Our Picks: Top 5 Children’s Books in Our Household Library

And how to approach reading as a parent

20,000.  That’s how many story times Helen and I will have with our kids until they become self-sufficient readers.   We’ve made a point to incorporate reading several times a day into our routines and to instill in our kids a lifelong love of reading. It is probably one of our strongest traditions in the family, passed down through multiple generations now.  Even now in my thirties I end my day with 30 minutes of fiction reading.

This part of parenting is a marathon not a sprint.   The point is to instill an infectious joy of stories, characters, and escapism using the written word.  My biggest advice to new parents is to choose books you enjoy reading.  Kids are exceptional at reading your energy and investment level even before they understand what they are hearing.   With newborns, Helen and I figured it was more about babies hearing the spoken word; we read The Economist and Horatio Hornblower to them.   With our oldest now graduating to chapter books, we are just starting to unlock the world of young adult fiction and the discussions around the dinner table that speculate on what happens next in these stories.

But there is that middle ground – ages 2-6 – where Helen and I are always on the hunt for clever, fantastic children’s books to add to our library.  Sparks of joy and mastery in the sea of 20,000 story times.  Ones that we enjoy reading ourselves so that our engagement with the text will be transparent.   There is a lot of middle of the road content out there, so I’ve come to appreciate the memorable ones.  The point of this post is to force the picking of a top 5 and here were the criteria we developed for it:

  • The Pixar Test.  Pixar is famous for embedding a 2nd level of plot that entertains the parent as well as the child.  I love it when children’s book speak sotto voce to the parent.

  • Teaching Modern Lessons.   So much of children’s literature feels like nostalgia or 1950’s moral wisdom.   Our top 5 is filled with modern distillations of our human experience – those that deal with keeping a healthy mind or explore concepts like self-discovery.   I appreciate those that can summarize today’s zeitgeist in just a couple hundred words. 

  • Cleverly Different.  Some books seem to standout and say “Yes, we know you have 20,000 story time sessions.  We are here to make it fresh and interesting.”  These Top 5 embrace the context of redundancy among us reading parents and include premises that are just, frankly, clever.

  • Imaginative.    Great children’s books don’t spoon feed the child and parent the story.  They invoke imagination and engage with interactivity.   A joy of reading comes from not being a passive reader and when I think back to our most memorable items in the library, it’s ones that teach us to engage with what we read.

So maybe you are looking for a gift for parent friends or soon to be parents.   Maybe you want to make upping your reading game with your kids a New Year’s resolution.  Whatever it is, here is a few of the cleverest children’s book I know.  Happy Reading!

The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

Here’s a thought experiment.  What if you wanted to write a book so engaging, silly, and imaginative that it could hold a kid’s attention without pictures?   I can just imagine the publishers pitch room where a book like this broke their model: “I don’t know, Jim, that seems pretty risky to me.”   Plus, with an author who is that (other) famous actor from the Office, how could I not fall in love with this one?

(Amazon link)

Press Here by Herve Tullet

Talk about reduction to first principles.  We’ve read dozens of books that require you to interact with the book – Blow out that candle! Shake the page! – but this feels like the “original text” in doing so, especially with the whimsical style to it all.  Follow a dot as it and its environment changes if you follow the pages’ instructions.

(Amazon link)

The Day the Crayons Quit By Drew Daywalt

By far the best part of this book is just the premise: What if a boy’s crayons went on strike and wrote personalized grievance letters?  I never thought I’d have to figure out what voice to use when an orange crayon is fighting with yellow over who is the color of the sun.  But there you go.

(Amazon link)

Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang

Out of all 20,000 story times, I don’t think I’ve found a book that captured a life lesson as simply and poignantly as Grumpy Monkey.  It relates together physical pain with mental health to eloquently makes the simple point that sometimes it is OK to not feel mentally OK, but that things will get better with time.  Frankly, I’ve thought of getting it for some coworkers.

(Amazon link)

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall

Children’s book often do not seem to focus enough on discovering yourself.   It feels often like books are trying to teach children about the world or some moral truth.  And while it is true that self-identify often comes later in life, it was still a gem to discover a children’s book that tackles self-discovery – and frankly the concepts of covering and fitting in – in a raw, poignant way.

(Amazon link)

A Coda on Privilege

A theme of this newsletter/blog is exploring privilege, allyship, and social progress and what it means to modern living and better leadership.  So this post makes me reflect what type of doors an early childhood of reading opened for me.   More than anything else, it established a positive relationship with learning.  So much of early learning has delayed gratification – what immediate joy do you get from learning letters and numbers until later when you put it all together?  But having a story read to you – that teaches you to love learning with instant payback the more you listen.  So of course the new worlds and academic success great reading and verbal skills can unlock are important – but I think it’s that shortcut to a positive association with learning that is the biggest advantage. 

It makes me reflect on the framing of privilege as not only a set of fixed unearned advantages – but also as access to the resources (time, books, patience, energy) to make it easier to establish an advantageous mindset to the world.   It’s a map to life’s force multipliers.   Framing investments in local libraries this way makes it clear just how important they are to a community and why they serve a higher purpose than just a place to access a book.   Support those local tax levies – they are a leveraged investment and, if you are so inspired, considering donating to your local library – here is the link to King County’s in Washington: King County Library System Foundation (kclsfoundation.org).  In fact, 100% of any affiliate fees from this post will go there.