Book Talk: What to Look For

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - Posted by Amanda Bast
I've been in love with books since I was a wee babe. To say I read constantly would be a vast understatement. I had my nose in a book at all times. I missed so many things because I had to finish my paragraph before I looked up*. My dream house as a child (um, still?) is the one right beside the library. Nothing beats the magnificence of a book.

I've had people call me from the bookstore asking what I suggest they buy for their kids. It's happened on more than one occasion. My friends call me because they know I have a wee bit of a problem. My children's literature library is extensive. I don't have any children, but I have books. Oh do I have books!

It seems these days anyone can get published. It's great because we see so many new authors, but it also means there is a lot of crap out there. It's hard to sift through the world of books when you don't know what to look for. Here is a list of things that I look for when I browse picture books in the children's section.

Quirky characters.
Regular characters are boring. Children love characters that are imaginative and just a little bizarre. Think of the most interesting person you know. You would want to read a book about them. Now think of someone who is average in interestingness. You probably wouldn't want to read about that person, now would you? New, fresh characters are wonderful. Reoccurring characters are like visiting old friends.

Rich language. Look for language that is above the level of the kids you are reading to. Yes, kids should have "just right" text that is easy and accessible for them to read on their own. However, when kids are being read to, the language should be beyond their level. Have you ever met a kid that sounds like he's way older than he is? I can almost guarantee his parents have been reading to him ever since he was tiny. Even if you have wee babies, start reading to them now. Kids that do well in school and in life were likely raised in literacy rich environments. It's proven, yo.

Unique illustrations. Some illustrations are like your grandma's living room furniture**. Other illustrations are like furniture from IKEA. Some illustrations are simple. Some illustrations are incredibly detailed. Each serves its purpose. Some are more pleasing than others. In this case, you are totally allowed to judge a book by its cover.

Clean layout. My inner graphic designer leaps for joy when I see a crisp, beautifully laid out text. A picture with words underneath gets boring. I look for layouts that catch my eye (I'm a huge rule of thirds nerd, but we won't get into that today), and that add to the story.

Heart Singing Stories. When you read the book, did you laugh? Did you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Did you say "Wow!"? Did you want to do something because of the book? Did you start thinking about something you did when you were a kid? Can you relate the story to aspects of your own adult life even though it is meant for kids? If you close the book and are still thinking about the story with a smile on your face, it is probably a good choice.

Those are a few guidelines to get you started. If you have to buy a gift for a child, consider buying them a book (or several). And then sit down and read it with them. It's seriously awesome.

What was your favourite book as a kid?

*I missed a family of BEARS walking across the road in front of our car because I was reading. Not just one bear. A FAMILY. Of BEARS.
**Floral and covered in plastic?