Since my daughter turned 2-years-old, bedtime's been my favourite time of day. Those 20 minutes with my girl before she goes to sleep contain everything I love - calm, cuddles, pyjamas (often both of us) and books. Hence why putting together this list of best children's books for ages 3-6 years has been fairly easy. Perhaps I love reading with my daughter so much because it’s nostalgic for me. I remember loving bedtime when I was a child because that’s when my dad and I would read. Our favourite books then were Heidi, The Little Match Girl and The Red Shoes. As an imaginative child who grew into an imaginative adult, memories of these stories still spark powerful images. So it was no wonder I’d so looked forward to snuggling up with my girl and reading her the stories that she will likely still remember with fondness when she’s grown.
Together, we’ve chosen 10 of our best children's books for ages 3-6 years. We’ve read each over 10 times and mostly they are ones we’ve been reading since she was three-years-old. It’s always difficult to tag a book with age suitability. Moreover, because the best children’s stories offer something to every age group. Very young children may enjoy different voices and engaging illustrations. Then, on later readings of the same book when they are a little older, they may better follow the story, understand the jokes and the moral messages encased within. If books are a method of shaping the mind, and I believe they are, then it is very important to select children’s books with the very best moral guidance. This is probably why many of these books were recommended to us and why I have shared them with you. Please let me know which ones you've enjoyed and add your favourites in the comments below.
I Want My Hat Back - By Jon Klassen
I Want My Hat Back was the very first book my daughter was gifted. It was from a good friend of mine with a dry and wicked sense of humour. When she gave it to me Arya was just a newborn but I wasted no time in reading the book myself. All my ideas of first reading my daughter the classics were quickly dismissed. I knew then that this book was going to be a go-to on the bookshelf.
What is so wonderful about I Want My Hat Back, is its dry sense of humour. The basic story is of a bear searching for his lost hat and asking for help from the other forest animals. Many are indignantly unhelpful, others are unable to help but he helps them instead. One is a very rude rabbit who seems to be wearing a hat very similar to the one our bear is searching for.
This is one of those rare stories you won’t mind reading to your children over and over again. Buy I Want My Hat Back By Jon Klassen
Monkey And Me - By Emily Gravett
The illustrations in Monkey and Me rather steal the show. Beautifully sweet, this tale celebrates an enthusiastic lively young girl at its heart. The story itself is simple and yet we’ve read it so many times that my daughter knows in advance which animal the character and her toy monkey are visiting at the zoo on each page. Repetition and rhythm work to entwine this tale into the memory and the way the story slows down as the adventure comes to a close skillfully promotes yawning in my own child. It’s a perfect bedtime story to settle a child at the end of the day.
Goat Goes To Playgroup - By Julia Donaldson
Julia Donaldson features more than once in this list. In fact, she’s impossible to avoid as I’m yet to read a Donaldson book I didn’t love. Goat Goes To Playgroup is a book for younger children yet my 7-year-old still enjoys it, although she now reads it to me. As in many of Donaldson books, our main character is lovingly flawed. Making many mistakes and watching the other playgroup children go through their days seemingly getting everything right. Meanwhile, our goat’s overenthusiasm and energy lead him into many unfortunate positions. On the surface, this is a sweet tale of a day at nursery school. Deep down though, this is a compassionate tale of a zealous character who struggles with structure. Yet, there is no judgement of this or any attempt to tame the carefree tot. Goat represents a great many children who may well benefit from reading this story and realising that there is an endearment towards little children whose passions move faster than their caution.
Little Rabbit Foo Foo - By Michael Rosen
It was actually my daughter who told me this story. She’d been read it a nursery and loved it so much she’d committed most to memory. I was so intrigued I just had to buy it. Another hilarious story with a sneaky slither of darkness. Not for the kind of parent who believes that saying no to a child will damage them for life, rather this book teaches that there are consequences for one’s actions. Apart from the humour though, the theme of consequence is the thing I like most about this book.
Little Rabbit Foo Foo is a bad bunny. A hell-raiser wreaking havoc on the poor goblins, mice and wriggly worms he encounters while swinging his mallet as he tears through the forest on his motorbike. The good fairy also is no pretty little glittered flying thing. She’s more akin to one of the Victorian nannies from Mary Poppins. Justly stern and free of needless thrills, she is quite clear about how many chances Rabbit Foo Foo will get before his misbehaviours result in him being turned into a goonie. Spoiler alert - the bunny does not heed the warnings and has to live with his punishment.
Whilst a few parent reviews of this book feel the ending is a bad message to send to children, I’m part of the clan who think it’s totally on point. Unlike Goat in our previous story, Rabbit Foo Foo is destructive and willingly harms the other creatures of the woods again and again. Despite the warnings, he continues to act out and this results in the threat of punishment being followed through. Much to the joy of myself, my daughter and all the fictional characters in this story. This book teaches both children and parents that unkindness will not result in a happy ending. Told with humour, the message of this story I think is very important and rightfully makes a fool of those who seek to bully others. Highly recommend!
