By: Bethany Hughes
As a teacher, with almost a decade of early childhood and elementary classroom experience, I have spent hundreds of dollars and hours buying, reading, planning lessons around, and researching children’s books. My classroom library is filled with almost 700 titles spanning the vast canyon of storytelling.
I consider myself a true connoisseur of children’s literature and yet, I do not buy every cute or catchy book I see on Scholastic or Amazon.
Despite what you might think, it’s not a flashy cover, fun illustration style, or even a silly character that sells a book to a teacher.
While those attributes can move your book off of shelves, I consider the following five questions before I click “add to cart.”
5 questions I ask when buying books for my classroom library:
1. What reading skills can I use this book to teach?
I think I speak for every teacher when I say that our days are jam-packed with learning standards, assessments, assignments, and everything in between. In order to effectively use the precious minutes we have with students, everything must be carefully thought out, all the way down to the books we read.
Although I do find a few minutes during our demanding day to model reading for pleasure to my students, the bulk of the stories I share have an academic purpose.
So, while shopping for a new book for my classroom library, I choose texts with:
Strong story elements. A clear plot, obvious main character(s), and an easy to identify setting. This allows my students to recognize the most important parts of the story with minimal prompting or guidance.
A clear problem and solution or cause and effect.
Opportunities for my students to make predictions or inferences, give their opinions, connect with the story, and demonstrate their comprehension of the text.
Most books don’t check every single one of these boxes, and that’s okay! But I chose those that I can use for several skills.
2. What is the vocabulary level of the book? What new vocabulary does the book use?
Imagine listening to a story and not knowing what half of the words mean. You wouldn’t get much enjoyment (or learning!) out of that experience, would you?
As adults, we often forget that children do not have the same level of understanding of language that we do. While young readers are constantly adding to their vocabulary, it is important to keep in mind that there will be gaps in understanding.
While this is unavoidable, I choose books that my students will likely understand the meaning of 90% of the words within the text. I use the other 10% to select one or two more advanced words from to explore before we read. This ratio allows my students to not only enjoy the story, but also comprehend what is being told, all while adding some new words to their own vocabulary.
My goal as a teacher is for my students to never be so bogged down in deciphering unfamiliar terms, that they get nothing out of the reading experience.
3. Does this book fit into my classroom library?
As I said previously, I have hundreds of books in my classroom library and limited storage space, so being organized is necessary. My library is organized into about 50 themes, and while they are broad, covering topics like oceans, farming, holidays, and seasons, not every book will fit somewhere.
While niche books are great, teachers must be selective due to storage limitations. So, I only choose books that will have a home in my classroom.
4. Does this book offer any cross-curricular learning opportunities?
While using the same book for more than one lesson might sound meaningless to a non-teacher, it is common within a classroom. I often choose books specifically for their flexibility. Texts that have science, math, social studies, or social emotional themes, in additional to the qualities listed in number one, are must-buys for this teacher!
A word of caution, though. Don’t be so quick to fall into the belief that every animal or outer space book means a good science lesson is just waiting within the pages.
Likewise, just because a main character might spend money or mention a specific time does not make a book about math. Keep in mind that a book containing science, social studies, or math elements does not automatically mean it is cross-curricular.
In fact, one of my favorite science lessons comes from a book not marketed as being a science text!
“Pumpkin Jack” by Will Hubbell is a story about a boy who must throw out his beloved Jack-o-lantern after Halloween has come and gone. Rather than heading to the dumpster, the boy takes his pumpkin to the garden, where it rots. The story subtly moves through the lifecycle of a pumpkin as Jack regrows the following year.
After reading the story, and discussing it for its literacy value of rich vocabulary, prediction (what will happen to Jack in the garden?), and story elements, my students and I carve a pumpkin together, just like Jack. We study the stages of the pumpkin lifecycle, and then encase our pumpkin in the “garden” (a large, clear container with dirt inside) to monitor the decomposition and sprouting over several months.
This book is an excellent example of what teachers look for in cross-curricular texts—exceptional literary qualities AND a secondary subject.
5. How busy are the illustrations?
There is no denying that rich illustrations with vibrant and intricate details are wonderful ways to help tell a story. However, when I shop for a new book, I don’t envision it being read while curled up in bed or snuggled on the couch, where the illustrations are easily viewed, analyzed, and revisited.
My students are often a few feet away from a book as I am reading it, so I must consider how illustrations will be seen from a distance. Is the picture clear enough for them to see from their seat? Will they miss out on important information that is conveyed in the illustration?
I look for books with a good balance of details and “big” pictures so my students who sit furthest away from me are still getting a meaningful experience out of the story.
The Bottom Line
Whether you are just beginning your journey to becoming a published author or you have several successful titles in bookstores, consider viewing your work through the lens of a teacher.
While we are always hunting for new and engaging texts to add to our ever-expanding classroom libraries, teachers must consider lessons and learning opportunities before making the purchase.
About The Author:
Bethany Hughes is a first grade teacher in Southwest Missouri. She has dedicated her career to cultivating her students’ love of literature through storybooks, and in 2024, will fulfill a lifelong dream by publishing her first children’s book.