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25 Kids’ Books That Are Pure Joy (We Want to Buy Them All!)

published Dec 9, 2020
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Books are one of our most beloved holiday gifts to give in any year, but in 2020, we’re strategically shopping for books that will crack a smile. Because isn’t giving our masked-up, perpetually hand-washing kids the gift of joyful books the least we can do? Cubby asked booksellers, librarians, teachers, authors, and parents across the country for their top recommendations of books that grab emotions, spark smiles, and leave kids with their hearts feeling full. 

There are some decades-old classics here, but new ones too. Some are stories that let kids dream. Some open a secret door of understanding, leaving kids bathed in the satisfying glow of knowledge gained. Some provide that precious joy of finally feeling seen. Still others will simply leave kids rolling on the floor and crying … with tears of laughter. None are sad, scary, preachy or (overtly) teach-y. All are guaranteed to become repeat favorites.

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Board Books

Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton

In this simple story, a big-eyed magenta dog tries, tries and tries again to master self control, but can’t quite help being his naughty self. “It’s a storytime favorite,” says Madison Hatfield. a bookseller and events coordinator at Little Shop of Stories, an independent bookshop in Decatur, Georgia. “Everybody can shout, ‘Oh no, George!” 

Moo, Baa, La La La! by Sandra Boynton

It’s hard to pick just one from Boynton, but this might be the winner for its exuberant piggies and cows and catchy rhythms. “It’s repetitive and predictable in the perfect way, and of course totally funny,” says Dee Ratterree, a grandmother and retired librarian, who spent more than two decades working as a children’s librarian in New York.

Standroid & Dandroid Make a Mess by Michael Slacks

When two robots make one giant mess, they must figure out how to clean it up. “This was a huge hit in our house,” says Amy Houston-Wandell, MSEd, a California mom of two and a former preschool special educator. “They loved it even after they had outgrown other board books.” 

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell

This bright, bold 1982 board book classic never fails to delight. What animals has the zoo sent in those mysterious crates? (A monkey, a lion, an elephant…)  “It’s all about those lift-the-flaps,” says Ratterree. “Babies do not get tired of this book.”

Picture Books

Hooray for Hat! By Brian Won

An elephant, a zebra, and other animal pals lift each other out of grumpy moods with a series of hats. “One one hand it’s a book about the joys of sharing, but on the other it’s just a delightful excuse to march around the house shouting, “Hooray for hat!’” says Minh Lê, an early childhood policy expert, father of two, and the author of Let Me Finish! and Drawn Together. 

The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingman

A brilliantly madcap story about a pencil who creates a whole world full of colorful, often complaining denizens. “It’s creative and hilarious,” says Ratterree. “And the climactic fight between the erasers is mindblowing!” 

The Big Bed by Bunmi Laditan, Illustrated by Tom Knight

In this sweet and sassy tale, a girl presents her arguments as to why she should be allowed to sleep with her mom and dad. “My 10-year-old and 8-year-old think it’s the funniest book we own,” says Lorielle Hollaway, the founder of Cultured Books, an independent bookstore in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Their favorite part is when the girl says, ‘Is it the pee pee?’” (Because let’s face it, pee pee is funny.)

Red, Yellow, Blue (And a Dash of White Too!) by C.G. Esperanza

In this gorgeous fantasia of a story, a little girl and her big blue elephant go wild experimenting with paint and discovering the magic of mixing colors.  “It’s a feast for the senses,” says Lê. “I’d describe this one as ‘Basquiat after a Skittles binge.” 

Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato

The touching story follows polka dotted elephant Eliot on a lonely day in the city without his friend Mouse, who’s at a Mouse family reunion. By the end, Mouse finds Eliot and invites him to the gathering. “The softly colored illustrations are dreamy,” notes Houston-Wandell, who recommends all the books in the Little Elliot series.

Freedom We Sing by Amyra León, illustrated by Molly Mendoza

This book, an illustrated poem exploring the idea of freedom, radiates joy and leaves kids feeling a sense of peace. The immersive, painterly illustrations play a major role. “When you read it aloud, the kids are reminded to inhale and exhale,” says  Hollaway. “It’s wonderfully interactive that way.”

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

A little boy named Niño imagines himself as a masked wrestler easily taking down fearsome opponents until he faces the ultimate challenger … his little sisters. “This book is like a live firecracker, filled with colorful lighthearted action that explodes off the page,” says Lê. 

Let’s Get a Pup! Said Kate by Bob Graham

Here’s a book that elicits happy tears. Kate and her parents set out to adopt a shelter puppy, and along the way they end up having their hearts stolen by an older dog, too. “The scene of the family returning to adopt the sweet old dog, Rosie, is one of my favorite moments in all of children’s books,” says Ratterree. “It’s heaven.”

This beautiful book is a dreamy, gentle mood poem told in the voice of a mother wondering what her child will grow up to be.  “It’s gorgeous, and so soothing for kids, especially ideal for a readaloud,” says Hatfield.

