Children’s literature can be a tool for growth,

but knowing which book to choose (& when!) can be overwhelming.


The key is to allow awareness of a child’s current developmental process to guide book choice. Selecting developmentally-appropriate children’s books begins with understanding child development…


Child Development: a Universal & Unique Process

Universals in child development have been found worldwide & throughout history leading experts to assign ages & descriptions to developmental stages. Because of the similarities, we are able to…

  1. Recognize distinct stages
  2. Describe them
  3. Identify the approximate ages they occur

At the same time, each child’s development is uniquely their own. Each child experiences universal stages in the context of their own story & timeline. One child begins crawling at 9 months & another after a year. The same is true for speech, reading & many other developmental milestones.



In the early nineties,Through the Eyes of a Child author, professor & child development expert Donna Norton summarized child development research this way:

“Research in child development has identified stages in the language, cognitive, personality, and social development of children. Not all children progress through these stages at the same rate, but all children do pass through each stage as they mature.”



Today’s research agrees – children progress through developmental stages in multiple areas of development, including language, cognitive, emotional & social. (The last two are increasingly linked together and most often referred to as social-emotional development.) 

Child development in all areas occurs as both a universal & unique process. Read more about whole child development or check out the CDC’s info on healthy development & milestones.


Child, Girl, White, Kid, Attractive








Understanding the Link Between Child Development & Children’s Literature

While there are many ways to encourage child development, the use of books targeted to address the needs of a child’s current stage is one of the most popular.We call it many things – reading, language arts, literacy education.

Developmentally-appropriate literature is important in literacy education. For example, our schools use leveled books to teach at different grade levels & within grades.

In addition to writing about child development, author & education professor Norton explained the link between child development & children’s literature. The same book mentioned above states:

“The general characteristics of children at each developmental stage provide clues for appropriate literature. Certain books can benefit children during a particular stage of development, helping the children progress to the next stage.”

In other words, we have known for at least thirty years that we can actually use development to identify the literature most applicable to the individual child. An awareness of a child’s developmental needs can be paired with the literature most suited to encourage the specific growth needed at the time.


Considering Categories of Development When Choosing Children’s Books

The next step in book selection is targeting your reading purpose. In other words, ask yourself which job this particular book will be used for… different goals require different books. Are you wanting a book to teach a specific concept, help your child ready for sleep,  or maybe something to make you both laugh on a dreary, wintry day?

Identifying the developmental need you want to address in the moment (or the fact that you want a just for fun book!) will give you a direction. At times you may have multiple goals, but it will help to narrow your focus to primarily ONE.

One simple way to narrow your options is to think in developmental categories. Are you wanting to encourage your tantrum-prone child’s heart right after their meltdown… or are you wanting to practice table manners to possibly avoid tomorrow’s plate-throwing?

For the sake of simplicity, we have chosen to look at development from three angles…  head, heart & hands.  These distinctions are typically traced back to the work of Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s, but have been embraced by others. Bloom’s Taxonomy is studied by today’s educators as one way of classifying learning objectives & works for any developmental age.


Book, Coffee, Cup, Stack, Book, Book

1. Head thinkingCognitive development is probably the oldest researched aspect of learning & still considered to be important. Modern brain research has added to past theories and books that teach cognitive skills abound. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that is able to reason.

2. Heartfeelings, relationships – Concepts of emotional & social growth became popular in the seventies, & today these are more often referred to as a related entity (social-emotional). Bibliotherapy is the use of books to stimulate emotional health. Research suggests that storytelling helps us connect to our emotions & those of others. Stories activate the limbic brain.

3. Handsbehavior, instinct, motivation – We know there is a connection between the brain & the gut, the mind & the body. Research on behavior & learning styles has contributed further to our understanding of holistic child development.


P.S. It is also essential to consider the reader! Will this book be one that you read-aloud or one that the child reads?

Even babies are capable of taking turns pointing & interacting with pictures & text. Here is a great 1st Words book .

For more on book choice by age, go here.