A Quick Guide to Selecting Great Informational Books for Young Children
By: Kathy E. Stephens
In recent years, the world of children’s literature has exploded, flooding the market with a plethora of choices. Almost a billion U.S. dollars in sales were reported in 2004 (Blough, 2004). With such an abundance of children’s books on any topic and in every genre, making good choices can be a dilemma for teachers and students. In an analysis of young children’s first attempts at reading, Pappas (1991) noted that they need to experience a variety of texts in order to progress successfully as readers and writers. Furthermore, Pappas emphasized that teachers should include informational texts in classrooms in order for children to experience broader language growth. Duke (2004) encouraged teachers to find ways to include informational texts regularly and authentically.
Realizing young children are naturally curious, primary-level teachers spend much of the school day answering their questions and reading books aloud in daily lessons as they connect to students’ background knowledge and enrich their vocabularies. Both of these practices can be improved by including informational texts, which can also provide teachers with valuable resources (McMath, King, & Smith, 1998). Many experts agree that by including a wide variety of books (with equal emphasis given to informational texts) a smoother transition may occur between the stages of elementary school reading and intermediate-level content reading (Duke, 2004; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
As students have more experience with informational texts, teachers may also need to explain the text structures commonly found in these books. Most teachers are familiar with the story elements in narrative texts, and students learn quickly to recognize and recall those details from stories. Like narratives, informational texts contain structures that students can learn to identify (Meyer & Freedle, 1984; Tompkins, 2005). Younger students may be taught to use these structures in order to increase comprehension of content area texts at the intermediate level and beyond (Moss, 2004).
In their discussion of informational (nonfiction) trade books, Palmer and Stewart (2003) found that for students to successfully interact with these texts the classroom teacher must play a critical role. The teacher should be knowledgeable about informational books while increasing students’ access. Although primary-level teachers have begun to recognize the importance of including informational texts into classroom routines, selecting the best books can be confusing. With the help of a simple checklist (see Figure 1) and an imaginary trip to a children’s museum, teachers and parents can quickly choose quality, high-interest informational books for young readers.
Imagine walking into a children’s museum with a group of eager students. What first grabs their attention? Does the entrance invite them to come insideand experience something exciting? The first item on the book checklist is the cover; it should open the door and usher readers into an intriguing new world. A good cover provides a showcase of crisp, colorful illustrations or photographs. For the younger reader, bright primary-based colors are most eye-catching. Along with illustrations, an attention-grabbing title should spark inquisitiveness in the reader. Is the title short enough to entice interest? Are the words understandable and in a large enough font? Examples of informational books with eye-catching covers include Bats (Wood, 2000), Fishy Tales (Lock, 2003), and Big Bugs (Simon, 2005). In recent years, publishers such as National Geographic and Dorling Kindersley have set the bar high for other children’s book publishers in providing enticing covers and titles.
Topic or Content
As your group strolls through the first imaginary museum exhibit of informational texts, does the content grab their attention? The next item on the checklist points to the importance of interesting content. Topics included in great nonfiction children’s books should be exciting to the reader and have a touch of mystery thrown in for good measure. Does the writer share intriguing facts like a tour guide, inviting unsuspecting travelers to follow him or her into the information jungle?
In this age of information, providing children with accurate and reliable content should be of utmost importance. When selecting informational books for younger students, teachers and parents may look for evidence of reputable background research. Does the writer provide the reader with references, sources, or acknowledgements of consultations with leaders in the field of expertise? One well-known author of children’s informational books, Seymour Simon has authored more than 200 quality books on a wide variety of topics. Books such as Super Storms (2002), Seymour Simon’s Book of Trucks (2000), Incredible Sharks (2003), and Danger! Earthquake (2002) represent only a few of Simon’s titles that provide children with captivating yet dependable content.
Great museum designers understand that every display must have a balance of fascinating visual effects yet provide enough factual information to stir the interest of visitors as they pass along the tour. The next item on the checklist relates to illustrations and captions. All illustrations should be clear and large but not overly crowded or busy. In great nonfiction texts for children, photographs are always important; white or light backgrounds can provide appealing contrast. Do the illustrations explain and enhance the content? Are the labels and captions simple yet sufficient? Over the last two decades, a number of publishers have included high-quality, detailed photographs in their children’s informational books. Authors of books such as Chameleon, Chameleon (Cowley, 2005) and Mud, Mud, Mud (Meharry, 2001) have followed the trend of integrating colorful photographs to reinforce the content. Other authors continue to use a variety of art mediums, such as the watercolor illustrations in The Bird Alphabet Book (Pallotta, 1987), to carry the text.
