5 Favorite Children's Book Authors Share Their Best Strategies for Raising Readers

Author Olivia Cole gathers some of your kids' favorite authors—who are also parents—to spill their bests tips and tricks for choosing children's books for their own little readers.

Mother Reading to Children
Photo: Sean De Burca | Getty

About 90 percent of parenthood is making things up as you go along. And when your other day job outside parenting is writing novels, well, you never quite feel like an expert in anything. The child in both scenarios changes too significantly and too frequently! What works one year is pathetic to attempt the next. I talked to a few other authors who felt the same way, and though we all have different ages of kids with different needs, we all agreed: we can't always instill a love of vegetables or manners, but we feel good about how we've instilled a love of books and reading. We got together to chat about how we do the one thing we feel like we're good at—here's hoping the books can back us up on everything else we're trying to teach our kids.

Eric Smith: 'Find books that make them curious'

Eric Smith
Eric Smith

Eric Smith is a literary agent who sometimes writes his own books, and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and son. Recent titles include Don't Read the Comments, You Can Go Your Own Way, and the anthology Battle of the Bands, co-edited with Lauren Gibaldi. Once upon a time he was a theater kid, and even appeared on Broadway for a season, and that love of arts inspired him to keep creating. He loves books, movies, and pop punk, but loves his kid more.

What kind of reader do you have?
I'd say we have a curious reader. Our son is 4 and autistic, and when it comes to what reading looks like, I try my best to focus on whatever he's focusing on the most. Books that are bright and colorful, full of animals and pictures... those tend to grab him and provide us with the most one-on-one time. Pointing out animals and objects and shapes, giving him an opportunity to try out new words and see how they feel. Reading time, more often than not, is when he decides it's reading time. And I adore those moments.

Do you curate everything your child reads?
To say we have a large assortment of books is a bit of an understatement. We've been collecting picture books for a while now, and at this point, I try to pick up more of what he gravitates the most to. He's recently become absolutely smitten with Charlie Brown, so we've picked up a few Peanuts picture books. Same with the television show Bluey. He tends to carry those books around the most.

Do you have a strategy when it comes to the books you choose for your child?
My wife and I try to find books that tell social stories, and explain that it's okay to react or emote in certain ways. He engages with the world differently than neurotypical folks, and I want him to know that's okay. I really love Jessie Sima's work, in particular Not Quite Narwhal, and how often that theme is a core focus.

I also plan a little for the future. He might be 4 right now, but one day he'll be in middle school. And one day, I want him reading books that he'll see himself in. I've been collecting a middle grade library for him over the years. It's one of the perks of being an author, you know? You get to know so many wonderful writers who create such beautiful works. There are middle grade books stocking up on my shelf by writers like Zoraida Córdova, Torrey Maldonado, Claribel Ortega, Elana K. Arnold, Aisha Saeed, Daniel Jose Older, Brandy Colbert... I want those books ready there, for when he's ready for them.

What books do you think are essential for your reader?
Stories that make him curious and teach him about the world, but also that just bring him joy. Sometimes there's this urge to focus on books as learning material, this book is going to teach my kid to say this or that, recognize here or there. But I think it's essential to recognize books, whether they're picture books or chapter books or novels, as conduits for joy. And representation is hugely important. We actively look for books with Black children and disabled children, just like him. It's essential for me to have him experience mirrors in the books he engages with.

Nic Stone: 'All reading is good reading'

Nic Stone
Nic Stone

Mom of two Nic Stone is more of a child than her children are and like Peter Pan—which she has read to them—refuses to grow up. She's also the New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin, Clean Getaway, and more.

What kind of readers do you have?
I have two very different readers: one started at 2-and-a-half, is 9 now, and reads voraciously—with a preference for graphic novels at this point—and the other who will soon be 6, is still learning how to decode words, and prefers audiobooks.

Do you curate everything your children read? With the 9-year-old, not at all. He chooses what he reads and if he doesn't like something, he puts it down and chooses something else. His fourth grade reading teacher does class read-alouds and then the students pick their free-read books. It's awesome.

