Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding Good Literature for Preschoolers

Have I mentioned that my kid loves books? He is constantly asking to read together. In the last year I’ve probably read over 200 kids books. So now I’m passing on my top kids book picks, so far.

As my oldest grew up and stopped nursing, reading books together has come to replace that feeling of closeness.  He calls it, “cozy book time” and it’s one of his favorite things to do.

I’ve had to learn that hard way that there is that there is a lot of, well, just plain bad writing out there for kids. Not like it’s traumatizing, but it’s good to have high standards, right? There’s just a ton of picture books out there that are uninspired, meaningless, and/or poorly illustrated.

When you stack my personal preferences for literary selections on top of that…the selection becomes quite limited indeed. I look for stories with a plot (if you don't read a lot of kids books you may be surprised that his is even a criteria), or that relate an interesting incident in a funny or artistic way. I also like to emphasize books that relate something practical or meaningful and that emphasize our family’s values.

So we read lots of nature books, gardening and farming books, classic children’s books, fairy tales and folk tales, and books about life experiences.  So I love a personal  book recommendation or a good booklist.


Nature Books

1.       Mother Earth and Her Children by Sybil von Offers

This is a sweet book about the changing seasons written in rhyming verse. It is translated from German so some of the rhymes are a bit awkward in places. There is only a bit of text on each page and the illustrations, which are photos of a quilt, are detailed with enough elements to keep little eyes interested for a long time, so it’s even good for toddlers.

2.       The Way to Start a Day by Byrd Baylor

The message of this book, that each sunrise is worthy of a celebration, is really my favorite part. As an adult, I find Peter Parnalls illustrations gorgeous and Baylor’s writing engaging. For my preschooler it doesn’t quite have the same interest and might be better for older kids. We did incorporate this into our homeschool curriculum a few months ago and actually made a point of going out to sing to the rising sun, like in the book. After that, it’s become more interesting.

3.       The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss

Children see the basic process of growing food from seed to harvest in this classic children’s book. There is a bit of exaggeration involving the harvest of a child-sized carrot that might be lost on the youngest readers.

4.       Who is the Beast by Keith Baker

Baker’s illustrations in this book have mesmerized Chobie since before he turned two, the rhythm and rhyme too.

5.       Autumn an Alphabet Acrostic by Steven Schmur

I think we all probably learned how to write acrostic poetry in elementary school, but I never really took it seriously until I read this book. The scenes appeal to the old-fashioned homesteader sensibilities of a life lived in closer relationship with one’s food and with the seasons. The descriptive language is lovely.

Animal Books

1.       The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

For the most part I prefer animal books where animals are animals, and behave like animals. Especially at a young age I think that type of writing develops a healthy sense of wonder and respect. But for kids who are bit older and have that foundation, The Gruffalo, a make believe creature with a poisonous wart on the end of his nose, is hilarious.

2.       Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

This is just a wholesome story all around. Told from the child’s perspective it captures a child’s sense of wonder and awe for wild life. The hooting sounds within the story are fun to call back and forth too.

3.       Moon Child by Nadia Krylanovich and Elizabeth Sayles

Sweet, reasonably accurate, illustrations of baby animals and the display of animals doing things that they would do as animals (you know like, not exchanging china tea sets, or starring in a school play) makes me love this book. The text is pretty simple as well, so it’s another good pick for toddlers.

4.       Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

What I love about this story is the parallels it draws between the lives of humans and bears, without having to make bears human-like to inspire admiration.

5.       The Barn Owls by Tony Johnston and Deborah Kogan Ray

I like this book for the illustrations and simple telling of the barn owls’ way of life. Again, no need to anthropomorphize.

Alphabet Books

1.       Dr. Seuss’ ABC by Dr. Seuss

In my opinion, this is the best book ever written about the alphabet. Plus it includes upper and lower case letters, fun alliteration and rhyming, all of which are especially effective at developing pre-reading skills).

2.       A Cottage Garden Alphabet by Andrea Wisnewski

It’s about gardening. Gardening equals emphasizing my family values.  Great illustrations too, like the kind I would want to get a print of to hang on the wall.

