How to Choose Quality Books for Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Pre-readers

I love bookstores: secondhand, mega-chain, indie, foreign-language, or otherwise. I rarely come home empty-handed after a quick stop at a used books store. It's my superpower (I was gunning for mind-reading, but I got this). My husband is amazed—although also frustrated, because budget—by my ability to zone in on the good children's books while browsing through stacks and stacks of books.

How do you find the good titles? It can be tricky. Even in conventional bookstores, the keepers are not always the ones displayed up front, the featured titles that are on everyone's must-read list. If you're a new mom or a mom of an under three like me—and not a preschool teacher—you probably have not had the time to get to know the who's who of the children's book world, or you may only know books by their covers, not their authors, or, as is the case with picture books, their illustrators. Besides, picture book authors are a relatively quiet bunch.

However, to stick to books with familiar characters would be, in my opinion, a disservice to your child, especially your pre-reader, who is relying on you to fill her world with the stories that will become the voices in her head—and often the words that come out of her mouth. Imagine if your shelves contained nothing but quote compilations, biographies, activity books, and fan fiction on the It celebrity of the year. Shelves and shelves of nothing but the adventures of Taylor Swift. I love Frozen as much as the next mom, but walking into a bookstore, I sometimes wonder, how many other adventures, life lessons, and character-building moments can Anna and Elsa really have? What about learning about friendship from Frog and Toad, or courage despite the odds from a Little Blue Engine? Certainly, Sofia the First (my child's favorite) can teach all these things, but wouldn't your child's world be richer if her heroes came in different shapes, colors, and sizes (maybe even green and slimy, but wearing a waistcoat)?

Instead of a crash course in kids' lit, here are a few tips to help you pick out the gems even in crowded shelves of small pre-loved book stalls. Just save some for me, 'kay?

(Disclaimer: Post contains affiliate links to and The Learning Basket. However, all recommendations below are done out of love, not for compensation.)

How to Find Good Children's Books and Build a Home Library

1) Familiarize yourself with publishers you trust.
Publishers are the gatekeepers who decide what is or isn't print-worthy. If you find a book you fall in love with, take note of who published it. Check your library for books by the same publisher and see if they have more hits than misses. Do they publish books that meet the other criteria for quality books? Does their taste seem to match yours? Soon you can browse the shelves and spot hidden gems just by finding those symbols of quality: a bear with a candle, a pair of spectacles, a red legendary bird, or a colorful hot air balloon. So helpful in used bookstores when books aren't categorized and all you have to go by are spines and titles.

Some Publishing Houses We Love:

Walker Books/Candlewick Press - They publish so many of the classics, it's not uncommon for me to read a book, fall in love with it, and find out that it's from Candlewick (look for the bear with the candle). I'm sure you also already love We're Going on a Bear Hunt and Guess How Much I Love You. The newer authors, like Chris Haughton (Little Owl Lost) soon become favorites, too.

Chronicle Books - Synonymous in my mind with innovation and creativity, this publishing house releases titles that don't just entertain kids but wow their parents, too. Think the HervĂ© Tullet series  (Press HereMix It Up!). Our favorite around here is Peek-A Who?We'd love to own more Chronicle Books to review, but unfortunately, you don't find many of these in used bookstores (#missionaryfamilyproblems); so, when we do find one, we grab it!

Usborne Books - We can always count on Usborne Books to have great illustrations, interesting text, and fun stories on every topic under the sun, from fairy tales to fine art, from Paris to pirates. Their titles are all modern and engaging. My daughter can sit with an Usborne book title for what seems like ages (in preschool time). We love the First Experiences and the That's Not My (Panda/Airplane/Lion, etc.) series. Befriend an Usborne consultant and you'll have a friend for life.

Also look for Kane Miller books, a sister publishing house  of Usborne. Their titles are just as lovely to look at and delightful to read. (Read my review of Zoo, a great book on imagination). A recent favorite of our body-curious playtime doctor is The Holes in Our Nose, while Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus was a great read while we were waiting for baby brother to arrive. I'll review You Choose soon, as a book that's great for encouraging toddler and preschooler conversations.

Adarna House - When it comes to local children's books, we look for Adarna House titles. There are many other local publishing companies whose books we have enjoyed, but Adarna House is the most consistent (for us) when it comes to beautiful pictures paired with relevant stories. (For more reasons why we love Adarna House books, as well as some recommended titles, read on here.)

Of course, there are dozens, maybe hundreds; these are just the ones I look out for and easily spot when quickly browsing the shelves. But don't discount the lesser-known names or smaller imprints. Just researching this article, I discovered a lot of other small imprints I'd never heard of but whose books I'd love to try. And now, knowing that, I'll be sure to look out for them from now on!

