Secrets to Selecting High-quality Storytime Books

Young child perusing books on a bookshelf.
Young child perusing books on a bookshelf.

The best storytimes offer a variety of developmentally appropriate activities, including music, movement, play, and arts and crafts, that allow very young children multiple ways to interact and build their early language skills. Stories are still at the heart of storytime, though. Thoughtfully selecting and sharing high-quality read-aloud books and stories with children and their caregivers contributes to early learning, encourages reading at home, and creates a lifelong love of reading.

But with countless classic tales and tens of thousands of new children’s books published each year, selecting books for storytime can seem overwhelming. Many librarians struggle to separate the wheat from the chaff in order to choose high-quality, engaging, developmentally appropriate books for storytime (as is evident from the number of questions on Facebook groups, e-mail lists and Twitter feeds).

Here are some helpful hints for selecting successful storytime books:

  • Choose books that you enjoy reading. Your enthusiasm for the books will show in your face and your voice and will capture the children’s attention. By reading books that you enjoy, you will also model for children and parents that reading is fun, which will increase the likelihood that families will continue coming to storytime and will share books at home.
  • Share books that encourage children to participate during the storytelling, by singing, making animal noises, shouting repeated words or phrases, or clapping to the rhythm (babies can be bounced on their caregiver’s lap). Participation builds oral language skills, develops pattern recognition, and increases children’s confidence in their literacy skills. Hand motions, such as clapping, waving or fingerplays, build the motor skills needed for writing.
  • Look for books that use playful language, such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhymes, rhythm, tongue twisters and so on. Babies’ ears are particularly sensitive to the rhythmic sounds of language; even though babies won’t understand the words, they’ll be engaged with the sounds, which will help develop their attention span and give them the building blocks for later language development. Playful language can help toddlers and preschoolers develop auditory discrimination and recognize language patterns. For all ages, playful language makes reading more fun, which encourages children and caregivers to read more at home.
  • Offer a variety of book genres and forms, including songs, rhymes, poems, traditional tales, nonfiction books, photographic art and wordless picture books. Not only will this help keep storytime fresh and interesting, but exposing preschoolers to many different types of text and narrative structures will help prepare them for the types of reading and writing they will need to do in school.
  • Pick subjects that will be familiar to children, such families, animals and daily routines. Young children will be most attentive to stories that reflect their lives.
  • But also share diverse books. Show children with different ethnic backgrounds or abilities. Even if you don’t have diversity among your storytime attendees, children of all ages benefit from seeing diverse faces and learning about experiences that are different than their own.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat a favorite book. Children love hearing the same story over and over again, and the repetition of familiar stories helps build literacy skills. If you don’t want to read the exact same book, try sharing different versions of a familiar tale, such as Cinderella stories from around the world.

In addition, the following developmentally appropriate guidelines can help ensure that your storytime meets the needs of the children and their caretakers.

Birth–24 months

  • Select books with minimal text — no more than 1–2 lines of text per page. You may want to select books with just one word per page or even just images, because you are primarily modeling interaction for the caregivers.
  • Use books with bright primary contrasts and definite contrasts between dark and light to help baby’s developing vision. Books with photographs are a good choice for this age group.

2–3 Years

  • Select books with no more than 1–2 sentences per page, as toddlers have a limited attention span.
  • Books that allow participation and movement are ideal for this wiggle-filled age group.
  • Continue using board books. The bright colors will engage the children, and the thick pages are easier for them to manipulate.

4–5 Years

  • Begin introducing longer, more complex books. The text can have several sentences on each page, and the story can include more detail and description.
  • Select books that allow for participation and conversation. Allowing preschoolers to respond to questions and prompts gives them the opportunity to practice their language skills and helps develop such skills as turn taking, attentive listening and creativity, which are important for language development and school readiness.

Children of all ages will benefit from any exposure to books and storytelling. By thoughtfully selecting enjoyable, high-quality, developmentally appropriate books, you can help children develop early literacy skills while instilling a love of reading in children and families.

Adapted from The Very Ready Reading Program by Sue McCleaf Nespeca and Dr. Pam Schiller.




Lisa Bintrim

Lisa Bintrim

Lisa Bintrim, Ph.D., is the former editor of LibrarySparks magazine, UpstartBooks and The Very Ready Reading Program. In this role, she focused on identifying and sharing innovative, engaging programs and resources for school and public libraries.