Best Storytime Ever: Choosing the Right Books

This is it, what storytime is all about. The success or failure of the storytime hinges on…..the books you read! Ok, maybe it’s not quite as drastic as all that, but since books are the focus, often the element everything else revolves around, it is important that you choose wisely. How do you choose when there are so many books? And half of them are about bears? (Why are so many of them about bears?)

Here, in no certain order, gleaned over many years and, by my rough estimate 2,546 storytimes, my tips for choosing good books.

  1. Choose books that you like and are comfortable reading.

Don’t force yourself to read a book that you can’t stand. It makes for a painfully awkward experience for you as the reader. Let me tell you, you do not want to be sitting in front of a bunch of kids and parents working your way through a book you don’t like wishing it were over. You won’t be able to read that book fast enough! One little caveat: do step out of your comfort zone and try something different from your normal. Choose a book by an author you’ve never read, pick a book in a different format (Wordless books in storytime? Yes!) or a genre/type you don’t normally read. Try new things. That’s how you’ll find the books you love and the ones you don’t.

Recent favorites: Lion Lessons and Hooray for Hat!

2.  Choose books with great art. 

I feel like this one is obvious. And, of course, there are exceptions (Book With No Pictures). Are the pictures colorful, clear and easy to see? Is it easy to figure out what’s happening in the illustrations or is it cluttered and busy? Do the illustrations match the text? This is one kids will notice and ask questions about. It may confuse them. This can open the door for good discussion about why an illustrator made the choices they did; however, you don’t want kids being confused about a story every time you read.

Suggestions: Jane Cabrera, Oliver Jeffers, Marla Frazee

3. Choose books that rhyme or have a steady rhythm.

When you don’t know what else to do, when you’re stumped for themes or when you’re reading to a new group of children, books with rhythm and rhyme are the way to go. These are going to work for you 98.7% of the time guaranteed. Even if the story isn’t all that good kids still like a good rhyme. Read them before-hand so you know where the beats are, how it flows and where the rhyme breaks up.

Suggestions: 10 Little Ninjas, What’s an AppleRattletrap Car-an oldie but a goodie!

4. Choose books without large chunks of text. 

Generally, they don’t work for the storytime audience because they’re too long and you will lose them. If it works to shorten, feel free to do that. Nothing wrong with that. Otherwise, save them for the times you’re reading to school-aged kids who will understand and appreciate them.

5. Choose books that have an interactive element. 

That interactive element could come from the format as it does with Press Here by Hervé Tullet. It may come from the story itself. Is there a word or phrase repeated throughout the story? Is the book a song that you could sing? Are there action words of things you could do while reading? If the answer to any of those questions was yes, then you have an interactive story! Once you understand this, nearly every book can be interactive. Use it to your advantage.

Suggestions:  It’s a Tiger!Who Broke the Teapot?!, I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More

6. Choose books with an engaging story. 

Some books aren’t a story as much as they’re a recitation or a list of information. There have been books that I wanted to like but when I read them they flopped. What those books had in common was that they lacked a story. They’re non-stories. Story structure matters even in picture books. A good story has a beginning, middle and end. Something has to happen even in picture books! Kids are savvy.  While they probably can’t tell you all that, they will notice when those elements are missing and then you’re back to awkward read aloud. See Vincent Paints His House for an example of a non-story. I’ve read that book several times now and it flopped with every single group.

Suggestions: Nanette’s Baguette, Jon Klassen, Goatilocks and the Three Bears

7. Choose books that are well-suited to group reading. 

Some books are better suited to one-on-one readings like You Belong Here. Some work better in a group setting like Bark George. Read alouds combine a number of the elements mentioned above. Sometimes it’s hard to determine whether a book works as a read aloud. If you’re unsure, read it aloud to yourself or a coworker. Usually, if it doesn’t work as a read aloud that is going to become apparent right away.

Check out my Best of the Year list here. Read on and prosper, Friends!


How to Do the Best Storytime Ever!

Am I overselling it a bit? Eh, who cares! Go big or go home, right? Let’s rock out storytimes!

There are several elements that are common and essential to storytimes:




These are the basics, the big things that we’re all doing. Everything else is extra. Over the next few weeks, I’ll break each of these down and talk about them more in detail but for now, just the big picture.

I bet we’ve all observed a storytime that felt routine or even totally dullsville. Ugh, those are the worst! Put me out of my misery with a swiftly thrown shaker egg to the head! What is it about those storytimes that makes you want to poke your eyes out with the rhythm sticks? What they have in common is a low level of energy. As in none.

 bored alan rickman boring galaxy quest editingandlayout GIF

via Giphy

The first thing that every storytime needs is an enthusiastic leader. There are different levels of this from low-key cool to bouncing off the walls perky. I’m usually closer to the bouncing off the walls end of the spectrum. Either way, you have to some amount of energy. A storytime really is like a performance for which you have to be ‘on.’ The more enthusiastic you are the more enthusiastic your audience will be because upbeat, positive energy is contagious.

Another common pitfall is a total lack of awareness. A successful storytime needs a leader with keen awareness of the group. Have you ever watched someone do a readaloud that wasn’t going over well but they kept going despite having lost the attention of the audience? Awareness is recognizing the book isn’t going over well and not being afraid to stop and move on. Awareness of when to change directions or move on is crucial because once you’ve lost a storytime audience it can be really hard to get them back.

Recently, someone on the Storytime Underground Facebook group asked, “What’s the one thing about storytimes you wish you knew when starting out?” So here’s my last piece of advice. Don’t take yourself or your storytime too seriously. We want to promote literacy, diversity, STEM, play, school readiness and a host of other developmental skills at every storytime. Those are wonderful things to promote and aim for. But sometimes. Sometimes no matter how good your lesson/activities/crafts are, how prepared you are, the takeaway is just going to be that they had a good time at the library. And no one had a meltdown. When you work with small children this is its own success! This is ok. You kept a group of young children entertained for 30 whole minutes! You’re awesome!

But maybe you didn’t. Maybe there were meltdowns. Maybe the books you chose flopped. Maybe the craft was an epic fail. (It worked when I tried it the day before!) Maybe you forgot the words to a song you’ve sung 574 times. (This gal right here.) Maybe you went through a whole storytime with blue paint down the front of your white pants and didn’t know it. (Yep, that happened. No one said a word!) This is also ok. Because here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter. The kids won’t care and you and the parents will have a good side laugh together. And even the worst storytime ever will quickly be forgotten by other perfectly good storytimes (thank you very much!). You’re still awesome.

Now go show that storytime who’s boss.