Sometimes, the most challenging thing about reading to your baby, toddler, or preschooler is carving out the time for it. At the end of a long day, we often rush to the TV or sit our kids down with an iPad. But not only does reading do wonders for our children’s development, it can actually help form a healthier bedtime routine, making our lives easier. Reading to toddlers improves their emotional intelligence and the earlier you start, the better. But just as important as when you start reading to a baby is what you choose to read. Choosing and encouraging your child to seek out educational, entertaining, and age-appropriate reading materials is key to developing skills like empathy, emotional regulation, and improving your child’s emotional vocabulary. Included here are 8 of my favorite children’s books on emotional intelligence in no particular order along with why I think they’re great for any child ages 0-5.
1. Not SO Scary by Me, Renée Adams
The Not SO Scary board book is designed to be a bed-time favorite for ages 0+. The character-driven story teaches emotion vocabulary even before a child is verbal and expands the vocabulary learned from the Emotion Wristbands. The book has 8 Slide Surprise functions which make the reading time fun, interactive, and engaging. This is a book children come back to time and time again.
The Not SO Scary cast: Aunt Andie Ant, Walt Worm King, Betty Bee Queen, Chief Franco Firefly and Maestro Humphrey Hummingbird are designed to be lovable and relatable characters. Hearing the characters talk about how they feel nervous, worried, curious, excited, and afraid establishes comfort and confidence within a child, encouraging them to talk about their own emotions. A child is better able to identify their emotions when asked in a way that relates to a story they know, such as, “Remember how Walt Worm felt worried about the strange eggs and how Andie Ant felt nervous? What are you feeling?”
The characters confide in Dr. Spinner Spider, and she offers a different perspective. Her wise words, “What feels SCARY now can be a FUN and not so scary surprise!” prove to be true and the story ends with everyone feeling happy. Parents can use this example in the story to point out that emotions change and it’s useful to consider a positive outcome even amid negative emotions.
The characters’ facial expressions change as your child manipulates the slide surprise pages. Point out these changes of emotion. The slide function pages foster fine motor skill development as they are specifically designed for little fingers. It is also fun for a child when the reader’s voice varies! Try it with the opposites in the verses: “high and low,” “on and off,” “big and small,” “night to day,” and “wet to dry.”
For a growing child, recognizing emotions and the facial expressions/internal feelings associated with them is important for their social development. Being able to recognize and become aware of emotions is the first step towards attaining high emotional intelligence. They are then able to name their emotions and learn to better understand them. With the “Slide Surprise” feature that changes the story and helps develop fine motor skills, the charming and memorable Hoppy & Poppie PinkCheeks and Bug Island cast, and colorful, engaging representations of emotions that will become familiar to any toddler, this book becomes one of a child’s favorites.
2. How are you Peeling? By Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
A longtime classic, How are You Peeling? is a colorful, visual display of emotional vegetables and fruits. Humans are psychologically inclined to recognize faces where there are none and the authors of this book take full comedic advantage of that. Whether it’s a screaming orange or a kissing strawberry, each face displays a recognizable emotion in a comedic way.
This book is fantastic for the youngest kids who are just starting to learn about emotions and facial expressions. By using fruits and vegetables they eat and enjoy, this book turns the familiar upside down in a creative, enjoyable way. Though the book itself doesn’t have a cohesive story, it presents a collection of humorous stills that each tell their own individual stories. I really like that it doesn’t shy away from portraying negative and unpleasant emotions like anger and fear. Exposing your child to the full range of emotions, right from the start, is proven to help them understand themselves and others better, both in childhood and later in life.
3. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Another classic you may remember from your own childhood is The Rainbow Fish. When I first saw it in the bookstore, my eye was immediately caught by the glittery, shimmering illustrations on every page. It almost made me forget about its brilliant story; a tale of a beautiful fish who learns that by sharing his beauty and most prized possession he can make lasting friends and relationships.
If you haven’t yet had trouble teaching your child the importance of sharing, it’s likely you will at some point in time. Children are often not born knowing the value of selfless acts, which is why it’s so important to emphasize its value in a fun, uplifting way. The Rainbow Fish offers exactly that as its story will inspire your child to try acts of compassion, kindness, and caring. For building the EI skill of relationship management, add this book to your child’s library.
