Children’s Literature in Action

Published June 2019 by Libraries Unlimited


  • Sylvia M. Vardell


    Sylvia M. Vardell is professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, where she teaches graduate courses in children’s literature. Her research has focused particularly on sharing poetry with young people. Her published work includes Libraries Unlimited’s Poetry People: A Practical Guide to Children’s Poets and Poetry Aloud Here: Sharing Poetry with Children in the Library. She writes a regular “Everyday Poetry” column for Book Links magazine and has served on several award committees. Vardell received the 2014 American Library Association Scholastic Library Publishing Award.

Select a Chapter for Student Resources

  • Chapter 1

    An Introduction to Children and Their Literature




      Give yourself the following quiz.

      Stop and think. Discuss your responses with a partner or small group. How many of the children’s books that quickly came to mind reflect the experiences of today’s diverse population of children? Be honest. Are the books that you remembered published prior to 2000? Do they generally feature only white characters as protagonists? Look for titles and authors of bestsellers and award winners who offer underrepresented perspectives. For example, check out the work of Jacqueline Woodson or Grace Lin and the Pura Belpré or American Indian Youth Literature award recipients.

      • Name one of your favorite books you read as a child.
      • Name one of your favorite children’s books of all time.
      • Name a book you’ve recently shared with children.
      • Name a children’s book whose illustrations you especially like.
      • Name a prize-winning children’s book you know.

      If you want to broaden your horizons and expose children to global literature, how do you find children’s books from other countries? It can be a challenge. Fortunately, it’s getting easier and easier. Start with the annual list of Outstanding International Books chosen by the USBBY. This list features books from other countries that are then published (in English) in the United States.

      German children’s book author and illustrator Hans Wilhelm has written and illustrated over two hundred picture books, but unfortunately many are now going out of print. So now he is offering them in their entirety free on the Internet as PDF files, some in English, some in German, and some in multiple versions in 12 different languages. Check it out:

      Another excellent tool is the website for the International Children’s Digital Library (, which includes the complete text and illustrations of over 4,500 children’s books from around the world in 59 different languages. Using these resources and others, create a scavenger hunt to encourage the exploration of stories from other countries. Who can find a book from South Africa? A German translation of an American book? Two picture books from different countries about dogs?


      How do you help the educators that you work with keep current on the latest, wonderful children’s books being published? A book club just for teachers can help. The Teachers as Readers movement focuses on teachers reading children’s literature and responding personally to the literature as readers, an effective tool for teacher renewal and for professional development (Vardell and Jacobson, 1997). Book groups and book clubs can provide an informal atmosphere for reading and talking about books as colleagues. Librarians can be instrumental in starting and organizing such groups. You can booktalk new acquisitions, share titles for teaching units, or just promote recreational reading.

      The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has helpful and longstanding guidelines to assist with leading book discussions. These were developed by Ginny Moore Kruse and Kathleen T. Horning in 1989 and are posted on the CCBC website ( as well as listed below.


      CCBC Book Discussion Guidelines

      Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not.

      1. Make positive comments first. Try to express what you liked about the book and why (e.g., “The illustrations are a perfect match for the story because . . .”).
      2. After everyone has had the opportunity to say what they appreciated about the book, you may talk about difficulties you had with a particular aspect of the book. Try to express difficulties as questions, rather than declarative judgments on the book as a whole (e.g., “Would Max’s dinner really have still been warm?” rather than “That would never happen.”).
      3. Avoid recapping the story or booktalking the book. There is not time for a summary.
      4. Refrain from relating personal anecdotes. The discussion must focus on the book at hand.
      5. Try to compare the book with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience.

      All perspectives and vocabularies are correct. There is no “right” answer or single correct response.

      1. Listen openly to what is said, rather than who says it.
      2. Respond to the comments of others, rather than merely waiting for an opportunity to share your comments.
      3. Talk with one another, rather than to the discussion facilitator.
      4. Comment to the group as a whole, rather than to someone seated near you.

