Children’s Literature: How to Find a Good Book

 

We’ve all been there…we walk into the Children’s Section of a bookstore or library and are completely bombarded with thousands of books. How in the world are we supposed to choose a good book for our children? What defines a good book, anyway?

Here are just a few suggestions for ensuring that the books you spend your hard-earned money buying are worth the price (and the time it takes to read them).

Rule #1:  If it’s based upon an already popular movie character or toy, it’s probably not a high-quality piece of literature.

When I was teaching first grade, I had to put all of my “character” books (including Barbie, Nemo, Batman, etc.)  into a bin labeled “For Indoor Recess Only”. The reason I did this is because if I left them with the rest of the books, the kids would choose these books first because they like these characters and are already fascinated with them. The problem, however, is that these books are not typically written by authors aspiring to write a valuable piece of literature to be treasured by children and families for years to come. No, usually these books are part of a marketing scheme adopted by big businesses to literally suck every penny they can out of a popular character. More often than not, these books just plain stink when it comes to vocabulary, plot, character development and other important literary features.

With that being said, however, these books can sometimes be a great way to encourage a child who is initially uninterested in reading to finally pick up a book due to the fact that they are already interested in that particular character. Having a few of these ‘character books’ around your house isn’t going to hurt anything. Definitely encourage your child to branch out in his/her reading, however. Keep in mind that any book is better than no book at all!

 

Rule #2:  Find a seasoned and successful author and expand your library to include more of his/her books.

If you’re not sure where to start, research a particular children’s author (who has written several books and is esteemed in the Children’s Literature community) and look for other books written by that author. The reason for this is simple:  A successful author isn’t going to scathe his/her good name by writing an awful book. This author has been around the block. He/she knows what makes a good book (that’s why he/she is already successful) and won’t typically settle for less than his/her best. Some of my personal favorite authors for early childhood are Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Jan Brett, Donald Crews, Kevin Henkes, and Mem Fox.

I feel it necessary to give just a humble word of warning when it comes to sequels. In my opinion, it seems that sometimes an author can get carried away with the popularity of an excellent book and then try to duplicate it over and over and over again. Case in point:  I discovered the first Fancy Nancy book in a book store back in 2006 when I was taking a children’s literature course (prior to having children of my own). I absolutely loved the vocabulary as well as the story line and recommended it to several of my female students the following year. I have read a few of the many sequels since then and haven’t been nearly as impressed with them. I’m not bashing Fancy Nancy (or Curious George, for that matter). However, it is a rarity when an author can continue writing in such a high-caliber fashion with the same characters and similar story lines.

 

Rule #3:  Explore the classics.

Ask any parent or grandparent what their favorite book was as a child and you will often find that book still gracing the shelves of most libraries or bookstores. There is a reason for this:  The book is well-written, beloved by children and families alike, and has stood the test of time.

Here are just a few of my favorite classics:

Corduroy by Don Freeman
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett (Big Brother’s FAVORITE)
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion

Librarians are an excellent resource for finding classic children’s picture books (or any book, for that matter). Be sure to ask for his/her recommendation the next time you visit the library. When in doubt, ask the librarian!

 

Rule #4:  Expose your child to various genres of children’s literature.

There are 5 main genres of children’s literature in preschool and early elementary that your child should be reading in my opinion:  Realistic Fiction, Fantasy, Alphabet Books, Song Books and Nonfiction. Realistic Fiction are books that aren’t necessarily true but could actually happen in real life. Fantasy books are those that can only happen in our imaginations and not in real life (talking animals, magic, etc).

Alphabet books are an excellent way to introduce children to letters of the alphabet as well as their sounds. Nowadays, you can find an alphabet book for nearly every subject, including one for every state! Song books are often repetitive, rhyming, and have a natural rhythm when reading them…which make them excellent read-alouds. Children will often easily memorize the words to song books, which in turn builds their confidence in themselves as a reader.

