14 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.

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar

    by Eric Carle

    Every family needs a copy of Eric Carle's classic, and three is the perfect age to start fully appreciating the voracious caterpillar who snacks his way through every day of the week (including one epic picnic that will have you itching to plan a picnic yourself!). Even better, this 50th anniversary edition is stuffed with special bonus content, including a letter from Eric Carle, rare peeks of his original sketches, and more.

  • Llama Llama Red Pajama

    by Anna Dewdney

    A delightful and prolific series, Anna Dewdney's Llama Llama is a reader favorite. The magic began back in 2005 with Llama Llama Red Pajama, a rhyming read-aloud that finds young Llama Llama feeling nervous about falling asleep by himself - and Mama Llama coming to the rescue. This extra-special edition includes a CD audio recording of Dewdney reading the story, bonus Llama Llama tales, and even a keepsake print. It's the perfect place to start with the beloved series, or an exciting new addition to your collection.

  • 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!

  • The Little Engine That Could

    by Watty Piper, illustrated by Loren Long

    An absolute classic since it was first published in 1930, The Little Engine That Could is still charming readers worldwide. We love this newly abridged board book version with lush, enhanced artwork from Loren Long (of Otis and Love fame) that pays homage to the original illustrations while adding even more life and cheerful triumph to the timeless story of perseverance.

  • 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.

  • The Story of Ferdinand

    by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson

    If it's been a while since you read The Story of Ferdinand, prepare to be won over again. Ferdinand isn't like the other bulls - he prefers smelling flowers to locking horns - so what's he to do when expected to fight? The story's message of nonviolence made it a favorite of Gandhi's, and it's also a valuable entry point for discussing themes of masculinity with young boys and girls.

  • Richard Scarry's 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.

  • The Wonderful Things You Will Be

    by Emily Winfield Martin

    This sweet and whimsical picture book is an ode to the many bright possibilities children's futures hold, and a reminder that their parents will always love them - no matter which direction their compass guides them. With simple, rhythmic text and gorgeous oil-painting illustrations, The Wonderful Things You Will Be impresses upon children that they are worthy of love and that it's their inner qualities that matter most. Pair it with the companion growth chart to keep the positivity flowing.

  • 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.

  • Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?

    by Brianna Caplan Sayres, illustrated by Christian Slade

    A fun twist on the bedtime story, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night? transports readers to construction sites, fire stations, and beyond, where bedtime looks quite familiar: while young dump trucks, fire engines, and other vehicles try their best to delay the inevitable, mommies and daddies tuck in their kiddos for a night of sweet dreams.

  • 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.

  • Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

    by Richard Scarry

    Richard Scarry's beloved, fun-filled universe is a surefire hit for little readers, and his Best Word Book Ever is especially ideal for vocab-building three-year-olds. All throughout Busytown, characters are getting ready for their days, starting art projects, and jetting off to the playground. There are so many words to express their activities and the objects they encounter! This colorful compendium will do wonders for your toddler's verbal skills.

  • 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!