Look, here’s the deal. Someone has already hooked your pregnant friend up with the usual suspects. Where the Wild Things Are? The Runaway Bunny? She’s got one in every room of her house. Those are some solid books! But let’s come up with some gift ideas that will make you look like you know how to interact with a small, soft-skulled creature with ease. Or, you know, if you HAVE a baby or toddler, and made that decision solely so you’d one day get to shout-sing the drinking chants from The Hobbit to the fruit of your loins, and you’re getting impatient for her to make it to an appropriate age (five) these are guaranteed to please in the interim.
1. Slinky Malinki, Lynley Dodd
Not only is this an adorable story about a rapscallion cat who likes to steal things from her neighbors and stash them in a hiding place, it’s a positive lesson about the dangers of hoarding and the merits of keeping your pet indoors at night. It also rhymes. MOREOVER, Dodd is from New Zealand, so your child can be exposed early to odd Commonwealth jargon like “jumper.” My two-year-old can use “pillaged” correctly in a sentence, and it’s all thanks to this stalking and lurking adventurous cat.
2. Let’s Go For a Drive! An Elephant and Piggie Book, Mo Willems
Let me now sing a song of Mo Willems. Mo Willems is a fucking genius. No! He is. I have restricted myself to choosing just two Mo Willems books for this piece, but if I had my druthers, there would be thousands. His army of mice potty-trained my kid ahead of schedule, and then convinced her that saying “please” was in her best interests. The Elephant and Piggie books, though, are dearest to my heart. They’re about friendship, which is the same if you’re tiny or if you’re grown up, and they’re beautifully gonzo. I Am a Frog!, We Are In a Book!, A Big Guy Took My Ball!…I haven’t found a bad one yet. They value kindness, and giving-things-your-best-try and being open to new experiences. Like most buddy pictures, children’s books with two protagonists almost always have a straight man who keeps the goofball down to earth, and Gerald’s stoicism and anxious tendencies balance out Piggie’s lust for life and novelty. I love them both, very much.
3. This Is Not My Hat, Jon Klassen
This is the best children’s book about cold-blooded murder you will ever read. Mallory got it for my baby, which should not surprise anyone who has read her work. “Oh, it’s not really about murder, surely!” you may be saying to yourself indulgently. “Nicole is such a kidder.” NOPE. It’s dark, guys. Dark and funny and spooky and brilliant. And, let me tell you: your kid isn’t going to steal any goddamn hats from fish anytime soon. Trust.
4. There Are No Animals In This Book (Only Feelings), Chani Sanchez and Tina Rivers
They had me at the title, to be honest. What’s different about this fantastic, visually-stunning book (apart from the lack of animals) is that it also serves as a showcase for a bunch of cool modern artists (the index at the back is definitely for adults, and provides a mini art lesson.) If the lack of animals is a dealbreaker for your child, I’ll let you in on a secret: some animals are going to sneak in. Maybe even a robot dog.
5. Belly Button Book, Sandra Boynton
Sandra Boynton is the Randy Newman of children’s books. She is BEYOND prolific. She has written literally ninety thousand books, all of them great, and picking just one was an ordeal. My taste in Boynton books runs to the surreal; the vast majority of books for kids are about going to bed, because, you know, people want their kids to go to bed, but sometimes you want your reading matter to be in no way edifying. Belly Button Book does not attempt to make sense. Did you know hippos are obsessed with belly buttons and consider them to be your MOST becoming feature? And they like to hang out at Belly Button Beach and sing “ooooh belly button, you’re oh so fine, oooooh belly button, I’m so happy you are mine!” Me neither. But I sure do now. Thanks, Sandra!
6. A Starlit Snowfall, Nancy Willard
Nothing much happens in this book. It’s definitely got a more olden-timey feel than any of the other books in this list, but it’s got the most luscious, beautiful illustrations, and a lovely, mannered conversation between a rabbit and a bear about the merits of hibernating together. Now, if I were writing a book about a rabbit and a bear who hibernate together, my first thought would be “rabbit, you dumbass, that bear is going to eat you,” but that’s not how this goes down. The bear LEGIT just wants company and doesn’t understand why the rabbit gets antsy and bored in his cave and longs for the hills and a nibble of clover. This is definitely a more obscure title, and is a great choice if you have a mom friend who’s a little more traditional and who occasionally puts her kid in nice outfits.
7. The Frog and Toad Collection, Arnold Lobel
Of all the books I’ve listed, this is the only one I remember from my own childhood, but I could never have left it out. Frog and Toad are eternal. These are wistful, beautiful stories, and as I read them to my child, little images bubbled up and popped in my mind. “Oh, the cookies! They put them in a box so they wouldn’t eat them, but then they realized they could just open the box.” “Toad doesn’t want to get up until spring comes, so Frog tears four pages out of his calendar to fool him.” Like Gerald and Piggie, these books are about friendship. Don’t miss them.
8. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Mo Willems
As promised, this is the other Mo Willems series you couldn’t possibly do without. The pigeon ALSO stars in a book about going to bed, and a book about being conned out of half a hot dog by a duckling, and a book about being jealous of ducklings, and a book about wanting a puppy THIS MINUTE RIGHT NOW. These books are allegories, did you know that? The allegory is “toddlers are like self-absorbed, changeable pigeons, and they freak out really easily and then crash hard.” You can take that to the bank. Kids LOVE the pigeon, because he has big, unwieldy emotions, and it’s fun to watch him blow. Also, man, he comes up with some pretty impressive reasons for why you should let him drive that bus.
9. Giraffes Can’t Dance, Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees
These dudes! These two weird dudes and their great books. I’m picking Giraffes, but Bustle in the Bushes and Dinosaurs Galore! and Commotion in the Ocean and Rumble in the Jungle are all siiiick. This is your standard issue nonsense-rhymes-about-creatures series, but they are exceptionally popular and bright and vivid and funny. Giraffes is the only one with an actual narrative, in which Gerald (a very popular name for animals in kids’ books) the giraffe is consistently embarrassed by his terrible, awkward dancing until an insect tells him that everyone can dance if they find the right music. For some of us, that’s tequila and Robyn; for Gerald, it’s the imaginary music of the moon. Takes all kinds: valuable lesson.
10. Llama Llama Red Pyjama, Anna Dewdney
Moms are suckers for the Llama Llama books. You cannot even say the titles to a mom without her getting a little misty, try it! Llama Llama is a snuggly little dude who loves his mama, but sometimes gets mad at her, or scared, or doesn’t want to share, or gets a little sick and bored. They’re soothing and sweet and warm and kindly, and Llama’s mama always makes him feel better. She’s got her own life, though, and sometimes she needs him to chill out a bit and self-soothe. Llamas: They’re Just Like Us.
Well, there you go. I strongly recommend you buy these books for all and sundry, including yourself. Let’s hear your top ten in the comments, but be warned: one word about The Velveteen Rabbit (link not included), and you’ll never get to comment archly on a Texts From installment again. Because I will ban you, that is a snuff book about a monster, garbage child who deserved his illness and could be easily bought off with a shiny new toy.
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.