Books that you can sing along to are often the best choices for kids who really struggle with storytime. As a parent of 5-year-old twins with autism, I've developed a huge collection of books in this category. My son Luke, who has a lot of challenges with joint attention and distractibility, benefits from many multisensory approaches to books, but he particularly responds to singalong books (once they are familiar).
Some of the picture books in this list are based on songs that your child may already know from YouTube videos or school. Others you will have to teach. I'd encourage parents to give kids who are particularly hard to engage access to a video or audio clip of the song first. If they love the video or music track first it will help them to access the book later.
song by Bob Thiele and George David, Illustrations by Tim Hopgood
Henry Holt and Co. (2014); hardcover, $17.99
It is impossible not to feel the purest joy that radiates from this book. The illustrations, which beautifully and literally realize the well-known lyrics in a fun, retro style, set a happy tone. All that's needed to complete the spell is an adult to do their best Louis Armstrong impression.
If you think about it, What a Wonderful World has always been a song about colors and light. There are "trees of green, "red roses," "skies of blue," "clouds of white," and rainbows. There is also both a "bright blessed day," and a "dark sacred night." My son Luke was excited to point to these color elements and label them. Kids with autism usually learn to label colors in their first teaching programs, so color language becomes highly reinforcing.
Luke also easily caught on to the repetition of the line "What a wonderful world" and especially enjoyed the page filled with hearts for the lyric "I love you."
by Ringo Starr, Illustrations by Ben Cort
Aladdin (2014); hardcover/CD edition, $17.99
I really wanted my kids to fall in love with the Netflix show, Beat Bugs, because I'm a huge Beatles fan, but, alas, it didn't hook them. Luckily, I've been getting my fix with Ringo Starr's picture book based on Octopus's Garden.
Ben Cort has created a lovely, jewel-toned ocean landscape that five diverse kids delightedly explore. Some pages are portrait and others landscape, so you have to turn the book as you go, which adds to the multi-sensory experience (and I suspect is meant to give you a deep-ocean feeling of discombobulation). My kids like this element, but others will find it too distracting.
I didn't think I would use the CD that came with the book, but it was such a hit! There are 3 tracks:
- Ringo Starr reading the lyrics with a piano key tone indicating when to turn the page.
- Ringo Starr singing the song.
- An instrumental version of the song so the child can try singing by themselves.
This formulation worked magically for Luke, but naturally developed into something of a rigid routine. Now, when we read this book we must first "say" it, then I sing it, and then he sings it. Fine with me—that's three read-throughs!
by Will Hillenbrand
HMH Books for Young Readers (2002); paperback, $7.99
I think Luke, who is obsessed with trains, has watched a dozen versions of this song on various YouTube Kids channels. So when I saw this book at the library, I snatched it quickly.
Hillenbrand's interpretation is a children's zoo train. The engineer makes stops along the way to the zoo and picks up the baby animals from their parents. As each baby animal boards, the new animal's sound is added to the cumulative "Puff, puff / Toot, toot!" refrain. Luke loves participating in this part the best, and touches his finger to each line as he makes the sounds. For kids with expressive language delays, this is ripe for participation; animal sounds are easier to approximate.
I love how the lyrics use the proper name of each animal's offspring. (i.e., It's not a baby seal, but a pup.) There's also a built-in opportunity to practice responding to, "What happens next?" since there is a clue about the next animal on its preceding page. Finally, kids will enjoy an exciting moment depicted in the illustrations in which two of the baby animals must be rescued from a circle of hungry alligators.
by Rachel Isadora
Penguin Young Readers Group (2012); out of print
Rachel Isadora places the traditional song, "The Green Grass Grew All Around," in Africa. At sunrise, a young mother and her two small children see a hole in the ground. As we turn the pages, an Umbrella Acacia tree grows in the hole. As the sun continues to rise, as though it were the same day, we watch the tree grow and develop branches. A nest appears, then an egg, and soon a baby starling. In the end, the young bird is ready to leave the nest as the sun sets and the two kids (now older) look on.
Cumulative songs have a tight, predictable structure that is great for our kids. I really like how Isadora combines this with the use of rebus (picture) icons within the text. This gives kids who are more visual than aural another way to follow along and participate.
(It's really sad that this book is out of print, but I was easily able to borrow it from my local library. It's also available as an ebook.)
