I kept meaning to go back to my original post on this topic and comment with favorite books of my own, but I have been a Whirling Dervish of Productivity lately, crossing off double-digit numbers of longstanding items from my running to-do list. I'd think, "Books!" And then I'd think, "No, life insurance! irksome weirdness in the IRA! back door in need of painting! syllabus in need of drafting!" I am about 80% less whirly this week, so here's a whole post about books for three-year-old boys.
All of my children have loved The 20th-Century Children's Book Treasury with a fierce dedication. I was asking a few of them to flip through it today and nominate some favorites, and their collective list probably includes most of the table of contents. It includes stories from some fantastic characters whose books will continue to delight you (oh, how I love Frances the badger!) and some fantastic authors whose work will make you smile again and again (Peggy Rothmann! Joan Aiken! Helen Oxenbury!). There are stories at a range of levels, from toddler to big kid, so you can use this book for years. Highly recommended.
When my pal Anneleisa had a 9-month-old daughter, she blew my mind one night with a little board book. When the baby turned three pages together, Anneleisa did not say, "Oops, that's too many pages. We should go back and read them in order!" Instead, she read the page her daughter flipped to. When the baby closed the book, Anneleisa said, "All done!" When she opened it back up to the middle, Anneleisa read the middle. My hidebound little brain just about short-circuited. You mean...you don't have to read all the pages all in a row for it to be worthwhile?
I am going to guess that about 98% of the planet is less uptight and rigid than that, but I pass along the tidbit just in case it's useful. We buy a lot of books with interesting pictures and complicated text, and we tend to let the kids do with them what they will. Want to look at the pictures? Go for it. Want to hear a paragraph or two? Can do. Want to read all of St. George and the Dragon for the kazillionth time? ...Sure, that'd be awesome, she said, gathering up the shreds of her enthusiasm. My most recent 3yo boy could not get enough of that book. He was not especially verbal at 3, but he could recite big chunks of the text anyway. Lovely pictures, stirring story told in beautiful language. It's better the first 300 times than the second and third 300 times, but it's always nice to be asked to read aloud.
The Enormous Carrot was a particular favorite of my second three-year-old boy. Ten years later, he says, "Oh, the book of my childhood!" It makes the point that even the smallest contribution can be indispensable. Simple, pleasantly repetitive, engaging. Out of print but available used.
I've posted before about how much we love Marcia Williams. My 4yo pores over these books just like her older brothers did as preschoolers. It's always a little surprising to me how much the kids like them, because the pictures are cartoonish and the humor has a British flavor (no offense whatsoever intended to my handful of British readers! --I mean only that it's harder for American kids to get the jokes). Maybe find one used or at the library and see if they are as popular at your house as they are at mine. The Shakespeare books and the Greek myths get the most love around here.
My father thinks Bill Peet is the King of Children's Literature. He and my mother swear that my younger siblings taught themselves to read via Bill Peet's books. When my oldest son was 2, my father presented him with a huge stack of Bill Peet books. I am less enthusiastic than my parents, but three perennial favorites have been Big Bad Bruce, The Whingdingdilly, and Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent.
My 11yo remembers fondly that I used to read him the original Thomas the Tank Engine stories. I do not remember this book with great fondness (and I am even less fond of the more recent iterations -- as a general rule, I'd say avoid everything ever published in connection with a children's TV show. Every last one of those execrable "in the spirit of Margaret and H.A. Rey" Curious George books should be pulped.) --but my boys ate it up. Ate it up, I tell you. And it grew on me, I have to admit.
When my two oldest boys were 2 and not-quite-5, my friend Shannon gave them a copy of Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. They wore it clean out. I bet I can still find Goldbug on every page, so call me up if you get stuck looking.
Last on my list is Bunny Cakes from Rosemary Wells. I could give you some professional-sounding reasons why I love it (promotes early literacy with those simple and predictable grocery lists! encourages development of theory of mind!) but the truth is that it's a delightful story. I love those lopsided cakes and the sweet, wry ending.
Oh, I could keep going but I'll stop for now!