Here are some important factors we consider when choosing books for young children at preschool. Some of these items are more intuitive than others. Many children’s book authors are not Child Development experts, and so there is a wide array of ways in which stories are told to children, some are on target for what is most interesting and developmentally appropriate, but others are not-- many are not.
We use our expertise in Child Development to find the books that are more helpful for growing children.
Some factors we consider at Caterpillar Cottage when choosing books:
1. One criteria we use when choosing children’s books for our program is avoiding didactic teaching of how children “should” behave. When a story acknowledges our common humanity through conflict and resolutions, or simply models kind acts within relationships, this engages adults and children alike, and appeals to our desire to help others. As we grow, we learn from our social worlds about caring for others through the interplay of our own inherent compass, social experiences, and through stories of empathy.
Stories that directly tell children how to act might encourage children to comply in the short term, but they don’t engage the child’s resonance with altruism. If we can resonate with children’s inherent desire to help, that provides good feelings about the idea of helping and then helping continues to come from true generosity. This generosity feels good, and comes from within. The parent or teacher could be elsewhere but the child would still want to help others instead of wanting to help only because the parent or teacher would be pleased.
In my experience, authoritarian directives of how children “should” behave are also way less interesting for children. The “be a good girl/boy and here’s how” lens may be a common adulting reflex with children. This perspective is, in reality, not very helpful to the development of cultivating the inherent desire to help others.
2. We also avoid books with phrases that dismiss children’s emotions or name call. “Don’t Cry” is a common phrase heard from adults to children, or even with the best of intentions,“You’re okay”, both with similar subtextual messages dismissing the child’s current experience-- phrases like these make their way into many children’s books.
We want children to feel safe to express their feelings and when they are given this opportunity to feel loved and heard, they more readily regulate their emotions and gain back an inner calm and happiness.
3. Characters that children can relate to-- either because they are engaged in similar situations or conflicts or because the focus is on friendships, relationships, etc. An example is Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willams when a child leaves a lovey at the local laundromat, goes through the worry and upset and eventually finds the bunny. This book is often described as a cautionary tale, however, it isn’t a direct moralizing kind of tale as it simply describes the experience of the child through a series of events and children resonate with these feelings and with the experience of having a special lovey they don’t want to lose. Mo Willams has many great books including the popular series Elephant and Piggie, which we love dearly.
4. Diversity-- it’s ideal when all children’s books reflect diversity of ethnicity, culture, family composition, gender, and ability. So seeking books that are developmentally appropriate and reflect diversity in all of these ways is part of the criteria we always consider. This is an area we can do better in.
We feel it is important that all skin tones be reflected equally in children’s books, movies, ads or any media. This isn’t the world we live in, but it is one to strive for. Attitudes about skin color can be formed very early on, and pictures of all white children everywhere sends a subtextual message of exclusion we don’t want children to receive.
In addition to skin tone, sometimes a book on diversity is mostly informational-- like exploring different cultures in the books Shoes, Shoes, Shoes or Bread, Bread, Bread both by Ann Morris. If we have mighty girl characters in the books we read to children, then the girls are more likely to see themselves in those roles. The same is true for occupations. If there are doctors, are they all white men? If so, maybe we need to counterbalance that with another book that has women doctors and doctors of color. A couple of other examples are Those Shoes - Maribeth Boelts, The Color of Us - Karen Katz.
5. Powerful characters that triumph- ensuring that a variety of diverse characters and both boys and girls are represented in these kind of stories.
6. Transition books-- having a new sibling, helping with transitioning to preschool, kindergarten, moving to a new city…
7. Books that focus on topics relevant to something the child is going through such as books about death/loss of a loved one. Typically this wouldn’t be a group read book unless it was due to finding a dead bird on the playground or something like that. We would mostly just recommend parents buy books that are related to this for children if they are processing a loss. Waiting is Not Easy - Mo Williams, Knufflebunny - Mo Willams, Strictly No Elephants - Lisa Mantchev
8. Humor is something we often look for with children’s books. Children love to laugh with books, and this is a connecting and entertaining experience for both adults and the children. Some great ones: Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus - Mo Williams, Click Clack Moo Cows That Type- Doreen Cronin, We Are In a Book - Mo Williams, Good Night Gorilla - Peggy Rathmann
9. Lyrical prose or alliterative language that is fun to say. This gets children interested in rhyming, words, and prose. Dr. Seuss and Julia Donaldson are two authors that come to mind.
10. Beautiful Illustrations. Blueberries for Sal - Robert McCloskey, A Sick Day For Amos McGee- Phillip C Stead
11. Engaging plots. Sometimes the books we choose are mostly about a wonderfully told story. We do pay mind to whether the story is developmentally helpful and how the characters are resolving problems (see other criteria above) but the reason some books are chosen are sometimes about liking the story, the imaginative value, or that it might inspire play and connection for children. The Snail and the Whale- Julia Donaldson, The Gruffalo - Julia Donaldson
Some other preschool aged books we love at Caterpillar Cottage:
Not a Box - Antoinette Portis
Beautiful Oops - Barney Saltzberg
Rosie’s Walk - Pat Hutchins Macmillian
A Chair For My Mother - Vera B Williams
Giraffes Can’t Dance - Giles Andreae and Guy Parker Rees
Last Stop On Market Street - Matt De La Pena
Stuck - Oliver Jeffers
Little Pea- Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Swimmy - Leo Lionni
Caps For Sale - Esphyr Slobodkina
The Snowy Day - Ezra Jack Keats
Piggie Pie Poe - Audrey and Don Wood
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom - Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
Jamberry - Bruce Degen
The Mitten - Jan Brett
Peanut Butter and Cupcake - Terry Border
Go Away Big Green Monster - Ed Emberely
My Friend is Sad - Mo Williams
When Sophie Gets Angry - Molly Bang
The Little Mouse The Red Ripe Strawberry and The Big Hungry Bear - Don Wood
We Found A Hat - Jon Klassen
The Rabbit Listened - Cori Doerrfeld
Are You My Mother? PD Eastman
The Snatchabook - Helen Docherty
And, of course,
Not Forever But For Now - Heather Malley
Frog and Toad
George and Martha-- offers the flexibility of shorter chapters
Miss Rumphius- need to check this one out. Susan suggestion Barbara Cooney
The Teeny Tiny Woman
And on our wish list:
Whose Knees are These- Jabari Asim
Saturday- Oge Mora
Mary Had a Little Glam- Tammi Sauer
Jabari Jumps - Gaia Cornwell
Luna Loves Library Day - Separated bi racial parents - Joseph Coelho
Just Ask - Differences with children- Sonja Sotomayor
I am Perfectly Designed - Jason Brown
The Many Colors Of Harpreet Singh- Supriya Kelkar
Sulwe - Luipta Nyong
Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library- Julie Glassman
Twenty Yawns - Jane Smiley
I Walk With Vanessa - Kerascoet