What Makes a Children’s Book Worth Bringing Home?

by Lisa Ripperton
​March 14, 2019

Today’s post is the first in an on-going series about the selection criteria we use for children’s books. Through this series, our aim is to answer the question “what makes a book good enough to bring home?”

A quest to articulate selection criteria

For years I have chosen books mostly by instinct.  More recently, however, I am feeling the need to discern the selection criteria I use so I can clearly articulate them to others. I have been thinking about this issue a good deal after a recent encounter offered me a new perspective on choosing children’s books. This encounter, described below, has set me on a mission to answer the question of “what makes a book good enough to bring home?”

Typical parent-child interactions at our local book sale

I am fortunate to live in a town where the Friends of the Library Book Sale has a building the size of a high school gymnasium dedicated to their efforts. With sales held both in the spring and the fall, volunteers work year round to organize on shelves the hundreds of thousands of books donated to them every year.

Since children’s books typically comprise over 40,000 of the 250,000+ items offered at each sale, there is a dedicated corner for the display of children’s books. Wide aisles, a comfortable chair, attractive displays, and a nook under the table of easy readers for toddlers to hide in make it an inviting space for children and their parents. 

As a regular visitor on the days that the sale is open, I have observed many interactions between parents and children there over the years. Many of them proceed like this: parent, with arms laden with books of their own choosing, escorts child into the children’s corner (almost it seems as an afterthought), then urges them to pick a book (or occasionally two), and do it quickly, because they have some place else to go.

An encounter of a different kind

But one day I observed a young mother settle down with her small son on the floor in one of the wide aisles. She had a sizeable stack of picture books to one side of her and her son, who appeared to be about three and full of anticipation, on the other. She explained to him that they were going to “read through the books to see if any of them were good enough to bring home.” Being a week-day it was a quiet time at the sale and they were able to make their way through the pile one book after another.

I was really struck by the phrase “good enough to bring home.” In my experience at book sales I had mostly heard reasons offered to children for why NOT to get a book. Indeed, I shudder to think, I probably uttered a few myself. 

But this young mother changed my perspective. What a powerful thing it is to have positive reasons for choosing books rather than negative ones for discarding them! I regret that I didn’t linger, so had no chance to overhear what criteria guided her selections.

Our first criterion: the language must have a “forward-moving flow”

For any book that I am going to read aloud─picture books and unillustrated books alike─the text must read well, and it must be so engaging that I am willing to read it again and again.

I will never forget the weekend we spent with my sister’s family at Myrtle Beach when my two year old son Nathan called upon his 12 year-old cousin David to read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to him dozens of times in the course of the visit. Poor David had a very difficult time grasping the insatiability of an eager young listener!

My experience aligns with Dorothy White’s which she expresses in her Books Before Five (1954):

“I do enjoy the reading more, however simple it may be, when the prose has a forward-moving flow about it, the cadence which one hears in ‘If it were not so I would have told you’ or ‘Once upon a time there were three little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.’ “

Share your experience

I will return to the subject of selection criteria in subsequent posts. In the meantime, if you have selection criteria you use when choosing picture books, please share in the comments below! If not, I hope you’ll join me in thinking about this topic. 

  • I never thought about children’s books needing to flow, but it’s very true. It’s easier on the reader, and children definitely prefer it. As a big sister of 8 children, I have definitely noticed that Dr. Seuss or another classic children’s book is easier to read aloud than Curious George, for example. And my siblings definitely prefer books that sound well, like Mary Englebreit’s Mother Goose or Robert McCloskey’s books!

    • Katja, I never much enjoyed reading Curious George either, but I have always thought it was because it was too long. But, as you point out, it may have been because the text didn’t flow. If it had, the length might not have mattered!

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