What makes a book popular with children? | Series 1, Episode 4

School Reading List Podcast - series 1, episode 4

Episode 4

Episode 4 show notes

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Episode 4 transcript

What makes a book popular with children? Unpicking children’s favourite book choices

Earlier this month we published the results of our favourite children’s books survey. Educators, teachers, librarians and teaching assistants in 50 schools and educational settings across the country polled their classes to find out which books children had enjoyed the most over the past school year.

Whittled down to 75 books and seven age group categories, you can read on our website what children loved to read and share. If you want to know more about the polling process and how the books were chosen, the links are in the programme notes.

The survey process | Children’s favourites: books for 4 year olds | books for 5 year olds | books for 6 year olds | books for 7 year olds | books for 8 year olds | books for 9 year olds | books for 10 year olds

So what do the results show us? What can be read into it?

There’s no evidential smoking gun. There’s no goldmine of peer-reviewed findings. The results are very different to most of the typical teacher choices – including the recommendations on our site –  but hopefully, these top tens will get teachers, students, parents and schools talking about which books work well in their settings.


Looking at what is popular, and trying to explain why it is popular can be a useful starting point for discussions. Every school setting is different, and within each school each cohort is different. If these survey results reflect your school, it’s worth speculating and trying to unpick why certain books are popular, to help develop and promote reading for pleasure further. If the results don’t reflect your classes, it’s also worth looking into why you think that is, and how you can use those thoughts to further promote reading.

At first glance, it does appear that children don’t like to be told what to read. Advised maybe, but not told. ‘You ought to read this’. ‘You should have read this by now’. ”You have to read this otherwise you will fail your’ (exam, coursework, school career, and entire adult life) can turn children off books.

Reading bargains, inducements or contracts such as: read this and you’ll get this, or read 100 pages today and you won’t have to do this, can be equally detrimental to independent reading motivation. It’s interesting that very few, if any, of the books chosen in these lists are the type of books you would expect to have to persuade children to read.

Popular titles are a gateway to reading more challenging material. Children don’t like to be informed that what they choose to read doesn’t have any value or that they ought to be reading something better. A celebrity-penned story, a film or game tie-in or a supermarket-backed bestseller might not be what you want them to read, but it often reflects the child’s world, dreams and reality better than a ‘teacher’s pick’.

After all, as an adult, you wouldn’t want to be told to put your Colleen Hoover away because you really ought to be reading Proust or Joyce. Strangely enough, children don’t like it either. But left to your own devices you might divert from Agatha Christie to Dan Brown to Ian Rankin and end up with PD James and Colin Dexter. Or you might do the reverse. It doesn’t matter. Part of reading enjoyment is reading choice, and the magical risk of reading adventurously invariably requires both.

Children are no different. Diary of a Wimpy Kid might segue into Tracy Beaker and develop into Anne Frank and later I Capture the Castle and A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Where’s Wally can lead to Journey by Aaron Becker, The Arrival by Shaun Tan and perhaps viewing Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate. Every book has value, and often that value is the sheer enjoyment and the power of choice.

Interestingly, the most picked titles blend pupil choice, popularity and at least a modicum of approval from teachers and parents. And even what teachers don’t warm to them, the celebrity titles popping up in these lists are invariably books that are always on classroom bookshelves and in the school library.


Can we speculate on why children chose these books? Is celebrity a factor? Do name recognition and brand awareness come into it? It is noticeable that a lot of the books featured are very recognisable.

Familiarity seems to be a factor. Many of these titles are seen everywhere. Not perhaps seen by adults, but seen by children. School Book fairs, supermarkets, at the airport, near toys and magazines, on children’s shelves in bookshops, and libraries. In magazines. On TV. On the internet. At school. At some stage, many of them have been featured in World Book Day events. They have characters that children have seen people dress up as. In the case of classics, Siblings, friends, teachers parents have all read them. These are books that are already at home, in the classroom, or the library. They’re not always purchased. They’re “books like the ones (so and so) has read”.

A significant number of the pupil’s choices are books are always visible in school. Either because schools have bought them at some stage, or more likely, they’re the type of book to be gifted to schools by parents clearing out their child’s old books, bought second hand, donated by the PTA.

There’s also name, brand and cover recognition to consider. Some books have covers that haven’t changed in 20-30 years. Children know these books on sight before they even read them.

Then there’s the power of celebrity. It’s worth noticing that out of the hundreds of reviews on our site, the most read out of all of them is The Little Thing by Nick Cave. We thought it was highly original and interesting. So did hundreds and thousands of Nick Cave fans around the world. The knock-on effect is that people then started reading the other reviews mentioned in the if you liked this, try this box.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrity books. And sometimes it’s disappointing to hear academics and teachers put them down. What some of my colleagues referred to as “those books” should not be derided. Tie-ins and Celebrity authors are children’s literature’s answer to Heineken. They refresh the readers that other books can’t reach. They don’t take away from other writers’ sales; they tempt children who otherwise might not choose to read. They widen the market and form a first step towards reading for pleasure.