Raffi is pure nostalgia and his songs have endured. Some of his hits have been made into picture books as part of the Raffi Songs to Read series. I'd definitely recommend giving your kids the treat of listening to a Raffi album and then reading these books.
Spider on the Floor, Illustrated by True Kelley
Dragonfly Books (1996); paperback, $7.99
Spider on the Floor is a simple song with a repeating, rhyming verse. A spider (which begins on the floor) crawls up the singer (it's written in first person). There is a verse where the spider is on their leg, then their stomach, neck, face, and head. Finally, the spider falls to the floor again and we repeat the first verse.
Paired with the visuals, this book is ideal for a child who is learning to label body parts. If you have a sensory-seeking kid, the obvious thing to do is have a spider-tickle party!
Down by the Bay, Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcot
Crown Books for Young Readers (1999); board book, $6.99
This book does a wonderful job of realizing the silliness of the traditional campfire song. In Nadine Bernard's interpretation, two children play outside and seem to be trying to one-up each other with ever more outrageous and funny rhymes.
This is a great one for our kids because the song lyrics repeat except for the fill-in rhyme. When kids are ready, they can try going faster with each verse, like Raffi does, and make up their own lyrics to practice rhyming. Parents can model this.
Also traditional is for someone to sing the words while another echoes them. If your child has echolalia, put that skill to a very functional, social use!
Baby Beluga, Illustrated by Ashley Wolff
Knopf Books for Young Readers (1997); board book, $6.99
I recently had the magical experience of singing "Baby Beluga" in the ocean with my son Harry. I'll absolutely never forget it, and I have Baby Beluga to thank for making such magic possible.
This is one of those books that children who love animals can't stop looking at. There are lots of beautifully drawn ocean animals to look at and label, and the song is easy to learn, rhyming, lulling, and happy. A perfect bedtime closer.
Five Little Ducks, Illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey
Knopf Books for Young Readers (1999); board book, $6.99
This is another traditional song that my son Luke has become familiar with through the modern miracle of YouTube Kids. Because of that it was a cinch to get him interested in this book.
Denise Fleming's "5 Little Ducks" is another one I like and have reviewed before, and it incorporates days of the week. My son Harry loves it. But the Raffi/Aruego/Dewey version is uncomplicated and my son Luke greatly prefers it's adherence to the original song's lyrics and simpler illustrations.
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Dial Books (2005); hardcover, $17.99
"He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" is one of the most widely popular African American spirituals. Kadir Nelson's illustrations are perfect, featuring a calming color palette and realistic illustrations of an black boy and his family.
The book begins and ends zoomed all the way out, looking down at Earth from space. We meet the child as he shows the reader a drawing of his family ("He's got my brothers and my sisters in His hands"). The art suggests a oneness with our world. The characters stand with their arms out in pouring rain, gaze at a full moon at night, fish in rivers set against mountains, picnic in a park, swim in the ocean, and make a puzzle shaped like the Earth.
The repetition of the lyrics is enough structure on its own to keep my kids' attention, but the solid rhythm of this particular melody is also great for practicing the skill of tapping to the beat.
by Bill Staines, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (2009); hardcover, $19.99
I wasn't familiar with this folk song when I came across All God's Critters in the library, but I was already a fan of the book's illustrator, Kadir Nelson. His work here takes his usual illustrated realism and adds the shiny veneer needed to anthropomorphize and showcase all the singing and dancing creatures.
The folk song, "All God's Critters" was popularized by the band Peter, Paul & Mary in the 70s. It's a fast-moving song, but pretty catchy, has a great beat, and is easy to pick up.
I listened to many different versions of it on YouTube, but I ended up being partial to this one by an Irish group, Damian McGinty and Celtic Thunder.
Despite my agnosticism clashing with all the God talk, I love the message of this book. The animals all have a different way of being part of the choir, and they all have their place. What could be a more perfect message for kids who struggle with socializing and communication in different ways? Consider these two pages of lyrics:
Singin' in the nighttime, singin' in the day,
the little duck quacks, then he's on his way.
The possum ain't got much to say,
and the porcupine talks to himself.
All God's Critters got a place in the choir--
Some sing low, some sing higher,
some sing out loud on the telephone wire,
and some just clap their hands, or paws,
or anything they got. Now...
by James Dean
These singalong books in the Pete the Cat series don't rock the boat too much with new twists. But that's the point. They are designed to introduce traditional children's songs.