It's a little trickier with the little one because he's not reading on his own yet. So I definitely do more curating with him. Though he does get to pick the books he wants when we go book shopping.

Do you have a strategy when it comes to the books you choose for your children?
To me, all reading is good reading. If the kindergartner would prefer to ear-read, we turn on the audiobook of his choosing. If the 9-year-old only wants to read picture books for a bit, that's fine, too. For us, the kids are far more interested in the books and stories they engage with if they get to choose them.

The one area where I am fairly diligent is with representation. Making sure they have access to book selections that have people like them as the main character as well as books with people from backgrounds far different from theirs so they can learn about others and will be equipped to enjoy the beauty and variety of human beings in the world around them.

What books do you think are essential for your reader?
Essential is a strong word to me. There are certainly books I would like for them to read at some point or another—Jason Reynolds' Ghost and Kwame Mbalia's Tristan Strong books come to mind—but as far as I'm concerned, my job is:
1. Set an example by reading in front of them
2. Expose them to story in multiple forms
3. Make sure they have access to a variety of books so they can decide their essential books for themselves.

Ashley Woodfolk: 'I try to follow his interests'

Ashley Woodfolk
Ashley Woodfolk

Ashley Woodfolk isn't like a regular mom. She's a cool mom. Which just means she lives in Brooklyn and her baby likes kombucha. She's the author of several YA novels, including Nothing Burns As Bright As You, out April 2022.

What kind of reader do you have?
A repetitive one! My kid is 2-and-a-half, extremely opinionated, and loves the familiar. It's sometimes a struggle to introduce new books into his rotation, but I am usually successful if I just start reading a book aloud while he's snacking or when I ask if I can pick the next book we read instead of him. "Mama would like a turn." Sometimes I'm still met with a resounding "No!" But sometimes it works. Right now, he's really into books about vehicles, holidays, and weather. Also anything about poop because we're potty training. (God help us.)

Do you curate everything your child reads?
For now I do. I, of course, am not in his daycare classroom dictating what is read there, but with the books I buy and the books we check out from the library, I read them first. The main thing that will always be important to me is that he has books featuring racially diverse characters, and we have lots of books where the characters are Black and/or Asian (I am Black American and my husband is Chinese American, so my son is biracial). I like his books to help with social-emotional learning and development because my little guy is super sensitive, and I want him to always be comfortable feeling his feelings. And I, of course, love books that have fun rhythms and are enjoyable to read aloud—my kid loves music, so books with rhythmic or rhyming text really appeal to him.

Do you have a strategy when it comes to the books you choose for your child?
I try to follow his interests. If he's asking lots of questions about the seasons, or seems especially interested in the moon that week, I try to find books on those topics. Cars and trucks are always a win with him, so that is my go-to topic if I'm struggling with finding something new for him to read. If there's a specific concept he seems to be on the cusp of grasping, I'll try to find a book that features that. For instance, last week he seemed to be beginning to understand what opposites were, so I looked for a book that showed some basic opposites and then we talked about other ones that weren't featured in the book.

What books do you think are essential for your reader?
Books that highlight cultural customs/history, like Dim Sum for Everyone and Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin, or Jazz on a Saturday Night by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon. Books with beautifully illustrated people of color, like Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, and anything by Vashti Harrison or Grace Byers. Books that show all kinds of families, like Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle by Nina LaCour, and Mixed Me by Taye Diggs. Classics like The Snowy Day, Corduroy, and Where The Wild Things Are. Books about kindness and emotion, like My Heart by Corinna Luyken, and Words to Make a Friend by Donna Jo Napoli.

Kwame Mbalia: 'We encourage them to read what they like'

Kwame Mbalia
Kwame Mbalia

A father of four, Kwame Mbalia loves telling stories and blowing bubbles and he just ran out of bubblegum. He's the New York Times bestselling author of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.

What kind of readers do you have?
All of them. A voracious reader, a reluctant reader, and a I'm-just-starting-to-read-on-my-own reader. Plus, a toddler who might read a book or might chew it, depends on the morning.

