1. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
I like books with a definite rhythm; plus, good old Chicka Chicka Boom Boom has lots of opportunities to make silly voices and sounds. The rhythm also makes is super easy to memorize, which is helpful when your kids are at the age where they want to hear a book, but also want to play with and/or eat the pages while you're trying to read it.
2. The Boss Baby
The cute 1950's-esque artwork is a great backdrop for this hilarious little book about a baby portrayed as his family's tyrannical CEO. This is clearly more for Mom and Dad than for Baby himself, since Baby isn't likely to get the inside jokes about the "executive jet" (a doorway bouncer) or "drinks made to order 24/7" (a row of empty baby bottles lined up like empty martini glasses at a bar) - but who cares? Your kid is amused just by the sound of your voice at this stage, not everything has to be about fluffy puppies and cuddly teddy bears.
3. Happy Hippo Angry Duck
If you don't like Sandra Boynton's rhymes and art, you're wrong. I like how this book teaches kids to understand and manage their moods, but also, I just really like the funny pictures of 'sweetly amused' pigs and 'completely confused' cows. Blue Hat, Green Hat also almost made this list, for the opportunity to say OOOPS over and over again as its hapless turkey protagonist struggles with the quotidian challenge of not putting a sock on his head or a shirt on his butt.
4. LMNO Peas
Lots of little surprises tucked away in the artwork, along with another good easy-to-remember rhyme, make this one a favorite at our house. Also, one of the jobs it assigns to its alphabetical vegetable protagonists is 'zoologist' (while they care for a small fuzzy caterpillar), which warms the cockles of my zoology-major heart.
5. The Discover America State By State series
We have M is for Mitten and B is for Badger from this series, and both are lovely: a rhyme about a feature of the thematic state for each letter of the alphabet, gorgeous artwork, and in the margins, historical, scientific, and geographical facts about the landmarks and people in question. At the back, there's even a trivia game about the state, which I've memorized the answers to so I can seem all-knowing and wise when my kids are old enough to quiz me.
6. Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!
Dr. Seuss is great. That said, the Cat in the Hat is a complete asshole, and there are some days I'd rather bite my tongue off than try reading Fox in Socks again. Oh, the Thinks You Can Think, on the other hand, is a cute little book that features exactly zero discussions of either tweedle beetle puddle battles or chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks.
7. Something Big Has Been Here
Jack Prelutsky's poems put me in mind of Shel Silverstein's, but with rather fewer turns to the macabre. They're funny, the illustrations are cute, and don't tell anyone, but I think I like this book better than A Light in the Attic. Shh!
8. Hey, Al!
Hey, Al is a whimsical (by which I mean, kinda weird) fable about finding joy where you can in life and also about how if you try to take the easy way out, you might turn into a freakishly giant bird. The artwork is lush and lovely and so is the moral: that dreams are something you have to work for. Suck it, Aesop.
9. Strega Nona
Drawn in Tomie dePaola's characteristic style, Strega Nona is one of the most recognizable characters of my childhood. This is a new folk tale where an awesome old lady gets to save the day in the end - a friendly old "Grandma Witch" who saves her town from a pasta flood caused by her well-meaning but dopey assistant - instead of being a wicked witch, or even a damsel in distress. Strega Nona gets it done.
The Disneyfied version put me off picking up A. A. Milne's classic novel, but as it turns out, it's kind of amazing. The way Milne writes about his son, the famous Christopher Robin, is a powerful reminder of the common thread of parenting that unites us across the years. Also, of how little four-year-olds have changed, based on this passage:
"If you happen to have read another book about Christopher Robin, you may remember that he once had a swan (or the swan had Christopher Robin, I don't know which) and that he used to call this swan Pooh. That was a long time ago, and when we said good-bye, we took the name with us, as we didn't think the swan would want it any more. Well, when Edward Bear said that he would like an exciting name all to himself, Christopher Robin said at once, without stopping to think, that he was Winnie-the-Pooh. And he was."
Sounds about right, doesn't it?