Wheels on the Bus
HarperFestival (2013); hardcover, $9.99
Wheels on the Bus has a few extra verses where the cats on the bus shout "Let's Rock Out!" and "Pete the Cat!" Other than that, it's exactly what you remember (but with a certain cool cat driver).
Old MacDonald Had a Farm
HarperFestival (2014); hardcover, $9.99
Old MacDonald Had a Farm has perhaps too many verses for some kids (and parents), but the 14 animal verses are a great way to get in a lot of practice labeling common farm and domestic animals and making animal sounds.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
HarperFestival (2014); hardcover, $9.99
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (my personal favorite of the bunch) features the full lyrics of the original 19th century poem, not the abbreviated one. The illustrations show Pete coming home from school and going through his nighttime routine with his family. It's a perfect bedtime book that ends in a dreamy, fantastical moment where Pete blasts off on a rocket ship as he drifts off to sleep.
If your child is already a Pete the Cat fan and doesn't yet know these songs, this is a no-brainer. Knowing traditional childhood songs is foundational to learning about and taking part in our culture.
by Kabir Sehgal & Surishtha Sehgal, Illustrated by Jess Golden
Beach Lane Books (2016); hardcover, $17.99
I've reviewed this book before in a roundup of books to introduce race and ethnicity. Wheels on the Tuk Tuk is an Indian twist on the traditional song, "The Wheels on the Bus."
While our kids tend to need straight, simple versions of classic songs and stories to learn them at first, once they know a song like "Wheels on the Bus," variations can open up doors for learning.
The book explores a small town in India, instantly communicating with "Tuk Tuk wheels go round and round" that the tuk tuk (a 3-wheel ricksaw) is equivalent to a city bus. This basis for comparison continues with lines like "Rupees on the bus go ching ching ching."
In addition to this wonderful introduction to a different culture, this book is also funny. A cow sits down in front of the tuk tuk ("Tuk tuk stops for moo-moo-cow.") and an elephant soaks it ("Elephant's trunk goes spray-spray-spray").
Performer: Carly Simon, Lyricist: Jack Norworth, Illustrated by: Amiko Hirao
Charlesbridge (2016); board book and CD, $7.95
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is an American standard, but until I picked up this book I had no idea that the original lyrics describe a young woman in love with baseball. Katie Casey “saw all the games, knew all the players by their first names.”
In Amiko Hirao's illustrations, Katie Casey is a cat and the players in 'Sluggers Stadium' and its fans are a colorful cast of animals.
Knowing about baseball and the culture around it is an important part of everyday American life. I could see this book being particularly useful for a child whose family likes to attend ball games or if a child is about to start a recreational baseball program themselves.
by Trudy Harris, Illustrated by Carrie Hartman
Millbrook Press (2009); hardcover, $19.99
I'm a fan of Trudy Harris' Math is Fun! series. In this adaptation of the nursery rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock" she plays with time.
Hickory dickory doo, the grandfather clock struck TWO.
It woke the cat, who sprang from his mat,
hungry for mouse-tail stew.
For 12 hours the cat pursues the mouse through the farm and house. A variety of clocks from old-fashioned grandfather clocks (analog) to modern digital clocks show us the time as we go.
Time is also reflected through the passage of the day. The sky gets darker, shadows stretch, and characters tire. This is a fabulous book—fun to sing, exciting, repetitive and structured, and with tons of learning opportunities related to time.
Barefoot Books is a pretty remarkable children's press for many reasons related to sustainability and manufacturing standards. They also have a firm commitment to inclusive books that showcase human diversity (including visible forms of disability). The Barefoot Singalong series is particularly special.
Barefoot Books has created an animated version of each book in this series (they come on the CD, but are also online and linked below). Your child can watch these first if that kind of conditioning helps your kids to be more interested in the books (as it does mine).
Knick Knack Paddy Whack, Sung by SteveSongs, Illustrated by Christiane Engel
Barefoot Books (2009); paperback with CD, $9.99
This traditional counting song is even better when it's reimagined as a street parade of kids from different cultures playing all kinds of instruments. Many kids will be familiar with the traditional song, while others may think of it as the Barney theme.
