Rob Sanderson of Wigan Schools Library Service offers some practical advice for building an early years library.

Books have a special place in introducing a child to his/her first experiences with language. Whether that introduction is the reading of a poem, the sharing of a story, or the introduction of simple concepts, books play an especially valid role in shaping children’s perceptions and skills during the early years. This article seeks to investigate how you can select a range of books that will be ideal for your needs, whether you are seeking to start or improve a ‘class library’.

Let’s start at the very beginning…..

All good stories start by setting the scene, and so it is with libraries. Think about how you might want to use the library, and about the kind of books that you might like it to include. Obviously your requirements will depend upon the age of the children in your care, the setting (is this a library in a nursery or in a Reception class?), and whether or not you will allow children to take any of the books home.

Let’s talk through these aspects, as they’ll define how you approach the book selection itself. For younger children, it is likely that the books will be used to read to the child, whereas in a Reception class, you may like to include some very basic early reader books.

If your library will be used in a nursery setting, consider the durability of the books (pop-ups probably won’t be an ideal choice, although board books are great for children to hold and look at on their own). The requirements of the curriculum may mean you’ll include some non-fiction books. 

So, what about letting children take books home? Personally, I think the benefits of allowing children to take books home outweigh the negative aspects. Whilst it is true that you may not get all the books back, or that some may be returned damaged, by allowing children to take books home, you can be assured that each child has the opportunity to experience books in his/her home environment. If you do decide to let children take books home, don’t forget to seek parental consent first, though.

Exploring ‘the forest’

As Hansel and Gretel would only be too happy to tell you, it’s easy to get lost in a forest. Selecting books from the huge range that are published each year can make you feel that you’re entering a forest yourself. So, the first rule is, don’t be daunted; go to a shop that you’re familiar with, or use a specialist retailer, such as the Early Learning Centre, or a website retailer, that will point you towards other similar products (and will often also allow you to read other customers’ reviews).

What you’re looking for are ‘good books’; think about what you enjoy in a book and you’re likely to consider plot, the author and the cover design, right? It’s much the same for children’s books, except you’ll be looking for mainly board books and picture books.

When you’re selecting, think logically

Will the book be suitable for the children you want the book to inspire and excite, and does it engage you?

Consider the size and style of the text (make sure it’s clear enough for shared reading) and the style of the illustrations (they should be bright, clear and colourful). With illustrations, it helps if you like them, as your enthusiasm will be obvious when you share the book with children. Look for authors, illustrators and publishers you are familiar with and whose other books you like.

And, as a ‘top tip’, look for books that rhyme and/or include lines that are repeated through the story – children of this age adore them!

I can highly recommend including the books listed below. Between them they cover themes such as sharing, friendship, counting, what it is to be different, childhood fears, rhyming text and much more besides!

Everything you read here is all true

A good class library will include a mix of fiction and non-fiction, although it’s worth noting that many fiction picture and board books introduce non-fiction themes as part of the story. The non-fiction themes that you may like to cover include early/first concepts (time, colour, opposites etc) and curriculum-based themes (myself, toys, weather etc).

When buying non-fiction books, take care to check the published date (I’d suggest nothing older than three years to ensure maximum value for money) and, of course, the reading level. You’re looking for clear, bold print, with a large colourful image (ideally photographic) on each page. To see a good example check out the Heinemann ‘Little Nippers’ series, that is aimed at three to five year olds; this level of text and layout is what you need to be looking for.

And they all lived happily ever after…

If you follow the pointers I’ve laid out here, you’re well on the way to creating a class library that will be ideal for you to share with the children in your care. Browse the shelves in local bookshops, ask the children what books they like (or quiz their parents!) and look for reviews in newspapers and websites. Remember, a good book is an enjoyable book and one that you’ll be happy to read again and again, and your enthusiasm will be catching!

Recommended books

  • Duck in the Truck, Jez Alborough (HarperCollins Children’s Books).
  • Rumble in the Jungle, Giles Andreae (Orchard Books).
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle (Puffin Books).
  • Pumpkin Soup, Helen Cooper (Corgi Children’s Books).
  • The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, Julia Donaldson (Macmillan Children’s Books).
  • Shhh!, Sally Grindley (Hodder Children’s Books).
  • Kipper, Mick Inkpen (Hodder Children’s Books).
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Judith Kerr (HarperCollins Children’s Books).
  • Little Beaver and the Echo, Amy MacDonald (Walker Books).
  • Elmer, David McKee (Red Fox).
  • The Rainbow Fish, Marcus Pfister (North-South Books).
  • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen (Walker Books).

Further information