10 Must-Have Books for 3-Year-Olds

by Iva-Marie Palmer

Photo credit: Blend Images - KidStock, Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

My once-upon-a-time three-year-old is now a big ol’ five-year-old (correction: he’d say “five-and-a-half”) but I still remember our go-to picture books from that age. Now I look forward to the days when I can trot out the same reads for my toddler, who will be three before I know it! And if we’re lucky, my older son will be the one pulling these from the bookshelf to read to his baby brother and me.

  • All by Myself (Little Critter)

    by Mercer Mayer

    Mayer’s Little Critter has become one of the most enduringly popular characters in the children’s book world. Funny and relatable, little ones easily see themselves in Critter’s many adventures growing up. This particular story relates to kids who want to do everything without help from their parents. Sound like any three-year-olds you know? From buttoning his overalls to tying his shoes, Critter is determined to do it all by himself. The one thing he can’t do on his own just yet? Read a bedtime story. Aw!

  • Olivia

    by Ian Falconer

    Simply put, this pig in a dress is the best. Olivia’s imaginative, energetic, sometimes stubborn ways channel the three-year-old psyche so well that children of that age will see themselves reflected and be instantly delighted. The Olivia series is also a great one to read to boys of this age, especially ones who are starting to take a “No Girls Allowed” attitude toward play. My own son was on the verge of this until Olivia showed him that girls are indeed a ton of fun.

  • Dragons Love Tacos

    by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

    You really can’t go wrong with books by Rubin and Salmieri, but this one is truly something to taco ‘bout (sorry, I couldn’t resist!). This super silly book is full of adorable dragons who love tacos, parties, and — not surprisingly — taco parties. Just be careful what kind of salsa you serve them. You don’t want things getting too hot! The illustrations play a big part in telling the story so be sure to savor them, much like you would tacos.

  • Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

    by Richard Scarry

    This was a book I remembered reading as a preschooler, so I trotted out my old copy when my son became vehicle-obsessed. But even if cars and trucks don’t rev your three-year-old’s engines, the hunt for Goldbug in each scene (each page is a busy burst of activity in Scarry’s magnificent style) will have them eager to explore.

  • Blue Hat, Green Hat

    by Sandra Boynton

    Sandra Boynton corners the market on silly animals doing silly things in children’s books. This one in particular has a fun rhythm and very silly wardrobe exchange between an elephant, a bear, a moose, and a misinformed turkey. Once your child gets the joke, you’ll get the benefit of their endless laughter. Though you will likely have to read Blue Hat, Green Hat again, and again, and again…

  • Go, Dog. Go!

    by P.D. Eastman

    I’ll admit this one probably isn’t going to win any awards for plot, but there’s something about it that hits the three-year-old sweet spot. Go, Dog. Go! has great repetition and rhythm, and was always a reliable pre-naptime read in our house.

  • The Monster at the End of This Book

    by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin

    Three is a good age to be introduced to the concept of suspense, and it’s also a prime age for spending some time on Sesame Street. This Little Golden Book classic predates Elmo and Abby, featuring our old pal Grover panicking with each turn of the page. It’s entertaining to read, and shows children that books were “interactive” long before kid games existed on the iPad.

  • Big Words for Little People

    by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell

    Some of the big words in this book will go right over little people’s heads, but there’s something to be said for trusting your child to follow along and be introduced to vocabulary that goes beyond the basics. Curtis puts each word in context, and I partially credit this charming read for the advanced lexicon my five-year-old now employs.

  • The Gruffalo

    by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

    Ooh, I don’t want to spoil The Gruffalo if you haven’t read it, because it’s kids’ storytelling at its finest. The wonderfully rhymed tale of a mouse who invents a fearsome creature called the Gruffalo to ward off enemies is both amusing and a marvelous lesson in quick-thinking and imagination.

  • The Incredible Book Eating Boy

    by Oliver Jeffers

    Charmed by the illustrations, my son chose this read as a vacation souvenir from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The story of a boy who eats books — and gets smarter as a result — quickly became my son’s most-read picture book, causing us to seek out Jeffers’s other picture books. As a book-loving mama, you can imagine my heart-leaping delight when I overheard my son tell friends at a bookstore that Oliver Jeffers is his favorite author. So, as you seek books for your child at any age, I mostly recommend letting them lead the way!