A story at bedtime. This is one of the quintessential images of childhood. I think when most people picture a bedtime story, though, they tend to imagine a toddler curled up in bed with their parent and a favorite picture book. What comes before that point? How do youngsters establish these favorite books, this favorite of rituals? Here are some of my thoughts on the youngest readers and book lovers, babies.
- Photographs of babies or animals – It seems to be a rule that babies love looking at other babies. The human face is also one of the first things that newborns are able to see and recognize. Some of our favorite books of this nature include: American Babies and Global Babies, both by the Global Fund for Children, as well as the Babyfaces series by Roberta Grobel Intrater with titles such as Eat!, Sleep, and Splash! (published by Scholastic). There are many books with photographs of animals out there, and for young babies I recommend looking for ones that have one image per page as opposed to those that have twenty photographs of wild animals on a two-page spread. A single image of an animal gives babies something to focus on. The books that have multiple images are great, but they are better for toddlers.
- Illustrations in black and white – Babies can see contrast and outlines well from birth. There are some board books specifically designed with this in mind, such as Peter Linenthal’s Look, Look! and Look at the Animals! There are also some picture books that are fabulous for this reason, such as The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes, and Kevin Henkes’ Kitten’s First Full Moon.
- Images with big bold colors – Bold colors come shortly after black and white where babies’ vision is concerned. They likewise often provide high contrast. Bold colors are not hard to come by in children’s books.
- Spare text and lots of white space – Babies have short attention spans, so look for books without much text per page. This doesn’t mean that all books have to be one image, and one word labeling that image, although those types of books deserve a good portion of a baby’s library. But stories that have a single phrase per page, or a couple of short sentences are much more likely to hold a baby’s attention than a page with a full paragraph of text. White space is that space around the illustrations and text that helps with definition and contrast, giving baby’s eyes the best chance to focus. If there is too much on a page, babies can become overwhelmed, or visually overstimulated, and lose interest.
- Board books, fabric books, and books with touch and feel aspects – Board books are wonderful for little hands and little mouths. There is a period for three or four months, before babies are grabbing and yanking and ripping, where babies and picture books — as well as board books — go really well together. But after those months, it is probably safer to put the hardcover and paperback picture books away for a bit, and thank publishers for the alternatives they provide. Remember, just because something is a good hardcover picture book doesn’t mean it’s a good board book, even if a publisher tries to tell you (sell you) otherwise. It would be nice to assume that hey, this publisher printed a board book edition, so it must be good for babies, but that’s just not the case, unfortunately. Many beloved picture books that publishers put into a board book version have more text and are better suited for older toddlers or preschool age children.
At 18 months, my son has yet to have the attention span to sit through our generously gifted board book edition of Bubble Trouble by Margaret Mahy and Polly Dunbar. There is way too much text to keep him interested, even though Mahy’s rollicking rhymes are fantastic and bound to make older kids laugh. Or some stories that might be fine text-wise lose too much when the illustrations are shrunk down to board book proportions. Look for the above-mentioned features in board books. And check to see whether a story has been abridged or altered in other ways. I love the story, Lola at the Library, but the board book version is shorter and the text inferior to the original book. On the other hand, I think The House in the Night does make a good board book, as does Feast for 10 by Cathryn Falwell.
I’m getting off track, though. Baby’s opinions. How do we figure them out?!
I mean this is really what parents spend the non-speaking year(s) attempting to do in all arenas, not just books. And like in every other arena, the way your baby communicates to you is probably different than the way my baby communicated to me. As parents and caretakers, I think the best we can do is to pay attention to the subtle ways our non-speakers communicate their opinions to us and try to respond. It took some trial and error to figure out which books my son liked, and which he did not. Squirming, looking away, maybe fussing, these were his signals of dislike or disinterest to me. If a baby does not seem interested in the first couple of books you present, do not give up. Try something else. When my son liked a book, it held his gaze. He was captivated. He might kick his little feet with excitement. We could sometimes read it multiple times, which I learned when he started to fuss at the end of the book, sometimes in anticipation of the end as we reached the last page. And then if he got sick of that book after a period of days or weeks or months, we tried something else again.
Another way to involve books and stories in your baby’s life is to go to baby story times at the public libraries and/or bookstores in your area. If your library does not have a baby story time, talk to your librarian. They might be willing to start one, especially if they know there is interest, or you might learn that the story time for toddlers is also appropriate for (and commonly populated by) babies. This is a fun way to discover new books, learn more activities to do with your baby at home such as finger plays, songs, or bouncing rhymes, give your baby social time, and meet some other parents.
Allow your child to see you read, as well. I know, easier said than done. But try to make opportunities for your youngster to see you reading a book, magazine, or newspaper, even if it’s just for a few minutes.Enjoy the cuddles, and don’t worry if your baby wants you to turn the pages quickly. Just because they are speeding through doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying it, as well. It might mean exactly the opposite, in fact! My son loved the collages and rhythms of Dancing Feet! by Lindsey Craig and Marc Brown long before he had the patience to listen to every word. But that didn’t matter. Eventually he wanted to hear all the words, too, but in the meantime we skipped around or did a speed reading version, which made me laugh. It remains one of his favorite stories.
Parenting a baby…it’s a precious time, an anxiety-ridden time, a time that I wanted to speed read on some days, and on other days to linger on each page, each word, each image.