Raising Readers Monday: Guest Blogger Alex Hinrichs

This week’s Monday Raising Readers post comes to us courtesy of Alexandra Hinrichs, whose blog Puddlereader was one of the first to catch my attention when I started my page.  Her reviews of books for children are insightful, adorable, and informed by the opinions of one very well-read little boy. When Alex isn’t chasing after her inquisitive toddler, you can find her playing (er…working) at The Briar Patch, a children’s bookstore in downtown Bangor, ME. Alex has MAs in History (History of Childhood) and Library & Information Studies (Youth Services) from UW-Madison. She has worked as a historical researcher at American Girl and a substitute youth services librarian.  Today she shares with us her thoughts and expertise on a very important topic – when to start introducing kids to books.

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.

IMG_0705It is never too early to begin reading to babies. Even newborns. They benefit from the visual stimulation of the pictures before them, the rhythms of the words and narrative, the act of being held and cuddled, the sound of a parent or caretaker’s voice. As far as literacy goes, babies begin to learn about the orientation of a book, the way the pages turn, and that books have particular sound patterns that go along with them, long before they can even fully absorb a story.
Here are some things to look for in books when making selections for 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.

Fabric books are another fine option for babies. The first book my son fell in love with was a Lamaze cloth book, Peek-a-Boo Forest. Not only is it fabric, but it has a sweet animal peekaboo story, and there is crinkly paper inside each of the peekaboo flaps. When we drove 20 hours from the midwest to the east coast, Peek-a-Boo Forest would keep our four-month-old occupied and content for 45 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot of repetition, but boy oh boy was it worth it not to have him fussing. Books with touch-and-feel components are great for babies. We love some of DK Publishing’s Touch And Feel books (with titles like Playtime), as well as Usborne’s Touchy Feely books by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells, including That’s Not My Puppy…. DK Publishing has some awesome books with sturdy flaps, too. Finally, we love Indestructibles in our household by Amy and/or Kaaren Pixton. These books designed for babies have beautiful illustrations, are often wordless or with minimal words, and feel like paper. Babies can chew them, crumple them, bend them, etc. but they are indestructible! They are also nontoxic and dishwasher and washing machine safe. It doesn’t get much better than that!
In my formal education and work experience, I have learned about the types of books that are best suited for babies. In my experience as a mother, I have learned that even babies have opinions about their reading material. And that these opinions can change. Sometimes slowly, sometimes overnight. My son, who is now 18 months old, wanted nothing to do with anything by Sandra Boynton for the first year of his life. He would squirm and fuss and make his disinterest clear. If I switched it out for Ten Tiny Babies by Karen Katz, well then we were in business. However, when he hit 15 months, he suddenly couldn’t get enough of Moo Baa La La La, which he lovingly called “La La,” and that led to his desire to read every other book by Sandra Boynton. Thank goodness, because we own a lot of Sandra Boynton. People love to give Boynton as gifts–she is such a popular board book author and her stories are quirky and funny!  A similar development occurred with Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple. Within a week of his intense love affair with Sheep in a Jeep, though, he was saying “sheep,” “beep beep,” and “uh oh.” In other words, he knew the story plot!

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.

Above all, have fun when you’re reading together with your baby. Have fun watching them read with others, too. Have fun watching them decide story time isn’t for them on a particular day and crawl or scoot or squawk at the library instead.
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.


A huge thank you to Alexandra Hinrichs for this post!  You should all check out her blog and get to know her on twitter and beyond!  And if you’re ever in Bangor…you know who to ask for a book recommendation.

13 thoughts on “Raising Readers Monday: Guest Blogger Alex Hinrichs

  1. Thoughtful post full of great advice! I think my kids became readers by virtue of the fact that I am a reader. I love books and reading and sharing books with my kids, so they really didn’t have much chance of escape 🙂


  2. Pingback: Books and babies | Puddle Reader

  3. Great post. Our son is now old enough to understand what we’re reading to him. He’ll take story time over TV any day and I’m certain his love of books comes from an early introduction.

    One of the real breakthroughs we had was touch and feel books, which gave him the chance to interact. He particularly liked those with pictures of animals that were furry and would grab the book and give it a big hug.

    There’s a real alchemy of art and science involved in the creation of children’s books and I’ll be eternally grateful to the many authors who have managed to master the process.


    • Thanks for reading, Craig! Be sure to visit Puddlereader for some great book reviews for your son, too. My kids always preferred books to TV – so much more interactive and personal. And while they are young, TV is just too ovewhelming – they can’t process all that content to quickly. Glad to have you here!


  4. Pingback: Raising Readers Monday: Guest Blogger Alex Hinrichs | Little things

  5. This is so helpful! I don’t usually take the effort to read to my less-than-one year olds. It always just proves so short lived, and they want to just eat the book, so these suggestions are great!


  6. Pingback: Raising Readers Monday: Find the Right Reads | kateywrites

  7. To me, there is definitely nothing that screams I LOVE YOU, like reading with someone. A parent reading to a child, a child to a parent. Or me, reading an expert I love from a book to my husband, and him, being willing to listen. 🙂

    Great article. Very interesting points about newborns. Things that make you go… hmm…..NEAT!


    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Erika! You make me smile with the “him, being willing to listen.” My husband and I do that to each other all the time. “Hang in there, you’re going to find this really interesting, okay?”


  8. Pingback: Books and Babies | Alexandra Hinrichs

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