While I love doling out kids’ book recommendations to other parents, the sad fact is – my knowledge of children’s literature is woefully finite. If we’re talking about any of the books in our home library or our local library favorites, I can puff my chest out and throw out suggestions like nobody’s business. But, if a parent or friend needs a recommendation for a book that lies outside of my home library wheelhouse, I need help. And, since there are thousands upon THOUSANDS of kids’ books that never make it into our extended library circle (despite my best efforts), I find myself looking for help with reading suggestions all the time.
As such, I thought it might be helpful if I listed some of the places I go when I’m looking for really great book suggestions. Some of these resources are fantastic at making themed recommendations – i.e. the best books for Spring, Easter, Arbor Day, etc. – and some are just excellent at profiling the coolest new children and young adult titles that totally should be on your radar. So, if you want to be a fake kids’ book expert like I am, here are five superior resources that will really make you sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Anybody who loves literature should have EarlyWord.com bookmarked and they should check it daily. It’s a site designed for collection development librarians – a.k.a. the people at your local library who decide what books they should buy for your community. The founders of EarlyWord keep a very keen eye on what’s being published by all of the major publishers, specifically so they can let librarians know what books they should be keeping an eye on as well. They alert librarians about hot new titles, they keep track of literary awards, they profile books that have been mentioned on TV or that have been turned into movies lately – all because they know that those are the books that patrons will be asking about at their local libraries soon.
EarlyWord.com has a Kids’ Section that’s extremely worth checking out on a weekly basis. They have a recurring feature called “Kids New Title Radar” where they profile the most significant new kids’ books coming out every week. Their kids’ section collect kids’ book trailers, they suggest reading lists for major holidays and events – it’s an amazing resource. And, if you check out the right-hand sidebar of the site, you can find a treasure trove of valuable information, ranging from a calendar of upcoming book-to-film adaptations to a downloadable Excel list that collects every kids’ book that made it onto a major “best books” list in 2012. This is easily one of my favorite sites on the web.
2. The Books on Top of the Shelves in the Kids’ Section at Your Local Library
I’m not going to point out that your local youth librarian is a great resource for reading recommendations because…well, duh. That’s their job. If you’re struggling to find really good books for your kids and you haven’t asked your local librarian for help yet, you’re missing out. So, while the importance of kids’ librarians may be obvious (to me, at least), some of the things they do for you on a regular basis may not be. For example, when you walk into the children’s section of most libraries, you’ll see a variety of books prominently displayed either on top of the shelves or arraigned on a rack at the end of the shelves. Again, this may be obvious, but… you know they’re there for a reason, right?
All of those “featured books” aren’t there to add a splash of color to the shelves. They’ve been placed there ON PURPOSE by the librarians. This is how they communicate their personal reading suggestions or how they highlight new, exciting titles that the library has just acquired. Whenever I enter the children’s section at our library, the very first thing I do is a circuit around the shelves to see what the librarians are suggesting this week. Thanks to the simple act of balancing a book on top of a shelf, I have “discovered” so many spectacular books that never would’ve been on my radar before. So, the next time you’re at the library, be sure to keep your eyes on the shelves.
Flashlight Worthy Books is a very cool website that specializes in “handpicked book recommendations on hundreds of topics.” The key word there is “handpicked.” There are several recommendation engine sites that suggest books based on machine-aided indexing. Those websites say, “If you liked this zombie comedy book, here are other books that also have the tag ‘zombie’ and ‘comedy’ associated with them.” This is, at best, an extremely iffy way to recommend a book. Those auto-matches aren’t being made by people who’ve actually read those books – they’re being made by metadata. And, even though metadata can be extremely useful, it can’t tell the subtle differences between a good book and a bad book. But the folks at Flashlight Worthy Books can.
The site hosts 437 hand-crafted book lists, and there’s a “Children’s Books” section that has a really excellent selection of themed reading lists for kids. You can find suggested reading lists like Books for an Adventurous Childhood; St. Patrick’s Day Books for the Kiddies; Picture Books with Fun (and Sometimes Friendly) Monsters; Great Books About People (and a Very Special Dolphin) with Disabilities; Transcending Differences: Interspecies Friendships in Children’s Books; Books to Inspire Book-Loving Boys; and lots more – and they’re all collected and annotated by living, breathing PEOPLE who have actually read the books themselves. There are over 80 kids-focused reading lists on Flashlight Worthy Books, so it has a very nice variety of material to choose from. If you want to find books good enough to inspire your kids to stay up late reading them under the covers with a flashlight, this is the place to go.
4. The Editors’ Picks Section of Amazon (and Nowhere Else on Amazon)
Amazon is a very convenient and often very flawed website, particularly when it comes to book recommendations. I particularly take issue with the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” section that accompanies every book page on the site. Why? Because NONE of those recommendations actually come from a human being. They come from an algorithm that looks at buying patterns and indexing and very technical details that almost never result in well-thought-out book suggestions. OK, sometimes the algorithm lands on a few decent recommendations, but it’s incredibly hit and miss, so you’re always taking a big chance when you listen to the other “Customers Who Bought This.”
However, that being said, there are a lot of really smart, book-loving people who work at Amazon and, when they recommend a book, that recommendation has some weight behind it. That’s why, when I’m looking for a book, I ignore all of the “Customers Who Bought” and “Similar Items by Category” suggestions and immediately look around for the Editors’ Picks. Oddly, those sections are sometimes hard to find on the site, even though, in my opinion, they deliver the most value. Here’s a link to the “Best Books for Children and Teens: Editor’s Favorite New Releases” section that, in my opinion, offers some great suggestions and really shows the value-add when Amazon’s editors curate their own content. I wish Amazon would put more effort into beefing up their hand-picked book recommendations because they seriously put the algorithm to shame.
5. Other Parents
This may seem as obvious as “Ask a librarian,” but talking to other adults about kids’ books is not always the easiest thing to do. Maybe all your grown-up friends don’t have kids. Or maybe they do, but they’re completely apathetic about their kids’ reading habits. Or maybe they’re big readers, but they have completely different values or a completely different sense of aesthetics than you do. It’s not enough to just ask an adult to recommend a kids’ book. First, you have to find the RIGHT adults to ask.
If you have a local group of dads and moms that you interact with often, start with them. You might just find out that the parents you see every day are having their kids read books that your family has never even heard of. If you don’t have a local support group you can ask in person, go online and look for a parenting site that feels like a good fit for you. Often, these sites will have a message-board or forum where you can post a call for recommendations or you can even email the site and ask their editors for book suggestions directly. Even if it isn’t a book-focused site, they may be able to direct you to another site or one of their writers who can point you in some really interesting directions. The hard part is asking others for help, but what you can potentially get in return makes the experience totally worth it.
I hope you find these resources valuable. If you know of other places where you’ve been able to find excellent kids’ book suggestions, please post them in the comments section below. (See? This is me asking for help. Now make with the recommendations!)