Discovery + Diversity: 8 Moms on Building Personal Libraries for Kids

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Stacey Megally

Staff Writer

Stacey Megally is a writer, runner, and incurable bookworm. Her writing has been featured in The Dallas Morning News, Running Room Magazine, The Bookwoman, and on stage at LitNight Dallas and the Oral Fixation live storytelling show. When she isn’t knee-deep in words or marathon training, she’s hanging out with her smart, funny husband and their two extremely opinionated dogs. Instagram: @staceymegallywrites

How old were you the first time a book made you feel something big? Curiosity or joy or compassion or even sorrow? As kids, each story we read was a chance to get lost in a brand-new world and its characters—some that seemed familiar, and others that didn’t. We didn’t know it at the time, but our perspectives were being challenged and shaped in a way only words on a page can do. So it’s no wonder parents put so much thought into building personal libraries for their kids.  

With so many children’s stories on the shelves today, there’s no one right way to curate books for your children. Where do you shop? What do you pick? How will your kids react?

I asked a diverse group of moms—one who was expecting her first child and seven with children ranging from five months to six years old—for their perspectives on creating personal libraries for kids. 

Image by Jerry Wang from Unsplash.

Curating: When, Where, and How

When Ashlie Lacy found out she and her husband were expecting their son, she immediately began thinking about what books she’d need to buy to start his library. Lacy wasn’t alone. Kimber Clonts, who was still expecting when I emailed with her, told me reading to her child at bedtime was one of the things she was looking forward to most. And based on the thoughtful answers I got from the other six mothers I reached out to, it seems all of them have spent lots of time thinking about their kids’ personal libraries.

Where They’re Finding Recommendations

Many of the moms look for recommendations online. Natalia Varshosaz, mother of two boys, often searches for lists of the best books of the year for her oldest son—a method Clonts has also started for her unborn baby. Karen Rojas found one of her son’s favorite books, What Should Danny Do?, from a parenting influencer. Likewise, Sonya Desai discovers inspiration for her daughter’s library while she’s scrolling through her social media feeds.

A word-of-mouth recommendation is always a trusted resource—from each other and also from experts. Mother of two Stephanie Goettsch looks to her own mom, a retired English teacher, for insights on which stories will capture young minds. When Stephanie Loovis’s daughter expressed anxiety around starting kindergarten, Loovis and her husband consulted their daughter’s pre-K teachers to find books that would help with the transition from home to school. And sometimes it’s the child who finds a book first—Rojas told me her son often asks for books he sees or hears about at school.

How They’re Getting the Books

Besides borrowing from the library and buying in stores or online—often with help from kids who are old enough to choose what they like—these moms also enjoy receiving books as gifts. Lacy asked each guest at her baby shower to bring an inscribed book in lieu of a card. For the moms whose children attend school, Scholastic Book flyers and school book fairs—yes, the same ones you remember from your own childhood—remain perennially good options.

A couple moms shared specific sources that help bring diversity to personal libraries for kids. Every month, Loovis gets a free, age-appropriate book centered around a Jewish theme from PJ Library. Desai looks for diverse stories for her daughter at Barefoot Books, an independent children’s book publisher that focuses on stories that celebrate diversity.

Curating: What They’re Looking for

Age-Appropriate Books

Most of these moms told me they place priority on finding books that are appropriate to their children’s ages and developmental stages. Before Helen Chang’s son started to express his own interests, she’d visit the library or bookstore and browse specific sections matching his age and skill level, just to get him started. While Varshosaz’s sons may share some books, she also chooses specific themes—such as repetition, categorization, and rhymes—for each of her sons based on their ages.

Goettsch told me, “My initial goal was to teach the kids when they were young to love and appreciate reading through picking books at the correct reading levels and topics.” 

Books That Reflect a Diversity of Characters and Communities

When it comes to building personal libraries for kids, collecting books that celebrate diversity is a high priority for these moms. Common among these moms is a desire to give their kids opportunities to read about their own cultures.

“We are of Indian origin and my daughter has a lot of curiosity about her roots,” Desai told me. She looks for stories about “traditions, holidays, gods and mythology, etc.” that are understandable for a young Indian American child. In the same vein, Loovis and her husband are deliberate about collecting for their daughter books that reflect all aspects of their Jewish culture, including biblical stories, holidays, and general Jewish values.

