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At age three, our children are exploring the world in new ways. Their imaginations are active like never before: the landscape of their rooms can transform into an island like that of Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Their capacity for sharing and kindness is massive, as is their boundless energy (are they asleep yet?) and, let’s face it, their erratic behavior.
This list has a number of classics, several tried-and-true bedtime tales, and some stories that three-year-olds, in particular, will delight in: books full of stories within stories and books you’ll love reading again and again with them (because we promise you, reading the same book with a three-year-old is never exactly the same).
Three-year-olds are just at that age when they feel much bigger than they physically are. They aren’t babies, but they still get called babies from time to time. Anna Kang captures this sentiment perfectly in the simple text of this Theodor Seuss Geisel Award-winning book, and your little-big-ones will completely relate to this one.
Three-year-olds have an amazing capacity for kindness and sharing. In the Cherokee community, the word otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is used to express gratitude. Written by Traci Sorell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year, little readers follow a year of celebrations and experiences, with the expression of otsaliheliga, gratitude, throughout the year, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations.
A book that combines baking with construction vehicles in a delightful imaginary world is a home run for every three-year-old we know, and each page contains so many people and vehicles to observe it also has a Where’s Waldo?-like quality sure to keep them entertained.
A Caldecott Honor award winner and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, this beautiful book takes kids on a trip across town with C.J. and his Nana on a trip they take every Sunday, until one day when C.J. wonders why they don’t have a car like his friend, and why they always get off in the “dirty part of town.” The book is both a celebration of the bond between a grandparent and grandchild, an exploration of life in a city and a reminder about perspective and the joy in the unexpected.
Once you crack open this book from author-illustrator James Yang, you won’t be surprised that it was the winner of the 2020 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for most distinguished American book for beginning readers. The “bot” in the book escapes from a little boy’s hands and as it floats away like a balloon it passes pages and pages of rich city and building details your children will absolutely love pointing out. It’s one of those books that have stories within the story and they will delight in telling you new stories each time you open it.
In the Igbo language, Omu (Ah-Moo) means queen, but growing up, author-illustrator Oge Mora always used it to mean Grandma. As a tribute to one of the strong female role models in her life, Oge Mora wrote this book about a woman who makes a big pot of delicious stew, so delicious everyone wants to try it…until the pot is empty. What happens when Omu has been so generous there is nothing left for herself? A lesson in kindness and generosity that your little ones will not soon forget.
This one might already be in rotation for bedtime stories, but if it’s not, your three-year-old will love the repetitive, rhyming enough to start repeating it themselves, a first step to learning to read independently. The late Anna Dewdney’s classic holds a place in every parent’s heart, and when you read this together, you’ll know why: it perfectly captures “I don’t want to go to bed” syndrome in the most adorable way.
It’s hard to pick just one Mo Willems book for any list. From the Elephant and Piggie series showcasing undying, hilarious friendship to the pigeon and his antics, Mo Willems is one of our all-time favorite kid authors. For any parent whose willful three-year-old just won’t take a bath (or just won’t do anything for seemingly senseless reasons), this book is utterly hysterical. Read it together and you’ll see exactly what we mean.
Finding nonfiction for kids under five can actually be a challenge, but this big book of planets is one of the best. This book is packed with beautiful images of our solar system and planets and tons of fun age-appropriate space facts for young kids ready to explore the solar system.
Another classic book that every three-year-old should have access to, this beautiful book taps into the joy of a child experiencing new things with pure joy, something a toddler can show such gusto for. Join Peter as he explores his snowy day, just as he did back in 1962 when this book was first published.
The ultimate bedtime story for little vehicle lovers everywhere, this catchy book became an instant classic when it was first published in 2011 and has maintained a spot on the toddler bestseller list ever since.
Although this book could be introduced at a younger age, there’s something about three-year-olds and their love of rainbows that will make this book resonate with this crowd in particular! Taking the colors of pride and breaking it down by what each color represents (red means life, orange is for healing) young children are given the deeper meaning behind the pride rainbow and invited to celebrate the beauty and strength of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Let’s face it: kids of this age are a little untamed so there’s no doubt they’ll relate to the wild things in this book. But even more so, their unhinged imaginations and incredible capacity for curiosity and exploration, even from the comfort of their bed, are themes that match the book perfectly. They probably won’t get all that top-level stuff: they’re more likely to cheer with delight as Max escapes the boring walls of his room.
Oh, Grover. He never gets old, and neither does this classic book that we’re betting you might have read when you were a kid. Although it’s a silly, sweet little golden book, it’s also incredibly smart—the book takes kids through a series of pages where Grover is terribly afraid of a monster at the end of the book, only to reveal it is cute, loveable, furry Grover himself (and nothing to be afraid of), helping kids understand that everyone has fears but sometimes they are bigger in our heads than they are in reality.
Okay, so there might be a theme on this list when it comes to goodnight books…maybe that’s because this is the age when kids start really resisting the idea of bedtime with a vengeance? This one is a silly back and forth between a duck and a bear: parents will relate to the exhausted, fairly patient bear and the exuberant, child-like duck dynamic.
When a young girl immigrates from Taiwan with her family, she leaves behind her beloved grandmother, her Popo. This sweet, rhyming story tells of her visits and her missing her grandmother and invites readers into the heart of what it is like to be so far from loved ones. Not only does this book invoke empathy for the immigrant experience, but all pandemic children kept far from their grandparents will relate to the heartsick feelings of being so far from the special people they love.