The origins of "Knick Knack Paddy Whack" are obscure and no one really knows what it means for the Old Man to "play one" or "play two" (at least that I could uncover). This book deals with the possible confusion about the counting element by having each new child character standing on top of the next numeral. It's a decent solution.
I love this book for introducing a variety musical instruments. While the instruments aren't named in the lyrics, this is something you can do with your child. In the recording, each new instrument gets a solo for its verse, so your child will get to hear what they sound like!
Space Song Rocket Ride, by Sunny Scribens, sung by Mark Collins, Illustrated by David Sim
Barefoot Books (2014); paperback with CD, $9.99
The book starts with a countdown from 10 to a rocket's blast-off. A diverse group of kids are launched into space.
The book is an adaptation of "The Green Grass Grows All Around," the traditional cumulative song. Cumulative songs are great for autistic kids, they add an element with each verse, combining repetition and predictable structure.
In Space Song Rocket Ride we start with the broad view (the universe) and zoom in, seeing the galaxy, milky way, solar system, Sun, Earth, Moon, and finally the sky before the rocket lands again.
This is a gorgeous book, a must-have for any child who is interested in space.
Animal Boogie, by Debbie Harter, performed by Fred Penner
Barefoot Books (2005); paperback with CD, $9.99
This bright, colorful adaptation, set in the jungles of India, is based on the nursery song "Down in the Jungle" (sometimes called "Jungle Boogie"). It is the publisher's bestselling title, and it's easy to see why. Kids just love it.
Animal Boogie features a simple, repeating song with a great beat. Each verse there is a new jungle animal spied by a different child. That animal is performing an action, which the reader is meant to copy. This is great for working on what ABA and occupational therapists call "gross motor imitation." The book shows these actions: shake (bear), swing (monkey), stomp (elephant), flap (bird), leap (leopard), slither (snake), and sway (people).
by John M. Feierabend, Illustrations by Julia Love Miller
GIA Publications (2014); hardcover, $16.95
In this playful adaptation of "The Other Day I Met A Bear," a traditional American camp song, the point of view character is a fox. Whether the fox and the bear are having a friendly game of chase or if the bear is hungry for fox is unclear, but the chase is a lot of fun.
"The Other Day I Met A Bear" is an echo song. Echo songs challenge kids to sing independently, mimicking rhythm and pitch. The exact same line is sung back by the child. For example:
The other day, (The other day!)
I met a bear. (I met a bear!)
Out in the woods, (Out in the woods!)
away out there. (away out there!)
My son Harry loves this book. It appeals to his echolalia and he loves the animals' chase. I love how the echo song format promotes interaction between us. There is also something extremely pleasant about the simple black and white line art. My son Luke isn't up for participating, but he enjoys looking at the action on the pages.
21) Sing-Along Song
by JoAnn Early Macken, Illustrations by LeUyen Pham
Viking Juvenile (2004); hardcover, out of print
I love this joyful, rhythmic rhyming book. We follow a happy little boy through his day. The boy finds music in everything: The robin singing in the morning, the buzzing bees, the chittering squirrels, the cat, the dog, his father, his mother, and his baby sister in her crib. After each verse, our ever-delighted narrator always says, "I burst out singin'! I just gotta sing along!"
The predictive nature of this book is perfect for autistic kids, who quickly pick up on a strong format. But unlike the other books I've recommended on this list, Sing-Along Song demands singing but does not provide a melody. The challenge is to "hear" the music for yourself and come up with your own tune to sing.
This demand for play and creativity is a real challenge. It may be too much for some kids and just right for others. Parents can provide some structure by modeling how to make up a tune. Ultimately the bouncy rhythm, the onomatopoeia, and familiarity with common sounds will be the best guide.
While sadly out of print, this is a widely available library and used book find.
by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley
Orchard Books (2011); hardcover, $17.99
"If You're Happy and You Know It" is a popular, repetitive children's song that most Americans know well. It's often used in special education environments because it incorporates gross motor actions. Sometimes it is also a cumulative song, meaning that with each verse we collect an action for a list. Doing all the actions in order becomes a memory challenge.
If You're A Monster And You Know It is a monsterous twist on the classic song. Rather than clapping your hands or shouting 'hooray!',
children little monsters smack their claws and roar.