Rojas and her husband are passing their shared culture on to their son by reading books to him in Spanish, which helps dictate many of the books they acquire. Clonts is also ready to pass down her family’s culture. Her unborn baby already has Wings for Per, which was her great uncle’s favorite book in the 1940s and encompasses their family’s Norwegian heritage and World War II experiences.

Lacy and Varshosaz hope books that reflect their cultures will help their children understand how they fit into American society. Lacy wants her son to understand that “just because he is a little Black boy, success doesn’t have to include running between lines of a field with a ball in his hand or wearing gold chains and rapping to a beat. These are certainly stereotypes within our society that are perpetuated as this is the only version of a successful grown Black man typically portrayed, or glorified even. I want him to want more for himself and exposure to books will help ignite those dreams.”

Although Varshosaz has always been deliberate about selecting books with diverse characters, the importance of that focus really hit home when her son came home from school and asked her why his hair wasn’t blonde.

“If diversity is part of their everyday life, then it becomes normalcy,” she told me.

These moms also recognize the importance of books that represent cultures that are different from their own. While Varshosaz borrows many of the books her boys read from the library, she told me, “If I am going to buy books, I usually buy books from different cultures or countries.”

Although Rojas’s son attends a school that is already racially diverse, she still makes sure to expose him to and talk to him about all races through books. Loovis looks for stories about as many communities as she can find, including ones that feature BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters, and kids with disabilities.

One sentiment from Lacy seemed to echo the spirit of many of the moms’ comments to me: “I want my son to be exposed to as many cultures as possible to help garner an appreciation for human beings as a whole regardless of their culture, skin tone, faith, etc. A kind, accepting, open-minded kid is what we’re going for, and the more exposure he gets to all the nooks and crannies of the world the better.”

Stories Influenced by What They Read As Kids

Some of the moms told me their choices are heavily influenced by their own childhood favorites. As she was preparing her home for their newborn’s arrival, Clonts went through the books she owned as a child. “Each book lit up memories, the next stronger than the last,” she told me. “I hope that my child has a love for books, tied up with family memories, just like I do.”

Goettsch’s children’s library contains some of the exact copies of books from her own childhood. Lacy remembers the thrill of reading about worlds she wasn’t familiar with and hopes her son will experience the same.

On the flip side, Rojas hopes her son will have books that are better than the ones she had access to when she was younger. She doesn’t remember reading any books about different cultures.

“I think that would have benefitted me being a Hispanic in a predominantly white school district,” she told me.

Books Their Kids Gravitate Toward

One of Goettsch’s primary considerations in curating her kids’ books is making sure that her kids are genuinely interested in the stories. Likewise, Chang makes it a point to observe what her son is drawn to when selecting books for him. At first, Chang told me, her son loved bright, eye-catching books or books “with something to squish or crinkle on each page”—an observation shared by many of the other moms. As Chang’s son’s interests evolved from colors and textures to music and then to trucks, trains, and cars, she’s made sure to buy him books that help foster his curiosity. In the same way, Desai, after noticing that her daughter was drawn to non-fiction books, began picking out books about the Earth, space, and animals to keep her daughter “intrigued and learning.”

Stories That Reflect Life Events

In addition to picking out books that would help her daughter transition to kindergarten, Loovis also looked for books that would help prepare her daughter for her tonsillectomy. Rojas has used stories to help her son through many stages in life, including potty training and sharing with his friends at school. 

Curating: What They’re Avoiding

A couple of the moms told me that they avoid books that reinforce gender stereotypes. Clonts plans to be cautious about gender stereotypes when picking out books for her future children. “If it’s a girl,” she told me, “I don’t want her to think that her belonging in the literary world is only a damsel in distress. And conversely if I have a son, I don’t want him thinking masculinity is defined by slaying a dragon.” Desai was also initially wary of princess stereotypes, but has been pleased to find modern stories whose princesses are more “self-aware, diverse, and independent.”

Varshosaz stays away from books and characters that feature guns, violence, and “good” and “bad” characters.

However, many of these mothers told me they don’t actively avoid any books based on themes. Lacy believes that any book offers kids an opportunity to ask questions and start a discussion.