Nonfiction books are those that tell actual facts about a topic or person. We often wait until children are older to expose them to nonfiction texts, but I believe this is doing a huge disservice to our children. Young children are naturally curious and find it fascinating to learn real facts about dinosaurs, dolphins, and volcanoes! Harness that curiosity by reading an assortment of nonfiction books. I personally really like the National Geographic Readers as a whole, but there are TONS of other great nonfiction books for every reading level.

 

Rule #4:  Use beginning readers and sight-word readers in moderation.

When children are learning to read, they must be given opportunities to practice their decoding skills. Beginning readers offer an opportunity for children to do just that. We must use these readers in moderation, however, because the end goal of reading should always be comprehension. Beginning readers are often extremely simple (rightly so) and have very little when it comes to plot, character development, etc. For this reason, make sure that this is not the only reading material your child is engaged in.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again:  It does your child little good to know how to “read” if he/she can’t remember what was read! While your child is learning to read, be sure to make time to continue to read to him!  Read for pure enjoyment some of the time and ask questions before, during, and after reading at other times. Most of all, make reading fun and enjoyable for your child!

On a side note:  If you are interested in learning more about how to encourage reading comprehension, I would HIGHLY suggest Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller. It completely transformed how I taught reading in my first grade classroom. This book is written for teachers in a classroom setting but can be easily adapted for parents as well!

 

Looking for more tips on reading? Be sure to read “10 Steps to Teaching Your Child to Read”.

 

*The links in this post are my affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure policy.

27 Comments

  1. I would add that usually there is no reason to buy a book that you have not read, preferably with the child. Many book stores have a reading area where you can sit down with your child and look at the book together and assess whether or not you are really going to enjoy reading this book together every day for the next 30 days or not. Another great idea is to buy books your child has already checked out of the library and enjoyed. FInally, many children’s books can be previewed online.

    1. I actually ‘rescued’ them from being thrown away back when I was teaching. I made my own labels and then used packing tape to secure the labels on the front. :)

  2. I’m surprised that a post on How to Find a Good Book had only one sentence about utilizing librarians, “Librarians are an excellent resource for finding classic children’s picture books. Be sure to ask for his/her recommendation the next time you visit the library.” As a teacher and a librarian, I would highly encourage utilizing one at school or public library for suggestions and not just for classic picture books. They typically are familiar with books that would be of interest to different age groups, reading abilities and interests.

  3. What a great article! I spend a lot of time perusing library book sales and thrift store book shelves looking for good literature. I have a few of those twaddly character books, but I keep them on the top shelf, above eye level–out of sight, out of mind. I rotate the books in our book basket to include an alphabet and number book or two, a few factual books (bugs, dinosaurs, the human body, or whatever my boys are interested in) and several good picture books. I don’t mind rereading favorites, but I encourage them to choose a new book from the book basket each night so they are exposed to new stories.

  4. Those are all great ideas. Those franchise/character books drive me nuts. I hate reading them.

    One thing that has helped me explore more high-quality books is getting recommendations from my friends on Goodreads. I have a few friends with similar taste whose judgment I trust, and I have really enjoyed reading books that they’ve rated high.

  5. Outstanding article! I agree with all that you said. Also, I went back and read your article about teaching kids to read. Also excellent! We’re on the same wave length, Jenae Thanks for sharing your great ideas, Renee

  6. What a great post. As an educator, I couldn’t agree more with your recommendations. I also second Reading With Meaning. It’s a fantastic book.

  7. Thanks for the great article and helpful tips! If only I could forward this to my Mother-in-law so she would stop always buying my oldest son Disney “Cars” books! They’re terrible!!!

  8. I really learned a lot from this post, Jenae! I always shied away from the “movie character books” and now I have a reason to keep them at a minimum. :) We love Corduroy and Goodnight Moon is also a favorite!

  9. What sensible advice! I was looking online for new books for my 9 yr old son last night and you can pretty much use most of the same points of advice!

  10. Thanks Jenea! This has inspired me to go dig through my books and “freshen up” the selections my kids have on their shelves. Great post!

  11. Also, check with your local library. The librarians is happy to help find things your child will be engaged by, and they often offer literacy-based story times and activities. Parental bonus: The books, DVDs, CDs, and magazines? Are FREE!

