We Recommend: Reading to Tiny Children Editon

It's time for We Recommend, in which  readers ask for suggestions, and we try our very hardest to come up with the perfect book in answer (and then you guys come up with even more amazing choices in the comments). Looking for a recommendation? E-mail us! We're very agreeable.

First, let me clear the air. My own air, I mean. I decided to go with this particular We Recommend because I have a bone to pick with it. And now that I've said that, I have to also admit that whenever I get on my high horse, something will usually happen that upends all my previous thinking and leaves me shamefaced and humbled and (we hope) having learned something. So I guess what I'm saying is, take this all with a generous pinch of the proverbial salt. Especially the excellent person who wrote in with this question!

But at the same time, when I get full of the righteous indignation, well, what else is a blog for, really?

Anyway. Here's what we got:

I'm wondering if you can recommend a chapter book for my son's daycare, which largely consists of three-year-olds. Is there such a thing as a pre-K novel? The kids just listened to Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and they enjoyed it just fine but missed a lot of the plot, as I discovered when I tried to re-read it to my son. I don't think they're quite ready for My Father's Dragon or The Fantastic Mr. Fox. So, I'm looking for something exactly between, say, the Frog and Toad books and Charlotte's Web. What have you got?

So here's what gets to me: why are we reading chapter books to three year olds? Of course they missed a lot of The Mouse and the Motorcycle. They're three! They miss a lot of why you shouldn't eat things off the airport floor! They're three—they don't know anything (in a good way).


Three year olds are the perfect—perfect—age for picture books. For fairy tales. For long silly stories about trains that will make anyone else want to eat their own brains, but to the three year old will seem like absolute heaven. Books like The Velveteen Rabbit, Amos and Boris, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel—the list is almost endless. And Beatrix Potter, now there's a crazy bloody mayhem of storyline there, perfect for reading to a (grisly-minded) three year old. We read Mrs. Tittlemouse about one million times when the kids were between 2 and 4. And this list is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the one that's made up of old books only!

At first I was put off by the implied dis to Frog and Toad. I, personally, love Frog and Toad. But she's right, they don't make sense here. The truth is, those books are simplified because they're for beginning readers to read to themselves. Picture books are going to be far more sophisticated, both in language and story, because they are made to be read by an adult to a little kid.

I remember happening upon one of my kids in her 3s class in pre-school, and the not-so-excellent teacher was doing Simon Says with them, and NONE of them got it, they got tricked over and over again and she, a silly, 20-year-old who'd maybe done some babysitting by way of preparation, was laughing at them (not that they minded) because none of them got what you were supposed to do. But they were three! They just didn't get it, that's all.The best possible thing I can imagine is to let three-year-olds be three.

And as far as I can tell, at three they're just not ready for most chapter books. There are some—the weirdly episodic kind, like All of a Kind Family, or better yet, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, in which each chapter is its own story, and you don't have to keep track long-term of a plot. Ooh, or maybe Stuart Little, which is bizarre and lovely. Most of these, though, aren't really written for three-year-olds. Truly, if I had a passel of three-year-olds here in my house clamoring for a story (and thank goodness I don't, now that I have that terrifying mental image), here's what I would read them:


The excellent story of a dentist and his wife who outwit a fox. It's funny. The adult will not be horribly bored. It's, as far as I'm concerned, great art.

So whew. I am spent.

And now, to the comments: help me out, who's got a book for these kids?

18 thoughts on “We Recommend: Reading to Tiny Children Editon

  1. Anything by Kevin Henkes? Well, any of his picture books. His chapter books are more YA material.
    I have to agree, 3 is too young for chapter books. My daughter was 4.5 when we started w/ Ramona, Little House (big woods only), and Charlotte’s Web. Even that one was a stretch, and Stuart Little was a mistake. They just don’t really have the type of memory that will follow a plot & characters over the long term. Picture books, however, are tremendously important for brain development, and have enormous value. Don’t be so eager to move past them–there’s plenty of time for that!


