Saturday, 14 February 2015

10 tips for buying a picture book present - by Moira Butterfield

The vast majority of picture books are bought as presents, and what a lovely present to give! Effectively you’re giving a child a precious door to the infinite world of the imagination, with the added bonus that it helps with the progress of reading and it provides a great play tool that adults and children can share together. Win, win, win. But how best to choose a picture book present? I often get asked this, so I've made a handy checklist that I hope will help present-givers and be a resource for authors who get asked the same question. Please add your own tips/observations!
"Where shall we start?"
1. Buy chewable, wipeable, washable books for babies aged 0-2.

If the child is still a baby, look for fabric books, books that can be wiped and books that look robust. There are plenty of these on the market designed specifically for babies, and safety tested for them, so there will be no toxicity or choking hazard. These books are in many ways more like toys, but they start the process of looking at images.Watch out for books with 'small parts' warnings on the back, as these are not suitable for the physical wear and tear babies give books. Countries have their own logos to show that books are safety tested and thus what age they are suitable for. In Europe it's the letters CE, for example. The information you need will be on the back cover.
"Mmmm. Wipeable and chewable for me please!"
Look out for back cover safety warnings on books with small parts.

2. Buy 12-spread picture books for children aged 2 to 4. This is the core market for picture books. I know it's easy to buy on the internet but you can only see the cover and one or two pages, so I urge you to give yourself a treat and go to a proper bookshop to see the fantastic selection on offer. The amazing illustrations you find will blow you away. There are also lots of great board books for this age-group, with flaps etcetera, but for a present that will physically last the test of time (with no pieces to tear)  I’d recommend the straight picture book route. 

"I'm 2. I love reading with my grown-ups and I like looking at the pictures on my own."

3. Don’t buy something that’s too babyish for a child aged 4 to 5. Picture books are still ideal, but look for a story that is likely to grab their more sophisticated attention. 
4.  Don’t buy a picture book without reading it yourself.  It won’t take long and the bookseller ought to be fine about it. Would you yourself like to read it out loud? I guess you’re not going to read a book out loud in a shop, but imagine you are doing that as you read it through. Look for imaginative language and something that will hold your child’s attention but basically make sure that you yourself, the buyer, like it.

5. Be careful in bargain bookstores. Do make extra sure you read the story through when buying from bargain bookstores. Some (though not all) bargain books are produced specifically for a bargain store, with no author involvement because the publisher wanted to cut costs and didn't budget any money for the text. They may have slammed something together in-house and rushed it through on a tight schedule, with very little thought.

6. Make a quick check of the page layout. Text that is well laid out on the page will be easier to read. Avoid a layout where the text seems to be plonked on in a messy way, perhaps with single words floating on their own at the bottom of a sentence (these are called 'widows' in old-fashioned print-speak). 

A widow is a single word that is all forlorn like

If this is the case, the chances are that the editor and designer haven’t thought about this book much. It will be hard to read smoothly.

7. Choose a book with pictures that you love.
There are some utterly fabulous illustrators out there, so don’t just grab any old book because it’s cheap. For a special present that will inspire and be treasured I urge you to choose something that’s a unique work of art. It makes for a classier present. My own mother liked the Anholts and gave my children some of their lovely books, along with some beautiful books by Inga Moore that we may never have seen ourselves but we will always treasure.

8. Choose a book that seems to be well-made.
Some books are cheap because the publisher has skimped on the quality. The paper may be low-quality, absorbing ink and making the illustration look muddy. The binding (the bit that holds the book together down the centre) may easily come apart. Generally if the paper seems cheap then the binding won’t be of the best quality.

9. Look on the back of the book to see if your picture book paper comes from a forest-friendly source. Different countries will have different schemes for this, but publishers who take care in this area will add the logos and wording of their national scheme. 

This UK logo confirms that the paper came from a forest-friendly source.

10 It boils down to this. Go to a real bookshop. Have fun choosing a book you love. Then you can be proud to hand it over! 
"Ooh, tractors! Good pressie! Thanks!" 

 With thanks to baby Ellie and friends, who showed us how best to chew books. Thanks to Milly in the middle, who is currently loving Tabby McTat, and Ben, who has always loved books on tractors. Perhaps one day he will become a fantastic farmer or an amazing engineer partially thanks to those lovely grown-ups who gave him thoughtfully-chosen picture books as presents.

Moira Butterfield


  1. A great post to put out on International Book Giving Day, Moira!

    Particularly good points about picking a book that reads well aloud and that you'll enjoy reading yourself. Enthusiasm is infectious, so if kids see that you enjoy the picture book you're reading to them, they're more likely to catch the reading bug themselves.

  2. Exactly, Jonathan! A good picture book will become a powerful sharing tool between child and adult. Pre-reading encouragement aside, I think this bonding is an incredible unique magic that's given by picture books. What a great gift to give!

  3. Of course I'm completely biased but I do think that, for around a fiver, a book is really the best present you can buy a child. It needs no batteries, it won't break after two minutes play and it makes none of those annoying woooo woooo noises :)

  4. And don't forget to write in it who the book is for, who from, and why. That personalises it and becomes a nice reminder in years to come.

  5. And ask the bookseller. The best shops (and many of them are independents) have fantastically knowledgeable and helpful staff who really know their books and will go out of their way to match book to reader.

    1. Yes. What a joy to talk to a knowledgeable bookseller!

  6. Great gifts, and not just for children, I've also given picture books as presents for adults, eg Jeanne Willis/Tony Ross's Dr Xargle's Book of Earthlets to new parents

    1. Ah, you've reminded me, Jane, that my first ever present to my now husband of 28 years was a children's picture book. We took a dog for a muddy walk and talked, amongst other things, about truffle hunting. So I then bought and sent him Inga Moore's beautiful book The Truffle Hunter ... and immediately had horrible doubts and wondered if he would think me mad! But, reader, I married him, so I can recommend a picture book as a means to progressing a romance.

  7. Surely the most important thing is that it's a good book? Don't we buy books for what they say and not how they have been produced? And...a good picture book can actually take LONG time to read, possibly it SHOULD to do it justice and savour it fully.

  8. Can I add that just because a child can read a chapter book doesn't mean they don't still enjoy a picture book. Both of my children (aged 7-10) get excited when I bring home the latest picture books from work, especially their favourite illustrators e.g. Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Anthony Browne, Levi Pinfold or Vivianne Schwartz - to name just a few.