  12. Do you have a list of “quality” picture books based on reading level? I found one that ranked the Dr. Seuss books on pinterest, but can’t find any other ones. My pre-K son is very interested in reading and is doing very well. However, I have been using a lot of the beginning reader books with him, many of them character books. Sigh.

    During his kindergarten screening, the kindergarten teacher told me to focus on having him tell me the main character, setting, and the beginning, middle, and end of the story to help assess his comprehension. Many of the easy readers do not have these elements (the whole lack of a plot issue), so I have been trying to find him easy to read books with these things. I did ask our librarians and they refered me to the beginning readers….

    Also, my three year old has to “read” just like his older brother. This means he tells me the story based on pictures (not a bad thing to practice) or recites books from memory. However, this also means that I do not ready many books to my children anymore. I want reading time to continue to be fun and not battle over who gets to read. I would like to continue to read to them (they get a turn to read to me, I get a turn to read to them). I was wondering if there were chapter books appropriate for a 3 1/2 and just turned 5 year old. I was thinking I could let them read to me during the day, and then I could read them a chapter of a “big boy” book before bed. Can you recommend some easy to understand, age appropriate chapter books? My thought is that I may get a chance to read because chapter books are something my older son can not handle on his own and that my younger son can not “read” by looking at the pictures :)

    Thank you for such a wonderful site. My family has been blessed by so many of your posts.

    1. Tonia, thank you so much for your kind words!

      I’m going to think about your question on quality picture books that are also good for beginning readers. I’ll get back to you.

      As far as chapter books go: My first graders LOVED “The Magic Treehouse” series! They have short chapters with a few illustrations and are exciting! I would look into those. “Ready Freddy” were also books that they enjoyed. Hope that helps!

      1. Thank you so much. I just put the first book of each of the two series you mentioned on hold at our library.

        1. Another one they both might like is the Geronimo Stilton series. They have wonderful colored words and pictures that might appease to both ages.

  13. Wow, I love this post!!! Thank you for sharing!!! I have a hard time choosing books for my son at the library. There’s just so many and I don’t know which ones are good picks. This will definitely help me choose and I love the classics you posted.

  14. This is wonderful post!!! Yesterday only, I was about to buy Toy Story books !!! but found another bok “Excuse Me” which teaches about manners specially Interruptions..I immediately bought that book, & hey!! today I am reading this post …which seconds my thought.. Thanks for putting these in words. I have made a note of all the classics..I have few.. but would want to take up all…the classics..

  15. A great post highlighting a very common question – there are so many books to choose from, alas all books are not equal, in fact it is the very reason I do what I do now!

    There have been some great new, début picture book authors/illustrators coming on to the market recently – it’s amazing to see the effect these books can have on wonderful young readers when so much time, effort and talent are invested in to their creation.

    I’d highly recommend searching out authors such as Dub Leffler, Chris Haughton and Jon Klassen in the picture book market. Leigh Hobbs has some great chapter books which are ideal for younger ones to listen to at bedtime, ( Mr Badger series) … and who can forget Oliver Jeffers, his latest one is the beginning of a new series based on Hueys and is fab!!

  16. Have you ever heard of Usborne Books? They are wonderful, quality books that do not have any popular characters in them. They are sold in some book stores, but are mainly a home show base. They have over 1500 books in their catalog. If you’ve never heard of them, check them out! http://www.kidsluvtoread.com

  17. Can I also suggest awards lists and recommended reading list. What I really like these lists is that they have helped me to find new, quality books and authors that I would not know about otherwise.

    I know that the Texas Library association (www.txla.org) has recommended reading lists for pretty much every age: 2×2: Age 2 through 2nd grade, Texas Bluebonnet Award: Third through sixth grade, Lone Star: Sixth through eighth grade, and Tayshas: High school. Plus the Maverick: Graphic novels list.

    I am sure other states as well as the American Library Association have other lists that parents and teachers could use.

  18. My sister was telling me that she is trying to find her daughter some books to read, but wasn’t sure how to find a good one. It makes sense that you would want to find them something that is going to encourage them to learn more, and have some that will help them grow. Since her daughter is still young, this could be very helpful to her.

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