The art is distinctively Ed Emberley, but unlike Go Away Big Green Monster, there are a lot of his trademark bright colors in play at once. It'll be too much for kids who are sensitive to visual noise. My son Luke was not a fan. But his twin Harry, who loves that kind of input (and loves monsters) loved it. YMMV.
by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley
Two Little Birds (2013); hardcover, $12.95
Another winning Emberley father-daughter creation, The Itsy Bitsy Spider takes the familiar nursery rhyme and makes it just a little creepy with a gorgeous, realistic, and very colorful spider. You can't help but slow down the singing—partly to set a scary mood, but also because the text has been carefully set to draw out the lyrics with beautiful panels that show every moment of action.
Kids who get scared easily won't like this version of the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" song, but my sons were both enraptured by the art and found my "creepy" singing funny.
by Olive A. Wadsworth, Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
Puffin Books (1995); paperback, $5.99
There are a many versions of this traditional song in the picture book genre, but I am forever loyal to the lovely Ezra Jack Keats adaptation.
"Over in the Meadow" is a great counting song for kids who like animals. Each page features a different mother animal (sorry dads) and some number of her offspring (beginning with one and building up to ten). The mother tells them to do something (dive, bask, sing, etc.) and the little ones comply. The verses are easy, rhyming, and identical in structure. It's easy for kids to catch on.
If you don't know the tune, it's easily findable on YouTube. It's one of those songs that is a real pleasure to sing. It soothes. My children always seem calm when we read this book (and often sleepy by the end). They enjoy the melody, the variety of animals and actions, and counting the babies.
by Lucille Colandro, Illustrated by Jared D. Lee
Cartwheel Books (2014); paperback, $6.99
The classic cumulative nonsense rhyme, "There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" is the inspiration of an entire series of "Old Lady" books by Lucille Colandro, many of which are themed for seasons and holidays. Some of them are great, others are meh. This one (the original) is the best.
I'm a huge fan of Colandro's art. The action panels are a little busy for some kids (she uses a lot of lines), but the cumulative listing of animals in the Old Lady's belly is visually aided with a solid black background. The animals' expressions are always amusing.
Some might remember that each verse traditionally ends with "I don't know why she swallowed that fly. Perhaps she'll die!" The Colandro version is much less dark, ending each verse with "She won't say why!" instead. The song ends when she coughs up all the animals ("her new friends") after ingesting the cow. The horse of the traditional rhyme (which usually kills her) is absent.
by Kelly DiPucchio, Illustrations by Gris Grimly
Scholastic Press (2008); hardcover, $15.99
The suggested age range for this book is 8-12 years old, which I honestly think means that our society has gotten a bit squeamish and soft. Sure, it's creepy, gross, scary, and occasionally violent—but it's also silly, smart, and sassy dark humor! But this is definitely a polarizing book. My wife and my son Luke hate it. But for me and my son Harry it's a not-so-guilty pleasure—best served under a blanket with a flashlight.
Kelly DiPucchio takes well-known American campfire songs and cleverly rewrites them to be about monsters. Gris Grimly pulls absolutely no punches with some truly gruesome accompanying illustrations. I must admit it violates my usually inviolable rule about teaching the original before the clever remake. We'll see how that shakes out when Harry insists to someone that it's NOT "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" it's "99 Bottles of Blood on the Wall"...
Harry's favorite songs are "I've Been Running Over Road Toads" (sung to "I've Been Working on the Railroad"), "Slither & Stink" (sung to "Skidamarink"), and the titular "Sipping Spiders Through A Straw" (sung to "Sipping Cider Through a Straw"). I get a personal kick out of "Zombie Midge" (sung to "London Bridge is Falling Down").
by Helen Kettleman, Illustrated by Adam Record
Albert Whitman Company (2014); hardcover, $16.99
I've mostly avoided holiday books for this more general list, but The Ghosts Go Haunting, while it mentions Halloween, is so cute and fun I can't help myself.
In this adaptation of the popular counting song "The Ants Go Marching," all kinds of creatures are haunting Mt. Tombs Elementary School. The verses count up from one, just like the original, but each verse gives us a new supernatural creature (ghost, witches, goblins, bats, etc.), and a in place of the traditional "Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!" we get a new, creature-specific sound.
