Do babies really like books? When I was a new and very enthusiastic mom I was going to gift my precious spawn with literary gifts as soon as she was released from the womb, or at least as soon as she could motor around and pay attention. I read her poems from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse while she took her bath. She was not impressed, or receptive. She only wanted to drink the bathwater, splash on Mommy and talk. Could that kid talk! I switched to Shel Silverstein. Who wouldn’t like “Are wild strawberries really wild”? She splashed, drank bathwater and talked. She had a peculiar reaction to books. If I held her and tried to read a story, she wanted to rip the book to pieces and chew (well “gum”) the pieces. She attacked every book she could find with ravenous intensity. I wondered if she lacked trace minerals or was suffering from pica. I couldn’t find many books that were sturdy enough for her to handle so since I owned a suck and seal appliance I started sealing magazine pictures in food storage bags. She was delighted. She apparently did not have to rip the pages to pieces to satisfy her cravings, just crumple and tear and stuff them in her mouth. It was a fun toy, but I couldn’t claim that she was getting an introduction to literature.
Since I’ve had a chance to practice on many, many other children since she was a larva I’ve gotten better at finding and picking books for the very young. Search “board books” and you’ll find over 1,350 titles listed at Barnes and Nobel. What is a board book? A board book is a format like hardbound, paperback, etc. The pages are hard cardboard that is supposed to be easier for a small child to hold and turn the pages. It also has the added benefit that your beloved toddler can chew or toss it without readily damaging the book. Often a board book is another edition of a popular picture book. Sometimes what is marketed as a board book is really a toy. The mother of this kind is Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhard. Pat the Bunny spawned lots of books that assume that a small child’s world is so devoid of texture that is we don’t give them some sandpaper and some fake fur to “touch” their brain will not evolve beyond the level of a blueberry. Great literature it’s not but Pat the Bunny is a perennial best seller and loved by many.
Following is my guidelines for books for the youngest set that you can find in board format.
The text should be short, rhythmic and simple enough for very young children. Rhymes are great and rug rats adore repetition. The text of the book has to hold the attention of a squirmy lap dweller. My litmus test – can you memorize the whole book? If you pick a winner the kid will have it memorized, but this may be just because you will have read it to them 100 million times. Read them the U. S. Constitution as often as you read their favorite book and they will be able to go on David Letterman as the youngest prodigy ever to recall the entire U. S. Constitution. You will be proud, your parents will weep, your state will award you the best parent in the word award. Silly Sally, written and illustrated by the wonderful Audrey Wood is a great example of good text. The words are more complex than some books for infants but even the littlest love the rhymes and rhythm. You’ll be chanting “Silly Sally went to town, walking backwards upside down . . .” at inappropriate times, so will your offspring but there will be no David Letterman, no awards. (Why is the world so unfair?) There are books that are just pictures or very few words. The theory is that if you can’t read you can get the story from the pictures. The Good Dog Carl by Alexander Day series is an example. I think there should be words but Carl may be an exception.
Great Pictures: This is a picture book format, which means the pictures are part of the story, not just an illustration. I like simple but beautiful pictures. I’m not fond of photos in this format. If you want baby to see a bunny, go find a bunny. They could even pat the bunny. Way more benefit than looking at a photo of a bunny. (This is just me being dictatorial.) Styles come and go and are very personal. I’m not fond of the illustrations in Goodnight Moon but I never see a tot that isn’t mesmerized by it.
What size should you look for? There isn’t a standard size but board books tend to be smaller than a normal picture book. I like the “medium” size, about seven by five inches, give or take a few because a toddler can hold it themselves. Board format books are easier to cut into shapes, so we can have a book shaped like a house, a daisy or cut around a pig. This can be fun but may not contribute anything. Some of my favorite board books are retelling of old rhymes and in one edition illustrated by Moria Kemp you can get I'm A Little Teapot, Round and Round the Garden, and they have a built in handle. The edition without the handle is just as fun. There are bigger board books, sometimes called “lap books” or “giant format” books. I guess if you have triplets it’s easier for everyone to see if the book is bigger but I think it’s hard for a small child to handle. There are “miniature” books also (they are often the size of a post-it and often sold in sets) but they don’t have much room for words or pictures.
Trust your gut. If you love it you’ll want to read it to the larva. Your enthusiasm may rub off. I'll be posting my favorites (in addition to those listed here) later.