  2. The Mercy Watson chapter books (by Kate DiCamillo) – my 3 year LOVES them (and is now obsessed with eating hot buttered toast). They have short sentences, a lot of pictures, and a lot of action.
    A lot of older picture books are as long as newer chapter books – Mike Mulligan, Little Toot – so they go to about the same reading level. So looking at older picture books would be good too.


  3. Doctor DeSoto was THE book my dad used to read to us. Thank you for featuring it!
    I agree- 3 is too long for chapter books, but I’m guessing that the daycare is trying to be extra academic or something and is going to force the chapter book issue. We have a friend who swears by the Magic Tree House books for her 3 year old. But isn’t the glory of those that beginning readers can really own those? I don’t know. We tried Big Woods with my 3 and she just wanted to hear the 1st and 2nd chapters over and over.


  4. This parent is exactly the sort of person who, as that NY Times article of a few months ago pointed out, is trying to kill the magnificent chapter book. I agree that books like Frog and Toad and Dr. Seuss are lovely but are better left as beginning readers. For the same reason, I think parents should be careful about reading books like The Magic Treehouse and so forth as well – they’re better left to beginning readers too. Three year olds need picture books! Kevin Henkes, Mark Teague, Pat Hutchins…
    But… my recommendation for a good first chapter book read is The Jamie and Angus Stories by Anne Fine. If there is a “preschool chapter book” this might be it.


  5. Best Friends for Frances is a fantastic read-aloud for the preschool set. Also Custard the Dragon, Pickle-Chiffon Pie, Horton Hatches the Egg, and Tikki Tikki Tembo.


  6. The Frances books are great for this age! I can also recommend Big Brown Bear’s Up and Down Day, which has 3 short chapters in a picture book format, so if you wanted to read it chapter by chapter you could.
    I also disagree with the notion that Frog and Toad wouldn’t make a good read-aloud. I love reading Frog and Toad aloud to preschoolers not only because it’s fun to do Toad’s voice all gravelly and silly (like when he yells “I AM ALL ALONE!” in the sledding story), but because the simplicity of the words belies the complexity of the stories underneath, as all of Arnold Lobel’s works do. Uncle Elephant is another great example of Arnold Lobel’s genius – the little elephant loses his parents at sea and sits in his room feeling sad, until his uncle comes to get him. “Now, come out of this dark place,” he says. That’s deep! In fact, I would wholeheartedly recommend all of Arnold Lobel’s books as read-alouds.


  7. Amen to your post – three years old is picture book time. I’ll check out Doctor de Soto; I don’t think it has been translated into Norwegian, but it looks very interesting. The books that make me want to eat my brain for the moment are the In the Night Garden books, all of which I’ve come across are rather badly made and inanely silly.


  8. I do agree with you and your commenters about the larger issue.
    Since he was about three and a half, my son has enjoyed Lobel’s Owl at Home. It technically has chapters, but everything is short enough that the 3-year-old can remember it all, and it can be read in one sitting. Also, it’s brilliant and I get a kick out of reading it too (“Bumps, bumps, bumps!”). We’ve also been reading Little Bear (http://www.amazon.com/Little-Bear-Can-Read-Book/dp/0064440044/), which has a similar format. Three-year-olds are just old enough to get what’s going on–to spot the flaws in the characters’ thinking. I am not sure about early 3’s, though–a few months makes such a difference at this age.
    We read quite a lot with our son, who is almost 4 now, and he’s had lots of picture books in his life, but I will say that in the later half of the 3s he has been less and less interested in fiction and more and more interested in facts about the world around him. He and his preschool classmates have also, for the first time, expressed noticeably diverging interests: some kids are interested in dinosaurs, others in sports, others in space (= my kid). This may partly be a boy thing, I don’t know. It gives a window into other kinds of more complicated and grown up learning and reading, but not so much of the chapter book kind. I am a little puzzled these days myself, trying to figure out what if any fiction will pique his interest.
    Oh, but sometimes you do find picture books that capitalize on those interests–I think this was a big hit with his class: http://www.amazon.com/Dinosaur-Train-John-Steven-Gurney/dp/0060292458/. In the same way, Little Bear was more of a hit because Little Bear has space-related imaginary adventures.