Do you curate everything your children read?
No. It's impossible. The internet exists. Friends exist. The more we try to legislate what can be read, the more we push them to not share what they're reading, if they want to read at all. I encourage reading and I encourage them to share what they're reading. I might want to read it, too! Books are the one line item in the household budget that doesn't have a number beside it. We go to the bookstore and it's like open season on literature. (Is that an apt analogy? Hmm.) We have a monthly manga club in our house, we support book fairs, and—most importantly—we encourage them to read what they like.

Do you have a strategy when it comes to the books you choose for your children?
Strategy? In this economy? If I see something I know they've expressed interest in, or maybe they've read something similar in the past, I'll pick the book up. If it seems funny to me, an adult with the humor of a middle schooler, I'll pick it up because they might find it funny, too. If the cover/story/author radiates Black culture/love/appreciation, I'll definitely pick it up. If a bookseller or librarian, those unsung heroes of the literary trenches, recommends something that's flying off the shelves or even a hidden gem, I'll pick it up. And you know what? I'll even ask my children what books they want to read.

What books do you think are essential for your reader?
Books on Black history and African diasporic history. Books with shining brown faces on the cover. Books celebrating diversity and empathy. Books that my children show an interest in. Also, anything by Olivia Cole and Ashley Woodfolk and Nic Stone and Eric Smith and Jacqueline Woodson and Jason Reynolds.

Olivia Cole: 'Librarians are superheroes'

Olivia Cole
Olivia Cole

Olivia Cole has worked almost every job you can think of but has always been a writer. Her new favorite job is being a mother. Her books span from picture books to adult. Her latest book, The Truth About White Lies, is on shelves this month.

What kind of reader do you have?
Our daughter is 4 and a voracious reader. She learned to read before she was 3 and ever since it's been sort of a mad scramble to stay a step ahead of her abilities. She processes quickly, so she'll roar through a book (impatiently talking through it afterwards when I ask) before tearing into the next. She reads everything. Fiction, nonfiction, fact books. Anything.

Do you curate everything your child reads?
Yes and no. Right now, I choose her books for the most part, but pre-reading all of them is impossible at this point. At the library, I will try to grab a few and get her set up at a table and then zoom through the aisles grabbing books to take home, flipping through as much as I can for content. It's more difficult now that she's moved on to chapter books and short novels. But this is why librarians are superheroes—I can say, for example, "I need books with Black girls going on adventures!" and they are usually able to make great recommendations.

Do you have a strategy when it comes to the books you choose for your child?
Our strategy revolves around the ultimate goal of building our daughter's sense of self and confidence, which for her means her book collection at home consists entirely of Black characters and their families. Publishing has come a long way in terms of representation and diversity, but the vast majority of children's books feature white children, and we insist on raising our daughter to feel whole, seen, and heard.

It's a tricky task, especially when so many of the books featuring Black characters are historical and focus on explaining slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. There is a need for those books, of course, but what kind of experience are Black children having with literature as a mirror when white kids in books are riding horses and flying kites while Black kids are tasked with reckoning with history over and over again?

We don't want our daughter to only see characters that look like her in the context of pain and trauma. Again, it's tricky to navigate, because even in "fun" books where the main character is Black, another annoying thing I've noticed—both in children's books and children's media—is that the main character's best friend is almost always white.

For us, these books still feel geared toward white families, and symbolize a fear of an "overwhelming Blackness." If we have an over-arching strategy for the books we choose, it's choosing books that are written for her, where characters who look like her don't need a white chaperone.

What books do you think are essential for your reader?
What we find essential right now is books where Black children are living full and joyful lives. Think Renee Watson, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, Oge Mora, and Jerdine Nolen. The Good Dog series by Cam Higgins was also an unexpected source of joy. In addition, we focus a lot on books that illustrate community and cooperation, particularly in harmony with nature. The planet our daughter will inherit is in a terrible state, and rather than her being afraid of it, we want her to grow up understanding that we are all in partnership with the planet and that we should be in partnership with other humans to heal it.

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