I can't help myself. I just can't stand the Nickelodeon books. They don't flow, they make terrible read-alouds, and they're usually a poorly done summary of the episode. My oldest has gone through phases where she really loved the Dora or Doc McStuffins books. And because it was a positive interaction with reading, I sucked it up and read them to her. Yes...over and over. I will borrow these books from the library, but if I'm going to buy a book and have it take up some of our limited living space, then I want it to be high quality.
Here's a few ideas of what to look for.
Look for books with rhyme and rhythm. One of our favorite books to read aloud is called Silly Sally by Audrey Wood. It almost sounds like a song when you read it aloud. And it has great repetition which I mention below. Books with rhyme not only help teach rhyming, but they are engaging and easier to remember and retell.
Find books with solid illustration. The Caldecott award and honors that a book has high quality illustration. In this list of honors and awards you'll find author/illustrators like Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey, Maurice Sendak, Leo Lionni, Lois Ehlert, Mo Willems, Kevin Henkes, Jon Klassen, and Chris Raschka. There's something almost magical in the way these illustrators weave together their beautiful pictures and text.
See if you follow the sequence of the story easily. Good stories have a simple sequence that kids can retell. Fairy tales generally have simple story lines like The Three Little Pigs. These can be easily retold and can be especially fun when you change the ending. Most kids get a delightful giggle out of familiar tales told terribly wrong!
Repetition. Many are familiar with the story There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Although this story is not one of my personal favorites, it's a great example of repetition. Eric Carle works repetition into a lot of his books, like "but he was still hungry" written over and over in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Even my almost 2 year-old can say lines from books we read again and again.
Predictability. As adults, we tend to like storylines with a twist. For that, I enjoy the Piggie and Elephant books by Mo Willems. Kids and adults are equally entertained by the often unpredictable endings. But predictable books help young kids as they learn to read. They get a feel for where the story is going and this can help them use context clues to decode the words. There's a satisfaction that comes when a child can predict what's next and see it unfold as they expect. We find these books often get the "again, again!" stamp of approval.
So if you have to have a few Sponge Bob books in the house, so be it. But when you're looking to be purposeful about the books you buy, look for children's literature with some of (or all of) the qualities above. When you have a few minutes to sit together with your child, you'll be glad you chose books you can all enjoy.