. If you’re worried that scenario will stress you and your kid out, don’t: There’s a happy ending.

From our list of the best Kickstarter-funded gifts for kids, this book is geared specifically toward young girls (though we see no reason boys couldn’t love it too). A modern publishing phenomenon — it has already sold more than half a million copies — the book includes 100 bedtime stories about the lives of as many extraordinary women.

And if you’d like to teach them about notable Black women in particular, there’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, which came up when we spoke with experts about the best books about race for kids. The book spotlights 40 women in history — some whom they might not know well — like Mary Bowser, a Union spy during the Civil War, and Katherine Johnson, one of the NASA mathematicians that inspired Hidden Figures. And once they read that, there’s one that spotlights notable Black men, too.

This picture book, featured in our guide to gifts for 6-year-olds shines a light on girls in STEM and encourages young readers to stay curious. Main character Ada Twist is a second-grader who loves to ask questions and investigate things, and this book tells the story of how she uses the scientific method to find the source of a strange smell.

Over the course of this funny picture book from the same guide, Penelope Rex eventually learns not to eat her classmates. Recommended by Mollie Welsh Kruger, a professor at the Bank Street College of Education, for our list of books for 6-year-olds, it’s a perfect book for kids who struggle with boundaries.

This book about a boy named Julian who loves mermaids also came recommended by several experts for our list of books for 6-year-olds. Lindsy Serrano, a librarian at St. Francis School in Kentucky, told us she uses it during story time because of the way it “defies male expectations and stereotypes.”

This series of graphic novels from the author of Captain Underpants has a big-kid feel and subversive humor that reportedly fascinates 6-year-olds.

For another crowd-pleasing comic book that 6- and 7-year-olds won’t want to put down, look no further than the expert-recommended Calvin and Hobbes.

For 10-year-olds and above

From $10

When we asked experts about the best graphic novels and memoirs, three mentioned Persepolis, which focuses on Marjane Satrapi’s life in Tehran from ages 6 to 14. It coincides with the Islamic Revolution and later the Iran-Iraq War. There are some big themes here, but Satrapi handles it in a way that is both deeply personal and humorous. “The cozy illustrations feel like I’m in somebody’s home being told this story,” says Jordan Sondler, author of the graphic book Feel It Out, adding that the intimacy makes this difficult topic “more easily digestible.”

Artsy kids will appreciate Yayoi Kusama’s slightly surrealist take on the classic story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which we mentioned in our roundup of artist’s books for children.

They’ll also like The Ultimate Art Museum, which came up in our story about the best Black coffee-table books. It’s about an imaginary museum that contains 40,000 of the world’s greatest art. It’s both visually beautiful and educational: every piece of art comes with a bit of background about the artist and how the work exists in the greater context of a moment or movement.

Jake Strang, executive chef of L27 Rooftop Lounge at the Westin Nashville, mentioned the MasterChef Junior Cookbook when we spoke to him for our story about cookbooks for kids. He says it’s a hit with his teenage daughter and helps kids learn how to cook like a real pro.

We wrote about this manga-esque graphic novel in our gift guide for 12-year-olds. According to Brooklyn Public Library’s Lisa Goldstein, it deals with all the common middle-school themes but does so at a gentle pace with plenty of humor to balance the gossip and peer pressure.

Goldstein also likes The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang for middle schoolers, saying, “It’s such a frothy, fun, and joyful fairy tale that also deals with the subtlety of gender identities.”

This graphic novel also showed up on our list of books for 12-year-olds, but could easily appeal to older kids. Hey, Kiddo is a memoir about the author’s life growing up with an addict mother. Goldstein says, “It’s written from his viewpoint as a teenager, and it definitely works for kids working on that idea of identity.”

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The Best (Strategist Approved) Children’s Books