4. The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
This board book is a great addition to any toddler’s story time. The bright illustrations reflect the vibrant displays of emotions that any toddler needs to become familiar with. Feelings like excitement, bravery, and some mixed emotions are all incorporated into The Feelings Book, which makes for a surprisingly nuanced book, especially at such a young age.
As I explained with the first two entries of this list, the more emotions you are able to expose your child to, the better they will be able to recognize those emotions within themselves and others. Think about all the times you’ve struggled to comprehend what someone was going through. For example, you came into work and immediately you could tell something was off with your boss.
How you pick up on those emotional signs and how you alter your behavior are all examples of emotional recognition and adaptability in action. These are the kinds of situations you can prepare your child for later in life with books like The Feelings Book and the other entries on this list.
5. Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival
This story about Ruby, an imaginative, curious little girl, is a must-have for any parent looking to improve their child’s emotional intelligence. At the start of the book, Ruby finds something she’s never experienced before: a worry, and it begins to grow out of control. Shortly after, the worry is the only thing Ruby can think about and it begins to consume her thoughts and cause her distress. The cure for her worry comes when she befriends a young boy and she realizes he carries a worry around with him too. By sharing their worries and discussing their emotions, they both feel their worries shrink and their minds feel more at ease.
Where to begin with this one? Between the cartoonish illustrations, the engaging story, the uplifting moral, and the emotional intelligence apparent in its themes, this book is one I can’t recommend enough. Childhood anxiety is a topic that is hard to approach, but on many parents’ minds. Tom Percival’s book does a great job of making the subject light enough to discuss with young children while maintaining the weight of its importance. Teaching children to be comfortable sharing their emotions with others and that their worries are valid are both great morals and great lessons to teach at a young age.
6. Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang
For young, new readers, Grumpy Monkey is an enjoyable, illustrated picture book about the danger of suppressing unpleasant and new emotions. Jim Panzee, the chimpanzee protagonist of the story, wakes up in a sour mood and nothing his friends do seems to help; in fact, everything they do makes it worse! Jim learns a valuable lesson at the end of the book that some days are tougher than others, but you can do more damage by concealing your emotions than by expressing them in a healthy way.
This book, the humorous title and illustrations aside, offers toddlers (and some adults) a valuable lesson without any sense of negativity. The illustrations are notable for their colorful associations with anger through a red theme. It offers us a chance to acknowledge the difficulty of living up to everyone else’s expectations, especially in a society where we are often pressured to express happiness, even when we’re not feeling happy.
Healthy emotional expression does not fool around with dishonesty. Whether we’re feeling angry, sad, scared, upset, embarrassed, or anything else, it does no good to pretend we’re not feeling that way and this book goes a long way towards teaching that lesson to our young ones.
7. Today I Feel…: An Alphabet of Feelings by Madalena Moniz
An alphabetic list of emotions both good and bad, Today I Feel… is a great introduction to emotions for any toddler. With beautiful watercolor illustrations, Madalena Moniz brings these emotions to life in a way that will keep any child engaged. I’m always curious about how books like these approach difficult letters like Q, X, and Z, and she does a great job of finding emotional moments and expressions that fit these obscure letters.
It can be so difficult to make lessons about emotions engaging to a young child. Emotions are abstract, tricky, and nuanced and some children struggle to stay interested when discussing them. This book puts that problem to rest through its alphabetical concept and wonderful illustrations. Through color association, your child will begin to gain emotional recognition and learn to identify their own emotions in a fun, charming way.
8. The Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of Feelings by Anna Llenas
With 3-D pop-ups and illustrations on every page, Anna Llenas’s book encourages children to get excited about a wide range of emotions. At first, the titular character, the color monster, cannot organize his thoughts or feelings and requires help from someone else to explain how and what he’s feeling. The narrator, a little girl, helps guide him on an adventure through his emotions and he gains a vocabulary to understand and comprehend his complex emotions.
With simple, accessible language and pop-up illustrations, this book provides an emotional vocabulary for even the youngest readers. Again utilizing color associations and visual metaphors to provide details on complex emotions, this book does a particularly great job at helping children recognize emotions and learn how to regulate them. This book also features a positive, good-natured monster so it may also help your child if they’re afraid of monsters under the bed or in the closet. Not all monsters have to be scary and this book proves it!
That’s the end of our list, I hope you give these books a read and enjoy your next story time with the young ones. Reading is one of the best things we can do for our children and inspiring a lifetime of reading can begin at any age. Let me know in the comments if there are any great books I missed, I’m sure I could keep this list going and going.