Finding the Gems Among the Rubbish: A Guide To Selecting Quality Children’s Literature, Part I

QualityLitPart1I’ve always been a big reader, and growing up, I could often be found staying up way past my bedtime with a flashlight under the covers just to finish a book. But I’m not sure I’m a very discerning reader. I like everything from Great Expectations to Twilight, so I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions.

Recently, I  became involved in a MOMS group through my church, and in our last meeting the discussion was on selecting good books for children. The speaker was the brilliant local blogger behind Orange Marmalade, Jill Swanson, and she spoke about how children’s literature is like a thrift store – a lot of rubbish to pick through to find the gems. Through the talk, she shared four qualities to look for in children’s books to find the “gems” among the thousands of books churned out to make money on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. To be honest, I thought most children’s books were created equal, but after this talk, I’ve started thinking twice about what children’s books I share with my son – and even what books I spend time reading.

Here are a few of her tips:

Good literature helps us to see or better understand true things without spelling it out. 

Swanson began by discussing didactic literature – which is incredibly common on bookshelves across the country. Didactic literature are those books contrived solely to teach a moral lesson: to accept others as they are, not to bully, to be generous. This type of literature can feel like nagging or manipulation to the reader, and often has a teachy tone. Instead, good authors seek to begin with the story, and allow the elements of truth to emerge on their own.

For example, a weak children’s story states bluntly, “Children should be kind to their neighbors.” A strong piece of literature shows the good behind kindness by telling a story of a woman and her daughter who lose everything in a fire, but are then overwhelmed by the generosity of their neighbors. The truths push themselves out on their own – children are able to dig out the lessons of kindness, generosity and neighborliness, without having it spelled out for them. Great books help children see something fresh and new from within the story.

Good literature helps us to wonder, and wonder why. 

Great books should encourage imagination and allow children to marvel in wonder: “Wow, look at that castle on a cliff! Wow, what a huge spider web! Wow, those children can fly!” And they should also help children to wonder why: “I wonder how he felt? I wonder how they built that? I wonder if I would do the same thing she did? I wonder what happened next?” Children need imagination, conjecture and reflection – it’s vital for their growing minds.

Good literature should acquaint us with the delights of language.

Swanson remarks that words should “taste” – like a raspberry tart or spicy curry or dark chocolate – but never like bland oatmeal. Everything in the book should be presented creatively and engagingly – even wordless books – making even the most mundane things interesting. Swanson spoke of how as a teacher, she could tell which children had been read to or not, or which ones grew up reading and which ones did not. The ones that did had a better grasp of what’s natural in speaking and writing, and were further advanced in things like rhythm, phrasing, vocabulary, pacing and even metaphors and alliteration. She shared a  brilliant poem by A.A. Milne called Sneezles as an example – it’s worth checking out.

Good literature should expose children to excellent visual art. 

Particularly with my son now, all of his books are picture books. Prior to this talk, I never thought much about the artwork in the books we look at, but Swanson noted that in great books, the artwork can often tell a large portion of the story, at times, maybe a completely different story than the words do, such as a mouse who does something funny in each picture. Look at how the artists play with perspective, composition and color palette – the illustrations in a picture book should be its own art form. Swanson references careless artwork to being like out-of-tune notes in a piece of music – they will not romance a child’s imagination.

It’s amazing to me that in the humble children’s book, such big ideas can be communicated – things like joy, and grief, deceit and forgiveness, and adventure and friendship – without being spelled out. It’s my hope that Eli grows up with a huge imagination, as well as an understanding of what’s true and right, and I know books will play a key part in helping him get there. Through using these overarching guidelines to choosing good books, I hope he falls in love with reading and that someday I have to be the parent that goes into his room three hours past his bedtime to take away his flashlight.

In my next post, I’ll share a a handful of quality authors and titles in various age categories to get you started in finding quality books, as well as a handful of additional resources to dig up the gems.

For more from Jill Swanson, check out her blog, Orange Marmalade, where she writes book reviews for ages 12 and under. 

Continue reading with Part 2 of Finding the Gems Among the Rubbish HERE.

Laura is a wife to Mike and a stay-at-home mom to Eli, a chubby, blue-eyed, and often literally bouncing, baby boy who will soon be knocked off his throne with a sibling coming in December. She stumbled into motherhood unexpectedly, but so far she’s fared better than anyone ever thought she would. On any given day, you’ll find Laura DIYing (always with the goal of not severing any limbs), completing a spontaneous river dance routine when her son goes down for a nap on the first try, and continuing her endless quest to find skinny jeans that feel as comfortable as maternity jeans. If you want to see sweat or hear her loud, anxious laugh, just ask her about how motherhood is going.


  1. Thank you for this great post! One of the worst (and yet most popular) children’s books is “Goodnight Moon.” (gasp! did I really say it? I did.) Really poor literature, that book is and here’s why:

    1) it spells things out.
    2) it doesn’t make anyone wonder (except at how creepy it is when there is an old woman whispering shhh in your bedroom or some such nonesense).
    3) the language is base.
    4) it is visually negligible.

    I think people starting giving it as gifts without actually reading it…and then that snowballed into a Goodnight Moon frenzy that is completely unwarranted.

    I’m excited to see your list as I am a literature snob myself :). There is a difference between “children’s books” and “children’s literature” for sure!


    • Hi Claire! The other one I can’t figure out is “I’ll Love You Forever” – It’s a great message but the part with her sneaking into her grown son’s room creeps me out so much I can’t even read it to my son! I know I’m writing you a bit late – so I hope you did in fact enjoy the list!

  2. Nice post! As a reader and a former teacher, I love books! Was this at a MOPS group? How old does a child have to be for a mom to join?

    • Thanks Katie! I’m glad you liked it – it was actually a MOMS (Making Our Mothering Significant) group through my church, Bethlehem Baptist. No age limit – any one can join. Feel free to email me at oaklandavenueblog (@) if you’d like to come!


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