Each verse also gives us someone new who gets scared. Parents with timid kids will be happy to know that the kids pictured at Mt. Tombs are never scared, their faces are always smiling or laughing. It's the silly adults (the principal, teachers, bus driver, the school nurse, the coach, etc.) who get spooked. The book ends with a Halloween party where everyone is having a good time.
The repetition, rhythm, and rhyming of this tune, which will be familiar to many kids already, is perfect for kids with autism. Subject-wise it's an obvious match for any kid who really likes monsters, but I also love it as a way to teach or generalize about community helpers/professionals in the school environment. Finally, it's got great ethnic diversity.
by Buddy Baker and Xavier Atencio, Illustrations by James Gilleard
Disney Press (2016); hardcover with CD, $17.99
If you've ever been to Disneyland or Disney World and ridden the Haunted Mansion ride, you've probably also found yourself ear-wormed by the extremely catchy song, "Grim Grinning Ghosts."
My wife is a Disney aficionado, so I've been to the parks more than the average Jane, and the Haunted Mansion is hands-down my favorite ride. It's impossible for me to be truly objective about this book, but I must tell you, I love it.
The book comes with a CD so you can learn the song (and listen to the amazing music) if you don't already know it.
The picture book itself is a tour of the ride. Scene by scene the book takes you through the majority of rooms you encounter in the mansion, from the Stretching Room and its iconic paintings to the Corridor of Doors with the famous purple wallpaper, through the Séance Circle, the birthday banquet in the Grand Hall, and so forth. I didn't try this, but I strongly suspect that The Haunted Mansion could serve as a pseudo-social story for a family traveling to a Disney park. (My kids have no ride anxiety, so I didn't need to prepare them.)
Disney Parks has also published books based on the Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise rides, also with CDs, featuring the "Yo-Ho!" song for the Pirates of the Caribbean and a pun-filled narration for Jungle Cruise.
The Broadway Baby series is clearly designed for the toddler market. I discovered them just a bit too late for my kids, but I am confident that a few years ago they would have been perfect and that someone reading this blog post will love them.
I must note that these board books are ridiculously expensive. But they will still be a must-have for Broadway moms and dads. I'm hopeful that this is the beginning of an expansive series.
Do Re Mi
by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Illustrated by Miriam Bos
Walter Foster Jr. (2017), board book, $16.95
This beloved song from The Sound of Music works perfectly in the board book format. The illustrator smartly took the approach of showing us the meaning of the song rather than trying to depict the Von Trapp family or somehow contextualize this scene as part of a larger story. The graphic art is happy, bright, and uncomplicated. A multi-cultural group of children and a guitar-playing teacher gather outside in a meadow, some playing musical instruments, others singing.
I love the typographical emphasis on the note names ("DO-RE-MI", etc.). They aren't particularly useful sight words and sounding them out doesn't work well, but they are easy to pick up and may help some kids practice the overall skill of sight word acquisition and following along with a book.
My Favorite Things
by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Illustrated by Daniel Roode
Walter Foster Jr. (2017), board book, $16.95
The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things" is a song about... things. At its essence it's a tacting song, chock full of some exciting new things to learn about and label. It's also a song about what "favorites" are, which is, I've learned, an unsuspectingly hard concept, filled with Theory of Mind land mines. Any practice with the idea of "favorites" is handy.
Some of the things are more unusual ("bright copper kettles..."), but the lyrics usually contain something more accessible in each grouping ("...and warm woolen mittens").
The graphic visuals are easy and spare and feature colorful, solid backgrounds that make labeling even easier. Often the left-facing page is reserved for text, which visually divides the book into a predictable format.
by T.S. Eliot, Illustrations by Arthur Robins
Faber and Faber (2015); paperback, $9.95
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by British poet T. S. Eliot is a famous collection of funny cat poems. It was adapted into one of the longest-running Broadway shows, Cats by Andrew Llyod Webber in 1981.
Probably the best known poem is "Macavity: The Mystery Cat," which was the first poem to be adapted by Arthur Robins in his Old Possum Picture Books series. But my personal favorite is this one, Mr. Mistoffelees: The Conjuring Cat.
Robins captures all the whimsy of the poem and Broadway tune with his illustrations. The famous conjuring cat is on stage, dressed as a magician, and in multi-panel sequences we see him pull off classic, funny illusions. It's always hard to do this when you're singing, but there is a great opportunity here to occasionally stop and ask a child to say what happens first, next, and so on for each magic trick.