Let’s think about reading motivation. There are books that children want to read because friends, siblings or people they look up to have already read them. Or the books they want to read first, before everyone else. Sometimes there are books that children want to be seen reading.

More often than not, the most popular books are part of a series. There’s an anticipation to read the next one, get the new one, or find more like it.

It is worth noting that – popular books are often cheaper and discounted. Does this make it more likely parents will buy them? Is cost a motivating factor?

There are many discussions to be had regarding the difference between books for children (in other words, what adults think children should read) and children’s books (in other words books that have taken off because they are popular with children). Choice is important. maybe children rebel against what they ought to read and veer towards what they want to read. Perhaps they’re more motivated to read anything but those books you ought to read. They’re not worthy books. They’re not literary. They don’t all have rich language. They do have car chases, bad jokes and formulaic plots. They’re the children’s answer to Dan Brown, Colleen Hoover and … what was that last book you read?

Any book that’s too cool for school is off to a flying start. Most of these books are not studied in English or literacy lessons, or prescribed as “reading books”, or if they are, the chances are the child has already read them before they are asked to. Reading for fun rather than reading as work is one of the magic ingredients.

Comfort reading is king. Children of all abilities do, at some stage or another, like to choose favourite books that are below their expected reading age or not a challenge to read. They’re not books that children will feel they will struggle with or need help with. These are stories they have a sense of ownership with, literally and figuratively.

Stories that are fun, feel-good, imaginative, and empowering, with good tending to defeat evil with happy endings that feed into existing interests, dreams and ambitions. Tales that are rebellious, and anti-school, portray children as people in their own right, where fallibilities and insecurities are overcome and turned into superpowers. These are the winners Doesn’t everyone want to be a hero or a rebel sometimes?

These winners have aspirational settings, seemingly better or more exciting than real life, places that can be drawn, imagined, built out of Lego, talked about, riffed on, and written about in stories that teachers probably won’t like but the rest of the class will. Don’t we all need a feel-good factor at some point?

What’s particularly noticeable about the choices on these lists is the almost total lack of traditional class readers. This begs the question: does studying a children’s book kill any enjoyment that might be derived from it? Is the big novel study a big turn-off?

There are a few notable exceptions. Harry Potter and Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom stand out. But are these books the exception because children have already read them independently before having to dissect them around the classroom, unpick them in comprehension tests and reread them for homework?

Interestingly, once we start to look beyond the age of 8 when most readers are starting to choose independently, most of the book choices are titles children tend to read on their own. They’re not class readers, read-alouds, or books to share. They’re books children can declare: I read this!

Something else to throw out there is the small number of books in the survey results that ‘reflect realities’. Much has been made of children wanting or needing, to see their realities reflected in what they read – often by well-intentioned adults seeking to redress their own children hood reading experiences. There’s been a great push for publishers and schools to promote such books. However, this hasn’t yet translated into sales numbers, or if this survey has weight, reading choices. I really hope this well-intentioned push to broaden horizons doesn’t backfire and turn children off.

When it comes to looking at what children choose, what does appear to resonate is that children like to pick stories that don’t reflect their realities. They favour imagined worlds, places beyond reality, with larger-than-life characters to aspire to and lifestyles to dream about. Perhaps children want a little more from their books that the dystopia of real life. In the instances where the story characters and settings have been promoted as text that ‘reflect realities’, I have to wonder if the popularity is more down to fast-paced plots and good writing, rather than what the adults have decided is ‘on trend’. I do think it’s important that these stories don’t become books that ‘really should be read’ and end up being foisted upon children. Pressure to read can translate to a reluctance to read. This could result in some great new voices not being picked out independently by pupils.

What’s your view? Get in touch with your opinions. Leave us a voicemail shoutout using the link on our website podcast page. We’ll feature a pick of the comments in a future episode.

If you’d like to have a look at the results of the survey, there are seven pages to browse on our website covering 4-year-olds through to 10-year-olds. The links are all in the podcast notes. It’s also interesting to compare the pupils’ choices to our teacher and librarian recommended books for KS1 and books for KS2.

Promoting your new children’s and YA book to schools. Our tips. 

Read the full article on promoting your new children’s and YA book to schools here.

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About Tom Tolkien

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Tom Tolkien is a highly qualified (BA Hons, PGCE, QTS) children's literature expert and teacher with over 25 years of experience. He has led inset courses, developed curriculum materials, spoken at conferences, advised on longlisting for several international children's literature literature awards and written for educational publishers including contributing to a BETT award-nominated app. Social profiles: Twitter | Linkedin