How To Become Familiar with Children’s Literature

What is your child reading and how can you help them pick out good books?  There are so many books to choose from- much more than when we were kids.  You don't need to be an expert; you just need to know enough to be able to navigate the local library or bookstore.  The following steps will break it down for you.

  1. Know fiction books.  Fiction books are made-up stories.  They consist of characters, setting, problem (the events), and a solution (the ending).  All fiction books are stories, but there are many subgenres. 
    • Everyday/Realistic Fiction - Books about everyday situations.  Your child can easily relate to these stories.  The setting is often times in a school, a home, a neighborhood, etc.  The problems tackled are real life situations such as dealing with a bully, moving to a new school, or experiencing a new addition to the family.  (Example authors: Andrew Clements, Cynthia Rylant, Sharon Creech, Linda Sue Park, Beverly Cleary) 
    • Mystery - Often times the characters are kids who are solving mysteries of missing treasure, bandits, or pranksters.  These often come in series, which can be repetitive, but they keep kids reading and build fluency. (Example series: Magic Tree House, A to Z Mysteries, Encyclopedia Brown, Cam Jansen
    • Adventure - These books have a focus on the action.  Often they are survival stories such as being lost in the wilderness. (Example authors: Scott O'Dell, Gary Paulsen, Betsy Byars) 
    • Fantasy - One of the most popular and trendy genres.  Characters feature dragons, witches, vampires, magicians, and other mystical creatures.  They are set in magical lands.  These books are regularly made into movies. (Example series: Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, A Series of Unfortunate Events
    • Science Fiction - Similar to fantasy.  Set in the future, aliens as characters, highly advanced technology, space and time travel, supernatural, etc. (Sample titles: Memory Boy by Will Weaver, Aliens Ate my Homework by Bruce Coville, Giver by Lois Lowry)  
    • Historical Fiction - Books set in a particular time period.  Sometimes the characters are actual historical figures but the stories surrounding them are fictionalized.  These are great for teaching historical context in a light way. (Sample series: American Girl, Little House on the Prairie, Dear America
    • Fairy Tales/ Fables/Legends - These are the classics we read as kids, often rewritten with a modern twist. (Example collections: Grimm's Fairy Tales, Aesop's Fables
    • Ghost Stories - Books about haunted houses, ghosts, and spooky legends. (Example titles: Something Wicked's in Those Woods by Marisa Montes, The Ghost Sitter by Peni R. Griffin, Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson)
  2. Know fiction book levels.   Children's books range from books with only pictures, to advanced reading levels.  The following shows the types of books:  
    • Board books and cloth books - These books are for infants and toddlers.  Often have different textures to experience the book with hands.  Teach simple concepts such as colors, opposites, letters, and counting. (Example authors: Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown, Mem Fox)  
    • Picture books - Children's picture books range greatly in difficulty level.  Some have simple enough text that beginning readers can read on their own, and some are so advanced that you will read the stories aloud to them.  The easier of these books teach phonemic awareness (the patterns and sounds of language) through rhyme and repetition.  The commonality in these books is illustrations that inspire imagination. (Examples: Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears series) 
    • Beginning chapter books - These books have the basic format of a chapter book, but with very short chapters and fewer words.  There is quite a range in difficulty with these books as well.  They are great transitional books as your child is preparing to read longer books.  These are usually introduced in first and second grade. (Example Series: Henry and Mudge, Flat Stanley, Frog and Toad
    • Chapter books - These books are longer, more difficult, and have multiple chapters.  They range from predictable series at mid second to third grade reading level, to the classics, to series at a more advanced level. (Example Series: Judy Moody, The Chronicles of Narnia, Artemis Fowl
  3. Know non-fiction books.  Non-fiction books are informational and are distinguished by topics.  These books take many forms, but illustrations, diagrams, photos, and charts often highlight the information presented.  The topics of non-fiction books are endless, but there are common popular themes to children's non-fiction books:  
    • Animals - Pets, horses, rainforest animals, jungle animals, forest animals, sea creatures, birds, dinosaurs, etc.  
    • Sports - Specific sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey, ice skating, surfing, skiing, or books about particular athletes.  
    • Science - Nature, severe weather, electricity, technology, and natural disasters are often fascinating topics for young readers. 
    • Arts and Crafts - Teach or show specific crafts.  Some books at bookstores come with the materials to make jewelry or origami, for example. 
    • History - Teach about specific periods of history, such as World War II or the Pioneer Days and highlight the important figures of the time period.  
    • Countries/Cultures - Teach about geographical features and cultural customs of people around the world. 
    • Jobs/Careers - Books about a day in the life of a doctor, firefighter, or astronaut.  The equipment they use or the training they receive is outlined. 
    • Civics/Government - Teach about governmental processes, local and national government. 
    • Biography/Autobiography - The background and key events of important and popular figures are outlined.  These often have timelines.
  4. Talk with your child's teacher and the school librarian.  Ask them what your child is reading.  Ask them what is new and popular.  Find out how the children are taught to choose books.  Learn about how books are organized in the classroom or library.  Often times, schools have systems of labeling books by level.  Inquire about how they suggest that your child choose books outside of school.
  5. Talk to the children's literature specialist at the public library and your local bookstore.  Find out what is popular.  Tell them what your child is reading and ask them to recommend more titles or series.  Find out how the books are organized and how to search their web site or online database.
  6. Read children's books yourself.  What are you interested in?  Enjoying the books yourself will inspire your child.  Take time to browse and choose books that capture your interest.
  7. Distinguish quality.  Some trends are great because they get kids reading, others are purely marketing plans designed to get kids to buy toys and spend money.  Some books are all fluff and glam.  You decide what's right for your child, but noticing what your child's school librarian does and doesn't choose for their library is a good indicator of what is quality literature.
  8. Let your child teach you.  Ask them what they like and why.  Have them show you the features of the book and ask them what they love about the stories they are reading.  Notice what they are interested in and look for books about the topics.  Share in the experience of children's literature and your child will take notice. 

Becoming familiar with the basic ways in which children's books are organized will help you to participate in choosing books with your child.  There can be an overwhelming selection and you may not know where to start but understanding the general distinctions can get you started.

Susan Niz, M.Ed.

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