This book doesn't have a story, per se, which some parents unfamiliar with Cats or the T.S. Eliot collection may find odd. It's a character sketch. If you aren't familiar with the song, it's very easy to find online, and there are some great videos of the Broadway musical that your child may enjoy watching. If they do get hooked, you can discover many more Jellicle cats in this amazing picture book series!
by Alan Katz, Illustrated by David Catrow
Margaret K. McElderry Books (2008); hardcover, $17.99
This collection of potty songs set to camp and traditional tunes will be passionately loved or feverishly hated by any parent who picks it up. It's gross. Really, really gross.
There are also legitimate non-ick reasons some may not care for it. I love, for instance, "Don't Flush Strange Things in the Potty" (sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), but this and other songs in the book about poopy mishaps and misbehavior may give some spirited, oppositional kids "ideas." My kids like rules, generally, so I wasn't concerned.
This book will be helpful for some kids who are potty training. It makes poop, pee, and the potty process funny, and we want good associations with this process.
This isn't the first time Katz and Catrow have teamed up to produce silly singalong poems about daily living and social skills. The Silly Dilly Songs book series has a ton to offer. Parents of kids with autism may be paticularly interested in the titles Take Me Out of the Bathtub, Are You Quite Polite?, and Too Much Kissing!.
by Sandra Boynton
Workman Publishing Company (2006); board book, $6.95
I could have done an entire list of Sandra Boynton singalong books. There are many popular titles to choose from, like Snuggle Puppy! and Barnyard Dance. And she has released several extremely fun song collections like Rhinoceros Tap, Philadelphia Chickens, Blue Moo, Frog Trouble, and others. They are all worth looking at.
But Personal Penguin is special to me. My very first post on this blog was something of a love letter to this book. The lyrics, describing a yearning to be a companion to someone through the adventure of life, spoke to me as an overwhelmed mom of two recently diagnosed autistic kids. I wanted access to their worlds.
This was a book that we read as a family every night for months. My wife Janet made musical instrument noises (she does a mean trumpet) while I sang. When I couldn't connect to my boys, who had regressed suddenly and out of nowhere, this little board book felt like magic. It gave me hope. And it's why I started the blog.
Like all Sandra Boynton singalong books the art (friendly looking animals set against solid backgrounds) is easy on the eyes, and the poetry is spare and repetitive. Davy Jones sings the free recording of the song on the publisher's website. Here's a video of him recording it:
by Woody Guthrie, Illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2008); hardcover, $18.00
Both of my sons love this classic Woody Guthrie folk song—as do I for its progressive message of inclusion. While some of the lyrics might be beyond their understanding, the repeating chorus is crystal clear and grabs their attention.
The illustrations are busy and detailed, so my son Luke is turned off by them. But for my son Harry, who loves visual stimulation, there is so much to look at! He studies each panel for a long time. His interest is a wonderful opportunity to impart some basic American geography. There are maps and iconic natural and architectural images from across the nation depicted.
When I first started reading this book to my kids I snuck in some pronoun practice and it was very useful. The repetition of "This land is your land, this land is my land" is a repeating opportunity to reinforce your/my with a finger point.
35) I Got Two Dogs
by John Lithgow, Illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers (2008); hardcover and CD, $18.99
It's hard to think of John Lithgow without conjuring up his many acting roles. For me, it's his terrifying run as Arthur Mitchell in one of the later seasons of Dexter. But Lithgow is also a successful and prolific children's book author... who doesn't actually kill people.
His latest, I Got Two Dogs is a quirky little book with simple, rhyming text. The digital art delivers all the action and energy of Fanny and Blue, the narrator's dogs. But set against solid backgrounds, the frantic and messier strokes don't feel too busy, just active.
The book comes with a CD on which John Lithgow performs the song. His performance is amazing. He has all the skill of a Sesame Street cast member, breaking the fourth-wall and involving his audience. A chorus of kids can be heard modeling how to participate in the song. Watch this video below to see what I mean (with apologies for the Pizza Hut ad):
by Pharrell Williams, Photos by Amanda Pratt, Illustrations by Kristin Smith
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers (2015); hardcover, $19.99
Whether your child knows this Pharrell Williams hit from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, from your workout playlist, or even if this will be their introduction to it, listening to the song while reading HAPPY! is likely to be a lot of fun.
