Raising Readers: What Makes a Good Children's Book?
Updated: May 19, 2020
Choosing the Best Books for Toddlers
In last month’s Raising Readers blog series, I explored why we should be reading to babies from an early age: to create reading routines, foster positive associations with books, develop language skills and build vocabulary. This month my be focus has been on how and what to read to toddlers to keep them engaged. I enjoy sharing specific recommendations on books we love, but since choosing books is a matter of taste, I'd like to offer some tips on what to look for in general.
There are seven key elements that you will want to look for in books that you will be reading to toddlers. You are the gatekeeper for what books come into your home and if you are like me, you don’t have the shelf space (or the budget) of the library in Beauty and the Beast, so you must choose wisely. This is a lesson I learned the hard way, with plenty of book buyer’s remorse.
Confessions of a Bookaholic: Buying Books for Baby
My firstborn was notorious for taking 45-minute naps (despite my best attempts at sleep training). Shorter naps meant more frequent naps. So we read. And we read. We read before each nap. We read to fill the time between naps (when he should have been sleeping). And of course, we read before bed. I knew each book in the nursery by heart and could have read them with my eyes closed (except that then I would have fallen asleep).
Fortunately for me, my friends had asked that everyone bring a favorite children’s book to my baby shower, so my son's library was expertly curated. But after a while I grew tired of reading the same (albeit excellent) books on repeat even though, accordingly to Motherly, reading the same books to your child over and over makes them smarter.
And so began my compulsive buying of children’s books. If it had cute, colorful illustrations, I bought it. If we owned another book by the same author, I bought it. If it had a strike through price on Amazon, I bought it. So desperate was I to add some variety to our daily reading ritual that I temporarily forgot that I was a stay-at-home-mom and not getting a paycheck anymore.
Why didn’t I go to the library, where they have shelves and shelves of books for free, you ask? Clearly, you are not the mother of an infant who takes 45-minute naps and can leave the house anytime you want. Count yourself lucky.
I eventually learned to control my impulses and along the way, I discovered some beautiful books that I didn’t mind reading over and over (and over). But more often than not, I was disappointed, even with books that were touted as “classics” or had 4.5-star reviews.
I determined that I would have to be more discerning.
Elements of a Good Children's Book
Which led me to the question: what makes a good children’s book? Young children can’t read yet (duh) so it’s up to us as caregivers to know what to look for. Over time, I found myself sifting through the shelves in search of books for toddlers that had certain key elements. Note that not every book worth reading contains ALL of these elements, and their importance may change over time as your child develops as a reader. Click on the link to learn more about each element.
Readability - This one is for you, mama. Since you are the one who is reading to your child for the first several years of their life, make it easy on yourself. If you find yourself stumbling over words or unable to find a good "flow," skip it. You should be able to get through it when you are very, very tired (and you probably will be). Find some easy reads for when you need to keep it simple here.
Interactivity - The goal of reading to young children, besides language acquisition, should be for them to enjoy books from an early age and carry that positive relationship into their school years. For an infant, interacting with books may mean that they "talk" to the baby on the page, or that you allow them to manipulate the flaps or turn the pages (see my favorites here). For toddlers, this will look more like them interacting with you through the book. By stopping to ask or answer questions, point to objects, or make connections to their experiences, you create meaningful interactions. Yes, it takes more effort and sometimes you are just too tired, in which case feel free to do the bare minimum.
The 3 R's - Rhythm, Rhyme and Repetition - For the same reasons we love songs that have a good beat, lyrics that rhyme and a hook that keeps us coming back, many of the best children's books will have these elements. If you find yourself stuck with the lines in your head at night, you know you've found a gem. For this exact reason, you should choose your books wisely. I myself have been lying awake with Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb’s "dum-diddy-dum-diddy-dum-dum-dum" spinning like a broken record. It's cute the first time, but not the fiftieth, and your sleep is precious. I share examples of books with each of the 3 R's and the trifecta here.
Vocabulary - Another goal of reading to your child is to help them learn new words. This will happen naturally. The more words they hear the more words they will know, a huge factor in kindergarten readiness and one of the driving factors behind the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten early literacy initiative. Don't be afraid of books with unfamiliar words. The beauty of how children learn a language is that they can comprehend the meaning of a word as it is used in a sentence. But you can certainly use books to teach word-to-picture associations. See my recommendations here.
Message - I love a book with a good moral or exciting plot. This is what holds my interest - the payoff - but it is not essential to a baby or beginning reader. As we begin to shape our toddler's character, however, it becomes an excellent opportunity to develop traits like empathy and resilience. Look for books that reinforce your family values without being too overt or “preachy.” No one likes to be bullied; better to plant a seed and let it grow. In addition, books can be powerful tools in helping children face fears or cope with difficult experiences. Read about how we helped our toddler tame his dragon here.
High Interest - Reading books about topics that your child is interested in could be the key to holding their interest and making story time enjoyable for you now, and it becomes even more crucial when they reach the status of independent readers so that they will keep reading. By considering a child’s interest and offering choices in their reading material, you are giving them the gift of reading for pleasure. Learn tips for engaging your child's interest here.
Illustrations - No one would deny the power of images to enhance the words on the page and bring the text to life. Because young children are still developing their ability to visualize what they are reading, pictures are essential to telling the story. Indeed, some of our favorites would not be the cherished stories they are without the works of art that accompany them. But a word of caution: I have too many times judged a book by its cover and been lured in by beautiful illustrations only to discover that the book itself has little substance. So buy the pretty books; just make sure you actually want to read them. See some of my favorites here.
See also: Reading to Babies, and Raising Readers: It's Never Too Late to Start