21 Best Books for 3 Year Olds

Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.

January 2021

Age three is an important stage in a child’s reading journey—a time when they learn to turn pages, recognize letters, understand stories, and ask questions. As a parent, it’s hard to find answers to all your child’s questions, let alone know which books are best for your three-year-old. Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of the 21 best books for three-year-olds so you don’t have to.

Looking for book recommendations older or younger kids? Check out our selections of the best children’s books by age.

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Learning Books

Katie Wilson
Book Type: Board

Journey around the world as you flip through the pages of this book about famous destinations. Landmarks will take you across the globe through approachable and childlike illustrations of important places. Discover The Sydney Opera House, The Eiffel Tower, The Colosseum, and The Statue of Liberty, and more! 

Landmarks is an Elephant Books pick found in our subscription packages. This wonderful Montessori-style book is a great choice for your three-year-old. We love Landmarks because it introduces your child to the world around them through beautiful illustrations and encourages a hands-on learning experience.

First the Egg
Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Book Type: Picture

An egg becomes a chicken, a tadpole becomes a frog, and a seed becomes a plant. Follow along with this book’s simple yet striking illustrations to learn about big transformations in daily life. 

This book provides an interactive lesson about transformation. It tackles the age-old question of “what came first?” and demonstrates the cycle of life in the natural world. First the Egg’s numerical poetic structure teaches your child about changes. This book is a good introduction to patterns and cause-and-effect, and–who knows?– it might even answer some of your three-year-old’s many questions.

Catching Kisses
Amy Gibson
Book Type: Picture

As the seeds of a dandelion blow through the wind, they carry kisses that travel all across the country. The graphic-style illustrations in this story show us the many places a kiss you blow can travel— from New York City to Washington D.C. to New Orleans— and the many people who can catch it. 

Another Elephant Books choice, Catching Kisses teaches your three-year-old about different locations in the United States. The colorful illustrations and simple prose will help them conceptualize big ideas about caring for someone who might live far away. This book reinforces the importance of affection, which plays a big role in teaching young ones how to treat those around them. The story also introduces a lesson about people, places, and things we cannot see, but we know are still there.

Series Books

Ian Falconer
Book Type: Picture

Olivia is a lively and curious little pig who loves to dress up, sing songs, and go on adventures. This story— illustrated in simple graphic images with a vivid pop of red on each page— follows Olivia, her mother, and her little brother through a day of activity, including visits to a beach, a museum, and eventually back home to read a bedtime story. 

Olivia is the first in a series of eight stories about this animated little pig who loves to try new things. A Caldecott Honor winning narrative, this book is a popular choice among parents and a fun option for family storytime. The story teaches three-year-olds that it is okay to get excited, but it is also important to be respectful. It is also a helpful reinforcement for helping your child settle down for bedtime, and the story presents a wonderful example of how meaningful storytime can be. 

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe
Megumi Iwasa
Book Type: Picture

A lonely Giraffe from Africa writes a letter and sends it as far as it can go. It reaches a pen-pal Penguin, and Giraffe learns a thing or two about what it is like in other places. He finds an unlikely friendship in Penguin, and asks plenty of questions along the way.

The first in a series of two, this internationally bestselling book is perfect for three-year-olds. Uniquely, this book for younger readers is in chapter format, but its sweet illustrations and read-aloud quality make it perfect for introducing children to stories in installments. It introduces the concept of having a penpal and everything that comes with it, including making silly assumptions, asking questions, and making friends. 

The Gruffalo
Julia Donaldson
Book Type: Picture

A clever mouse makes his way through the deep dark woods, and meets three not-so-friendly creatures along the way. The fox, the owl, and the snake are all interested in having the mouse for dinner, but the mouse uses his imagination to think up the scariest creature of them all: the Gruffalo! Little does the mouse know that the big, scary Gruffalo exists outside of his imagination, too. 

This classic story is a fantastic read-aloud option for younger readers. The first in a collection of stories following the fantastical Gruffalo character, this book teaches kids that, even for an imaginative mouse, things aren’t always as they seem. The rhyme and rhythm of this storyline, along with its bright, colorful pictures keep children engaged and encourage them to use their own imaginations. 

Science Books

What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? 
Steve Jenkins, Robin Page
Book Type: Picture

Discover all kinds of animals with all different jobs in this book about how creatures use their bodies to look for food, keep warm, and stay safe. The colorful illustrations and textures on each page of the book help kids understand what is unique about different types of animals. 

