[Image Description: R2 celebrates his third birthday by eating a rainbow cake covered in butterfly decorations while wearing his blue butterfly wings.]
In this post: A running collection of our favorite birthday books by age.
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2020 Update: Social-Isolation-Friendly Birthday Stories
While the pandemic still rages on, I’ll take a moment to pick out the stories that focus less on parties, and more on messages of gratitude, graciousness, and growing up. Some of these are very on-the-nose, and a good reminder that kids within targeted groups have struggled with family separation long before the pandemic hit the white and wealthy.
- Oscar’s Half-Birthday
- Who Made This Cake?
- Whopper Cake – Innovation with the tools at your disposal& cake baking
- A Fire Truck Named Red
- Marisol McDonald And The Clash Bash – the best book for right now. Marisol’s grandmother can’t enter the country for her birthday – so they connect for a video chat. Between family deportations and the social distancing, this will resonate with a generation of kids learning to connect exclusively online.
- When Grandma Gives You A Lemon Tree – Less focused on parties, more focused on making do with what you have and finding ways to benefit the whole community.
- Where’s the Party? – While technically there is a party in this one – kiddos can learn from the gracious way Georgie accepts his friends declines. The story shows that even if the plans we laid out fall through, we will be able to connect eventually.
- Carmela Full of Wishes – Sometimes you don’t get what you want – and you don’t get to be with the people you want to be with. This is such a sweet story about balancing disappointment and hope, with a side of healthy and supportive sibling relationships.
- Always Anjali – This year’s birthday isn’t the same as other ones. We may not have the resources that families with more free time and oodles of money have to create spectacular pandemic-overcoming birthday celebrations. But we can be creative and make something greater – despite that. Use this story as an allegory to help kids understand that perceived differences can give us the opportunity to be spectacular.
- Alfie – If you’re looking for someone who understands how hard it is to do small, basic things right now – Alfie is your guy.
- The Better Tree Fort – Somewhere, a kid is getting more presents than ours, having a better time, and not appreciating things we desperately want. This book helps us let go of joy-killing comparison and FOMO.
- Pancakes for Findus, aka The Birthday Cake – Focus on a small celebration and the little traditions that you can continue. But also this story is a good reminder not to fall prey to scope creep. Small adjustments can be made without us losing our pants about it.
- The Red Lollipop – This one usually isn’t included in the birthday collection, but it’s a helpful reassurance that many families around the world don’t host parties for birthdays. So if we have to skip a year or two – kids will be fine. Also this book is amazing and you should have it on hand anyway.
Birthday books for kind & generous kiddos
Every year, I plow through another bazillion birthday books, screen then with the Little Earthquakes, and highlight the best ones below. Age ranges are for when my kids enjoyed each story in anticipation of an upcoming birthday or a friend’s birthday party.
First-Year Birth Milestones
The following stories center around cultural milestone events that are not-quite-birthdays, but significant birthday-ish events. Most of them do double-duty in colluding with big siblings for the pomp and attention a new baby attracts, which is helpful for validating envious feelings while also giving older siblings a sense of control and inclusion preparing for the big day.
- ‘Henry’s First Moon Birthday‘ centers on big-sister Jenny in the preparation before her baby brother’s First-Moon Birthday. She and her grandmother prepare food and decorations for this Chinese tradition.
- ‘A Song For My Sister‘ features Mira’s conflicted feelings surrounding her baby sister’s Simchat Bat (Jewish naming ceremony) and her experience – both challenging and hopeful – with the changes in her family.
- ‘Oscar’s Half-Birthday’ follows an ordinary weekend family day of loving little city-dwelling family. Together, they enjoy a sublime, ordinary day (which happens to be Oscar’s 6-month birthday) and celebrate the mundanity of the present – all those little things we tend to get nostalgic about long after they’re over. Bonus points for representing a multiracial family (white/black) and not making it into a ‘thing.’
Birthday Stories for Ages 1+
- R2’s top pick from ages 1-3: From 12-18 months, R2 was obsessed with all things birthday-cake related and he asked to read ‘Who Made This Cake?‘ every night. Both he and his older (age 5) brother love finding tiny details of how the trucks work and how the construction workers (roughly half of which are female!!!) work to build a cake worth remembering.
- ‘Happy Birthday, Bunny!‘ isn’t particularly interesting as a story, but the illustrations are devastatingly cute and helpful if you’re preparing a tot for what to expect during a traditional North-American secular birthday party. Stories like this are great for anxious kids who like to be prepared before new experiences.
Birthday Stories for Ages 2+
- Q’s top pick for 2 & 3: Like many of Oxenbury’s characters, the little boy in ‘It’s My Birthday‘ is flawed and realistic and Q finds this validating. He particularly loves that the main character neglects to say ‘please’ – so Q could can correct the language as I read the text. After adding our ‘please-es and ‘thank you-s’ to the story, the sweet (but mercifully short) repetition ends with a tiny bit of suspense and a simple lesson in sharing and appreciation.
