With literally hundreds of books to choose from at the library each week, you’d think it would be a cinch to bring home a stack of winners for a 2-year-old. Unfortunately, you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Or its title. Or its illustrations.
But after two years of scouring our library’s “transportation” section, I think we’ve nailed down the top 10 children’s books (and authors!) that feature trucks, machines, trains, buses, planes, and the ever-popular pickle car. Here are our greatest “things that go” picture book hits.
1. Roadwork by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Low
“Load the dirt. Load the dirt. Scoop and swing and drop. Slam it down into the truck. Bump! Whump! Whop!” This rhyming, rhythmic read-aloud lays out every step of the construction process with simple language and vibrant art. We also love the final page of the book, which details the much-loved construction equipment (and clues parents in to the real names of the machines).
2. Machines Go to Work by William Low
Low has pioneered the use of digital painting in children’s books, and there’s something wonderfully mesmerizing about his realistic illustrations. The fun in this book is the surprising twists that come when little fingers lift the gatefolds, morphing borderless two-page spreads into three-page murals. Questions are asked, and then each machine’s true intention is revealed in the answer. When the firetruck comes roaring to the scene of an emergency, are the trees on fire? No! A kitten is stuck, waiting to be rescued.
If you read the book with slightly older children, show them this neat YouTube clip of the artist at work. He’s a fascinating guy (a native New Yorker who was born in the back of a cab), and I never would’ve imagined the book’s illustrations could have started out as scribbles on a computer screen.
Other favorites by William Low: Machines Go to Work in the City
3. Red Car, Red Bus by Susan Steggall
This picture book is both simple and brimming with clever details. The text and accompanying vehicles offer basic lessons in patterns and sequencing, so even a two-year-old can “read” the story. The illustrations are the real focal point, though — each page is filled with collages made from textured and torn paper (some handmade, some manufactured), and the amusing background storylines entice us into opening this book again and again.
Other favorites by Susan Steggall: The Diggers Are Coming
4. Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry
Goldbug. Pickle car. Broom-o-cycle. Bananamobile. Need I say more? When a children’s book stays in print for 40+ years, you know it’s a winner. And I love any book that can absorb a two-year-old without adult involvement.
5. Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Little Blue and his devoted barnyard posse won our hearts the first time we opened the book. The first few pages of the story introduce each animal and offer a chance to practice all those fun farm sounds (baa, moo, oink, croak) — perfect for the pre-verbal and just-talking stages. The plot thickens when a pompous dump truck finds himself sunk deep in the mud, and Little Blue demonstrates that “a lot depends on a helping hand from a few good friends.” This heartwarming tale never gets old (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s only a few dollars on Amazon — definitely one to own).
Other favorites by Alice Shertle: Little Blue Truck Leads the Way
6. Fire Engine Man by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha
I’ll be honest — the first few times I read this book with Soren, I was like, “What’s the big deal? I could’ve written that.” Sentences like “I like to squirt down fires” and “I love fire engines” didn’t immediately enchant me. But Soren was obsessed. And I guess it makes sense: The main character, a child, takes on the role of a real-life firefighter, driving a fire truck, sleeping at the fire station, and fighting fires. Every little kid’s dream, right? So now I’ve come around to really enjoy this and the authors’ other similar books, loving that they spark my little one’s imagination.
7. I Am a Backhoe, by Anna Grossnickle Hines
This quick read was big at our house well before Soren turned one, so it’s got staying power. The book’s little protagonist pretends to be a backhoe, a crane truck, a roller, a bulldozer, and then a dump truck, with illustrations of the bright, massive machines shown behind him. I love the way this book encourages pretend play — “I dig my hand into the sand, my scooper hand. Dig. Dig. Dig. Lift, turn, tip. I am… a backhoe.”
Other favorites by Anna Grossnickle Hines (how about that name?): I Am a Tyrannosaurus
8. 20 Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street by Mark Lee, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus
If I could design the perfect day for my machine-loving man-child, it would mimic the scenario that plays out in “20 Big Trucks.” After an ice-cream truck breaks down in the middle of the street, a host of other exciting vehicles — a crane truck, moving vans, a cement mixer, a truck carrying squealing pigs — creates a giant traffic jam around the block. This counting book is a fun read aloud with its cheerful rhymes and detailed illustrations, and it doesn’t hurt that the yellow-helmeted youngster featured on every page saves the day in the end.
9. The Big Book of Things that Go by DK Publishing
Every home library needs a few good DK books. I picked this one up at a thrift store for a dollar or two, and it’s received a lot of love over the last couple of years. Name any vehicle — camper van, tanker truck, breakdown train — and you’re sure to find its photograph on the pages of this book. I’ve loved learning the proper names for different machines (and boats and trains) so I don’t have to refer to everything as a “digger.” This is another no-parents-needed book — it’s always a bonus when your toddler is able to happily “read” to himself!
10. Who Made This Cake by Chihiro Nakagawa, illustrated by Junji Koyose
Who made this cake? I’ll tell you who. It’s a bunch of miniature construction workers operating big machines. Front-end loaders scoop up flour and sugar, excavators outfitted with whisks beat the eggs, and a helicopter delivers the finishing touches. Totally bizarre. But really fun.
Tagged: 20 Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street, Alice Shertle, Andrea Zimmerman, Anna Grossnickle Hines, Brian Lovelock, Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, Chihiro Nakagawa, Construction, David Clemesha, Demolition, Digger Man, DK Publishing, Fire Engine Man, I Am a Backhoe, I Am a Tyrannosaurus, Jill McElmurry, Junji Koyose, Kurt Cyrus, Little Blue Truck, Little Blue Truck Leads the Way, Machines Go to Work, Machines Go to Work in the City, Mark Lee, Red Bus, Red Car, Richard Scarry, Roadwork, Sally Sutton, Susan Steggall, The Big Book of Things That Go, The Diggers Are Coming, Train Man, Trashy Town, Who Made This Cake, William Low