Writer in Residence

What Makes a Good Children’s Book?

You’re buying a book for a new baby, or for your own restless 12-year-old. You know what books delighted you when you were a kid. But are those books actually good? And are they likely to please and captivate a child-reader today?

Children’s books have gone through a renaissance in the last thirty years. They are far superior, as works of art, to many books of the past. Even beloved favourites like Seuss and Munsch.

This handy checklist will help you evaluate whether that potential kids’ book purchase is worth the money.

  1. The story:  The best children’s books are more than cute stories. They are multi-layered, and bear repeated reading. They also work on a variety of levels, so adults and children at different ages can all find something to relate to in the story.  Try The Snow Knows, by Jennifer McGrath, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon (Nimbus) or Small World, by Ishta Mercurio, illustrated by Jen Corace (Abrams). 
  2. The voice: Do the words on the page just sit there, or do they sing? The classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert (Simon and Schuster) remains the standard for lively, fresh, and musical text.
  3.  The art: Of course it should be attractive. But art also carries a huge amount of information separate from the text. The best children’s books don’t have art that merely illustrates the action described in the words. It adds new layers of meaning, and complements the words in a way that elevates the entire package. Consider At the Pond, by Werner Zimmermann (Scholastic Canada) or The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Groundwood)
  4. Currency. Is the book up to date? Older books might contain outdated facts – especially in science nonfiction – or reflect antiquated ideas of gender or race.  Consider Out of the Ice, by Claire Eamer, illustrated by Drew Shannon (Kids Can Press), It includes brand new research that is not yet available anywhere else.  
  5. Accuracy: If the book is nonfiction, are there reputable, verifiable sources listed in the back matter? Look for key markers of quality like a glossary, index, reference and further reading list, and author’s note. Sources should also be current – less than five years old is the standard. A great example is The Boreal Forest: A Year in the World's Largest Land Biome by L.E. Carmichael, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon (Kids Can Press).
  6. Enjoyment Factor: Adults sometimes like to kick back with a bit of escapist fluff. So do kids. Not every book has to be educational or high-mindedly worthy. Goofy quizzes, like my own The Quiz Book Book about Me…and You! (Scholastic Canada)?  Guaranteed for hours of fun.  Joke books, wacky collections of facts, or fuzzy baby animal books, all get a thumbs up.
  7. Children’s Choice. The best way to select a book for a child is  by letting them choose it. It’s really that simple. Because a quality children’s book is one a child loves, and wants to read, over and over again.




The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

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Pirate Queen

The most powerful pirate in history was a woman who was born into poverty in Guangzhou, China, in the late 1700s. When pirates attacked her town and the captain took a liking to her, she saw a way out. Zheng Yi Sao agreed to marry him only if she got an equal share of his business. When her husband died six years later, she took command of the fleet.

Over the next decade, the pirate queen built a fleet of over 1,800 ships and 70,000 men. On land and sea, Zheng Yi Sao’s power rivaled the emperor himself. Time and again, her ships triumphed over the emperor’s ships.

When she was ready to retire, Zheng Yi Sao surrendered — on her own terms, of course. Even though there was a price on her head, she was able to negotiate her freedom, living in peace and prosperity for the rest of her days.

Zheng Yi Sao’s powerful story is told in lyrical prose by award-winning author Helaine Becker. Liz Wong’s colorful, engaging illustrations illuminate this inspiring woman in history.

An author’s note provides historical context and outlines the challenges of researching a figure about whom little is known.