Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Field Guide To ParentingOur A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop culture takes.

We recently heard some distressing news from a new-parent colleague: She hadn’t received any baby books for presents either at showers or post-birth. Sure, books may not be as straight-up practical as a Diaper Genie or a pack of onesies, but their effects last a whole lot longer. Our friend’s dilemma got some of us thinking about the books we read to our own offspring when they were little, which some of us still treasure as the calmest, happiest moments in those insane years of infant- and toddlerhood. So if you’re expecting (congratulations) or want to pick something that’s not on the registry for your next baby shower attendance, here are a couple dozen books that we heartily recommend. (If available, always go for the board-book options, because babies just love to chomp on books.)

1. Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown

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Margaret Wise Brown’s ode to bedtime, illustrated by Clement Hurd, is one of the most useful and long-lived books in a parent’s library. In its perfect simplicity, it appeals to curious babies, toddlers in need of a routine and repetition, and preschoolers who are learning to read; it’s also one of the few classic children’s books that’s short enough to be printed as a board book. The world of baby lit is oversaturated with rhymes that are annoying and exhausting (especially to those who have to regularly read them), but Brown’s soothing text—with its mushes, brushes, clocks, and socks—teaches the pleasure of hearing English read aloud, engaging a child’s interest in the sound of words. And it never gets old. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

2. Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

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This is not only an essential book for children, but for parents as well. As a parent there are going to be many times where you see your child throwing a tantrum and wonder “Where did this monster come from?” Well, from somewhere in and out of weeks and almost over a year that you can only get to by boat. In 40 pages Maurice Sendak shows us in stunning visuals just what a child is thinking when they want to rage out. And reminds us that even during their wild stage, they’re always wanting to return home to where they know they are loved and there’s a warm dinner waiting for them. [Eric Munn]

3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

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Eric Carle’s red and green caterpillar—which appears to have been made via a mix of stained glass and tissue paper—has never ceased in popularity since the book was first published in 1969. The story of a caterpillar’s week of meals is both visually stunning and educational, teaching your children counting, science, and the days of the week. Plus, who knew that a simple hole puncher could add so much fun to a read? [Eric Munn]

4. Everywhere Babies, Susan Meyers

In my own unscientific study, my babies seemed to enjoy rhyming books more than non-rhyming ones, and the melodious rhyme scheme of Everywhere Babies is a joy to read aloud. Caldecott winner Marla Frazee’s engaging illustrations depict a variety of babies and their myriad types of families, making for a board book both inclusive and infectious. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!, Mo Willems

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Your kids will immediately identify with the pigeon in this series, who wants to do something he’s not supposed to, and has a lot of (perfectly reasonable, to him) arguments for doing so. Fortunately his attention span is as quick as his funny comebacks, making him a favorite with all ages of readers. You can further follow his adventures in books like The Pigeon Wants A Puppy!, and then move on to Mo Willems’ Elephant And Piggie books in a few years—actually, the entire Willems canon is solid gold. [Gwen Ihnat]

6. I Am A Bunny, Richard Scarry

Richard Scarry is famous for his What Do People Do All Day? books—and trust us, you’ll get there eventually. But before the days of Lowly Worm, Scarry crafted beautifully detailed illustrations for a line of Golden Books, which look like fine art next to his later works. The title character in the Ole Risom-penned I Am A Bunny travels through dreamlike settings of every season, from vibrant autumn leaves to a breathtaking summer butterflies, for a Scarry picture book you and your child may never tire of gazing at. [Gwen Ihnat]

7. The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats

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Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day is a landmark for its depiction of an African-American protagonist—it was the first full-color picture book to do so—but it’s just as noteworthy for the elegance of its prose and the gobsmacking hues of its art. Keats’ protagonist, Peter—who he’d go on to illustrate in six additional books—trawls through the snow-covered urban setting with a sense of wonder and playfulness that’s infectious. [Clayton Purdom]

8. Harry The Dirty Dog, Gene Zion

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Yes, it’s definitely curious that Harry’s family doesn’t recognize him when he comes home covered in soot and dirt from all his adventures. But the 1956 book has engaged families for decades with its delightful illustrations and monotone color scheme (yellow and green were added in 2002 by the original artist). But your child will likely completely understand how fun it is for Harry to get so dirty in the railroad and coal chute, and the depiction of his quest for a bath at the end so that his family will recognize him may make even your own child’s bath time sound like something to savor (“Harry’s bath was the soapiest one he’d ever had. It worked like magic”). It’s the perfect story for the bath or the end of the day; after your child’s own daily explorations, there’s nothing nicer than coming home and getting clean again. [Gwen Ihnat]

