It's an exciting time—you've discovered living books, along with Reshelving Alexandria, and you want to stock your home library with these wonderful treasures. So how do you decide which books are worth purchasing, especially when you have a book in hand at a bookstore or a library sale? How do you begin to determine if that book is right for your family and your library?

My journey started about 5 years ago when my husband and I were contemplating the education of our children. Our oldest son was 5 and we knew he wasn't ready for a typical kindergarten class. I decided to begin exploring homeschooling options and remembered a homeschooling acquaintance, Amy, whose bookshelf pictures on Facebook intrigued me. She noted her daughters had selected all of their own books for free reading for the year and I didn't recognize any of them! All appeared to be vintage and looked nothing like anything we had on our own shelves. I called Amy one afternoon, and we spent the next two hours immersed in living books. She first introduced me to Jan Bloom's books, which eventually led me to Emily Kiser and Liz Cottrell's Living Books Library, and my obsession became solidified.

Now, after years of exploration and discoveries (and a few spectacular fails in the book purchasing world), I’ve constructed my own system for book buying that keeps my library under control and within my budget, while still providing a full complement of books for our family’s reading pleasure. Let me share with you my method of choosing books.

1. Is the author/series recommended by a trusted source?

Initially I depended heavily on three sources: Jan Bloom's books, Who Should We Then Read? Volumes 1 and 2, Valerie Jacobsen's website, and the books included in the Ambleside Online curriculum. Reading the author biographies Jan has written, familiarizing yourself with the series listed on Valerie's website, as well as the authors, illustrators, and series listed here on Reshelving Alexandria, will provide you with a basic knowledge to begin your search. If the book is on one of these lists, the quality of the writing is virtually guaranteed to be worthy reading.

2. Does it meet your needs/wants for your home library?

Even if the book is worthwhile, it may not be a good fit for your library. Before beginning a shopping trip, it might be helpful to determine your personal library goals. There are many reasons for building a home library, including:

  • Homeschooling/Afterschooling
  • Personal enrichment
  • Collecting for preservation purposes
  • Building a lending library for other families

A beautiful picture book, such as Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is a must-have for most young children but probably won’t be read too frequently by a teenage boy. Similarly, a shelf of books about sailing ships may not be what another person would find useful for personal enrichment. Another consideration is shelf availability. Is there a place for these books if purchased?

3. Do the first couple of pages capture your attention? What are the illustrations like?

Read a paragraph or two on the first page and in the middle of the book. Does it make you want to turn the page and read more? Are the sentences well crafted or do they feel unnecessarily simplified?

Illustrations are also important. Do the pictures draw you in and capture your imagination or are they unappealing or so complicated that you and your child will be overwhelmed by the charts and sidenotes?

The illustrations on the right are so much less complicated and draw me in immediately

4. Is the book in good condition and is the paper of good quality?

Books from the 1940s were often printed on "wartime" paper. Quite often they contained "twaddle" or inferior writing similar to current paperback romance novels. Sometimes classics were also printed using this paper. The paper in these books usually appears tanned and brittle. Heavier/thicker paper that has remained white and doesn’t show any sign of brittleness and crumbling indicates the book was intended to be read for many years and is of higher quality. Additionally, if the book is in poor condition, its value is limited as it will require repair (if that is even possible.) This would include pages falling out, a torn binding, missing pages, cracked and loose spine, heavily rubbed corners and edges, scribble/crayon marks and liberal library stamps, particularly if they cover illustrations or writing. Unless the book is a unicorn, it is probably worth waiting to find a better copy of the damaged book.

Although Davy Crockett from the American Adventure series is a great book, you may want to wait if it looks like the one on the left!

5. Does it pass the "smell" test?

"Old book smell" is amazing and makes any booklover swoon. As a book ages, the lignins from any wood based paper, along with the glue and ink break down and produce that intoxicating scent that should be bottled and sold as an air freshener! Matija Strlic of University College London authored a study in 2009 authenticating it. She described it as a "combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents." However, there is a significant difference between that wonderful smell and mustiness which is a death knell in most anyone's library. Stick your nose in the middle of the book and make sure it doesn't smell musty. If it does, be prepared for long term treatment options (think months!) that may or may not be successful.

6. Will it be difficult to find this book again?

You can use a vertical search website such as or to quickly determine current pricing. These websites scan inventories of booksellers all over the world. Bookfinder is more comprehensive and includes eBay but can be more difficult to navigate on a smartphone when standing in a store.

