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How to Choose Great Storytime Books

by Kathy Stewart

*This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

Pulling off storytime is no mean feat -- there are many variables involved.  Listeners’ varying abilities, levels of participation, and the library’s physical space all contribute to how the experience unfolds.

While many factors aren’t always controllable, book choice is! There are key components to look for when selecting books that will help make the storytime experience special for all involved.

These 10 recently published titles for ages 3-5 are strong storytime choices.

Key components to consider

Universal themes/experiences. No matter a child’s background, books with universal themes (sharing, new sibling, bedtime, being scared of the dark, trucks/trains) help to bridge divides and provide conversation-starters.

Strong story arc. Even for the very young, choose books that have a beginning, middle, and end to entice interest and build children’s listening ability.

Pacing/level of suspense. Different situations and age levels call for different types of pacing. Quiet books might be appropriate for some children while other listeners might prefer a quick pace and/or building story tension.

Art that complements the language. Expose children to a variety of art styles that work in tandem with language to help tell the story. Older children will also enjoy illustrations that humorously belie the story's action.

Clearly visible art. Storytime books with bold, vibrant art easily seen from a distance contribute to a quality listening experience for kids.

Participatory stories. Lift-the-flap, inventive die-cuts, spacing that builds tension before a page turn, and stories that invite reader participation: all of these aspects amp up the storytime fun factor.

Humor.  There are plenty of storytime situations in which crowd size and the age level of the attendees is uncertain or unexpected. Repeat after me: funny stories always work!

Special sauce. Your enthusiasm will be contagious; use others’ suggestions as guidelines but you, the reader, will have the best success with sharing the types of books that you love.  (I adore funny books with funny sounds. Two of my personal favorites: Bark, George and Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore.)

10 Recently Published Storytime Contenders

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson

With a strong story arc (including authentic, believable dialogue), bright, compelling art, and characters from a diverse variety of backgrounds, this beautifully simple story of a boy and his nana is set against a backdrop of city life and people they encounter as they journey via bus down Market Street.

Key components: Diverse setting and characters; universal themes


Naptime, written and illustrated  by Iris De Mouy

De Mouy uses a variety of jungle animals to communicate the universal dislike of naps. Listeners will chortle over the familiar anti-nap feelings expressed by each animal, through both language and vividly colored, wonderfully expressive drawings.  Hilarity ensues when a young girl shows up and schools the group, "Just close one eye…"

Key components:  universal dislike of naps; colorful, easily-seen art, expressive illustrations

Oh, No! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

This rollicking story infused with gentle humor jumps right in, at the endpapers, when a frog (with a tiger in hot pursuit) falls into a hole.  The parade of animals who happen by and, you guessed it -- fall into the hole -- provide sounds and a repeating refrain, fun for both reader and listener.  Eric Rohmann’s distinctive, soft-hued art clearly conveys the different sizes/perspectives/dilemmas of each animal as the story progresses.  Note: the story wraps ups satisfactorily with no animals harmed!

Key components:  participatory nature of story; easily-seen art

It’s an Orange Aardvark, written and illustrated by Michael Hall

Using innovative die-cut pages with arresting primary color art, this storytime winner will engage listeners and further pull them into the gently humorous, cumulative story about carpenter ants concerned about what’s making the noise outside of the safe confines of their tree stump.

Key components:  building tension, bright, easily-seen art; unexpected ending

Shh! We Have a Plan, written and illustrated by Chris Haughton

Through strong graphic art reminiscent of Tomi Ungerer, this deceptively simple story works on a number of levels, making it an appealing choice for repeat readings.  Three hunters and a much-smaller sidekick spot a bird, and think they have a plan to catch it. But do they? A repeating refrain will entice participation while the superb pacing builds tension.

Key components:  strong, graphic art; simple; participatory, humor

Me First, written and illustrated by Max Kornell

Preschoolers with siblings will identify with story of Hal and Martha, donkey siblings who use every opportunity to outdo each other. Earthy colors coupled with heavy outlines makes the true-to-life details of their endless competing over the course of a day clearly visible. The suspense heightens when they take a new path home and are forced to work together.

Key components:  Universal theme; building tension

Say Hello Like This! written and illustrated by Mary Murphy

Bright art coupled with familiar animals that make sounds = a satisfying storytime experience. The pacing is superb for the very young; behind the flaps, each successive animal shares its particular hello.  For those not comfortable with children lifting the flaps, the bright, heavily outlined illustrations will be  easily seen by a group.

Key components:  Participatory story, animal sounds, fun ending

Supertruck, written and illustrated by Stephen Savage

Savage sets the stage by depicting colorful trucks going about their respective truck business, fighting fires and fixing power in the big city. Then, a crisis hits: blizzard! An unassuming garbage truck turns superhero in this sweet, winning story sure to be a storytime favorite.

Key components: Interesting approach to an already fun subject; complete, satisfying story arc

I Got the Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison 

Short, snappy prose captures a young girl’s walk through her city neighborhood, conveying the rhythm she absorbs through the sights, smells, and sounds all around her. Vibrantly colored, exuberant illustrations depicting people of all colors jump from the page and listeners will likely be unable to resist acting out the movements presented.

Key components:  child's point of view; participatory story, diverse characters

Early Bird, written and illustrated by Toni Yuly

How wonderful when books for the very young feature a story arc and a surprise ending! Early Bird shares the story of a bird who likes to wake up early and get on with her day. Simple language presents concepts (up, across, over, under) that are perfectly complemented by bright, clearly-seen art, and the plot twist at the end will delight listeners.

Key components:  fun presentation of concepts; surprise ending


Remember that using NOT to exclude aspects of books from storytime can be helpful. For storytime selections with easily visible art minus the "Ew!" factor, try this search string in the NoveList search bar:

RV Storytime AND (AP "Big and bold" OR AP Noisy) NOT AP Gross AND RL 8

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Kathy Stewart, Juvenile Content Specialist at NoveList, enjoyed many years of storytime as a children's librarian and wouldn't hesitate to sing "Herman the Worm" at a social gathering.