The best picture books to build a baby’s brain

Who am I?

As a journalist, WSJ book critic, and mother of five, I‘ve been perfectly placed to witness the astounding effects of reading aloud. For decades I've been reading to my children (and to my husband, too) every night, often for a solid hour or more. Storytime has been the central civilizing joy of our family life: We’ve bonded emotionally, gone on shared imaginative adventures, and filled our heads with pictures and words. Long ago I knew something big was happening to us, and I felt sure my children were benefitting, but it wasn’t until I began digging around into the behavioral and brain science that I learned just how consequential reading aloud can be. In my book, I lay it all out.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

What is my book about?

A conversation-changing look at the social, familial, neurological, and psychological benefits of reading aloud, especially for parents and children.

A miraculous alchemy occurs when one person reads to another, transforming the simple stuff of a book, a voice, and a bit of time into complex and powerful fuel for the heart, brain, and imagination. Grounded in the latest neuroscience and behavioural research, and drawing widely from literature, The Enchanted Hour explains the dazzling cognitive and social-emotional benefits that await children who are read to, whatever their class, nationality or family background.

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The books I picked & why

Goodnight Moon

By Margaret Wise Brown, Clement Hurd (illustrator),

Book cover of Goodnight Moon

Why did I love 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.

By Margaret Wise Brown, Clement Hurd (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Goodnight Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A beautiful anniversary edition of the classic bedtime story with shiny gold cover flourishes - the perfect gift for christenings and birthdays.

Featuring a look at the fascinating story behind the creation of one of the most famous children's books in the world, beloved by Michelle Obama and Neil Gaiman alike, as well as tips on how to get your child to sleep.

In a great green room a little bunny is tucked up snugly and safely in bed and is getting ready to say goodnight to all the familiar things in his room, one by one.

Margaret Wise Brown's…


By Janet Ahlberg, Allan Ahlberg,

Book cover of Peek-A-Boo!

Why did I love 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.

By Janet Ahlberg, Allan Ahlberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peek-A-Boo! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Perfectly tuned for a first-book experience.”—Booklist

Peek-a-boo, I see you!

Baby peeks through holes cut in sturdy board book pages. The perfect way for very young children to play along with the classic game of peek-a-boo!

Book cover of The Little Engine That Could

Why did I love 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.

By Watty Piper,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Little Engine That Could as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic story in a board book format

One of the true classics in children's books is now available in a sturdy board book edition perfect for little hands! The story has been slightly abridged and features the famous illustrations from the original Hauman edition. Now toddlers can cheer on the little blue engine and that "can-do" attitude that keeps her chugging along!

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lucy Micklethwait,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Child's Book of Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An introduction to art appreciation exposes young readers to more than one hundred works of art from a wide range of periods, cultures, and artists, and with subjects such as seasons, weather, and animals.

Book cover of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

Why did I love 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”).

By Richard Scarry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When his publisher first saw the sketches for this book in 1962, he proclaimed: "Why, this is simply the best word book EVER!" He was right: it still is!

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