If you’ve been to the library or a bookstore recently, then you know that there are so many children’s books released each year that it is nigh impossible to sift through the twaddle to find something worthwhile. Of course, there is also the issue of your children perusing the shelves and pulling off any and everything that has colorful pictures they find interesting. So how do we decide and choose books for our kids that expand their minds rather than contract them?
As much as I’d like to pretend I haven’t checked out or bought books that can only be characterized as twaddle, I have. Sometimes to appease my kids, and other times because I failed to exercise due diligence when faced with an overwhelming number of choices. Over the past 2 or 3 years however, I have actually devised a mental checklist that guides me when I am choosing which books they will read and how much twaddle they will be allowed to read for their own amusement. What I have found is that a good plan does wonders when it comes to ensuring that my kids read lots of good books. So here’s my usual plan for choosing books, starting with picture books for younger children all the way up through middle school:
- Start with classics: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Curious George (earliest editions), Good Night Moon, Caps for Sale, Madeleine, Babar, Make Way for Ducklings or Blueberries for Sal, and other award winning books are almost always the best way to go when seeking out picture books for younger readers. Even though Peter Rabbit’s tale was fist introduced in 1902, it is as captivating to younger readers as it ever was. This is but one sign of a good book, but an important one. Good writing is timeless.
- Explore specific authors: Every author represented in the list of classic picture books I listed above has at least one other equally excellent title, and most have several. When in doubt, I would search for books by Beatrix Potter, Margaret Wise Brown, H.A. Rey, Esphyr Slobodkina, Robert McCloskey, etc. This always led to other excellent books.
- Check the Newberry and Caldecott award lists: This is a pretty good reference for lists of worthy books written before about 15 years ago. You can almost never go wrong. As post-modern literary standards and cultural mores have declined, I approach recent winners with a much more wary eye, but rarely have I chosen a book that was a winner even in recent years that wasn’t at least a half way decent book, and certainly not harmful.
- Read the books yourself: As you start getting into longer, less illustrated books, there really is no way around reading through the books for yourself. You’ll note that on my Pinterest book board, there are almost as many children’s books as there are adult books. This is because our 4th grader is moving into a new stage of her reading journey and I have to read unfamiliar titles before she does. There are those books which are time tested and approved, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall, the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries, and several titles by Kate DiCamillo. Other books, such as The Whipping Boy which I reviewed in the preceding post, I needed to read because I had never heard of it until quite recently.
As our older children moved from middle school into high school, we gave them complete literary freedom of choice. Thankfully they had been exposed to enough good literature that in addition to The Hunger Games, The Divergent Trilogy, and Percy Jackson, they were equally as likely to read Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Well, that’s my strategy for choosing good books. Also, I’m always on the lookout for suggestions of lesser known but excellent books we might not have read.