      Look for a preexisting group to sit in on or try a pilot project of your own, launching a book group especially for educators or other adults at your school or public library. Share your experiences with other librarians.

    Web Resources

    • A bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.

    • NCFL works to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families.

    • The mission of the Barbara Bush Foundation is to advocate for and establish literacy as a value in every home.

    • Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization that works with pediatricians who incorporate books into their care regimen, encouraging families to read aloud together.

    • Offers information and resources on how young kids learn to read, their struggles, and how adults can help.

    • Horn Book has been devoted to the critical analysis of children’s literature, including articles, book reviews, and the speeches of the Newbery and Caldecott medal recipients. Horn Book cosponsors the annual Boston Globe/Horn Book awards, prints a yearly “Fanfare” list of best books, and publishes The Horn Book Guide, a semiannual comprehensive digital review source.s, and the speeches of the Newbery and Caldecott medal recipients. Horn Book cosponsors the annual Boston Globe/Horn Book awards, prints a yearly “Fanfare” list of best books, and publishes The Horn Book Guide, a semiannual comprehensive digital review source.

    • SLJ may be the most comprehensive of the review media since it considers nearly all books published for young people and is available monthly, with reviews written by a nationwide panel of several hundred librarians. A starred review and/or inclusion on the “Best Books” list in December signifies a particularly noteworthy book.

    • Booklist is the major review publication of the ALA and includes a “Books for Youth” section of reviews of books for older, middle, and young readers. Outstanding books are given starred reviews, and an end-of-the-year “Editor’s Choice” issue is especially helpful, as are the lists of “Best Books” compiled by various ALA committees. Print subscriptions include issues of Book Links magazine as a regular supplement, offering columns and articles full of booklists, strategies, and tips.

    • The Bulletin was founded by children’s literature giant Zena Sutherland and is currently published in print and online by the Johns Hopkins University Press for the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Regular staff members review new books on a monthly basis (except August) and issue an annual list of Bulletin Blue Ribbon books.

    • Kirkus Reviews, founded in 1933, is published twice monthly and includes reviews written by specialists selected for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field, with over 100 freelance reviewers contributing regularly.

    • Although the primary focus of PW is on books for adults, there are regular reviews of children’s books in various categories such as fiction, picture books, and nonfiction written by permanent staff members. General information about the publishing industry including current bestsellers and publishing statistics is also interesting. The PW Children’s Bookshelf is a very popular and helpful digital newsletter.

    • School Library Connection (SLC) is an extensive learning resource for school library professionals that combines the resources of School Library Monthly and Library Media Connection along with new content to offer practical insights and inspiration to practitioners while continually advancing the field.

    • This journal provides reviews for librarians who work with teenagers and preteens and considers everything from fiction and fantasy to graphic novels and audiobooks. In addition, it offers interesting articles on current trends in literature and youth services.

    • Based at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the CCBC was established in 1963 as a center for research and study in children’s literature. Currently headed by Kathleen T. (KT) Horning, the center highlights a book of the week, the annual “CCBC Choices” best list, the Charlotte Zolotow award for picture books, and many helpful bibliographies.

    • Julie Danielson (“Jules”) writes primarily about illustration in children’s books, particularly in picture books and illustrated novels, with plenty of interviews and behind-the-scenes nuggets.

    • Author Cynthia Leitich Smith offers a range of up-to-the-moment news, interviews, reviews, booklists, and more.

    • Formerly an independent blogger, Betsy Bird was so successful that her blog is now hosted at School Library Journal’s blog where she covers a range of children’s literature topics with her unique sensibility.

    • Featured as “a site to help parents learn about great books for their kids age 4–14,” where librarian and reviewer Mary Ann Scheuer offers interviews, reviews, and recommendations that are lively, personal, and helpful.

    • John Schu, Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic, features book trailers for new children’s books along with insights from authors, illustrators, and others.

    • This group blog, which invites participation on all topics related to literature for young people, is led by four teachers: Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, Katherine Sokolowski, and Cindy Minnich.

