Ask any librarian – or any kid, for that matter – and they’ll tell you: The best books for children are the ones that speak to the hearts and minds of young people and encourage them to read even more.
Besides the perennial favorites such as Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” Margaret Wise Brown’s “Good Night Moon” and many of the Dr. Seuss titles, the most popular books among the youngest kids in Spokane include stories about a pigeon, a boy named David and a chicken known as Minerva Louise.
Toddlers and preschoolers can’t get enough of Mo Willem’s “Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus” and others from the “Pigeon” series, according to area librarians. In addition to Walter Wick’s “I Spy” series, they’re also fond of Willem’s “Knuffle Bunny,” “Minerva Louise” and others from the series by Janet Morgan Stoeke, as well as “No David!” and other “David” books by Spokane native David Shannon.
Among older kids, some of the favorites involve magic and fantasy: “Ella Enchanted,” by Gail Carson Levine; “The Magic Tree House” series by Mary Pope Osborne and Rick Riordan’s adventure series about Percy Jackson, a boy who discovers that he is the son of Poseidon and that Greek mythological creatures and Olympians still exist.
“Popular books are the ones that kids dive into and can identify with,” said Sally Chilson, youth services coordinator for Spokane Public Library. “They engage them by not talking down to kids and by using language that feels good when you read it out loud and hear it.”
Little children love books that are visually stimulating, according to the librarians. But they also enjoy books with rhymes. In fact, their ability to pick up the different sounds also enables them to be more adept than adults at learning different languages, experts say.
Often, it’s the way an adult reads a particular story to a child that establishes the connection, said Mary Ellen Braks, youth services supervisor for the Spokane County Library District. Or maybe the book is about dinosaurs, trains or a subject that the child adores.
“Sometimes, you never know what’s going to strike their fancy,” said Braks, who’s also a mother of three. “Children’s literature has expanded so much – there are so many fun things out there.”
To help encourage and nurture a love of reading among youths, libraries throughout the area have organized a summer reading program that includes prizes, workshops, concerts and other fun events. Last year, 3,061 youths completed the program at the Spokane County Library District and another 2,920 did the same at Spokane Public Library. Each participant read at least 15 books during the summer. At the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, several hundred children are expected to take part in this year’s summer reading program and carnival, according to David Townsend, the library communications coordinator.
The summer reading program at the libraries gives parents, grandparents and other adults a chance to engage children in reading, according to librarians. It also encourages families to learn more about the thousands of wonderful books and learning opportunities that are available at the libraries.
Children should read for at least 20 minutes a day, according to librarians and other experts. It’s especially critical for older kids and also when school isn’t in session, said Braks.
“When summer starts, that 20 minutes a day is very important because it keeps their reading skills up,” she said. “If you can keep them reading over the summer, their skills don’t backslide and they can at least stay at the same level.”
To instill a love of reading among the youngest kids, Braks and other librarians advise parents to let their children pick out the books they want while also choosing a few that catch their own interest and would enjoy reading to their kids out loud.
“Pick the books that you really like and you connect with because that enjoyment is going to come through and the kids are going to catch on to that,” Braks said.
In addition, parents might have to read a particular book hundreds, if not thousands of times, for a child, so it always helps to have a book that both parties enjoy, said the librarians.
They also suggest following a child’s cues. If your kids are fascinated with farm animals or trucks or a particular subject, help them find books that motivate them to read. Eventually, children branch out to other subjects, they said.
Braks also advised parents to allow kids to read all kinds of books, even some at a lower grade level if that’s what their child wants to do. While it’s important to keep their skills up, she said, the books that they enjoy reading are ultimately the ones that help continue the habit.
“Kids know what they love,” said Braks. “As adults, we can say a certain book is great from a literary standpoint, but when it comes down to it, what the child loves is what keeps them reading.”
Some families find it helpful to get the expertise of a librarian. These professionals not only take the time to visit with children to learn about their interests; they’ve also read all the best books for kids and can give recommendations, said Chilson. What works for one family may not necessarily work for another, she said.
Kids also can benefit by participating at the children’s story times offered at most of the libraries. During the 20- to 30-minute sessions, there are some children who sit still and listen, hanging on to every word. But some kids like to move and get busy. “Even though they’re moving around doesn’t mean they’re not listening to you or taking it all it in,” Braks explained. “They’ll sit when they’re ready to sit.”
Librarians and other volunteers also are trained to incorporate all the early learning skills while reading aloud during children’s story times, said Braks.
When choosing books and reading them out loud to toddlers and preschoolers, Braks and others try as much as possible to integrate the six skills of literacy: print motivation (interest and enjoyment of books); phonological enjoyment (the ability to hear and play with rhymes, sounds and words); vocabulary; narrative skills; print awareness; and recognition of letters.
Parents can do this at home by reading to kids before bedtime, experts advise. Reading every night slows things down, they said, and creates a routine. After a while, parents find that they have to limit the number of books because their children want to keep reading instead of going to bed, Braks said.
Reading a book together also can be the “jumping off point” for discussions about a wide range of topics, including difficult issues that affect children, Chilson said.
When selecting picture books for the library, Chilson and others regularly check reviews from professional journals. They pay attention to the award-winners as well as books that kids would appreciate in the story-time setting. Chilson said she also keeps an eye out for books that would go over well in Spokane. For instance, a book set in Maine may not have the same appeal in the Inland Northwest, she said, but anything by Spokane author Chris Crutcher “flies off the shelves.”
“The only way to become a better reader is to read,” said Chilson. “Helping a child become a fluent reader is one of the best gifts we can give them.”