This science-oriented picture book makes for a memorable introduction to the animal kingdom. It presents facts in a question-and-answer style. The engaging pictures and leading text create a responsive reading experience. Full of predictive pictures and clues, this story helps little ones hypothesize about animals. This story will challenge your child to think about why things are the way they are and will keep them entertained all the while.

The Most Magnificent Thing
Ashley Spire
Book Type: Picture

The Most Magnificent Thing is a story of a girl with a plan to create something awesome. With the help of her dog, she tries to craft the most magnificent thing, but it’s harder than it seems. The girl tries again and again, and with plenty of hard work she eventually succeeds, but it doesn’t turn out quite how she expected. 

We love this book because it teaches children all about perseverance. The story is an awesome introduction to the scientific method,  invention, and imagination. It shares a heartfelt message about not giving up, even when things get tricky.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontier of Space
Dominic Walliman
Book Type: Picture

Follow the smartest cat around all the way to space! In this graphic design-inspired book, Professor Astro Cat takes a journey into the galaxy and teaches us lessons about gravity, planets, and the universe. 

This book takes big questions about space and the universe and makes them fun and easy to understand. It introduces a spunky character in Professor Astro Cat, making learning about astrology an adventure. The illustrations are engaging and have a retro feel that makes the story entertaining for kids and parents alike. Professor Astro Cat’s Frontier of Space is a great way to familiarize your three-year-old with space.

Interactive Books

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle
Book Type: Board

This classic book, following a—you guessed it— very hungry caterpillar as he eats his way through every fruit and vegetable under the sun, is a must-have on every three-year-old’s bookshelf. The vibrant colors of the illustrated foods and the holes this caterpillar leaves behind on each page create an interactive sensory experience for young readers. 

This is a wonderful addition to any three-year-old’s book collection, not only for its eye-catching artwork, but also for its ultimate lesson about transformation. The book’s staggered pages leave its readers eager to know what comes next. This beloved classic will remind parents of their own childhood and help establish storytime traditions that can be passed down for generations.

Don’t Push the Button
Bill Cotter
Book Type: Picture

Don’t push the button! Seriously! This book tempts its readers to play along, introducing us to a lovable purple monster named Larry who only has one rule…can you guess what it is?

Don’t Push the Button is a fun and energetic story that is perfect for young readers. Its unique second-person narration style will speak right to your three-year-old. The book’s silly plot gives kids tasks on each page to keep them eagerly flipping to the end.  If your child has trouble paying attention during storytime, this book is a great choice.

Ten on a Twig 
Lo Cole
Book Type: Picture

Ten on a Twig is the story of ten little birds who tumble off a very long branch. This colorful rhyming story presents a surprise ending that’s perfect for bedtime. 

We love this book because it makes counting to ten both entertaining and engaging. Your three-year-old can learn numbers in an interactive way while settling down for the night. Each page becomes shorter as you read on, and the lift-the-flap style is reminiscent of classic books. As the little birds snuggle up for bedtime, your child will be ready for bed too.

Activity Books 

The Curious Garden
Peter Brown 
Book Type: Picture

Follow Liam on his quest to make the world a greener place. This intricately illustrated story is all about a boy who finds a beautiful green garden in the midst of a dark gloomy city. With the turn of each page, Liam’s city begins to bloom!

The Curious Garden has a wonderful message about caring for the environment, no matter where you are. Liam’s curiosity will match your three-year-old’s and his goodwill provides a wonderful example for how kids should treat their surroundings. The gorgeous illustrations make for an enchanting reading experience, and kids can make an activity out of searching for the little red-haired protagonist who is hiding among the greenery on each page.

Where’s the Pair?
Britta Teckentrup
Book Type: Picture

Where’s The Pair? is a charming activity book full of witty riddles. It is the perfect book for pre-readers, as it challenges them to find matching animal pairs using the read-aloud rhyming clues. 

This “spotting book” is a helpful story for keeping young readers interested. Not only is it full of charming rhythmic poetry, but it gives the reader a task on each set of pages. With this book, three-year-olds can practice their memorization skills and identify what makes each animal unique. The charming and colorful illustrations in Where’s The Pair? can be enjoyed by kids and parents alike.

