Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tips for finding good books and making the most of your local library

1. Ask your children's librarian for recommendations: Whether you're a teacher, education student or parent, a good children's librarian is yours and your student's/child's best friend. She/he will be able to recommend books that are pitched to your child's interests and abilities. She/he will know other books that are like titles your child already loves. She/he will know if a new dinosaur book has just come in or if the latest Stella and Sam book is about to be published. If Christmas is coming, ask him/her about what books to buy vs borrow for your child or other children. Ask her what tools and resources are available at the library to help you self-select materials. Shop around for a librarian or library staff person that you mesh with. Just because you had a bad experience with one person at the help desk doesn't mean that another person in the organization won't be more up your alley.

2. Use your library catalogue: Find out how to use your library catalogue well and then use it often. In my library, I can limit search results to just children's books (and sometimes depending on the search I can limit to just the picture books in the collection). Setting such limits makes it easy to perform targeted searches on subjects a child is currently interested in: elephants, dinosaurs, farms and the like. Library catalogues may also allow you to limit your searches by date of publication or language as well. For example, I often get language students coming to me looking for French children's books to help them as they learn the language.

3. Read reviews: Does your local paper write reviews of children's books? If so, read them and then ask for recommended titles at your library. Does your library subscribe to a reviewing service like the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD)? If so, you can quickly and easily look up reviews of books that you might be considering to find out if a) they are recommended and b) if they would be appropriate for the particular child/class you have in mind. If your library does subscribe to the CLCD, you can generate subject specific book lists that are pitched to a particular age range or reading level.

4. Devour award winners: Read your way through the extensive lists of award winners and honour books that are now posted all over the internet. If you find a book you especially like, then find every other book that author wrote. Keep in mind that award books can span age ranges so make sure you've got an age-appropriate book in your hands before you start reading aloud at bed time. Here are some lists of award winners to get you started but there are plenty more out there:

US-based awards
The Caldecott Medal: Awarded to the best picture book by an American citizen or resident published in the US in any given year. The current winner and honour books are listed here. A complete listing of past winners is here.

The Newbery Medal: The oldest, ongoing prize for children's literature in the world, the Newbery medal is awarded to the most distinguished work for children published in the US in any given year. The current winner and honour books are here. Past winners are listed here.

The Michael L. Printz Award: An annual award that recognizes literary excellence in young adult literature. The current winner and honour book are listed here. The full listing of past winners and honour books is here.

The Coretta Scott King Book Award: This annual award is given to African-American writers and illustrators of books for children. The current winner is listed here (and is sitting by my bedside) along with the 2008 honour books. A full listing of winners and honour books can be found here.

The Boston-Globe Horn Book Prize is presented annually in three categories for prestigious picture book, fiction and poetry, and nonfiction published in the United States. Here's the current winners and the full listing of award winners.

The New York Times Best Illustrated Books for Children is an annual listing. Here is a slideshow for the 2007 edition of the awards.

Canadian Awards
The Governor General's Literary Awards: Awarded annually, one for children's text and one for children's illustration with categories in both English and French. Here's the 2008 shortlist. Here is the list of past winners.

The Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Award: Awarded to the outstanding illustrator of a children's book published in Canada. The complete list of winners is here.

The Canadian Children's Book Centre maintains a listing of Canadian book awards. Rather than reprinting it all here, you can find the full list on their website.

British Awards
The Kate Greenaway Medal: Awarded annually for children's illustration. It's the UK's equivalent to the Caldecott Medal. Current short list is here. Past winners are here.

The Carnegie Medal: Awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It's the British equivalent of the Newbery Medal. Current short list is here. Past winners are here.

Smarties Prize (renamed Nestle Book Prize): A recently discontinued UK prize for various age categories of children's literature. The Smarites Prize was sometimes considered controversial because of its affiliation with Nestle and their practice of promoting infant formula use in developing countries. 2007 winners are on the main page. Past winners are listed here.

International Distinction
The IBBY Honor List: a biennial listing of excellent books for children put out by the International Board on Books for Young People.

5. Make sure you cover off as many genres as you can. There are so many kids today who never hear poetry or who don't receive grounding in oral folk-tale culture. That grieves me. In Dewey classification systems, the picture books and easy readers are catalogued separately from poetry, folklore, non-fiction, music, biography and the like. You have to go hunting to move beyond picture books.

6. Give a child free range in the library and work by trial and error. A child needs to know that he/she has some agency when it comes to selecting books. I have read some real howlers to my daughter but I respected the fact that she chose the books. This is where all those dreadful movie spin-off books come into play. There's also a number of didactic or messagey books out there that I flat-out disagree with, but I suck it up and read them anyway if my daughter has taken a fancy to them. I try to not pass judgment while I'm reading a book but I will often discuss my likes and dislikes after the fact. Take, for example, The Rainbow Fish. I personally don't like how preachy that book is. I don't like the message that in order to be liked you must give up all of what it is that makes you unique. I do, however, like fostering notions of sharing and consideration for others and so my daughter and I have talked about what we both did and didn't like about the book. She's a fan but I think her love of the book has more to do with the brightly coloured illustrations than the book's message.

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