2) Follow curators with similar taste.
Some small booksellers curate their selections so they carry only the books they recommend. Instagram sellers, such as Ben and Lily and The Kids' Bookshop (Australia-based, but with universally appropriate selections), and pre-loved books store The Learning Basket are great sources. Many Instamoms, like Kid Lit Concierge and Jen Just Read have also made it their life mission to introduce other parents to good books.

And don't forget fellow parents you know—and their kids. Make "What are you reading?" the new "Who are you wearing?" when you meet a child the same age as yours. Ask them to tell you the story of their favorite stories and you may not only add some ideas for your child's library but also make a new friend.

3) Find award-winners, not just bestsellers. 
Numbers don't mean much these days when even ghost-written celebrity novels can sell a million copies to fans and trend-followers, but there are a few literary award-giving bodies whose seals of approval matter and are reserved for the deserving. For young readers and pre-readers, look for Caldecott medal winners and nominees for notable picture books; and Geisel (Theodore Geisel, as in Dr. Seuss) award nominees and winners for books with great storytelling and illustrations. (Thank you, Mariel of The Learning Basket for that insight at a preschool homeschool seminar). A wonderful Caldecott winner is Kevin Henkes' Waiting, while Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books are notable Geisel honorees. We love Waiting Is Not Easy! (As you can see, books about waiting are especially relevant to toddlers and preschoolers.)

Of course your library will have The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Goodnight, Moon; maybe The Tale of Peter Rabbit; and a book of fairy tales. But I'm amazed at all the great books being published that don't have a well-known author and a merchandise deal to back up their marketability. Take a chance on an unknown (to you) author. Actually sit down and read through the book. You'll never know what worlds you'll find behind an unfamiliar cover.

4) Look for beautiful words or beautiful pictures, or both.

Good books just beg to be shared!

Be your own award-giving body and set your own personal standard for story and illustrations. Some books I buy because the story, language, lesson, or character is appealing. Some I buy because the pictures draw me in. Some treasures have both. Many books, you'd be surprised have neither. These will often catch her eye because they are specifically marketed to kids—maybe they have a TV show or movie associated with them or are about a topic she's obsessed with at the moment (Princesses in sparkly dresses! Cute kittens!) and that is their main appeal. Most of these I read to her in the bookstore, let her enjoy for the moment, then leave on the shelf. Sorry, E. You get a vote, but I'm still the parent and we have limited shelf space.

You be the judge. Would I buy my daughter a collection of 5-minute Star Wars bedtime stories? Heck, yeah, if they are well-written and the pictures draw us in. But after a mom-guilt-induced indulgence in yet another ballerina book, I realized that, until my daughter could read on her own, I needed to set the standards when my three-year-old's criteria were simply "Is the girl wearing a tutu?" and "Does it come with stickers?". (P.S. Not against ballerina books at all. Usborne Books has a bunch we're putting on our wish list!)

5) Read it to your child.
We're sit-on-the-floor kind of people.
To be fair, although I am the parent, I've also let go of a few beautiful books because E just wasn't interested. Reading is still a personal preference. As an adult, you're no less of a person for not having read the literary canon (Confession: I've never read To Kill a Mockingbird). My child will be fine without having experienced Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I love Where the Wild Things Are, but she's had me hide it behind a stack of books on the shelf since she was a baby—she's just not ready for those monsters yet.

I've also often been surprised by the books my daughter falls in love with. At her play school, one of her favorites is This Is the House That Jack Built (the post-modern, self-aware Simms Taback version). If I were to guess why, I'd say it's the rhythmic quality of the text (she likes other books with repeating lines, like The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Giraffe and a Half, and Green Eggs and Ham). Or maybe she just thinks the pictures are funny. Some books may not be particularly enlightening or moving, but are just downright silly, which happens to be a quality we value at home (silliness is, after all, often the birthplace of creativity).

Take your child to the bookstore. Yes, she will run around crazy and choose all the books that make sounds when buttons are pressed. Offer a few suggestions or, if that fails, just start reading out loud. The sound of a parent's voice trumps all other bells and whistles. Sometimes, this may attract other little listeners. Welcome them (with your child's permission). A good storytelling is hard to come by these days.

I wish we had local libraries with books for kids or that I had saved the books from my childhood. We don't have a huge book budget (scratch that—we don't have a book budget period, but as if that's going to stop me), so it's taken a bit of creativity on my part to build a library. It doesn't have all the latest books, but it has books I'm glad she can grow up with. I can leave her in her room and know she has more than enough choices to curl up with. She can't read yet, but there are many she already knows by heart, so I'll sometimes find her flipping through the pages, talking to herself. It is one of my modest joys as a mom to be able to give her this gift.

What are your favorite books in your children's library? Where do you go for quality (and affordable) books?