Posted by: angiefm | January 4, 2009

Not Just ANY Book

This is an article I wrote for Family Tone, an eNewsletter of the Family Enrichment Society. Check them out at

“It does not matter how many books you have,
but how good the books are which you have”

We bought our first-born her first book before she was born … and her second and her third. As avid readers ourselves, my husband and I were determined to have our children follow in our footsteps, but we did not realize that having children would turn us into children’s book junkies!

After having bought more than 2000 children’s books in the last 6 years, (minus the few hundred, no kidding, we gave away because they were not good enough), I would like to share with you some things we have learnt about how to choose a good book and what to do with it after you have bought or borrowed it.

How can I tell if it’s a good book?

The question I get asked the most is, “How can I tell if it’s a good book?” I offer the following suggestions:

  • Passion – A good book is one that is written by someone with a passion for the subject, and who conveys that passion successfully in his/her writing. We own two books on insects. One is your typical encyclopedic volume and the other is written and illustrated by a self-confessed bug lover. No prizes for guessing which has been read cover-to-cover. Want a book on animals? Try one written by James Herriot, whose stories are about his work as a country veterinarian in England. Or one by Beatrix Potter, whose famous story of Peter Rabbit and many others were first told in letters to children who were dear to her. Read authors like Robert McCloskey who set his stories in Boston and Maine, places he lived and holidayed in. Or Virginia Lee Burton, who wrote stories for her own sons, largely based on her own life and experiences. Want a math book? Look up Greg Tang, the award-winning math puzzle-book author who started coming up with puzzles to teach his daughter’s first grade class. Looking for a children’s Bible? Check out one written by Catherine Vos, in which she retells the Bible chronologically in the same style in which she once told Bible stories to her own children when they were growing up.
  • Personal Preference – Trust your own tastes. Many people are content to choose books based on other people’s recommendations. While it is helpful to work off a list when you are at the library, make your own choices as to whether or not to borrow it, based on your own tastes. For a while I was going to the library with a list of Caldecott Award winning book titles. I would systematically borrow them, read them to the children, and every so often, would question my own taste since I did not like some of the books. Then I came to the all-important conclusion that just because some people liked the illustrations or the story doesn’t make it a good book. Where the Wild Things Are and The Giving Tree are two titles which always make it onto lists of best books, but I would never give them to my children to read. I could tell you why if you’re interested, but you may not agree. Because it’s personal!
  • Positive and Wholesome – When the children are younger and unable to discern for themselves, I feel it is important for parents to choose books with positive content. I frown when I see children reading the locally written Mr. Midnight, a collection of horror stories written for children, or Captain Underpants, which may be downright funny, but which does horrible things for children’s written and spoken vocabulary! Books fill our children’s minds with images that stir the imagination and capture their interest and attention. What do you want to fill your child’s mind with? There are so many good books out there that it should never be necessary to buy or borrow a “bad” book. Protect your children from bad and poorly written content.

We have made our choice – what now?

Okay, now that you have an idea of how to spot a good book, what do you do with the ones you choose to read?

  • Read-Aloud – Once a child has learnt to read, parents tend to borrow books they can read on their own and then they stop reading to the child, since they figure they no longer have to. By all means have books that your child can read independently. But also have others that are a stretch. These latter ones you or your spouse or maybe a grandparent should read aloud. This is the best way to help our children expand their vocabulary, appreciate more complex sentence structures and learn proper pronunciation and diction. It is also fabulous for sharing time together. In our home, we read aloud about two to three hours daily while our oldest reads on her own for an hour or two.
  • Read Widely – Books cover a variety of subjects and we should be constantly looking to read widely. Science, Math, History, Geography, Music, Fine Arts, Religion … find books in every category to read from. Biographies are a good way to engage children. Want your young child to understand the scientifically enquiring mind? Read the picture book Snowflake Bentley and be amazed at how he found ways to capture the fleeting beauty of the snowflake on film in the 19th Century. If your child is complaining (like my 14-year-old cousin did the other day) that math is uninteresting or a waste of time, let him read a biographical book like Mathematicians Are People Too to get into the lives and times of the great mathematicians. History will come alive through biographies and historical fictional writing, and there are many good books for children on the lives of writers, artists and composers that will arouse their interest in the arts. And I could go on all day listing the fabulous books you can use to make geography come alive!
  • Read it for all it’s worth – If you have chosen a good book at the right level for your child, just read it aloud and don’t come between the author and your child. Moralising, preaching, teaching are not necessary and will get in the way of your child’s “ownership” of the author’s ideas. Having said that, if your child asks and wants to find out more, there are many “lessons” you can learn from books. One of the favourites in our home is The Story of Ferdinand, a lovely little story by Munro Leaf about a bull who is happy and content to sit by himself and smell the flowers. Through it, my children have learnt where Spain is, that Madrid is its capital city, that there are cork trees in Spain and that, no, cork doesn’t grow in bunches as humourously pictured in the book. They have learnt that they can walk away from a fight and that it is perfectly possible to be alone and not be lonely.
  • Retelling – Also known as “narration”, retelling is simply getting your child to tell back the story after he has listened to it just once. It takes practice, but you will be surprised at how much your child will be able to recall! It trains various mental and linguistic aspects – ability to pay full attention, ability to recall events sequentially, usage of new vocabulary and phrases, ability to paraphrase and summarise. It also gives the child an opportunity to express his feelings and allows him to reflect on what he has just heard and to commit it to memory. It doesn’t have to be intimidating. Start by saying, “Hey, tell Daddy about that book we read just now.” If you ask questions, there is a chance your child will be “wrong”. But when you ask him to retell, he can only tell you what he has remembered, and not what he has not.

Where can I go for more ideas?

If you’re looking for more guidance on selecting good books, my number one recommendation is Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson. And if you’re interested in ideas on how to get the most out of reading good literature, check out the Five In A Row curriculum at

A final word …

If your children’s day is filled with watching television programmes and playing computer games, they are probably too used to being entertained and will resist reading or being read to. But persevere and they WILL come around. Many families who have come to visit us have seen their children sit down quietly with a book and handle our books with great care, something they would never do at home. It’s all in creating an atmosphere conducive for reading, in finding great books to read … and in turning off that TV!

Happy reading!

Seneca (Roman philosopher, mid-1st century AD)



  1. have i told you i love the way you looked at reading so critically. I realised I have started looking for good books for my first son and wrote something on my blog. Then I found your library and then your blog and then this and I was so happy someone shared my sentiment. I absolutely thinks content is above everything. Keep it up!

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