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Towards High(er) Quality in Children's Storybooks

The Global Book Alliance (GBA) has rightly stated: “The challenge of ensuring every child has access to high-quality books and reading materials is not one that any single institution can meet alone.”  Indeed, the numerous development actors engaged in creative solutions to get reading materials to children has resulted in substantial progress within a short time.  

However, the desire to get many books into the hands of children quickly, and with limited resources, risks lowering their quality. As a result, we may end up with books that are “good enough”—or the implication—“good enough for poor children.”   

While an urgency exists to provide all children with access to books so they can develop literacy skills and a love for reading, a balance must be struck between quantity, speed and cost on one hand and quality on the other.  Part of the challenge in achieving this balance is that “high quality” can mean different things to different people.  While we can all agree that children’s books should be developmentally appropriate, culturally sensitive and in a language children know, what else should we strive for? I propose three areas of quality standards for the kinds of books most needed in low-resource countries: picture books and illustrated storybooks for beginning readers.

1.    The narrative: In universally appealing stories, characters have recognizable traits and emotions, and they face situations that are relatable to the reader. Conflict—an obstacle, challenge, or difficult decision—is at the heart of the story and creates suspense and surprise.  The main character then plays an important role in resolving his or her own problem. When a child reader can identify with the character, these character-driven stories can be particularly empowering by showing that children can effect change in their world. Good children’s stories have a logical and simple structure. Some will follow a story arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Others, particularly texts at the earliest levels, can use structures such as Question and Answer, Circular plots and Cumulative plots.   

The example below illustrates how a well-crafted narrative can capture a child’s interest. In the story a girl named Rima goes to the fair with her uncle, and amidst all the excitement, she suddenly finds herself separated from him and lost. She resolves to remain brave and begins a determined search for her uncle. Tension rises with each of Rima’s failed attempts, especially when she thinks she finds him--only to realize that it is a stranger who looks like him.  Ultimately, the reader gets the satisfaction of a happy reunion, but only after Rima has shown herself to be brave, perseverant and kind to another lost child.

From: Brave Rima (Bangladesh)    © Room to Read 2016

International development practitioners can be tempted to develop “storybooks” that convey cross-sectoral messages (e.g., information on health). This attempt to be didactic can drain the delight out of any story. We will not foster a love of reading in young children with “storybooks” where the characters simply go through a series of good hygiene practices, despite the importance of these practices in preventing disease. On the other hand, stories with strong characters who are faced with obstacles—and can make choices with consequences to overcome these obstacles—challenge children to reflect on and learn about a range of issues in an engaging manner.

2.    Illustrations: In a picture book, the illustrations are as important as the text, and both work together to tell the story. Illustrations should align with the pacing and story arc of the accompanying text, following a logical progression, with enough variation in composition and perspective to maintain the reader’s interest. The color palette should vary to match the mood, setting and illustration style. The characters are the most important visual element of a picture book. The best characters have child appeal, a distinctive style and personality, and display emotions that a child can recognize and understand.  

In the illustration below, the vivid colors and cartoon Tiger would appeal to children. The contrast in colors highlights the focus element of the illustration: Tiger, whose expression of dismay is easily recognizable. Shadows add depth to a scene that has enough detail to put Tiger in context but not so many details that the focus element is lost.

From: Tiger’s Trouble with Sewing (Vietnam)        © Room to Read 2016

3.    Design: Book design is the art of creatively arranging the visual elements of a book—from the layout of the artwork to the text style—to create a welcoming visual experience for the reader. When developing books for children in low-resource contexts, the design element of book development is often neglected. Yet going beyond the typical “PowerPoint format” of a picture block and a text box can greatly increase the visual appeal of a storybook. If we keep in mind that we want children to not only learn to read but to love to read, ensuring that the text and illustrations are married well can make each turn of a page an experience imbued with wonder.

The two storybook pages below show different ways in which art and text can work together for visual story-telling. On the left, spot illustrations effectively show a series of actions taking place in the same setting. On the right, a full-page illustration accentuates the goat’s delight. On both pages, text in an appropriately-sized, clear font has been integrated within the illustrations where it is easy to find and read.


From: The Bubble Mystery  (India)                                           © Room to Read 2016

Ideally, when developing books in contexts without a strong culture of early grade reading, building the capacity of local authors, illustrators, designers, editors and publishers is vital. Beyond building a local skillset that can be applied far into the future, there is power in being the creator of one’s own narratives. Developing books from within a context instead of only adapting them from outside contributes to nurturing a culture of reading and an industry around it. While this is neither the fastest nor cheapest approach, its potential for creating sustainable and meaningful change is unparalleled.

Given the many dimensions of quality in children’s books, my own litmus test for a “high-quality” children’s book in the international development sector is remarkably straightforward. It involves answering a single question: Is this a book that I would want to translate into English for my own children to enjoy? After all, our expectations for quality in children’s books should not vary based on where the children happen to have been born.

Christabel Pinto is the Global Literacy Director for Room to Read.


Pinto, Christabel