Choosing a Great Read-Aloud

What makes a great read-aloud book, one that engages a child, whether on your lap or in a group setting?

In this blog series, we’ll look at some of the elements that make a great read-aloud book for preschool through sixth grade, with the goal of engaging the child: illustration, laughter, empathy, and language, including specific genres such as picture books, tall tales and folk tales, first chapter books, and middle-grade novels.


Part I: Intro to Illustration

Quick List:

Brett, Jan. The Mitten.

McClosky, Robert. Make Way for Ducklings.

McDermott, Gerald.  Arrow to the Sun and The Raven.

Raschke, Chris. Yo? Yes!

Rathman, Peggy. Officer Buckles and Gloria.

Scarry, Richard. Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are.

Shannon, David. No, David.

Wood, Don and Audrey. Piggies.


“Turn the page,” the child begs. The key to engaging a child when reading aloud is interaction.



One of my sons would sit for hours absorbed in nonfiction dinosaur and animal books. I ran out of steam long before he ever did, even bribing him at times: “I’ll read this dinosaur book again if you let me read a story book after.”



My other son loved fictional picture books. He was a sucker for Robert McClosky’s Make Way for Ducklings. He grew up to live in Boston, and when I visited him for the first time, arriving in the dark of night, he took me from the airport straight to Boston Commons to see the duckling statues.



But of course, a child is not always free to choose the book, especially in a classroom. What else besides subject matter or genre can engage a child? When talking picture books, one obvious answer is illustration.

The fictional picture books my Dinosaur Son reacted most favorably to were Gerald McDermott’s First Nation folktales, Arrow to the Sun and The Raven. This was in part due to their epic, mythical quality; my son moved on to magical quest stories like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. But another major factor was the illustrations. My son invariably lingered over the picture in Arrow to the Sun where the hero transforms into an arrow through a series of geometrical drawings. Why did this illustration fascinate him so? Because, as he commented, “It’s looks like a Transformer.”



This post will look primarily at picture books and illustrated story books (what we call longer picture books these days), because that’s the key genre we think of when talking about reading aloud, but future posts will look at chapter books, novels, and picture books for older children.


Illustrations vary as widely as there are artists and children. Most children love illustrations that invite them to interact, either with the illustration itself or with both illustration and text. All successful picture books achieve this, of course, but the balance of illustration and text varies.


A successful story depends on the delicate balance between not knowing what will happen next and having a suspicion of what will. Illustration can help achieve this. A basic example is Jan Brett’s The Mitten, in which illustrated borders around each main picture hint at the approaching animal, and a quickly established pattern of repetitive text sets up the reader for how that animal will act once arriving on the scene. This is the closest to an equal balance as I’ve ever seen, wherein the reader, text, and illustrations do an equal amount of work.



Don and Audrey Wood’s joyfully hilarious Piggies is a good example of a book dependent more on illustration than text. So is Chris Raschke’s Yo? Yes! and David Shannon’s No, David, both of which use only two to four repeated words as text. Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go asks you to find Gold Bug in each busy illustration, an enjoyable and challenging hunt.



Illustration can help soften or enhance an emotional effect. In Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s monsters are wild-eyed and teeth-gnashing scary but not too scary due to their curvaceous shapes and pastel colors, allowing the child to be safely naughty and wild along with Max. What child doesn’t love that?



Peggy Rathman’s Officer Buckles and Gloria, for K-2, tells the story of a boring Safety Officer who thinks he’s finally getting kids’ attention, when it’s really his new dog Gloria’s hilarious antics behind his back that entertains his audience. The story depends on illustrations showing what is not being told in the text, and inviting – no, insisting – the reader engage in interaction and interpretation.



So, here’s the take-away: When possible, allow the child to self-select to whatever degree is realistic, and pay attention to the illustrations of the picture book you’re choosing.


One last note: illustrated novels, mangas, graphic novels and comic books – yes, older kids and adults like illustrated stories, too.


We’ve only begun to skim the depths of what makes a great read-aloud. Look for my next post, Part II: Laughter and Empathy and, in future posts, Magical, Musical Language; Tall Tales and Folk Tales; And Now, Fourth through Sixth Grades