I've gotten a lot better at picking out kids' books over the last four years. Here's what I do:
Think about developmental stages:
When Natalie was ity bity, I just picked books that looked good to me, but soon I learned that newborns like black and white contrast and older infants like faces. There are tons of books designed to fill this need. Infants also enjoy cloth books, lift-the-flap books, and touch-and-feel books, all of which I learned about on the job. Sadly, many of these you need to buy because they are in short supply at libraries due to cleanliness (fabric books can get grimy fast!) and destructibility (its very disappointing to take out a flap book only to find all the flaps gone!). With the kids currently 3.5 and 1.5, I don't need to think about developmental stages much anymore other than length. Can my child stay focused long enough to hear this book? This page? I look at the overall length of the book as well as amount of text per page. I also check to see if the illustrations are interesting. A good example is The Velveteen Rabbit. I love this story. But even though it is a picture book, the illustrations aren't eye catching and the text is still too long for Natalie. Many Dr Seuss titles are this way, too, even though we equate his texts with small children. Save Dr Suess for the preschool years, excepting Green Eggs and Ham.
Go to story time:
Our weekly story time is where I was introduced to many of our now favorite authors and characters, most notably Lucy Cousins. Usually at the end of story time, the kids can pick one of the books to take home. I keep track of what the librarian reads on Goodreads, and then we can revisit an author or character. And of course, the librarians are happy to help you find something.
Where's the best place to start? The stack of books you probably got at your baby shower. Pretty much everyone gets Goodnight, Moon; The Very Hungry Caterpillar; and Where the Wild Things Are. And do you know why? Because kids love them. Classic titles like these are a great place to start. After that, ask librarians for help. Describe what you liked to see if you can get more like it. Ask other moms; moms with more than one child or a child a little older than yours are great to ask because they've already worked through the stage your child is presently in. And don't forget professionals like day care providers, preschool teachers, and friends who are teachers (either of young children or literacy). I've even read books about books to read to children including 1001 Children's Books to Read Before You Grow Up, A Family of Readers, and What to Read When. Jim Trelease's book The Read Aloud Handbook also contains large lists of titles for reading to children at different ages. And don't forget your own recommendations. One of my favorite types of books to share with the kids are ones I have memories of from my childhood. Most notably, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of my earliest memories of books and school. I've asked my high school students about books from their early childhood, and most of them have a strong memory linked to one or more books.
Follow my kids' interests:
Right now that means - Natalie: princesses, mermaids, hula, babies, fairy tales, and ballerinas; and for William: rocks, farm animals, dogs, cats, trucks, trains, fish, and babies. I look for favorite characters like Spot, Piggie and Elephant, Max and Ruby, or Disney Princesses, including building on excitement about TV and movie characters. I've used interlibrary loan to track down all the books I can find on Yo Gabba Gabba and WALLE. Also, I seek out formats they like. For example, William really likes books with flaps, especially the DK Baby series (Playtime, Hide-and-Seek, Woof). Natalie also likes flaps, but really liked Octopus Socktopus which had more advanced interactive pieces. She also likes longer stories. As much as possible, I take out books that the kids choose themselves.
Considering how much I love books, its surprising how few books we actually buy. I'd say 90% of the books we read are from the library. I do browse book stores and always try to read a few to the kids while we are there, but never want to pay for something that they might not love. So, most of my browsing is at the library. There are five areas I like to browse, and how many I get to depends on how much time I have. I always check the board books because William is only just starting to handle paper pages without suddenly tearing them. I also check out whatever is on display in the picture book section. Next, I scan the new section. If I have time, I'll check the hardcover and paperback sections for early readers; these are leveled books like Step-into-Reading. Since I'm at the library usually twice a week, I see a lot of the same things over and over again. I push myself to choose new titles to try instead of only getting repeats. (Don't get me wrong, though. Repeat reads are very important!).
Read all of a series or author:
When we find something we like, we read all of it! (Which, by the way, is a great habit to get into as your child becomes a reader and needs practice, practice, practice! There are 213 novels in the Babysitters Club franchise just for that reason; these kids need lots of manageable text to increase fluency. But, I digress). We've read everything we can find by Sandra Boynton, Eric Carle, Mo Willems, Eric Hills, and Karen Katz. We've read all Masiy, Dinosaur vs, the Pete the Cat, the Fancy Nancy, and are currently working on Splat the Cat.
Search by topic:
I've started to do this the last seven months or so. As we work on themes in our mommy and me group, I create book lists that match. Just the last couple weeks, I searched books about wind, but other topics I've searched were apples, pumpkins, fall, stars, rainbows, personal safety, and JRA. I have three places I'll do a search: Goodreads, the library catalog, or Amazon.
Use the "customers who bought this also bought" list on Amazon:
I love this function on Amazon when looking for books! It brings up tons of other titles.