How to Find Great Living {Picture} Books at the Library – Part 3 of the “What is a Living Book?” Series

So, I’m kind of in love with books.  Living books particularly.  That’s why I’ve been doing this little series, “What is a Living Book?”.

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.  Welcome to Part 3 – How to Find Great Living (Picture) Books at the Library.  *smile*

Going to the library has been a weekly activity for our family since the children have been babies.  I love the feel, smell, look, atmosphere – well, mostly everything about the library.

What I don’t love is how many inappropriate and low quality books seem to lurk on the shelves.  This is a huge frustration for so many of the parents I talk to –  libraries carry too much ‘junk’ and not enough living books.

I do have to agree – there is a ton of crummy books at the library.  BUT, there are also quite a few fantastic books.  I have had great success finding very high quality living books at our local libraries and I would encourage any parent not to underestimate the value of their local library.

Because so many Moms have been asking me, I thought I’d share how I use the library for homeschooling – also, how I quickly and easily spot great living books on our trips there.

Some quick pointers for getting the best from the library:

Search online and put books on hold.    Sounds super basic, but I know there are many parents who have never used their library’s online search/hold function.  It is invaluable!!!  You can literally pull up almost every major library system and search the database and put any books you want on hold under your card.  They show up magically at your local library only days later.  It is so easy and such a great way to get the books you actually want!

Look in the Non-Fiction section.  There are a TON of fantastic living books in the non-fiction section of the library.  Both in the children’s non-fiction and adult non-fiction.  This is where I find most of the high quality living books I bring home.  Make sure to look in the biographies section for fantastic living biographies like a bunch of the ones I took home this week!

Look in the ‘New Books” section.  If your library has a section set aside for new titles, make sure you know where it is and check it every time you go to the library.  There are so many wonderful new titles available that fit all the qualities of great living book.

Try using the Inter-Library Loan program.  If you can’t find a title in your local library or even in your city’s library system, ask if they have an Inter-Library Loan program.  This allows you to request titles from outside your system.  I have been able to score very hard to find titles this way – one was even sent to me in Ontario from the East Coast!

Here is a peek at our stash from this week’s library visit:  

I didn’t put any of these on hold.  I simply searched the New Books area and looked in the Children’s Non-Fiction section.  We found some real gems!

So, let’s chat about some of the specific things I look for when selecting books at the library…

What to look for on the Cover of the Book (or in the title and subtitle):

  • Look for BIOGRAPHIES that are in a story format.  Books that have a famous person’s name on the cover often embody many of the qualities we are looking for in a great living book.  Example:  “Ann Frank and the Remembering Tree”.
  • Look for subtitles with words like how, when, why, what, who, and where.  For example: “When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom”, “How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World”. 
  • Look for subtitles like, “The life of…”, “The story of…”, “The true story of…”.   For example: “The life journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony”, “…the life of the famous Chevalier de Saint George”,  “the story of Charles Atlas”, “…the true story of Three Zoo Elephants who…”.
  • Look for subtitles that express the story will be a relatable living book about something or someone real.  For example: “Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets”, “What Thomas Edison told Henry Ford”, and “Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor”.
  • Look for engaging, high quality illustrations.
  • Look for awards and acknowledgements.  Not every great book has been acknowledged with an award, and truthfully, many books I would not read to our children have also won awards.  This is not a clear indication in every case, of course.  But it is worth noting that many times, a big round gold sticker on the front of that book means it is worth at least checking out.
  • Look for familiar authors.  If an author has earned your trust with previous high quality living books – stick to him or her.  I’ve found authors to be incredibly consistent.  Most have a similar style through all their work and if one book was a fantastic living book, another one of their books will have a high chance of being a great choice as well.

Shots showing examples of the above points:

What to look for inside the book:

Over the years, I’ve learned how to quickly flip through a book to see if it is worth taking home.  I’m not always right – I do get it wrong… after all, you can’t read all the content in one quick flip.  However, there are some key elements to look for when hoping to secure a great living picture book.
  • Look for well designed pages with engaging, high quality illustrations.  That which is lovely and beautiful will draw us in.  I think it is universal to enjoy well done illustrations – not only are they nice to look at, they help bring the story to life for the reader.  You can also look for layouts that have larger text in some areas, paragraphs in one spot and descriptions of illustrations in another – this kind of layout is incredibly engaging for readers.  (See a good example in the second photo below.)
  • Look for lots of text.  The more text, the more likely the book will be a living book.  Once in a while, I run into a Mom who is surprised I routinely use picture books to teach our upper elementary kids.  Picture books have come a LONG way.  Many picture books are written with very challenging vocabulary and go into great detail.  Many read like short novels, to be honest!  But, truth be told, if a picture book has very few lines per page, it likely won’t be a great living book.  There are exceptions, but I haven’t found too many.
  • Look for timelines, maps, and diagrams.  These elements point to the story being true and the author/illustrator caring a great deal to express the details of the story in a living, engaging way.  These also serve as fantastic ways to research, expand upon, and dial into the content.
  • Look for things like Forwards, Author’s Notes, Historical Notes, and the like.  Again, the presence of these elements often indicates a true story written by an author who actually cares are her subject.  Historical Notes often indicate a living history book.

Here are some examples from the books we got this week:

I trust this post was helpful in some way for you as you strive to offer a living education to your children!


  • Megan Russell

    Wonderful post! I love the explanations you give. I am getting so much better at choosing living books for my kids. And I have found they love living books much more than I realized.

    • Cassandra

      Thanks, Megan!:) It is a skill, for sure… took me years to get to where I am and still learning a ton. What really surprises me is how often the librarians at our local library have no idea about most of the wonderful living books we read…

  • Prairie + Sky

    Is there such a thing as too many library holds? My son made known (in a very loud voice I might add) how many books we had checked out at our last library visit. "Mom, did you know how many books we had checked out!?" Holds is the way to go! My kids still like to go each week and head for non-fiction most of the time. Great tips, and wonderful pics! I will never grow too old for picture books <3

    • Cassandra

      Haha… let's just say, between the 3 kids cards, we have access to 150 books… at any given time. 😛 Do we do this? No… because of the fees this brings on… haha!!! I think our library limits holds to 25 or something like that… 😛

  • Unknown

    Thank you for this Cassandra~ Living books is new to me this year, doing grade one with my little gal~ As I read through this I opened up my library site. I was able to order 6 of these books to be sent to my local library!! YAY! Can't seem to find that Moses book in the system, that one looks like a real gem! May you continue to be a blessing to others! xo

  • Unknown

    Great info! I am reminded of reading a living book on Amelia Earhart and just seeing my child's interest. It's amazing! You have me wanting to look up all of these at my library and put on hold 🙂 Thanks for this!

  • michelle

    What a great series. 🙂 We'll be using the library a lot this coming year. About 2 or 3 weeks ago, I started putting all the books I needed for our first unit on hold (LOVE!!) and most of them trickled in over the first week and one came just in time this week. We have a small library, so I often have to take what I can get, but I'm often surprised at how many living books are available.

  • Unknown

    I have to say I adore the library. I have always loved books and even though we have a huge collection of books in our house, I'm at the library every week or two. In fact I just came back from the library yesterday with a stack of 20 books for our unit studies on Japan, Korea and Australia. My husband says, "I thought you said a few books?" To me that is a few. Ha!

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