How to choose a children’s book, for the holidays and beyond

December 12, 2016
Alisson Clark

If you want to give books to the kids on your holiday list but aren’t sure how to choose, University of Florida education professor Katie Caprino has tips for picking a winner.

Caprino teaches children’s literature to future educators, sharing her favorites, including her holiday gift picks, with parents and teachers on her blog, Katie Reviews Books

She offered these suggestions for pleasing all types of readers:

Look for interactivity

In books like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and “We are in a Book!,” Caldecott Award-winner Mo Willems brings the reader into the action. Caprino loves Willems’ latest, “Nanette’s Baguette,” as a read-aloud for adults and kids to share.

“There’s a relationship between the text and the reader, so it can be read aloud in a way that’s inviting and exciting,” she said.

An amazing behind-the-scenes video of Willems creating the giant folded-paper village he photographed to create the illustrations, gives kids a glimpse of how the book came to life. 

Try the Caprino Test

"My litmus test is if the illustrations are so beautiful that I want to rip the book apart and frame the pages on my wall, that’s a great book. Of course, I don’t actually rip books apart,” Caprino says. 

If the illustrations in a picture book move you, go with your gut. Can’t make it to a brick and mortar bookstore to flip through the pages? Gilbert Ford’s luminous blue and purple illustrations in Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ “Mr. Ferris and his Wheel” (pictured above) get Caprino’s seal of approval for early readers, as do Kenard Pak’s watercolors for Rita Gray’s “Flowers are Calling.” 

Lure reluctant readers with graphic novels

If you think graphic novels are all superhero boom-pow, take another look. Not only can they be pithy and provocative, they can build reading confidence. For middle grades, Caprino recommends Raina Telgemeier’s “Ghosts,” which tackles illness, moving to a new place and, yes, ghosts. 

Change it up with verse

Books in verse aren’t just for little kids, Caprino says, they’re great for middle grades and young adults, too.

“A big book can be less intimidating when it’s broken up into in chunks of verse,” she said.

She counts the freeform poetry of “Inside Out and Back Again,” Thanhha Lai’s semi-autobiographical tale of a 10-year-old girl settling in Alabama after fleeing Vietnam, as one of her all-time favorites. For older kids, Kwame Alexander’s “Booked” ventures into divorce, first love and bullies.



Don’t overlook nonfiction

True stories can be as fun as fiction. For younger readers, try the Golden Gate origin story “This Bridge Will Not Be Gray” by Dave Eggers, or author/illustrator Melissa Sweet’s “Balloons Over Broadway,” about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sweet even manages to make the backstory of a reference book riveting, Caprino says, with the lavish illustrations for “The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.”

inside pages of the right word book

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