    • The editor of Horn Book Magazine maintains a regular blog with children’s literature–related information, opinions, asides, and more.

    • Check this blog for the perspective of a variety of children’s booksellers. Several contributors post regularly about “all things literary, artistic, and mercantile.”

  • Chapter 2

    Picture Books




      The art of the children’s picture book is gradually becoming appreciated in the larger art world. Many of the works of original art that children’s book illustrators create for picture books have become valuable and collectable pieces fetching thousands of dollars for a single work. Several galleries specialize in children’s book art, many with images available for viewing on the Web. Look for examples at the following:


      Elizabeth Stone Gallery

      Chemers Gallery

      Children’s Book Illustrations


      Many libraries have chosen to adorn their children’s areas with original art from children’s books, when they can afford the investment. For example, the Betty Brinn Children’s Room of the central library in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is full of the work of Lois Ehlert (who hails from Milwaukee), including 31 different animals designed by Ehlert in a variety of colors, which appear in the floor. Research which children’s book illustrators live in your region or area. How might you showcase them and their work in your library? How might you persuade the powers that be to invest in an original piece by a children’s book illustrator to be featured in your children’s area? Build a case for why art is important in children’s lives and books.


      Remember the days of the television show, Reading Rainbow? For 20 years, actor LeVar Burton hosted a reading-focused television program designed to encourage reading. (Episodes are still available on iTunes and Amazon Prime.) Video can be an engaging format for bringing books to life, and there continue to be innovators who use this medium creatively.

      • Check out KidLit TV (, one of ALA’s “Greatest Websites for Kids.” It offers a talk show about books, story time, drawing with illustrators, visits with authors in their studios, and more.
      • Visit Storyline Online ( which features professional actors reading books aloud (available via SchoolTube or YouTube). Think of creative ways you can use these resources to encourage parents and families to keep the reading momentum going outside of school.
      • Just for fun, check out Storytime from Space (, a project of the Global Space Education Foundation. Here astronauts videotape themselves reading children’s books from the International Space Station.



      A good librarian is always looking for new and innovative ways to share stories and promote reading Some librarians are using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets to feature homemade booktalks, digital trailers, and mini story hours for their communities and the public at large. Experiment with various Web tools yourself. Partner with a buddy and film a one-minute read aloud (excerpt) or booktalk. If you’re brave enough, post it on YouTube, SchoolTube, TeacherTube, or another outlet to share. Consider experimenting creatively to feature a favorite picture book with props, commentary, music, and so on.


    Web Resources

  • Chapter 3

    Traditional Tales




      Although we tell “stories” about our lives on a daily basis, sometimes we feel shy about storytelling before an audience. Yet children are so captivated by the story listening experience, it is worth building our storytelling skills to give it a try. Consult some of the storytelling resources shared previously, check out the related websites, visit a storytelling festival, or talk with a librarian experienced at storytelling. Then choose a favorite story and challenge yourself to master the telling of it. Use audio or video recording to help you improve your delivery. Then gather a sympathetic group and give it a try.


      Culture is an important variable when it comes to what makes traditional tales distinctive. What are your own cultural roots? Did you grow up with any folktales particular to your culture? If so, look for picture book versions of those stories and see how they compare with your memories of the tales. Or try your hand at retelling your favorite tales. You could polish your delivery of one or two of these tales as part of your regular repertoire of storytime activities. Or if you speak a language other than English, consider taking a popular traditional tale like “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Three Bears,” or “Little Red Riding Hood” and translating it into another language. Or involve a group of children in collecting, writing down, and illustrating traditional tales and playground folklore from their own families, neighborhoods, and communities.


