I'm a Mom and a Publisher: Here's What I Look For in a Great Children's Book

Kids love a great book, but how do you pick out a really good one? A book publisher explains how she teaches her children the importance of an exceptional story and how to choose a good book.

An illustration of a mom and daughter reading.
Photo: Kailey Whitman.

Motherhood has taught me that stories are important: the narratives we share with our kids mold their mindsets and shape their skills.

I wouldn't be a publisher without my love of books. Everything, from the way they feel in my hands, to the typeface, the sidebars, and even the paper is captivating to me. I spend an endless amount of time looking at the display tables in bookstores, selecting my next read—and much of this decision relies on visual and tactile factors.

We've all heard the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover." I certainly try to adhere to this mantra in the metaphorical sense, but when it comes to actual books, it could not be further from the truth. Judging a book by its cover can give you real insight into what you're about to read. Beyond covers though, let me tell you just how else I choose books for my children, knowing exactly what goes into the publishing process.

Books With a Strong Message

As a publisher, one of my goals is often to get my books placed on reading lists, because I know how truly valuable they can be to prospective readers. Lists often stem from certain themes, whether it's LGBTQ+ titles for Pride Month or female writers for International Women's Day, and these themes are selected with great intention—to create discussion.

Reading stories with your children is one of the best ways to teach them about serious, complex, or even just plain new topics. When you read to your kids or they read to you, they are learning how to talk about these subjects with thoughtful language. Children need memorable narratives to explain the significance of issues like Black Lives Matter, because their young experiences may not grant them the background or tools to figure it out themselves. Choose books that will give your kids a chance to read and interpret the message behind the story—and lists are a great place to start.

Books That Promote Critical Thinking

After you've read a book, chances may be that your child wants to share a similar story. Encourage this! When kids write their thoughts out, they learn how to elaborate on and engage with complex feelings. Writing stories puts lessons into practice. When books contain concepts like numbers, letters of the alphabet, and colors, children will then learn how to take these big ideas and apply them to their own imaginative writing.

Look for books that demonstrate character development, and your children will learn how to write out their own personal changes and understand them in others. Select a diverse array of stories for your kids, and they'll be able to recognize and value this multiplicity in others. By choosing books that encourage critical thinking, children will learn to write their own stories with complexity.

The author reading with her child.
Angela Engel reading with her child. Courtesy of Angela Engel

Books That Encourage a Response

Oral tradition is a longstanding practice that builds community and enriches children's listening and feedback skills. Books that encourage audiences to respond give kids the opportunity to empathize with characters, and then practice this empathy in real life. Orality gives children the chance to live the story in real life, as they reenact scenarios.

Oral storytelling can be applied beyond books, through daily practices like "Rose, Bud, & Thorn." This is a nightly routine in my household, where each family member shares the day's highlight, potential, and challenge. Children look to books for social cues, so choose stories that depict similar practices and kids will develop their emotional intelligence.

Books With Impactful Illustrations

One of the biggest challenges for a publisher is finding the right illustrator for a story. At the Collective Book Studio, we look for art that will not just support the text, but augment it. Look at art when selecting books, because it will give you a pretty good idea of the message you'll find inside. Choose books that highlight unique or unexpected characters—challenge whatever vision of a story you might otherwise predict in your head.

Tell your kids to illustrate their own stories! Characters are not limited to the words on the page, they grow with their depictions. Art doesn't feel like a chore, and children can use sketches and paintings to illustrate real life or fictional characters to practice creative decision-making. When you choose books that feature a variety of art styles, sizes, and scenery, children learn how visual cues can influence storytelling. They will learn that creativity is limitless and heroes and villains alike exist on a spectrum.

The Bottom Line

Publishing helps guide my parenting, and being a parent guides how I publish. I look for content that will support child development beyond the bare minimum. When I choose books for my company or for my kids, I keep these practices in mind. Children are impressionable, and this is one of their greatest strengths, because it means our guided storytelling traditions can be a powerful thing. It's time to start judging books by their covers, because whatever the publisher chose to impress upon readers at first glance says a lot about their end goal.

Angela Engel grew up in Minneapolis, MN, and now lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and three daughters. She worked in traditional publishing for many years, at award-winning presses such as Chronicle Books, Ten Speed Press, and Cameron + Company, but launched her own publishing company in 2019. With The Collective Book Studio, Engel has the opportunity to provide authors the support they need to get a book out into the world, from start to finish.

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