The best picture books to build a baby’s brain

The Books I Picked & Why

Goodnight Moon

By Margaret Wise Brown, Clement Hurd

Book cover of Goodnight Moon

Why this book?

This nursery classic provides exactly what babies deserve in a bedtime story: A lively, inventive text that their parents can read out loud, with intriguing pictures that their parents can talk about. To learn language, babies and toddlers need us to chat with them, ask questions of them (even if they’re too small to reply), and show them things and explain what they are seeing. A clever parent will not only read Margaret Wise Brown’s rhyming story about a little rabbit going to sleep “in the great green room,” but also engage in playful and informal chitchat about Clement Hurd’s pictures.

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By Janet Ahlberg, Allan Ahlberg

Book cover of Peek-A-Boo!

Why this book?

This brilliant and surprisingly sophisticated book has a satisfying rhyming pace that breaks every other page, both visually and aurally, into a“Peek-a-Boo!” Tracing one day in the life of a baby boy in wartime London, it’s full of cues for parents to engage in questions and answers. For instance, the baby in the book goes to the park; the scene contains, inter alia, two perambulators, a double-decker bus, a picket fence, a zeppelin, a church spire, pink flowers, children fishing in a shallow pond, a policeman, boys with a toy boat, a gentleman carrying a walking stick and a rolled-up newspaper…. you get the idea.

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The Little Engine That Could

By Watty Piper

Book cover of The Little Engine That Could

Why this book?

This beloved railway fable has all sorts of things to spark a baby’s interest: reader-supplied sound effects (“Chug, chug, chug, puff, puff, puff”), a simple and wholesome moral message that toddlers can understand, and delicious old-fashioned illustrations by Watty Piper that exude a feeling of welcome and good cheer. The pictures of train cargo have lots of amusing little details to draw the eye: “bottles of creamy milk” striding along on tiny legs, smiling faces on the “big golden oranges [and] red-cheeked apples,” and a traveling menagerie of dolls, animals and lifelike toys. It’s also a great book for introducing spatial concepts such as up/down and in/out.

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A Child's Book of Art: Great Pictures - First Words

By Lucy Micklethwait

Book cover of A Child's Book of Art: Great Pictures - First Words

Why this book?

This book hits a kind of non-narrative sweet spot: It doesn’t tell a specific story, but every page-spread is a feast of beauty and interest and there are just enough words sprinkled here and there to encourage parents to supply their own commentary. This particular book happened to be a huge favorite in my family, but any collection that introduces great paintings and different styles of art will do the trick. I love making art part of a baby’s world from the get-go: It awakens the aesthetic senses and gives a child a sense of cultural ownership. Later, seeing a Vermeer or a Picasso, we can hope that child will feel a sparkle of recognition.

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Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

By Richard Scarry

Book cover of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

Why this book?

Try to get your hands on the original 1963 edition that made Richard Scarry‘s fortune and allowed him to move his family to Switzerland, for the skiing. It’s a fabulous book that’s crowded with scenes of purpose and industry, and with labeled pictures that bespeak the world’s exciting wideness. There are birds (the quail, pheasant, wren, bittern), buildings (a cathedral, pyramid, fort, skyscraper), flowers (clover, pansies, asters, foxgloves), and houses (the igloo, grass house, half-timbered house, chalet). Over time, subsequent editions were stripped of this eccentric specificity and of Scarry’s courtly depictions of traditional social roles (gone, for instance, are the “handsome pilot” and the “pretty stewardess”).

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