By now, my 2 1/2-year-old son Will and I have re-read all the illustrated books he received for Christmas more times than we can count. It's time to head off to the bookstore to freshen up the stock. As every parent knows, though, shopping for kids' books isn't what it used to be: The vast selection--from lavishly illustrated classics to hollow spinoffs of cartoon characters to realistic depictions of alternative lifestyles--can make choosing the right books as bewildering as it is exciting.
Yet, whether you're buying for someone else's child or your own, there are ways to make intelligent choices. Here are some suggestions gleaned from my experience and discussions with experts.
'GIVE AND TAKE.' Will can't read yet, but he likes to share the storytelling. According to Marilyn Segal, dean of the Family & School Center at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that calls for a book that promotes "give and take and interaction" through, say, repetition, rhymes, or pictures. One Bear With Bees In His Hair, a recent release by Jakki Wood ($13.95; Dutton), fits the bill. Attracted by the colorful pictures and sprightly rhymes, Will gleefully counts bears behind the trees at the end.
Next, we look for a book to match his interests: dinosaurs. A Dinosaur Named After Me, by Bernard Most ($12.95; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), pairs each dino's traits with a child's name. For instance, Zach, the tallest kid in his class, suggests renaming the towering Brachiosaurus "Zachiosaurus."
My interests matter, too. Since I'll have to enjoy a book through numerous readings, I want more than good artwork and a nifty story line. I find it in Feathers for Lunch, by Lois Ehlert ($13.95; HBJ). The distinctive renderings of North American birds and the information on habitats and feeding promise future discussions during walks in the park.
One of the most beautiful of the new books is Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold ($14.95; Crown). Based on the story stitched into a quilt at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, it tells of a black girl's family in the summer of 1939. From the roof of their New York City apartment building, they can see the George Washington Bridge, which her father helped build. The text and dreamy, folk-art illustrations are outstanding. I also want Will to know about various ethnic groups.
The Patchwork Quilt, by Valerie Flournoy ($13.95; Dial Books), tells of a girl who mobilizes her family to finish the quilt started by her ailing grandmother. This 1986 winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award for best illustration exemplifies the middle ground between the newest books and classics such as Peter Rabbit and Curious George. And unlike new releases, they're sold in less-pricey paperbacks.
My public library cites standout books in three lists. The first two name Caldecott Medal winners back to 1938 and Newbery Medal winners to 1922. Presented annually by the American Library Assn. (ALA), these are the most coveted of children's book awards, and their gold medallions are prominently displayed on book jackets.
In addition, the ALA just released a list of 30 "ideal choices to start children on the path to becoming lifetime readers." It gives six books in five age categories from preschool to 14. The judges produced only one unanimous choice: Charlotte's Web.
LOOK IT UP. Consumer guides can help, too. The best one for preschoolers is The New Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease ($9.95; Penguin). Choosing Books for Kids, by Joanne Oppenheim, Barbara Brenner, and Betty Boegehold ($9.95; Bank Street) has more than 1,500 reviews divided by age group and topic.
Will has just wandered off in search of a Bert-and-Ernie book. Children always seem to go for familiar choices. Says Ellen Michaeli, an attorney and mother of two boys, ages 5 and 2: "You have to encourage them to explore beyond what they know. If I didn't give suggestions, they would pick Ninja Turtles every time." Indeed, you can accept almost anything a child chooses as long as you round out the list with high-quality fare.