- ‘Bulldozer’s Big Day‘ was perfect for the peak of Q’s truck obsession around 2-3. Even for his 4th birthday, he loved the suspense of Bulldozer’s excitement, disappointment, and the big twist at the end. As is typical with truck books, you’ll have to take a few liberties swapping gender pronouns, as all the characters in the book are male (Bulldozer & Roller are gender-neutral).
- ‘Whopper Cake‘ is a long-time favorites of both kids. Not really much to do with birthdays, but it’s silly and imaginative and perfect for that stage when kids love the extremes of huge things (generally around 3-4ish) and really, we all love fantasizing about massive cakes so big they need to be baked in the bed of a pickup truck.
- Pooh’s Cleanup – All the friends pitch in to help clean up after the birthday party, and each character helps within their abilities.
Birthday Stories for Ages 3+
- Cake Girl is a peculiar story that won’t work for everyone, but the moral of being kind to helpers, rather than treating them like servants, is a helpful story to consider. I find this topical when my boys start getting a little uppity and entitled about special birthday treatment. If you’re unfamiliar with David Lucas, his pacing is abrupt, leaving you to check to make sure pages aren’t missing from the book. (So consider yourself warned.) The 7-year-old still enjoys it.
- Little Bear was my own childhood favorite, and the sweet, generous story of Little Bear’s kind response to thinking that his mom ‘forgot’ his birthday holds up through the decades. (Ages 3+)
- Bell’s Knock Knock Birthday – Flamingo Rampant sent me a free digital version of this book so I could review it. It’s adorable and completely over-the-top with radical progressive background details. Sadly since it’s digital I can’t read it with my kids, but I do wish we had a copy, I think my kids would love it – but can’t be sure without testing it with them.
Birthday Stories for 4+
- R2’s top pick for 4+: I Got A Chicken For My Birthday – Oh we enjoyed this. Abuela gets the protagonist a demanding chicken for her birthday. It’s just silly. And good for appreciating odd gifts and normalizing Latinx families.
- Q’s top pick for 4+: A Fire Truck Named Red is only tangentially related to birthdays, but we love reading this story of a grandfather’s hand-me-down gift to his grandson. Although initially disappointed to receive a rusty old toy, the boy and his grandfather fix it up together as grampa recounts his old adventures with the truck. The Earthquakes are delighted with the meaning behind each ding and scratch, and understand how priceless Red is by the end of the story. We’ve enjoyed it every single year from ages 4-7.
- I wish I could recommend the ‘How Do Dinosaurs…‘ series, with illustrations that hilarious but feature terrible examples of what NOT to do – but my boys use these cautionary tales as inspiration and it doesn’t work for my rambunctious little earthquakes. So I was delighted to find ‘If A T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party,’ featuring a similar humor, but without the troublesome inspiration for misbehavior. Its centered around a traditional secular North American birthday party (party games, pinatas, etc.) so might not make sense for kids who celebrate differently.
- I keep trying to get kids to read Marisol McDonald And The Clash Bash. It’s cognitively appropriate for 4+ but we still aren’t digging it after reading it from ages 4-7. It’s rare to find books featuring Latinx multiracial families. Marisol can’t pick just one theme for her birthday, so she decides to merge them all together. Works for birthday party planning, and there’s an underlying story of missing her grandmother, who can’t make it to the party due to red tape and immigration documentation. Also it’s bilingual in English & Spanish. As much as I want my kids to like it, it’s doing too much and a saccharinely peppy. Not for us. Maybe it’s for you!
- When Grandma Gives You A Lemon Tree – Oh, we all adored this book about how to graciously receive unwanted gifts and then make the most out of them. It’s subtle, but the background illustrations include a theme of how unplugging and doing stuff in real life is more fun and rewarding than playing expensive toys and gadgets. It’s a similar story to Not Norman, but more entertaining.
- Harriet Gets Carried Away – This is cute and simple, but I have to admit I wanted more story from this book that it delivers. The illustrations though – adorable and hilarious. And it normalizes a multiracial family with gay dads and a girl of color!
- Where’s the Party? While technically they never mention birthdays, I love that the premise of centering our friends when we gather “To Georgie, there was nothing better in the world than throwing a party for his friends.” – with the goal of a party for guests to have a marvelous time. He doesn’t get cake in celebration of himself – he gets cake because his friends love cake. I LOVE this as a kind and generous intro to hosting a party. When ahis friends decline, he accepts graciously, even when they don’t have an excuse. Obviously the surprise ending is a surprise party – it’s kind of a modern homage to Little Bear‘s birthday story. But that middle part when he’s wrestling with disappointment can be used as a reassurance that when friends can’t make it to the big event. We can always gather to connect with them another time.