Traveling further into our children’s museum of great informational books, do you notice how the arrangement of the rooms and strategically placed signs move visitors along a well-designed path? Organization of the book, the next item on the checklist, is as valuable to the reader as a road map or museum sign. Younger readers’ attention should float effortlessly between the illustrations and the text as they browse unique topics of interest. When appropriate, does the book include a table of contents, index, and glossary? Are clearly divided sections, headings, and subheadings provided?
The Best Book of Volcanoes (Adams, 2001) is a good example of well-designed organization. This book begins with a pictorial table of contents; has clear divisions between topics, subtopics, illustrations, and text; includes an illustrated glossary; and ends with an index. While a young child may not be able to read the text independently, the organization encourages readers to fully browse and learn facts about volcanoes. For the younger independent reader, the authors of Bugs, Bugs, Bugs! (Reid & Chessen, 1998) clearly separate the text from the illustrations, name a single insect body part on each page, and end with two pages of interesting insect facts and a simple index.
Font Size and Type
One last stop before exiting our imaginary museum— the final checklist item involves an examination of the text font. Letter size and type, especially for younger children, should be large and simple. Smaller, unconventional lettering distracts inexperienced readers and interferes with comprehension. Do the spacing and placement of the words make the passages easy to read? Can a young reader effortlessly follow the text along each page? Publishers such as Scholastic, Sundance, and Newbridge have begun to recognize the importance of providing beginning readers with series of short, simple informational books that are easy to read independently. One such series, Scholastic Time to Discover, includes titles such as Ants, Bees, and Butterflies (Berger & Berger, 2002) in which the font is large, consistent in placement and spacing, and easy to read.
Today, great selections of informational books abound for young children, yet choosing which to use does not have to be difficult. As primary-level teachers recognize the importance of including these texts consistently, learning to select the best books can be made easier with this quick checklist (see Figure 1). By examining five main characteristics of quality informational books, educators should quickly breeze through the selection process. While good informational books may not have every characteristic on this checklist, when used regularly it can be an easy-to-use guide for evaluating informational books for young readers. Much like a butterfly gets its wings, as explained and illustrated in Waiting for Wings (Ehlert, 2001), young students can fly away with facts from quality informational books.
An additional checklist option is available from Reading First in Virginia.
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Blough, K. (2005). Book publishing industry net sales totaled $23.7 billion in 2004. Retrieved May 1, 2005, from www.publishers.org/ press/releases.cfm?PressReleaseArticleID=247
Duke, N.K. (2004). The case for information text. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 40–44.
McMath, J.S., King, M.A., & Smith, W.E. (1998). Young children, questions and nonfiction books. Early Childhood Education Journal, 26(1), 19–27. Meyer, B.J., & Freedle, R.O. (1984). Effects of discourse type on recall. American Educational Research Journal, 21(1), 121–143.
Moss, B. (2004). Teaching expository text structures through information. The Reading Teacher, 57, 710–718.
Palmer, R.G., & Stewart, R.A. (2003). Nonfiction trade book use in primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 57, 38–48.
Pappas, C.C. (1991). Fostering full access to literacy by including information books. Language Arts, 68, 449–462.
Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Tompkins, G.E. (2005). Reading and writing information, language arts: Patterns of practice (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Merrill, Prentice Hall.
Adams, S. (2001). The best book of volcanoes. New York: Scholastic.
Berger, M., & Berger, G. (2002). Ants. New York: Scholastic.
Berger, M., & Berger, G. (2002). Bees. New York: Scholastic.
Berger, M., & Berger, G. (2002). Butterflies. New York: Scholastic.
Cowley, J. (2005). Chameleon, Chameleon. New York: Scholastic.
Ehlert, L. (2001). Waiting for wings. San Diego: Harcourt.
Lock, D. (Ed.). (2003). Fishy tales. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
Meharry, D. (2001). Mud, mud, mud. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.
Pallotta, J. (1987). The bird alphabet book. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
Reid, M., & Chessen, B. (1998). Bugs, bugs, bugs! New York: Scholastic.
Simon, S. (2000). Seymour Simon’s book of trucks. New York: HarperCollins.
Simon, S. (2002). Danger! Earthquakes. New York: Seastar.
Simon, S. (2002). Super storms. New York: Seastar.
Simon, S. (2003). Incredible sharks. New York: Seastar.
Simon, S. (2005). Big bugs. New York: Seastar.
Wood, L. (2000). Bats. New York: Scholastic.
Kathy E. Stephens (2008)