Everything Awesome about Sharks and Other Underwater Creatures by Mike Lowery

When kids get hooked on a topic –whether it’s dinosaurs, trucks or sharks — mastering the minute facts becomes a full fledged joy. “Kids crave feeling like an expert, and so many kids are obsessed with this book,” says Hollaway. “After all, who isn’t fascinated by sharks?”

Falling for Rapunzel by Leah Wilcox

This fractured fairy tale “appeals to the goofy sense of humor of 5, 6, and 7 year olds,” says Ratterree. All the nonsense hinges on the knight’s faulty hearing. (When he asks Rapunzel to throw down her  hair, she throws down her underwear.) “It’s always a winner,” says Ratterree. 

How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

This one, about a child who finds an injured bird, takes him home and heals him, is guaranteed to leave kids with that warm and fuzzy feeling. “I love all of Bob Graham’s books but this might be my favorite,” says Ratterree. “It’s about giving love and releasing it, and it’s just very lovely book.”

My Rainy Day Rocket Ship by Markette Sheppard, illustrated by Charly Palmer

On a dreary, rainy day with nothing to do, a boy decides to make a rocket ship, problem-solving what he needs and how to build it with the help of his dad. “When I asked my four-year-old what book made him most happy, this was his top pick,” says Houston-Wandell. “I think it resonates with children contending with quarantine and discovering  ways to entertain themselves with whatever they have on hand.”

Clever Little Witch by Muon Thi Van, illustrated by Hyewon Yum

Frustrated by her new sibling, a little witch repeatedly tries to turn her baby brother into a frog. “The range of facial expressions of the little witch are incredible and her frustration is so relatable!” says Peter Limata, a second grade teacher in Oakland, California, whose @StorytimeWithMrLimata read alouds on Facebook Live have earned him a worldwide following.. Plus: Yum’s adorable, non-scary witches are impossible to resist.

What Can a Citizen Do? by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris

The dutiful title might make this sound not-so-fun, but Limata says this inspiring book is absolutely a feel-good crowd favorite in his classroom. The book follows a group of kids turning a lonely island into a community. “Kids love the part when the kids decide that a citizen can be a bear in pink pants,” he says.

Early Reader & Early Chapter Books

Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder

A lovely combination of sweet, funny, and comforting, this series about two brothers “perfectly captures the joy and silliness of being a kid,” says Hatfield. Each easy-to-read chapter functions as a separate story, à la Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, which it also echoes somewhat in spirit. 

Ty’s Travels All Aboard by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Nina Mata

A little boy named Ty wishes his family would play with him, but everyone is too busy before dinnertime. But Ty finds an empty cardboard box and invents his own marvelous train adventure using his imagination. “The words and pictures mesh together perfectly for an emerging reader,” says Hollaway. “It’s a total treat.”

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Second grader Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, appreciate his little sister, and be a help to his mom and dad. This might sound mundane, but there’s a reason it won the Newbery award — and why Limata’s second grade students say it’s their favorite.  “Henkes has a magical touch,” he says. “Every child loves this book!”

Middle Grade Books

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson

For decades now, authors have tried to match the timeless perfection of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Watson’s story about a little girl named Ryan is one of the few that deserve the comparison. “Kids absolutely love this book. It’s got all the spunk and fun of Ramona and it radiates with kindness and light,” says Hatfield.

The Last Last-Day of  Summer by Lamar Giles, illustrated by Dapo Adeola

It’s the Hardy Boys meets The Phantom Tollbooth meets Back to the Future, starring two sleuthing cousins who stumble into a time-traveling mystery. “It’s a total romp and page turner,” says Hollaway, who also highly recommends Giles’s sequel, The Last Mirror on the Left. “Kids cannot get enough of these books, especially now that everyone is looking for some sort of escapism.”

Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White

Ten-year-old Maria is a plain, tough little orphan girl under the care of a horrible governess who’s in cahoots with the secretly evil vicar (they plan to steal Maria’s fortune). When Maria stumbles into a colony of Lilliputians, adventure ensues. This 1946 English classic “is one of the most perfect children’s books of all time as far as I’m concerned,” says Ratterree.

Our Experts

Amy Houston-Wandell, MSEd, worked as a preschool special educator for 15 years in New York City and Northern California. She is currently homeschooling her two sons, ages four and six, at their home in Tiburon, CA.

Dee Ratterree spent more than two decades working as a children’s librarian in New York; now retired, she recommends books to her grandchildren.

Lorielle Hollaway is the founder of Cultured Books, an independent bookstore in St. Petersburg, Florida with a mission to share diverse stories.

Minh Lê is an early childhood policy expert, a father of two, and the award-winning author of children’s books including Lift, Let Me Finish! and Drawn Together. He also blogs about children’s books at Bottom Shelf Books.

Peter Limata is a second grade teacher in Oakland, California whose @StorytimeWithMrLimata read-alouds on Facebook Live have earned him a worldwide following.

Madison Hatfield is a bookseller and events coordinator at Little Shop of Stories, an independent bookshop in Decatur, Georgia.