The Benefits of Personal Libraries for Kids

Meaningful Time Together

All of the moms I talked to agree that books help strengthen their relationships with their kids. Reading together with their children, as Chang put it, “creates quality bonding moments.” In fact, as a working mom, Desai counts on her daughter’s bedtime reading routine to provide consistent, interruption-free time to connect. Varshosaz has a designated “reading room” in her home and told me their family spends time there together every day.

Reading time also presents these moms with an opportunity to discuss questions and observations provoked by the stories. For example, reading together presents the perfect opportunity for kids to learn more about characters who don’t look like themselves. Almost all of the moms told me they make sure to point out both the differences and the similarities, which, Loovis told me, inspires “surprisingly enlightening conversations” with her daughter.

At the same time, Loovis is discerning about highlighting differences. For example, she told me, if a story’s theme involves racial diversity, she’ll talk about it with her daughter. But if a character just happens to look different from her daughter—and that difference isn’t central to the story—she won’t always call it out. Instead, she wants her daughter to observe that all heroes don’t have to look or act the same way.

Lacy plans to take the same approach with her son when he’s old enough to talk. “By pointing it out too early,” she told me. “I think you draw attention to something that they otherwise may not have thought was an issue on their own.”

Rojas told me she uses reading time to navigate the feelings, challenges, and choices her son may be facing. “I feel like kids can easily relate to stories and they see themselves reflected in them,” she told me. She likes to relate what he’s reading to his own life choices and the real-life consequences—both positive and negative—that come from his decisions.

Many of the moms told me about spending meaningful time with their kids in bookstores. Some of the moms have created a routine around these outings. Varshosaz takes her boys to Half Price Books once a month, and Desai and her daughter enjoy a snack and book browsing in the kids area at Barnes & Noble.

The Role of Books in Their Kids’ Lives

Expanding Their Child’s World View

“I would like books to be a window to the rest of [my son’s] world,” Lacy told me. All the other moms shared this sentiment about the role they hope books will play in their kids’ lives. Loovis hopes books will help her daughter “see the world as others see it.” Desai told me that although her daughter will say she doesn’t like to read, Desai continues to see the way books expand her daughter’s “world beyond our four walls”—even when her daughter doesn’t recognize it.

Fostering Curiosity and Imagination

Desai told me that stories inspire “why” questions from her daughter—and no matter how exhausting they can be to answer, Desai is happy about it. In fact, all the moms, whether or not they mentioned it specifically, seem to recognize the way books feed their kids’ curiosity.

Loovis told me she hopes books will encourage her daughter to think critically and adds, “I hope they stimulate her imagination, her creativity, her curiosity.” And Lacy hopes the books her son reads will “fuel his dreams.”

Building Skills

All of the moms told me about the skills books have provided for their children. Chang has been especially excited about her son’s blossoming vocabulary. “It’s been fun to hear him speak with new words he acquires through books,” she told me. Varshosaz told me, “My kids have learned to talk from books and continue to learn new vocabulary.” Loovis added another layer to this concept when she told me she hopes reading will teach her daughter that “words have meaning and that they can both hurt and heal.”

Chang brought up other learning skills when she told me she and her husband have noticed that reading to their son seems to help him with “developing good listening skills and ability to focus.”

Books help kids learn soft skills, too—like the decision skills Rojas helps her son focus on. Desai has noticed the same thing with her daughter, and adds that books have helped her daughter develop empathy and gratitude. Clonts remembers learning “manners and teachable life lessons” from her books as a child, and adds she didn’t even realize she was learning and hopes her child will have the same experience.

Inspiring a Love for Books and Reading

These moms were especially passionate about their hopes to inspire a life-long love of books and reading through personal libraries for their kids. Goettsch, having inherited her own mom’s passion for reading and buying lots of books, loves that her kids share that same excitement already. Clonts also hopes her children will feel the way she did when she first realized how magical books were for her. “I hope when they think back to reading with my husband and me, or even on their own, that they feel flooded with happy memories and are transported back to that childlike wonderment.” Loovis told me she hopes books will make her daughter laugh and cry and “keep her up at night because she’ll read just one. More. Chapter.” 

Clearly, for the eight moms who shared their experiences with me, building personal libraries for their kids is one of the most important, beautiful, and rewarding gifts they can give their children.

So, to all of the parents out there who have or are currently finding just the right books to share with their kids: keep up the good work. And to everyone out there who’s wondering how you can make an impact—even a small one—on the lives of kids you know, how about giving them a book or two?

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