3.       LMNO Peas by Keith Baker

This book shows a group of anthropomorphic peas (yes, legumes) taking on various human roles, in alphabetical order. Apparently personifying vegetables is less offensive to my sensibilities. Really it’s just that, by the time kids are expressing an interest in reading an ready for alphabet books I think they’re ready for that kind of humor. The whole “P”/peas thing is still probably over their heads though.

4.       Eating the Alphabet by Lois Elhert

Yum, yum, yum. I like to think that all the colorful images of produce in this book make my kid more excited about eating vegetables and less inclined to ask me for sugary snacks. I know it inspires me to go the garden.

5.       Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault and Lois Elhert

While this might not have made my top picks list before having kids, the rhyming text is irresistible for my kiddo. Add in the fact that there is a song version of the book and that pretty much accounts for his learning of the alphabet.

Bed Time Stories

1.       Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger

Grandfather Twilight is a magical story with a poetic explanation of the twilight world. Reading it makes me feel downright peaceful.

2.       Night in the Country by Cynthia Rylant

Another peaceful bedtime story. This one is about all the quiet sounds and nocturnal adventures in the rural landscape.

3.       Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendack

The wild things are some of my all time favorite monsters. I also like that this is an imaginative story that shows what glorious fun there is to be had in one’s own room. Time-out doesn’t have to be torture because sometimes when you’re having trouble being respectful of the others around you, you’ll end up having more fun alone. Maybe I’m reading too far into it.

4.       Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

I admit it, I like the classics a lot. This was one of Chobie’s first bedtime stories and continues to be a favorite.  But, seriously, who can resist a bedtime story that bids goodnight to a bowl of mush?

5.       The Sleep Book by Dr. Seuss

The sleep book is a gem of a Dr. Seuss book, with such lines as “These falls are just fine for teeth brushing beneath/If you happen to be up that way with your teeth.” It’s a good read if you appreciate classic Seussical humor. As an added bonus it’s a long book and thus a good pick for bedtime if you have a kid that falls asleep during stories, or if you’re trying to turn your toddler into one.

Other Favorites

1.       Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

If you don't remember from childhood, this tells the adventures of a little boy in a world he draws on the wall with his crayon. Just keep your crayons out of reach for a while after reading this one.  Don't learn the hard way.

2.       Finn McCool: The Giant of Knockmany Hill by Tomie dePaola

This is one of my favorite folk tales, featuring a strong female character who works “a charm the fairies taught her” to save her husband from a bully. Tomie dePaola is one of my favorite children’s authors. I’ve quite enjoyed most of his books that we’ve read.

3.       Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss

Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham might get all the attention when it comes to Dr. Seuss stories for preschoolers, but this book is hands down my favorite Dr. Seuss book to read out-loud. It’s actually a series of rhymes and tongue twisters and is over-the-top silly even for the good Dr. Because it’s a challenge to read out loud, I can keep reading it over and over without the degree of suffering usually experienced by a parent asked to read a favorite book yet again.

4.       Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

This one is a chapter book, which might not be great for a lot of preschoolers, especially younger ones. As a parent it’s actually a surprisingly good read. As a child I just watched the old Disney tapes of Winnie the Pooh as the little black rain cloud, but I have to say that Milne’s written account far surpasses.  My kiddo had a hard time with it at first, but once he sat next to me to stare at the illustrations he finally settled in. When he got a feel for the characters he fell in love, now he loves hopping around the kitchen with Kanga and Roo.

Finding good books to share with my children is a priority. The truth is that we will only read so many books during their childhoods, so I want to be intentional about it. And when Chobie is bouncing around the kitchen “with Kanga and Roo,” I’m reminded of how much he is influenced by our reading material.

And, because I am so passionate about good children’s literature, look forward to Tuesday Kids Book Reviews on the Handmade Life.


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  1. Nice list! I don't have kids but as you said, I'm sure there are lots of plain bad books for kids, so it's nice to have some recommendations.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! There are maybe a few of these that I would read by myself, but maybe I'm just a rare adult who would read children's literature with no children around. If I had to pick one though, Winne the Pooh is actually amazing.