Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

Finding kids’ fiction by subject/theme

In searching for great books for my girls I’ve learnt a bit about where to go for reliable recommendations regarding children’s books, especially fiction books. An added twist to my searches is that I’m usually looking for a book on a particular topic or with a particular theme (rather than by age, for example). So on this page I’ve brought together some of the methods/sites I regularly use when I need to find a great fiction book for my kids on a particular topic / theme. I hope you’ll find the list useful!

amazon_logo1. I search Amazon using keywords (eg “owl”), then narrow down by type (eg Children’s books > fiction or Children’s books > Ages 5-8). I then sort the result list by Average Customer Review (on the right hand side of the page) to see which books are rated 4 or 5 stars. If I don’t get any result that I like the look of from Amazon.co.uk I often try Amazon.com as the kids books popular on one side of the pond are often quite different to those on the other side!.

dawcl_logo2. I search the Database of Award Winning Children’s Literature. Once you enter the DAWCL site you can search the database using keywords (or by many other criteria such as suggested reader age, format or language). What’s nice about this search is that all books listed have won some sort of prize, so the quality is high, and the database includes much older books, that you won’t necessarily find on Amazon.

google3. I use Google – I typically search for “great children’s books about X” or “best kids’ books about X”. Amazon / Barnes and Noble etc links will turn up, but I tend to skip these and look for reviews in newspapers, or at websites and blogs devoted to kids and or books. If you want to cut out the links to big bookstores then add “-Amazon” or “-Amazon -Barnes -Waterstones” etc to your query ie “great children’s books about owls -Amazon” – this way all links to addresses containing the word Amazon (or Waterstones etc) will be left off the list returned to you.

miami_libraries4. I see what the Children’s Picture Book Database at Miami University turns up. Although it asks you to enter your zipcode this isn’t required to complete the search (however, if you are in the US, please do enter your zipcode – the author of this database has let me know how important this information is when applying for grants for the service) – you can just enter your keyword, or choose to do a more advanced search. What I like about this database is that it will bring up books that don’t necessarily have your keyword in the title, but that do have it in the (librarian-written) abstract. What I don’t like about the keyword search from the front page is that it sometimes brings up books that have words containing the substring of the keyword you entered – so for example, when I search for “owls” I got a couple of books about coyotes because the word “howls” was in the abstract! If you want to avoid this problem use the “Search the Database” button on the top right hand side instead – this will give you great, accurate results. Some search results are accompanied by a link to relevant, librarian-selected websites so do look out for them too.

helping_books_connection5. I search the literature database at the Helping Books/Helping Families Program. This database contains “children’s literature titles, both fiction and nonfiction, covering topics that focus on ethical and personal issues relevant to young people.” – so not a site for looking for books on eg owls, but great if I want a book that explores eg compassion, grandparents or rituals.

lbbanner6. I use lists compiled by librarians around the world – librarybooklists.org has an excellent kids’ section, with links by subject to many different lists drawn up by librarians. Additional useful lists by subject drawn up by librarians can be found at Monroe County Public Library, the University of Calgary (scroll down to subject bibliographies), and Boston Public Library (again, scroll down for book lists by subject).

library_thing_button7. Library Thing is an online book catalogue where any member of the public can upload details of books they own, and then rate them. On Library Thing’s search page you can look for books using tags (ie keywords), for example I typed in “owls, picture books” and a list of over 200 books came up. I can then tweak this result by going to the right hand side of my search results page where there is a section called “Related tagmashes”. Here you will find links to books which are tagged with similar keywords (eg “children’s books, owls”). I like Library Thing for 2 key reasons (1) a rating is given for most of the books therein – a rating often based on the input of hundreds of people who are book lovers. This means I tend to trust the rating given a book and so my final results are pretty reliable. (2) the tags (keywords) added to books are not necessarily related to the title of books and so you can find books you would not find via e.g. Amazon where the search is based on words in a book’s title.

5_Great_books8. I regularly visit Anastasia Suen’s blog 5 Great Books. As Anastasia herself puts it “The purpose of this blog is provide thematic book lists for children learning to read.” and once a week you’ll find a new list of 5 books for younger children on a particular topic (recent topics include Thanksgiving, Turkeys, Pumpkins, Cats and Spiders). Unfortunately it isn’t possible to see a list of all the topics covered, but there is a search function and that will bring up any mention of the keyword you enter. For example, I searched for “owls” and although owls haven’t featured as a topic themselves, I was pointed to a book which features owls, in the list of books about the Moon.

carol_hurstsmall9. Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site is full of goodies. As Carol puts it herself, “this is a collection of reviews of great books for kids, ideas of ways to use them in the classroom and collections of books and activities about particular subjects, curriculum areas, themes and professional topics.” The page dedicated to themes and other subjects is the most useful from my perspective – it contains an alphabetical list of themes such as farms, quilts and trains. Although the list of themes is not exhaustive, if the theme you’re after is listed, then you’ll hit a gold mine – reviews of lots of books on that topic, with an indication of likely reader age.

a_to_zoo_frontcover10. A to Zoo: Subject Access to Children’s Picture Books by by Carolyn W. Lima and John A. Lima sounds like a perfect book for finding kids’ fiction by theme. Unfortunately it is not available in my local library system and at nearly £50 it’s not a book I’ve bought for myself, but if you have used it, please let me know what you think of it. The Subject Guide to Children’s Books In Print also looks like it would be very useful, but again this is something to look for in libraries as the most recent edition (2005) retails at £170! Alice Trupe’s Thematic Guide to Young Adult Literature looks like it would useful for books on themes pertinent to teenagers. Sacramento State University Library has a list of many other book titles that may be useful when looking for children’s literature and poetry by theme but I have not myself used any of the books listed there (if you have, please let me know what you think of them).

cdeLogoCI11. California’s Department of Education has a searchable online database of “outstanding literature for children and adolescents in grades kindergarten through grade twelve“. You can search by keyword and restrict your result to fiction, or even subgenres such as drama or science fiction. Sometimes items are returned which don’t seem to match your search criteria (sometimes this is because a word in the book summary cotains a substring which matches your keyword eg summary contains “Mudge” but keyword is “mud”), but this database is nevertheless useful as it contains only high quality literature and will return results where your keyword is not in the book’s title, but is in the summary provided of the given book.

yahoo_groups12. As well as asking your local librarian for suggestions, other good people to ask for book suggestions are teachers, homeschoolers and other parents. If you don’t have any of these people around you, one way of contacting people like these is through email lists / groups such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups. Here is a list of yahoo groups about homeschooling, and here is one for teachers of young children. Once you join such a group you can post a request for book suggestions. In my experience you’re likely to get a good response.

Teach with Picture Books has a great list of picture book reference sites that I’d urge you to check out.

If you have any suggestions about where else we can search for great kids’ (fiction) books by subject please leave a comment or email me (zoe (dot) toft (at) kuvik (dot) net). Thanks and looking forward to hearing from you!

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