9. When We Were Very Young, A.A. Milne

Even before there was Winnie The Pooh and Piglet, there was Christopher Robin and some charming volumes of poetry by his father, A.A. Milne. The rhymes are more for reading out loud than looking at sweet Ernest H. Shepard’s line drawings, as we trace Christopher’s trips from the corner of his street all the way to Buckingham Palace (“They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace / Christopher Robin went down with Alice.”) They’ll be plenty of time for Pooh Bear, but in the meantime, your child can get to know him in his very first appearance in “Teddy Bear” (“Do you think it worries him/ To know that he is far from slim? / No, just the other way about / He’s proud of being short and stout”). [Gwen Ihnat]

10. Green Eggs And Ham, Dr. Seuss

Really, any “I Can Read” volume from the ubiquitous Dr. Seuss should have a welcome home on your offspring’s bookshelf. But Green Eggs And Ham is one of these “classic for a reason” books: You likely still have some of the rhymes coded into your own DNA (“Would you like them in a box? Would you like them with a fox?”) as the settings for eating the dish rise from house to car to train to boat. Best of all, GEAH offers a valuable lesson about picky eaters. When your kids protest green food themselves in a few years, just remind them how things turned out for indefatigable Sam and his eventually convinced friend. [Gwen Ihnat]

11. The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson

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The Gruffalo is another book with a truly lyrical rhyme scheme, a specialty of former musician and playwright Julia Donaldson. A small mouse wanders through the wood deflecting predators like owls and foxes by telling them tales of the terrible woodland creature the Gruffalo. Then the mythical beast actually shows up. The Gruffalo offers some valuable lessons in bravery, as well as straight-up attitude. And the descriptive, sing-songy couplets are so hypnotic (“He has knobbly knees, and turned-out toes / And a poisonous wart at the end of his nose”), be prepared for multiple recitations, even though depicting the wee little mouse and scratchy, grumbly beast may stretch the limits of your picture-book vocalizations. [Gwen Ihnat]

12. Llama Llama, Anna Dewdney

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The late Anna Dewdney became a sensation with her very first book, 2005’s Llama Llama Red Pajama, which established all the hallmarks of the series: relatable situations and kids’-size crises; a deep sense of empathy; and a playful verse structure that finds endless rhymes for “llama.” Before her death in 2016, Dewdney produced dozens of books about little Llama Llama’s various “llama dramas,” from learning how to share to dealing with bullies. Many of them revolve around common hurdles for both children and their parents, like going to sleep alone or getting through a simple shopping trip. (As bonus enticement for today’s kids, there’s a Llama Llama cartoon on Netflix with the voice of Jennifer Garner, though it lacks Dewdney’s wordplay.) With Llama Llama being raised solely by his Mama—presumably because “Papa” doesn’t rhyme with “llama”—it’s also a subtly empowering story about single mothers. [Sean O’Neal]

13. The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

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There’s a reason why Margaret Wise Brown is the only author with two volumes on our list: In her short life (she died of an embolism at 42), she was expert at crafting timeless stories for kids (and parents) that were whimsical without being cloying, often reading like straight-up poetry. Case in point: The little bunny in Runaway Bunny wants to run away, the way all children threaten at one point or another. His mother points out that wherever he goes, whatever he turns into, she will always be able to find him: “If you become a bird and fly away from me,” says his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.” His mother’s fierce tenaciousness convinces the bunny to stay right where he is, and Brown offers the perfect, offhanded punchline: “Have a carrot.” For my son and me, this was “our book,” and I’ll always love it. [Gwen Ihnat]

14. Go, Dog. Go!, P. D. Eastman

You can find P.D. Eastman alongside the usual crop of Dr. Seuss books, but he offered a very different (yet still wholly engaging) visual style. His classic Go, Dog. Go! ingeniously offers concepts like color and direction (“The blue dog is in. The red dog is out.”) while depicting a variety of dogs on a search for a dog party. The drawings are so detailed that your kids can spend hours dissecting how many dogs are actually at that party, or the different kinds of cars in a dog traffic jam. This fun read-aloud may also easily transition into one of the first books your kid can read by themselves. [Gwen Ihnat]

15. Good Night, Gorilla, Peggy Rathmann

As a weary zookeeper bids goodnight to various animals, a mischievous gorilla lets out all of his gleeful friends. Good Night, Gorilla has no dialogue beyond those evening greetings, so even kids who can’t read yet will feel like they’re reading on their own. And the final funny reveal may still make your toddler giggle the hundredth time they’ve flipped through it. [Gwen Ihnat]

16. Guess How Much I Love You, Sam McBratney

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Guess How Much I Love You gets parodied quite a bit, but there’s still emotional value in the tale of an androgynous rabbit bidding their child good night with a rising list of affectionate oneupsmanship. The clear message: No matter how much you think you love me, kid, I love you more (it’s like a latter-day version of Runaway Bunny). There’s a reason why the phrase “to the moon and back” makes certain parents and now-grown kids tear up immediately. [Gwen Ihnat]

