At our house, we have a 4-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 16-year-old, so we have been reading bedtime stories to some combination of kids for a decade-and-a-half. Over that time, my husband and I have developed some favorites for different ages, and I’m excited to share them with you.  

Before I dive into my list of all-star read-alouds, I want to take a minute to talk about the joys and the benefits of reading to children of all ages: before, during, and after they learn how to read independently. We’ve written in other posts about how important it is to read out loud in early childhood. All those bedtime (and anytime) stories give children the foundational skills they need to be ready to learn to read when the time comes. As they are learning to read, the positive associations of being read to and reading together can help learning be a fun experience. Once they are reading on their own, listening to an experienced reader can teach young readers new vocabulary and how to read with expression. For any age, reading with a child is an opportunity to connect over beloved characters, in-jokes, and a shared repertory of stories. 

This blog post would get way too long if I tried to cover all ages in one go, so today we’re going to talk about read-alouds for little kids—the 5-and-under set. There are so many great books for this age that I am absolutely going to leave out some of your favorites (Heck, I’m sure I’m going to leave out some of my favorites!) and for that I apologize. But I hope you enjoy a highly subjective list of favorites from my house, in no particular order: 

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina is a near-perfect picture book, with mischievous monkeys and repetition that fascinates children and draws them into telling the story with you. Get into the physicality of the story and watch them follow your lead. 

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harald Wiberg, is a slow, sweet, wintertime story in which the Tomten (a kind of Scandinavian guardian spirit) moves around a snowy farm, soothing the animals to sleep one by one. 

Hello, Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall is a beautifully illustrated story about a remote lighthouse, the lighthouse keeper, and his family. The language evokes the rhythms of the ocean, and the sweeping, flashing light of the lighthouse. 

Old Bear by Kevin Henkes is an imaginative trip through the four seasons in the dreams of a hibernating bear. Cozy and clever, snug and satisfying. 

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson, captures sibling dynamics amazingly well, considering it is about a family of owls. When they wake up and their Owl Mother is gone, big sister Sarah is determined to be brave, middle child Percy is nervous, and little Bill just wants his mommy. And mommy, of course, swoops back full of reassurances to counter their anxiety. 

Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis is so weird and so cool. There are these bugs, see, and they find one of the first plants of spring, see, and some of them are wearing bowler hats, and they speak an internally consistent but invented language that might just find its way into your family vocabulary. Just read it. Bizarre in all the best ways. 

Corduroy by Don Freeman is probably a book you’ve read before. It is a sweet story of the connection between a teddy bear and a little girl, of low-stakes adventures, and of finding a friend and a home. 

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krause Rosenthal, with pictures by Tom Lichtenheld, is a great one to read with a partner, whether you’ve got another adult or an older sibling to involve, or when your little one starts to get the hang of reading. The book is told entirely in word-bubble dialog along with the illustrations (we never see the speakers) and consists of a debate about whether an unusually shaped cloud is a duck or a rabbit. So imaginative, and inspires cloud gazing of your own the next day. 

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems about the opportunity we have every day to choose kindness and reevaluate what we thought was most important, but it is told in a completely natural, silly way without a whiff of preaching or talking down to children.  

Duck on a Bike by David Shannon is a fun one to share with kids who like making animal noises. Duck decides to ride a bike and it looks like so much fun that the rest of the barnyard joins in.  

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, with pictures by Marla Frazee, was my gift to every little kid I knew the year it was published. The illustrations are lovely and do a masterful job of grounding the lyrical, highly conceptual text, which celebrates the ways in which members of a community are different as well as the things they share. 

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer, gets kids giggling by following a silly situation to its preposterous conclusion. George the puppy says meow instead of barking? Well, of course! He must have swallowed a cat! 

The Story of Ferdinand  by Munro Leaf has been validating introverts since 1936. You see, Ferdinand the bull doesn’t want to run and jump and butt heads like the other bulls. Instead, he would like to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.  

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey is another classic that has aged well. Little Sal and her mother and Little Bear and his mother both climb Blueberry Hill one day to pick blueberries. The gentle adventure that follows includes lost children, mistaken identity, and eating lots of blueberries, but don’t worry, everyone ends up safe and sound. 

Flotsam by David Wiesner, is told entirely in pictures. Yep, this work of extraordinary imagination invites you and your child to interpret the story in your own words, following along as a boy finds an old camera washed up at the beach, gets the film developed, and discovers magical underwater worlds. 

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Shoenherr, is a quiet book, with poetic text and pictures that transport readers to a snowy night and a special father-daughter walk to see owls. This is the kind of book at you might think children wouldn’t have the patience for, but something about the tone and the story is compelling for children and their grown-ups. 

Hmm. It turns out my family has a lot of beloved books. You would think I was a librarian or something! If you’re eager for more recommendations and conversations about favorites, come on by the library and tell us all about the read-alouds your family likes best. We’re always eager to find more books to love. 

One more note. I can’t end this post without extending my thanks to my husband, who reads a lot of the bedtime stories these days and helped me come up with this list of books we still aren’t tired of reading.