Birthday Stories for 5+
- Q & R2’s favorite for 5: Wait And See – All the giggles for this one. Both the 5 & 7yo asked to read this every night for a month. No overarching moral, it’s just silly and fun. I think the highlight is that the parents are just as illogical and silly as the kids, and it’s a story that normalizes a Black family without them having to be perfect.
- Carmela Full of Wishes – the excitement of new responsibilities as you get older, and that encroaching feeling that the world is a little too big for you to take on yourself. The trip to the laundromat exposed my kids to their wealth privilege. There’s a small part touching on the uncertainty of waiting for undocumented parents to come home, and a validating sibling conflict and resolution. This resonated more with the 5-year-old than the 7-year-old, but both kids enjoyed it.
- When’s My Birthday? – I thought the Earthquakes would enjoy this in preschool, but it didn’t resonate with them until they hit 5. This is also the age when the anticipation of waiting for a birthday really hits a peak.
Birthday Stories for 6+
- Always Anjali – As a person with an unusual name, I find this book SO FREAKING VALIDATING. It’s not really about birthdays so much as microaggressions and outright hostility against people with non-white names. This resonated with my kids, who also have unique names, right around the age when they want to be average and fit in.
- Alfie – Narrated by a birthday gift (a turtle), this is a funny story with subtle humor on perspective – perfect for that transition from ages 6 to 7 when kids start to realize that other people have different thoughts and takeaways depending on perspective.
- Mr. Putter & Tabby Make a Wish – Exercising patience in waiting for the big day and dealing with the frustration of anticipation. The story also helps kids release the shoulds of our birthday traditions. For kids who are worried about what other kids their age are doing, this story shows that celebrating a birthday doesn’t have to revolve around what’s supposedly normal for our age.
- I Want Two Birthdays – Right around 5 the kids started asking why we can’t have MORE birthdays each year. This is the book for that.
- The Better Tree Fort – Doesn’t need to be specifically about birthdays, but this was wonderful for for 5 & 7 while they are always looking over to see what other kids have. Since we can’t go a day without them bickering about who the bigger piece, or the better cup, this is a fantastic way to ground us all back to what matters.
Birthday Stories for 7+
- Q’s favorite for 7: Moira’s Birthday – Since we do small backyard parties, this is a funny way to show kids why we need to keep the guest count low enough so we can fit everyone into he house and afford to feed everyone.
- The Princess and The Pony – When kiddos grow out of A Fire Truck Named Red, this reinforces the same message about receiving unwanted gifts graciously. This book is rated for kids ages 4+, but I’d wait until 7 or 8. Now that kids are older, they can understand not to react to an underwhelming gift the way the princess does. Using this story, we discuss how we react when we get a birthday present we don’t want, and how to find the good in it. This book is more inclusive than most – featuring a little person (strong and gorgeous in fishnet tights) and a multiracial family. However – it’s also VERY violent (again, not appropriate for 4). There’s a small melee, and a grown man runs toward the young girl about to…bash her? I guess? Before the pony distracts him with cuteness. In keeping with our utterly fucked cultural priorities, more reviewers gave this negative reviews for the word ‘fart’ than the violence. And of course, at least one proudly homophobic racist took issue with the rainbows and multiracial princess. I’ve taken the liberty of providing a dramatic reading of that particular nonsense for you because we must laugh to stifle our screams of anger and despair.
Birthday Stories for 8+
- ‘Pancakes for Findus,’ aka ‘The Birthday Cake‘ (same exact story, different titles designed to appeal to US readers) are from Sven Nordqvist’s series of a doddering old man and his precocious talking cat. This is our family’s favorite series and each book is beloved. Findus & Pettson’s banter is heartwarming, charming, and witty, and they fit within the detailed, ordinary-yet-fantastical illustrations perfectly. Every single one of these books is something I’m excited to hand down to my grandchildren one day. While we’ve been reading this together since age 5, this is the humor in this one is more advanced than the rest of the series, so the joke started to sink in a age 7, with deeper connection with the jokes at 8.
- Happy Birthday To You – Yeah. I know Dr. Seuss hated us Asians. But you know they are going to come across this book at school or whatever, and you might as well read it together and unpack how a man who creates such fun books can have problematic views.
- The Meanest Birthday Girl – I *think* the nuance and subtlety of this short chapter book will finally sink in at 8 – the age when many kids start to give a damn about what other people think of them. This short chapter book follows the entitled behavior of a little girl who uses her status as the birthday girl to be awful, and it all circles back to her. It’s also a decent book to discuss the burden of white elephant gifts (both literal and figurative) and the joy of re gifting terrible gifts to people who are nasty to you. If you’re up for some deep analysis with your kddo – this is a good year to discuss how not to become an entitled, petty asshole. We’ll see how it goes and I’ll report back next year. Small caveat on this book (beyond it being subtle enough that kids need help unpacking it) – the story subtly reinforces stereotypes against redheads as selfish & abrasive.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Happy Birthday!
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