Books for toddlers

As a lifelong practitioner of the book-reading arts, I’ve always been gung-ho to read to my kids.

What I’m not always so excited about are the actual books on offer. With outdated gender norms, subtle (or blatant) racism, idiotic rhymes and a surplus of just plain-old bad writing, there’s definitely some problematic stuff out there in the world of children’s literature.

But you’re the parent, and therefore you have the power to protect your children from the creeping rot otherwise known as The Giving Tree. (A Goodreads reviewer sums it up nicely: “Co-dependent tree needs to set some f-ing boundaries.”)

Read on for a few book recommendations that (I hope) won’t make you want to gouge your eyes out.

Drummer Hoff

Adapted by Barbara Emberly and illustrated by Ed Emberly, this jaunty little board book follows a group of military dudes assembling a cannon.

Evidently, it’s based on an old English folk rhyme called John Ball Shot Them All. I guess I can see why they adapted it to “Drummer Hoff fired it off” instead.

This book is ideal for young toddlers, as it features bright, colorful illustrations, repetitive, infectious rhymes and an exciting climax. (Drummer Hoff does indeed “fire it off.”) When reading this seemingly simple children’s book, I find myself with many unanswered questions:

Why does the cannon appear to be pointed at the military men who assembled it? Is the book a celebration of military pomp and circumstance, or a critique of the futility of war?

Feel free to discuss these themes with your toddler: It’s never too early for literary criticism.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

“Olivia was depressed.” 

So begins this installment in the Olivia series by Ian Falconer, featuring an illustration of Olivia the pig lying flat on her back on the floor, a stricken look on her face.

In this book, Lydia is dismayed by the conformity of her peers. She comments on the auditions for her school dance recital, explaining that everyone was trying out to be the fairy princess ballerina.

Olivia, on the other hand, is beyond all that: “I’m trying to develop a more stark, modern style,” she explains.

Olivia is then shown performing a dramatic rendition of Lamentation, Martha Graham’s famous dance solo.

This is a fab gift for all the modern dance aficionados in your social circle.

Amos & Boris

You know when you “discover” a new author/musician/Instagram influencer and you think, “Where have you been my whole life?”

Such was my experience with William Steig. His illustrations are great. His writing is sophisticated and never dumbed down for the young set. He addresses a variety of adult themes that are often avoided in children’s books.

Amos is an enterprising mouse who loves the ocean. He builds a boat and heads out to sea.

“One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all.”

Then Amos accidentally rolls off his boat, confronts the very real possibility of death, is saved by Boris the whale and builds a lifelong friendship with his rescuer.

The Shrinking of Treehorn

“Something very strange was happening to Treehorn.”

This odd little tale — written by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by Edward Gorey — kicks off with young Treehorn realizing that he could no longer reach the shelf in his closet “where he hid his candy bars and bubble gum.”

He continues to shrink throughout the story, to the overall disinterest of his parents, bus driver, teacher, school principal and all the other self-absorbed adults in his world.

Published in 1971, one could argue that this book shows the dark side of the hands-off parenting some of us are so nostalgic for.

Treehorn tells his mother about his mysterious shrinking problem.

“That’s too bad, dear,” said his mother, looking into the oven. “I do hope this cake isn’t going to fall.”


Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.