Shake My Sillies Out
Book Type: Picture

Shakes My Sillies Out is all about a group of happy campers and animals in the woods who just can’t get to sleep. Follow along with the campers as they shake, clap, and wiggle their way to bedtime. This song-turned picture book is full of rhymes, rhythms, and lots of silliness which eventually tire out its characters— and, hopefully, its little reader too.

This book makes a great interactive bedtime story. Singing along to the repetitive words and the beat of this story will help three-year-olds with the memorization, listening, and speaking skills that aid in reading development. Shakes My Sillies Out is especially impactful for kinetic learners who engage with stories best through motions they can act out. 

Train Books

Steam Train, Dream Train
Sherri Duskey Rinker
Book Type: Picture

All aboard the train to bedtime! This book is all about a crew of cheerful animals filling the dream train with all kinds of toys. Follow along as the dream train makes its way along the railroad tracks and into the night. 

We love this book for its classic and gentle illustrations paired with its lovely poetic text. Steam Train, Dream Train is certainly a good pick for train loving kids, but just about any three-year-old will love it, as it features train cars full of ice cream, paint, racecars, and bouncy balls. This special bedtime story will help lull your child to sleep with happy thoughts of their favorite things.

The Little Engine That Could
Watty Piper
Book Type: Picture

This classic is a must-read train story for three-year-olds. Ride along with a little engine who has her work cut out for her. This small blue train needs to make it over a big hill to deliver a group of stranded toys to all the little boys and girls. 

The Little Engine That Could imparts a meaningful message of strength and perseverance. This classic is familiar to multiple generations and would make a great addition in your child’s library. It provides a teaching moment for young readers, and will have kids chanting “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” when faced with challenges for years to come.

The Goodnight Train
June Sobel
Book Type: Picture

With whimsical illustrations and lulling text, the Goodnight Train takes off to dreamland with a few important stops along the way. Beginning with lots of energy and gusto, this rhyming book takes a turn to quiet as the train (and the reader) inch closer and closer to bedtime. 

This book is a super pick for three-year-olds because of its rhythm and rhyme. The fantastical illustrations are perfect for grabbing a young reader’s attention. The Goodnight Train makes a special bedtime read, as it establishes a nightly routine— including bathtime and teeth brushing. This book will please train-loving kids and parents as it sets the stage for a peaceful bedtime transition.

Dinosaur Books

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?
Jane Yolen
Book Type: Picture

The images in this book tell a story of their own with muted colors and detailed depictions of a familiar-looking child’s bedroom just before lights out. Except this bedroom doesn’t belong to a child— it belongs to a dinosaur! Learn how dinosaurs say goodnight. Surprisingly, it might not be much different than how kids do. 

We love the way the pictures complement the simple text of this book to do a good deal of the storytelling.  This story is an entertaining and humorous journey to bedtime for any three-year-old. There’s a playful nature to this book that will make for a memorable bedtime story each time you read it with your child.

Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug
Jonathan Stutzman 
Book Type: Picture

Tiny T-Rex is an awesome friend with a big problem. His friend Pointy needs a hug, but Tiny T-Rex can’t provide one— he’s got some practicing to do! Follow along on his adventure to learn how to lift Pointy’s spirits.

This story is a meaningful lesson in perseverance, empathy, and acceptance. Tiny T-Rex’s journey shows the lengths we should go to cheer up our friends. The adorable characters and colorful illustrations in this lovable narrative will keep your three-year-old engaged until the very last page.

Todd H. Doodler
Book Type: Picture

Rawr! is the story of Rex the dinosaur. Rex doesn’t fit in with the other kids at school. He doesn’t look like the other students, he’s big, and he’s a little scary, but he teaches everyone at school that it’s okay to be different. 

This book is a perfect choice for any three-year-old. The cover has a soft textured dino that young readers will love. The comic-style images are amusing and playful, and the story’s lesson  is full of humor, but makes an important point about accepting yourself, making friends, and standing out.


What should my three-year-old be learning? 

As your child enters the preschool years, they begin to comprehend ideas, recognizing and retaining concepts such as times of the day, colors, places, and stories. They will be able to remember the names of books, phrases, and words they heard when reading, and they might even be able to remember plot points.

Should my three-year-old be reading? 

While you shouldn’t expect your three-year-old to pick up a book and understand what it says on their own, reading with your child is a useful way to contribute to their literacy journey early on and will help them become more confident in reading independently in the future. 

For more book ideas for babies, toddlers, and young kids check out Elephant Books for additional information about the gift everyone feels good about!

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