The book was almost universally panned in reviews for translating from song lyrics to page oddly. And it's true, the lyrics make no sense on their own if they are "read." I also think it would be near impossible for a parent to sing this book and bring it to life. The backup vocalists sing critical lines and the instrumentation provides a lot of the energy. But the critics haven't seemed to consider what I think is obvious: this book was meant to be looked at while listening to the recorded song.
The realistic photographs of diverse children playing imaginatively with homemade props and costumes are fabulous models for how to play. The secret here is to embrace the multisensory approach. Crank up the volume. Bust a move. Be happy.
37) Kids Go!
by They Might Be Giants, Illustrations by Pascal Campion
Simon & Schuster (2009); hardcover and DVD, $19.99
Grammy-winning indie rockers They Might Be Giants are probably best known for their amazing music video collections Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s, and Here Comes Science. This is their second picture book built around a song, following up Bed Bed Bed, a bedtime collection of three songs that I found a little too abstract in parts.
Kids Go! is straightforward and high-energy. It speaks directly to kids, telling them to "stand up" and "get up off the floor." It directs them to "move like a monkey," and "Go! Go! Go!".
This is a perfect book for kids who need help with their arousal level as well as for kids who love the multi-sensory combination of dance, music, and visuals. There's even an instrumental break for a dance party mid-song on the DVD.
The line art is delightfully simple with lots of white backgrounds and a restrained color palette that feels almost 70s.
A DVD with the animated music video comes with the book. Here is a version of it on YouTube:
by David Mallett, Illustrations by Ora Eitan
HarperCollins (1997); paperback, $6.99
A determined little gardener plants, waters, and protects their seeds until they grow and a bounty of fruits and vegetables is ready to be harvested.
If this gentle American folk song wasn't part of your childhood, take a quick listen to John Denver singing it on The Muppet Show in 1979, and prepare to fall in love.
Ora Eitan's impressionist watercolors are pretty, but could use a lot more excitement for kids with low arousal. (You have to bring the energy yourself as a singer.) Still, the art is pleasing to the eye and not too hard to decode (as some impressionist art can be) with its white framing.
The tempo and lulling nature of this sweet song make it a perfect lullaby. Also, if you happen to play the guitar or piano, there is sheet music in the inside back cover.
39) Today is Monday
by Eric Carle
Puffin Books (1997); paperback, $6.99
Every day of the week a different animal is pictured eating a new food. Then, on Sunday, all the "hungry children come and eat it up!"
Last year, I did a blog post about days of the week that included Today is Monday. Everyone loves Eric Carle, and I find the combination of his gorgeous art with this upbeat, cumulative song, and days of the week, and animals, and a book about eating different kinds of food to be an irresistible combination. Both of my kids are doing feeding therapy because of their picky eating and I really appreciate books that make eating different kinds of food fun.
Here's a video so you can hear what it sounds like:
One note: A children's librarian told me she finds this book hard for kids to sing at story hours, and I certainly agree that it takes some practice to get it, particularly because the song is fast-paced.
by Roseanne Thong, Illustrations by Grace Lin
Chronicle Books (2004); paperback, $6.99
One of the first melodies that most children learn is "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." This book was designed to be sung to that simple tune.
Roseanne Thong and Grace Lin have done three picture books that explore Chinese culture. They are all worth exploring: Red is a Dragon is a colors concept book. Round is a Mooncake is a shapes concept book. One is a Drummer is a numbers book.
We follow a girl as she counts things in her community (from one to ten). There are dragon boats, fishballs, dim sum, Mahjong players, bamboo stalks, and more.
Grace Lin tends to use a lot of very busy patterns, which can be overwhelming for some kids. The thick black lines she draws with help a little.
This is a wonderful book for teaching children about another culture or for learning more about their own heritage. However, as with all of Thong/Lin's Chinese concept books, some of the unfamiliar elements will add an extra challenge that may be too much for some. My son Luke's attention waned on pages where his difficulty understanding the text and images was most tested. A "dragon boat" was something we were able to label. Two "greetings on the wall," written in Chinese characters, was too alien an concept. Still, because of the familiar counting concept book structure, he was able to understand that there was two of something he was meant to count. He scanned the page and was able to point and say "one, two" in the correct places, but without the understanding of what he was pointing to.