Youth & Education
January 18, 2022

How to Pick a Good Illustrated Book for Young Children


Kathleen Harward

There are millions of children’s picture books to choose from. How do we find a good one, or even a great one, for the children we hope to inspire?

A few thoughts:

Physical versus digital book

For me, there’s no contest between physical or digital for small children. Envision your important child on your lap, a book with them, centering the book’s binding, turning a page together, pausing on the artist’s creations—versus—holding a flat electronic device that will skip or highlight if you touch anywhere…

If you want to think more intelligently about it, take a look at the work of Maryanne Wolf, neuroscientist and long-time researcher of the effects of the digital age on our reading brains. She proposes teaching children first to read physical books to support “deep reading” that cultivates “empathy, imagination, critical thinking and self-reflection.” Later, children can learn to use screens appropriately, which often involves skimming, searching for keywords, and jumping to the conclusions—useful and valuable, but not a way to develop “critical analytical powers and independent judgment.”

Story content: sweet kids’ stories; funny kids’ stories….or, identity politics?

More than not, today’s newer published picturebooks contain some form of identity politics. This I have determined by periodically checking out a stack of new picture books from the library and reading them. It’s very interesting, and important for more of us to do this, I believe.

If you don’t want politics in your children’s earliest books, you have two choices, as I see it. Pick classic picture books or spend a little time evaluating a new book.

A couple of great classics

A classic funny kids’ book that will always be in my gift-giving bag is “We Eat Dinner in the Bathtub,” by Angela Shelf Medearis. The dialogue between the two boys, as they play and explore outdoors, is fresh and funny. The illustrations by Jacqueline Rogers are mesmerizing . Beneath the beautiful humor, the story is deeply humane.

A classic sweet kid’s story is “Miss Rumphius”, by Barbara Cooney. The story follows a young girl’s journey through life. She is determined to explore all corners of the world and find a way to leave the world a better place before she dies. It’s poignant and her example of how to live will stay with kids forever—also a book I keep stocked in my giving bag.

How to evaluate new books

If you can’t leaf through them in person, reading reviews online is a good way to evaluate a new book. Ordinary readers tend to get right to the heart of the matter in their reviews. For example, David T, not personally known to me, wrote this about our debut book The SharedDog: “The writing and the artwork are very nice, but the love behind the story is what stands out. I hope the owner of Brandy Pie Book Company knows that countless people now love her Brandy Pie.”

Often, you can find sample pages online. For many books, you can also find the whole text or a video of someone reading book.

When news stories first started reporting on the controversial book “Not My Idea,” I had to see for myself. I found the text online and a video of someone reading the whole book. Sure enough, the story tells children “Whiteness is a bad deal.” It goes on to tell kids how to be white without whiteness. Hmm,  perhaps interesting for adults to debate, but designed as a picture book for children?

Ironically, the digital world gives us tools to help us find the best non-digital books for our youngest readers.

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