      When we look at many of the traditional tales that are part of children’s literature, we can find some rather scary and grim events—wolves devouring pigs, grandmothers, or children, for example. How have various retellers and adapters handled issues of violence, vengeance, or other harsh subject matter in a manner appropriate for a child reader? How do you feel about these issues? Gather several versions of a single tale that generally contains a violent event, like “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs” and examine how these events are handled. Does the wolf eat the grandmother? The first two pigs? Is the wolf himself killed in the end? Think about how you might present these stories to children and at what age. Librarian Donna MacKinney warns us that it’s possible that “too much to worry about in a story is a tell-tale sign that it needs to wait for a more mature audience.”

    Web Resources

    • Website created by storyteller and author, Heather Forest. Contains valuable storytelling resources.

    • Publisher of award-winning picture books, story collections, and resource books.

    • An online book catalog browsable by author.

  • Chapter 4

    Poetry for Children

  • Chapter 5

    Contemporary Realistic Fiction

  • Chapter 6

    Historical Fiction

  • Chapter 7





      As presented earlier, many fantasy novels are rooted in the traditions of folk literature. Fantasy novels are original stories created from an author’s imagination, rather than oral tales retold many times, yet they share many of the same attributes: archetypal characters such as the youngest child or gifted orphan or wise helper; settings in magical forests and faraway kingdoms; motifs such as transformations or the use of magical objects; patterns of three or four challenges or events.


      Choose a favorite fantasy novel and look for these elements from the oral tradition. Which ones are present? How do they affect the story? Why do you think the author included these and not others? Search the Internet for possible author interviews or the author’s website to see if he or she addresses these allusions to folk literature.


      Do you work with children who are identified as “gifted” or “talented?” For many gifted children in the middle grades and up, fantasy is immensely popular, whether in the form of books, movies, graphic novels, or computer games. One outlet that is gaining increasing recognition is the creation of avatars, or unique online identities, for gaming, chatting, or online forums. Here, participants become authors of fantasy themselves. They do many of the things a fantasy author does: create and name a character, give it attributes and powers, and interact with other characters.


      Read more about this growing phenomenon, including concerns about child participation and child safety, here:


      Graphic novels, anime, and manga are all very popular with ’tweens and teens, and many libraries have created clubs especially for fans of this medium. They gather to read, share, and compare their favorite titles, much like other book clubs. Look for a manga or anime club at a school or library in your community and attend a meeting. Which types and titles are favorites of the group?


      If possible, look for a comic con (or comic book-related convention) in your area to attend. These are also interesting sources of graphic novels, games, and other media for fans of fantasy.

    Web Resources

  • Chapter 8

    Nonfiction and Informational Books




      Nonfiction is a genre one can browse and scan in many different ways and still gain information and meaning. One doesn’t have to read every nonfiction book from cover to cover to enjoy it.


      Challenge yourself (or work with a partner) to identify a set of mentor texts that can help you model the use of text features in current nonfiction books for young readers. If possible, identify one book for each of the following (drawn from Common Core skills):

      • Tables of Contents
      • Headings and subheadings
      • Captions
      • Maps
      • Timelines
      • Indexes
      • Sidebars
      • Bibliographies or source notes
      • Glossaries

      So often nowadays we look to the Internet when we want to answer a question or satisfy a question. We just “google” it! That’s fast and easy, but not always reliable and accurate. This is a useful exercise for ourselves to see the value in multiple sources, but also to model for young people who need to know the value of accessing multiple sources and how to evaluate each.


      Choose a topic of interest and locate a nonfiction book or books on the topic, as well as a relevant website or websites (or even a database).

      • What does each resource offer?
      • How is the information presented in each resource?
      • How can you assess the accuracy or reliability of each resource?
      • How can the two resources complement one another?

      Spend some time in the reference area of the children’s section. Answer the following questions.

      • Which resources seem most used?
      • Which are consulted the least?

      Look at the series books in the nonfiction area, too.

      • Where are they shelved?
      • Do they seem to be circulating?

      Interview a librarian and find out how she or he decides on which reference tools and series books to order.

      Investigate how databases and ebooks are fitting into the budget, as well.

      • Are users gravitating more toward use of databases and Internet sources and less toward print tools?
      • How is the library handling that?

    Web Resources

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