A few weeks ago, my friend Cathee and her daughter, who is a month older than the twins, came over for dinner. As I chopped onions and sliced mushrooms, I asked her what books Sarah enjoys reading.

She rattled off a handful of books and then said, “Why do you ask?”

Here’s the thing: I read copiously to Jack and Jane when they were the boys’ age.

This photo of a younger Jack cuddled up against a younger me with serious bed head? This was a pretty typical morning several years ago. We called it “books in bed.” We’d often read ten or 20 in a morning, but except for the few dog-eared books we still own, I cannot for the life of me remember the books they loved, let alone all the books we read.

Most of them were either destroyed by that bane of book existence—little children (much to my horror, my kids enjoyed biting or ripping or scribbling in the pages of books)—or else they were speedily despatched by said toddlers’ mother; I swear if I had to read Dig even one more time I would have cast myself into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

These days, of course, I’m feeling nostalgic and wish I’d kept Dig. I actually miss this rhythmic and quasi-rhyming book about a backhoe, even though I read it so many times that I could say it in my sleep (and on numerous occasions, I did).

As it is, I keep reading the same dozen books to the boys over and over again, and I’m starting to feel about these excellent books the way I felt about Dig.

I need new books.

Enter my conversation with Cathee. The next day, she was kind enough to email me her list of books for the kneehigh set.

Today, I’m stealing from her list, including my own dozenish books (books I really do love if I could just get a day’s break from reading them), and hereby presenting Twenty Top Shelf Books for Toddlers (in no particular order):

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead. One of my favorite recent picture books. Ms. Stead’s illustrations deservedly won last year’s Caldecott. (And she has a new book out this spring!)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Luke loves poking his fingers in the holes in the pages of Callapitter (as Jane still calls it), especially on the page with the sausage, the lollipop, the ice cream cone, the pickle, the slice of swiss cheese…

The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle. Ben often brings this book to me, just so he can show off his knowledge of the animals. “Ssss,” he says on the cat page; “woof,” on the dog page. He’s clearly a genius.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr., illustrated by Eric Carle. This was the first book the boys would sit through, so it has a very special place in my heart.

I Like Colors and I Like Black and White by Barbara Jean Hicks, illustrated by Lila Prap. With bold and delightful illustrations and just two or three words for each double-page spread, these simple rhyming books are perfect for my boys, who find them enthralling reads. Who knew black and white could be so exciting?

Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? by Nancy White Carlstrom, illustrated by Bruce Degen. I had the privilege of sitting next to Nancy Carlstrom almost eight years ago at a dinner party for our church’s Godly Play volunteers. When I found out she was the Nancy Carlstrom who wrote Jesse Bear, I nearly fell out of my chair, out of my chair in the evening.

Jamberry by Bruce Degen. Get ready for a rollicking good time with berries of all kinds. “Trainberry, trackberry, clickety clackberry…” We love this book.

Clip-Clop by Nicola Smee. A romp of a ride on the back of Mr. Horse inevitably leads to cries of “Faster!” But will faster end in disaster?

Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina. I don’t know what it is about that tall stack of hats that cracks toddlers up, but I think the laugh-factor in this book is inevitable.

Here are Cathee’s picks, along with her comments (except for the notes in parentheses; those are mine):

Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman. (“Do you like my hat?”)

Little Bird’s ABC by Piet Grobler. This is a hoot. Sarah likes it because even though she’s not talking much she can imitate many of the sounds.

Vegetables by Sara Anderson. This is a board book that Sarah has loved for most of her reading life. There’s hardly anything to it—just illustrations of one vegetable per page, and the names of the vegetables make a little rhyme. Sarah loves the bright pictures. There’s also a Fruit book by the same author that I’ve been thinking of getting.

Curious George by Margaret and H.A. Ray. We have a collection of stories, and for the past week I’ve had to read through the whole book multiple times per day. (I suspect Cathee has an abridged version, like this one, of the books, as the collection I found was 300 pages long!)

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. (I love Jon Klassen’s art, but I wouldn’t have thought to read this to my boys. Cathee said her daughter loved it, so I put it on hold at the library [again; I read it to Jack and Jane when it first came out last fall]. I’m eager to see how the boys respond.)


And I would be remiss if I didn’t include our three favorite bedtime books:

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (of course)

Time for Bed by Mem Fox, illustrated by Jane Dyer

Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

Also, I have to put in a good word for my favorite magazine for wee ones: Babybug. I’ve had a subscription since Jack was a baby,so nine times a year I get new reading material: poems, stories, nursery rhymes, all brightly illustrated in a sturdy little square package of a “magazine.”

If you have favorite books for your toddlers, please leave a comment and let me know. I could still use more variety in my bored—I mean, board—book diet.