Many picture books wind up on children's bookshelves that are only looked at a few times and then they sit there collecting dust - never revisited.

Buying books for kids (especially when they aren't there to choose with you) can be pretty difficult because it is so hard to know what will go over well and what will not. What aspects of a children's book are likely to make it well received by the children it is given to?

I am truly not asking what makes a book popular - I don't want a list of fads or "in things" right now. How do I choose books of QUALITY? What makes a book one kids will read over and over again - what should I look for in picture books to choose books for my kids that are more likely to be the kind of book my children will love - even to the point of wanting to share the same books with their own kids someday?

4 Answers 4


We have a 19 month old son so we're in prime picture book buying mode at the moment! We find that for our son to fall in love with a book, it has to meet at least one (and preferably both) of these two criteria:

  1. A lot of action to look at; and
  2. Pictures of things that he's recently learned (whether it's a new word or a new activity).

I'll give two examples that illustrate why these criteria are the important ones for us when evaluating picture books.

First, our son is really in love with what in German is called Wimmelbilderbücher. It shows a typical German town (called "Wimmlingen" and I think the English equivalent is "Busytown") with a different book for each season. There are pictures of cats, dogs, birds, buses, bulldozers, people on bikes or walking or driving, etc and these are all words he's learning to say. He points to eg. a picture of a cat and says "cat" or we say "Where's the cat?" and then he finds it on the page. There are also many little "stories" embedded in the book making it fun for parents to look at as well. Here's a typical example from the Winter Wimmelbuch:

enter image description here

A second example is a book called "Zähneputzen ist kinderleicht!" which means "Brushing your teeth is as easy as ABC" or something like that. It follows a family eating dinner and then learning how to brush teeth before bed. It's quite cute and is part of a series that follows a family going through daily life as the toddler ages (other books in the series show bedtime routine, getting a new sibling, learning to use the toilet, starting Kindergarten which begins at 3 years in Germany, etc). It's nice because our son gets used to seeing the same family with a child about the same age as he is learning to do the same things as he's learning to do (it also might help that the family in the book looks very similar to our family...!).

tl;dr The most successful strategy we've employed for finding picture books that our son loves is to ensure consistency and familiarity in the content.

  • Kinderleicht = child's play?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Dec 18, 2012 at 18:44
  • @KitFox yes, that's probably a more accurate translation! My English isn't perfect, particularly when it comes to idioms!
    – smillig
    Dec 18, 2012 at 19:06

When looking for children's Picture Books, One should consider:

  • The Child's Interests (fiction or non-fiction, genre, subject, etc.)

  • How engaging the pictures are

  • For what is the book intended? Will this be for bed-time? Self-reading corner? Is the purpose an educational one or purely fun (Is there a difference in your mind)? For books like bedtime books, you'll want a soothing, soft flow. For something that is more in the "fun" realm, I personally love sharing books like "Quiet Loud" with toddlers (I act things out a bit) and Llama llama with preschoolers (My "acting gets pretty outrageous with this one). I choose these books because they are fun for me to read. If you are having fun reading it, they'll have fun listening.

  • The Child's Comprehension Level - how much are they able to understand, are you looking for rhythm and rhyme to engage the youngest listener with the lilt of language? Are you looking for repetition and predictability of vocabulary expansion for toddlers? Are you looking for early readers?

  • The Child's current understanding of books - Do you need a board book for teaching how to turn pages and how to hold the book - or is your child ready for a "big kid" book that might even include short chapters?

  • Lastly, but most importantly, "Why should they care?" Kids understand more than we think and many kid's stories are way too watered down. If it is a fictional story is there enough complexity or meaning in the story to engage your child? Are its characters relate-able?

Figuring it All Out

As @gahooa mentioned, the library is a good place to "experiment" without the need to invest a bunch of money in the books you purchase. It won't take long for your kids to tell you exactly what they do and do not like in what you bring home. You can also use the Caldecott Medal and Honor Books List to take a look at the kind of books that other children (and their parents) have liked tremendously over the years. You will find many classics like "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Make Way for Ducklings" here. Of course there are tons of high-quality books that have not won these awards as well, but it can be a good place to start.

Some Tips

  • Kids Like Humor - silly, gross and the unexpected often go over really well.
  • Look for books that will allow kids to "predict" what is yet to come. For the preschool set, they like to be able to chant along with the repeated stanzas like, "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, will there be enough room?" When slightly older, they like to feel a sense of mystery, but one they had the chance to guess at. Predicting is also an important skill to practice as a pre-reading exercise.
  • Kids don't want to be spoken down to or lectured by their books. In many cases, the meaning in the story should be clear, but open at least somewhat to interpretation. Or the message should be a reassuring one - like "Mommy loves you very much." There are Great books that don't follow this rule, but they are usually the ones that have an educational purpose in mind and @smillig did a great job of describing how to choose these.

Suggest you take the kids to the library every week and check a few books out (spend some time there too).

Soon you will see the ones that they really like. Create a list. Check them out again in 2 months, and if they still really like them, then go to amazon.com.

Even as an adult, books really appeal to me, but I realize that I do not have enough time and bandwidth to handle all the ones I would like. So I really try to be very sure before dropping $$$ on buying books. For me, it boils down to finishing what I have on hand before buying more.

For kids, they are always growing, so I would not expect too much that they would love the same book over and over and over (over time) ...

... there are some notable exceptions to this, like the Little House on the Prairie series, the chronicles of narnia, and other timeless books like that -- but again, these are for slightly older kids.


Or think of some creative ideas for books like ones with rising characters out of pages or personalized one. Especially for the toddler, he would be definitely interested in being a hero of his own book! I ordered one for my stepson last month from a site that customizes books using the customer's name, and he was so happy!

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