• by Hilaria Bauer, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1999

Throughout my years as a teacher and children’s literature fan and advocate, I have been asked this question time after time: “How can you select quality children’s literature?” Well, in this area, I have had both formal and informal training.

My formal training has been focused on several courses related to children’s literature. In these reading courses, the technicalities of finding age-appropriate, level-appropriate texts through the use of readability formulas and other tools have shown me the complexities we can reach if we are not careful. We must keep focused on the goal: children’s ability to read any kind of text.

In the same manner, I have been blessed with the friendship of every librarian I have met. They have shared a wealth of information regarding the creme of the crop in the “ity, bity” literary world, and they are arduous advocates of any imaginable genre.

But, how do we get the papyrus tablet, the scroll, the volume that will inspire the next Shakespeare or the next Neruda? Or puzzle the next Newton? Or make the next Diego Rivera paint his surrounding with beauty, indignation and hope? I have a few tips to offer.

Let’s listen to the children: According to Monet Yañes (age 8) the best books are those that present us with happy stories. Monet has reached a point in her development where she is able to articulate her likes and dislikes. Monet expresses her interests in a simple, yet profound manner. So, my first tip is to choose a book that matches the interests and needs of the child according to his or her age and personal preferences.

Another area of interest for children is the characters in the books. Monet’ brother, R.C. (age 7), prefers books where the characters are silly and the plot is funny. Ariel Bauer (age 8) likes books that have strong characters, “I like books with good characters, they may get into trouble, but then they’re able to get out of it.” Tip Number 2 then, is to choose a book with characters that are credible.

Remember, good characters become unforgettable characters, whether they are people, animals, fairies or science fiction beings. Through powerful characterization, the author is able to portray endurable images. Who can forget Pinocchio, or Wilbur or Little Red Riding Hood? How many imes are we reminded what can happen to our nose if we lie, how much a friend’s rally means to us, or the dangers of taking the wrong path?

These characters are universal because the feelings and situations they face are universal. Children are able to perceive the universality of strong characters because they can identify with them. The reason Curious George is followed by legions of children across generations is that he embodies what is in everybody’s mind at the age of six or seven. Children want to know what happens when you end up behind the scenes in a Pizzeria (I think many adults would like to know that too).

Alexander (of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Not Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst) portrays the moods children experience when they are confronted with situations they do not like or that may cause some anxiety. For children, it is difficult to express what kinds of feelings they experience, and they find in characters such as Alexander a way to process their own feelings. Good books help children understand and express their own feelings. They nurture the child’s emotional development.

Many children wonder about their surroundings and those of others. In Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, a little girl spends summer nights on “Tar Beach,” the rooftop of her 1939 New York City apartment building. Also, six-year-old Ahmed cannot wait to finish his job in the busy and terribly noisy streets of Cairo, Egypt, to run home and share a precious secret with the rest of his family in The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide. In addition, children are able to discover other writing systems in The Great Wall of China by Leonard Everett Fisher. These are three superb examples of literary treasures that provide children with a window to other worlds. Tip Number 3 is to select books that stimulate our intellect and creativity.

Quality literature stimulates a profound knowledge about our surroundings, in many instances it provides answers to critical questions.

Quality literature provides a concrete reference for abstract concepts. Ideas such as courage, freedom and even subtraction or multiplication are difficult for young children. Good books are a great way to help children visualize difficult abstract concepts.

Books like The Doorbell Rang by Hutchins and A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams are an excellent way to introduce young students to mathematical concepts such as subtraction, division and counting money.

In the area of social studies, books like The Malachite Palace by Alma Flor Ada and The Island of the Skogg by Steven Kellogg introduce children to the elusive concepts of freedom, individual rights and democracy. Also, Pelitos by Sandra Cisneros and illustrated by Terry Ybañez gives children the opportunity to reflect on their family’s heritage and be proud of it. Critical concepts and human values are transmitted through the elegant text of quality literature. The fourth tip is to look for books that are able to convey interesting stories that also can be extended to other areas of the curriculum.

Many of us have picked up great children’s books on the basis of their illustrations. These illustrations can come in different kinds or media. Chances are that if you like the pictures, children will too. Books like the Piggy Book by Anthony Brown provide in the illustrations opportunities for exploration for children. Check all the listings of Caldecott winners and you will find great examples of quality illustrated books. Tip Number 5 is to choose books with wonderful illustrations.

Expand the aesthetic sense of young children by guiding them to recognize the different ways illustrators are able to capture a mood or an idea through the use of color, texture or light.

Finally, the best book for children is one the adult is willing to share with them. For example, Johneric Hernandez (age 3) prefers any book that his grandma reads to him. He enjoys his grandma’s reading performance, “I like the faces my grandma makes, the noises she makes.” He sees the reading of a book as a precious time when he can capture his grandma’s attention all for himself. My final tip is to choose books that you (the adult) are willing to “perform” for a child or a group of children.

This simple encounter with the world of theater takes children to the magical dimension of fantasy and imagination. This realm will be revisited at a later age when children are introduced to pictureless books, and they need to visualize in order to understand.

Reading aloud to 3- and 4-year-olds provides the foundation for the critical skill of being able to visualize a concept without pictures.

Finally, remember that some books produced in countries other than the United States provide a great resource for authentic literature in the native language. However, some are printed in cursive writing that can prove difficult for young readers. Others may contain variations of the language that may be incomprehensible or inappropriate within the U.S. context. Always consider your students’ or your children’s background before choosing a book. If you are introducing them to a new culture or a new concept, make sure you spend some time in that introduction.

Remember: We all want to choose books that will elicit the phrase, “Read it again!”

Tip #1: Choose a book that matches the interests and needs of the child according to his or her age and personal preferences.
Tip #2: Choose a book with characters that are credible.
Tip #3: Select books that stimulate our intellect and creativity.
Tip #4: Look for books that are able to convey interesting stories that also can be extended to other areas of the curriculum.
Tip #5: Choose books with wonderful illustrations.
Tip #6: Choose books that you (the adult) are willing to “perform” for a child or a group of children.


Donavin, D.P. (Ed.). American Library Association Best of the Best for Children (New York: Random House, 1992).

IBBY Mexico/SITESA. Leer De La Mano, Cómo y Qué Leerles a los Que Empiezan a Leer (México, D.F.: Associación Mexicana Paa el Fomento Del Libro Infantil Y Juvenil A.C. Cuadernos I y II. Sestemas Técnicos de Edición, 1993).

Wilson, E. Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children’s Literature (Westchester, Illinois: Crossways Books, 1992).

Hilaria Bauer, M.A., is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]