Dear Greenpeace - Simon James
Unlike the other books in this list, this one I did know before I was a mother. Yet, not in my childhood. I was introduced to this story when I was a teenager and my mother became a primary school teacher. This was one of her favourites to read to her class. It’s only natural, as a massive lover of whales, that this story of a little girl who believes there is a whale in her pond would be one I’d love. The story is told in a series of letters between the little girl, Emily, and the environmental organisation, Greenpeace. Little Emily is convinced that there is a whale in her pond and writes to Greenpeace for advice on how to care for her new friend. Greenpeace responds kindly but becomes increasingly insistent that there is no way a whale can be living in a small pond. Imaginative Emily dismisses this reality but accepts when her whale disappears from the pond that whales need to be in the ocean swimming great distances. Emily learns that loving wild creatures from a distance is the best way to respect and care for the natural world. Although this book was written some time ago now, this simple story is possibly more relevant now than ever.
Darkness Slipped In - By Ella Burfoot
Not a particularly well-known book, this one has been a regular bedtime story since my daughter was 2-years-old. I can’t be sure, but I‘m tempted to credit it with my daughter not being afraid of the dark. When darkness slips into Daisy’s room, she’s ready for him. Daisy isn’t scared at all and she dances with darkness until she’s ready for sleep. Through their twisting and jiving, darkness and Daisy become firm friends. It’s a sweet simple story and my daughter loves how brave Daisy is. Any story that ends with the character feeling sleepy works very well for bedtime, especially one that lets children know that darkness is nothing to be afraid of.
Green Eggs And Ham - By Dr Seuss
I am one of those strange beings who was not brought up on Dr Seuss books, much to the disbelief of my peers. In fact, Green Eggs and Ham was the first I read and it was to my daughter when she was 2-years-old. As a former speech and language drama geek, I absolutely love reading this book. The rhyming and rhythm make it so simple and fun. The story propels itself forward like a train. Seuss actually wrote this story in response to a challenge to write a children's book using only 50 words. The story follows optimistic Sam-I-Am's attempts to convince his grumpy friend to try green eggs and ham. In addition, this book can work to encourage children to try more food.
Dr Seuss certainly lives up to the claim that he makes reading fun!
Dogs Don’t Do Ballet - By Anna Kemp
This charming story of a dog who loves ballet is so beautifully told. Kemp conjures some great imagery and builds tension in a light and amusing way. Sara Ogilvie also deserves a shout out here for such lovely illustrations. My daughter likes looking for Biff the dog in the pictures as he follows our main character around trying to stay hidden. Overall, I suppose this is a story of acceptance and not allowing others to tell you what you are and are not capable of. You feel Biff’s misery when he’s told ‘dog’s don’t do ballet’, and you get the feeling that his owner feels this too but doesn’t know how to speak up for him. It’s a lovely tale with some very important subtle messages and a very unique style in both the writing and illustrations.
Cinderella’s (Not So) Ugly Sisters - By Gillian Shields
If only we could update all fairytales and Disney versions of them! Of course, we don’t wish to irradicate fairytales but we have to concede that they do not support the common values of the 21st century. Especially when it comes to the roles of women and the enormous association these stories make between beauty and goodness. Elderly or ageing women are always evil and mostly motivated by jealousy of a younger more 'beautiful' girl. These beautiful girls are exclusively kind, forgiving and meek. Enter, this alternative telling of the Cinderella story (and I know there’s been a lot but this is the best). In this story the stepsisters are welcoming, kind and, though not beautiful by classic standards, not ugly either. Cinderella, however, is spoilt, selfish and very nasty towards her new sisters who she regards not beautiful enough for her to associate with. The message of this story, which isn’t subtle at all in fact it’s stated clearly, is that kind people may not always be treated well but generally end up happy because they know what’s really important. Whereas, spoilt and mean characters like the Cinderella of this story will never really be satisfied no matter how much they have. It is a rejection of materialism and of beauty being skin deep. As the book points out, in the end, Cinderella’s nastiness made her look quite ugly. Which is why Cinderella’s (Not So) Ugly Sisters is a bright modern retelling that is far more relevant for children to read than the original.
The Paper Dolls - By Julia Donaldson
I’ve kept the best till last! It’s always surprising to me that this is one of Donaldson’s less known books because it’s her approach at it’s best. The first time I read it to my daughter I almost cried at the end and quickly told everyone I knew that they had to buy this book for their children. The story tells of a little girl who makes some paper dolls in a chain. She names and plays with her dolls, taking them on many adventures. When the boy with the scissors appears you’re sure he isn’t going to snip them because it’s a kid’s book right? Wrong! The little brat totally snips the paper dolls to pieces! I was in pure shock. At that moment it became the worst book I’d ever read, but then ‘all the pieces joined together, and the paper dolls flew...into the little girl's memory.’ Here they reside with an array of lost things and even the memory of a granny, teaching the child that nothing is ever really lost because they can live forever in your memory. It is such a beautiful way to convey such a lovely message. Especially for any child who might have lost a loved one, I really believe this story could help them. It communicates something very complex in a truly gentle and very comforting way.
If I had to pick my absolute best children’s book for ages 3-6 years then this would be it. Actually, I believe we’ll still be reading it for a few more years as well. And, as the little girl in this story grows into a mother who makes paper dolls with her own daughter, I wonder if my daughter will one day read this story to her own daughter. I like to think so.