  9. Agreeing all around. Picture books, please. Love reading “beginner reader” books out loud (with BIG expression and pointing to words as I read them) and honestly think it led to my own 3 year old being able to read. Love Mercy Watson. PLEASE leave the chapter books alone. I can’t find ANYTHING for my precocious 2nd-4th grade students whose parents leapt ahead. There is nothing left for them to read in “middle grades” because they read them all when they were tiny and all that’s left is YA.


  10. Maybe point out (nicely) to the preschool that chapter books aren’t necessarily the way to go and bring in a few fabulous picture books to bolster your point.
    And yes, there are/were some books that I just say to my kids, “This book was designed for kids to read to themselves. So when you are ready to read to yourself, it will be waiting for you.” This may not be enlightened, but I can’t go there (I’m talking about you, Magic Treehouse, Berenstain Bears, etc.) and my kids still seem to have plenty to read and enjoy reading.
    Oh, and I heart William Steig. Pete’s a Pizza! Brave Irene! Swoon.


  11. Well, I concur with the choice of Arnold Lobel. For those interested, there are great CD’s of him reading his own stories. He sounds bemused and kindly, he really does! I would also add to the list the Maxi the Taxi Dog books. Same main characters in each book, and they do go in sequence, so sort of chapter bookish. But they also feature a hidden image of a cat in every picture, and my kids loved searching for them. Richard Scarry also has books featuring the same characters in different stories. To know Lowly Worm is to love him!


  12. I started reading chapter books off and on to my daughter when she was three and I totally disagree that anything is lost on them. First of all, even if they don’t remember every plot point and get every hidden meaning, they enjoy hearing the different voices, narrative styles and cadences of language that you get in a chapter book.
    Certainly it’s a bad idea to “outgrow” picture books so young, but why does that preclude exposing a child to something else? We read a wide variety of things and I hope this will help my kids in the long run to find their own reading niche.
    As to suggestions, we started with the Pooh books, in which each chapter is a self-contained story, so the memory piece is less important. We also did Mary Poppins at three and started Junie B, who I love/hate. Junie B. is fun to read aloud, but I cleaned up the grammar because bad grammar is a pet peeve of mine. We also did James and the Giant Peach, but the beginning was a little too scary and I would have waited on that one had I remembered the way it started.


  13. I don’t think it’s bad to expose specific three-year-olds to chapter books, but this was what they were reading in preschool, where one assumes they don’t read all day. And if you have a group of 3-y-os (of varying concentration abilities etc) and only a few set times each day to read to them, I would use that time to focus on the amazing wealth of picture books that are out there.


  14. My son loved the author and illustrator Bill Peet when he was three–long involved plots with GREAT illustrations.
    Some of the best:
    How Drufus the Dragon lost his head
    Huberts Hairraising Adventure
    Cock-A-Doodle Dudley


  15. Oh yes, we are big Bill Peet fans here, too–although they feature unkind talk/name-calling, which late-threes love and repeat back later, and a few scary things that I edit out (a [short-lived] threat to drown someone). Despite the fact that my son likes to crow some mangled version of “You’ve got no more spunk than a jellyfish!” to someone at least once a day, I still love reading Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent. And basically they all have happy endings.


  16. Poor Bill Peet, that sounded like terribly faint praise. What I mean to say is, they do all have happy endings, and no one actually gets hurt, even “bad” characters like pirates. And Mom of Boys is right, the storylines are complex and the pictures are awesome.
    They’re not chapter books, though, but they’re much more complicated than most picture books.


  17. I agree with you Laurel about Bill Peet! Once I made the terrible mistake of reading the word “stupid” in one of the books before my brain caught up with the words coming out of my mouth. Editing him while reading is a great suggestion! And Cyrus is another favorite!


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