17. Pajama Time!, Sandra Boynton

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Sandra Boynton—who has created a cottage industry of children’s books and greeting cards out of her delightful and deceptively simple animal drawings—is another one of those authors that has produced a tremendous amount of winners, and a basket of her board books would make a perfect shower present. But to start winding things down before bed, Pajama Time! is a perfect passport, cheerfully announcing the evening’s main event as something to be celebrated, not avoided: “Hop into bed. Turn off the light. You can have a party in your dreams tonight.” Even the most bedtime-resistant may be powerless to resist. [Gwen Ihnat]

18. On The Night You Were Born, Nancy Tillman

Every parent thinks their kid is special, and On The Night You Were Born gives them a chance to explain just how special. It catalogs how the world reacted to news of the child’s birth: Polar bears danced all night when they found out, geese flew home. It was the biggest news in the world—at least for the parents. Tillman says her work tries “to give parents words to say what they feel about their children,” and On The Night You Were Born provides a sweet, heartfelt way to convey how much they mean. [Kyle Ryan]

19. Harold And The Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson

A testament to kids’ creativity, Harold And The Purple Crayon shows how much can come from some imagination. Harold goes on an adventure using simple pictures he draws with his purple crayon, from sailing in a boat to flying in a hot-air balloon and walking around a city. The book debuted in 1955 and spawned a quick succession of other Harold adventures, but the first one remains the best. [Kyle Ryan]

20. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen

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A blockbuster in the world of children’s books, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt has remained in print since its debut 30 years ago, selling 9 million copies in the process. The keys are Michael Rosen’s rhythmic text about a family looking for bears—each page beginning “We’re going on a bear hunt / We’re going to catch a big one / What a beautiful day! / We’re not scared”—and Helen Oxenbury’s beautiful illustrations. The words come from an old campfire song from the ’50s, which the book has long since eclipsed. The simplicity of the book may leave parents wondering how it got so popular, but kids tend to get it immediately. [Kyle Ryan]

21. Frog And Toad, Arnold Lobel

Many years after author Arnold Lobel died in 1987, his daughter, Adrianne, caused a minor firestorm by suggesting that his cherished Frog And Toad series was really about Lobel processing his own homosexuality. But the love the two amphibians share transcends labels: Theirs is a pure, purely giving relationship that sees the somewhat grouchier, uptight Toad and the unflappably good-humored Frog finding their greatest joys in each other’s company, their constant and unconditional caring serving as a model for friendship—however you want to define it. Even better, it does so with an appreciably dry humor that undercuts any potential sappiness. [Sean O’Neal]

22. Olivia, Ian Falconer

Olivia is good at lots of things—and especially good at wearing people out. So begins Ian Falconer’s series about a curious, headstrong, and occasionally exhausting pig, whose adventures have stretched across more than a dozen books and a popular British cartoon now. While some of Olivia’s more willful moments aren’t always the best model for behavior—she gets carried away easily, offers some mild back talk, and hates naps—her imagination and ambition are admirable, echoed in Falconer’s inclusions of famous artworks by the likes of Edgar Degas and Jackson Pollock. As Olivia’s mother sighs to her, “You really wear me out, but I love you anyway.” [Sean O’Neal]

23. Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans

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Ludwig Bemelmans published his first Madeline book in 1939, and while its world of a prim Catholic girls’ boarding school now seems as quaint as Bemelmans’ impressionist illustrations, its story of the brave, rebellious young redhead among them remains timeless. (Just look at how many adaptations it’s seen throughout the years.) The original Madeline is a charming, quirky wonder, quickly introducing the tiny, strong-willed Madeline and her exasperated caretaker Miss Clavel, then showing how Madeline even triumphs over a sudden burst appendix by proudly showing off her surgical scar to the other girls. It’s a classic tale told with clever wordplay and a streak of mordant wit, and remains an institution. [Sean O’Neal]

24. I Like Myself, Karen Beaumont

Karen Beaumont’s I Like Myself is as simple as its title proclaims, a girl’s proclamation of self-worth in spite of anyone else’s opinion. But a surprising amount of the text is given over to extremes that she’d love herself despite (bad hair days, purple lips, and so on). Illustrator David Catrow gets a blank check here, creating huge Seuss-ian contraptions and kaleidoscopic oil paintings, making the whole thing an explosion of color that matches the book’s message. [Clayton Purdom]

25. Giraffes Can’t Dance, Giles Andreae

While a lot of short children’s books ditch traditional narrative in favor of easier or more abstract messages, Giraffes Can’t Dance promises some tension in its very title, as a giraffe named Gerald sets out to prove the titular declaration wrong. Giles Andreae’s precise cadences have a rhythm of their own, galloping toward a full-hearted climax as Gerald becomes the star of the jungle dance. [Clayton Purdom]

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