7. Is there a Kirkus review for this book?

From 1933-1970, Kirkus reviewed many books with good criteria for analyzing "living" books. These archived reviews are still available online. However, if you go directly to their website, an archived review is nearly impossible to find. To look for a Kirkus review, you will need to type the Author + Book Title + Kirkus directly into your search engine such as Google. This should bring up a review for the book if one is available. Kirkus continues to review current books, but the content is not as reliable.

8. Is it a Junior Literary Guild book?

The Junior Literary Guild was formed as a commercial book club devoted to juvenile literature in 1929 and was edited by Helen Ferris from then until 1960. Books selected for this club (during that time) are generally wonderful books and worthy of consideration. This will be indicated on the title page of the book; occasionally it is written on the spine as well.

9. Are there any other books by this author that you've enjoyed already?

Authors are generally consistent across books. Obviously this isn’t a guarantee, but if you enjoyed a book by this author already, chances are you will enjoy another one as well.

10. Does the cost of this book fit in the book budget?

Although Erasmus is frequently quoted, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes," book buying does have to stay within reason. This will obviously be different for each person. Used bookstores, antique shops, library book sales, and even online booksellers will often give discounts when asked, particularly if you are purchasing several books at once.

Here is one simple example of what I purchased on a recent trip to a book shop inside an antique mall and how I chose what I did. In this particular book shop I could have brought 25 books home with me, but I didn't have $250 to spend. These are the books I chose and how I made the decision to purchase them. I also asked if they would give me a discount and they agreed as long as I spent more than $20 {That wasn’t hard!}.

Books purchased

Watergate by Herbert Best, Land of the Free series
I am collecting this series for personal reading as I have enjoyed the detailed stories of the many immigrant groups who worked so hard to settle this country. This particular book is harder to find and I didn’t own it already. Even though it was $20, I discovered it would cost at least that much online and this one was in great condition, with a dust jacket already covered in mylar.

Land of the Free series

The Shoo-Fly Pie by Mildred Jordan and illustrated by Henry Pitz
Although Ms. Jordan and Mr. Pitz are unknown to me, the cover and the first illustrations captured my attention immediately. The story follows a little Pennsylvania Dutch girl who grows up in the course of this book and is finally allowed to bake her first "Shoo-Fly Pie." The beautiful illustrations of the covered bridge, the recipe in the back along with a note from the author sealed this purchase. Ms. Jordan noted she had sent her first few pages of the manuscript to Annie Fellows Johnson who said "her writing showed promise." This book also has a great Kirkus review although it was difficult to locate as the title is spelled Snoo-Fly Pie incorrectly online.

Dragon Ship by William Resnick and illustrated by Rafaello Busoni
This book is illustrated by someone I recognized who also illustrated other well regarded books. Typically well regarded illustrators are matched with well thought of authors. This book focuses on the history of the Vikings in America and my homeschool library is a little scarce on that topic.

Lucky Year by Dorothy Aldis
This book has a stellar Kirkus review and is written by an author I already have in my library (Nothing Is Impossible: The Story of Beatrix Potter). She is also a frequent contributor to poetry anthologies. This book is based on a true story about Jenny Lind who I happen to like quite a lot. In addition, it is a Junior Literary Guild selection and it was on clearance. As you may have noted, I depend heavily on Kirkus for their ability to tell me whether or not it's a good story!

Jenny Lind books

We Were There With Charles Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle by Philip Eisenberg
I'm personally collecting this set for our homeschooling. Both of my sons love these books and I find them a wonderful way of experiencing the historical event described through a child's eyes. When my parents visited recently, they were perusing my shelves and my father selected this series as the one he remembered reading as a child. This confirmed my decision to collect this series as they had made such an impression on him (he went on to college and chose to major in and graduate with a B.A. in American History).

Although I left several wonderful books behind, each of these delightful living books met my criteria above and now have a place in our family library.

Choosing good books take time and practice like any skill. The results will be worth all you put into this for both you and your family's enrichment.

Deanna Knoll

Deanna Knoll was raised by book loving parents where bookshelves filled the house. She and her sister looked forward to their weekly trips to the A.B. Chance public library in Centralia, Missouri where she clearly remembers devouring Childhood of Famous Americans and Signature biographies, along with plenty of other treasured books.

Books continue to occupy a lot of space in her life, literally and metaphorically! In addition to homeschooling her two boys, she enjoys working part time as a pediatric physical therapist, leading worship music at her local church and camping, hiking, biking and canoeing the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and two boys.