Before you become a parent, other parents will tell you all the time that you will read the same books a thousand times. In the back of your mind you tell yourself that they are as prone to hyperbole as the rest of us, but you soon find yourself wondering how many times have you said the phrase “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” Before you can help it your mind is already answering, “Why, a red bird of course!”
I’m not an expert in child development, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t really matter which books you choose to read. Most baby books are going to do a fine job of helping a baby to acquire language skills, learn cause and effect, and recognize patterns. The most important thing is that you are snuggling up with your little one and reading regularly to them. That being said, baby books vary widely in quality, from the perspective of the reader. If you really are going to read a book a thousand times, you might as well not feel like it is going to drive you insane.
The best baby books, in my opinion, have the following qualities:
Plot line. A plot is the antidote to the books that are most likely to drive you insane: listing books. How many times can you read a book on vegetables, which just shows a mind numbing array of crudely drawn images of a vegetables with their accompanying name on each page? My guess is these books are made for parents who don’t speak to their children; that, or they are manufactured by the government to be used during terrorist interrogations at Guantanamo. “I know it’s a turnip! Please, NO, NOT AGAIN!!!”In contrast a book like Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf is a “Once upon a time” type of book that, as a reader, you will finish even if you’re little one crawls off.
Interactivity. Babies love to do stuff. They’re active little buggers, and its rare that they sit quietly in your lap for more than a few seconds. But if a book has flaps that you have to open up to play peek-a-boo with a bear! Well, then reading is fun, and you’ll basically be playing together. My favorite is Goodnight Owl by Dwell Studio. The text is short enough that when my daughter lunges for the flap, we’re in cadence, and the thickness of the pages are easy for her to turn. In contrast, a very similar book, Butterfly’s Bath, by Sharon Streger, fails for the opposite reason. The repetitive introductory text is too long, so Josie is “interrupting” me as she lunges for the flap, and the paper is too thin so she struggles for it and gets frustrated.
Good Illustrations. Art matters, and babies know it. A good plot can be left short by bad illustrations. I may be partial to it because the illustrator lives here in Port Townsend, but the classic The Night Before Christmas, by Clement C. Moore, and illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson, is a great example of a beautiful book. Watson’s illustrations look more like paintings, and are layered with fanciful detail like the ‘geese alert’ indicator on Santa’s dashboard. It seems like every time I read this story (and believe me we read it much more than on Christmas Eve) I notice something new, and that keeps this book fresh.
Morals. I like books that introduce right and wrong to tricky moral issues like bullying, calling names, and stealing. I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen features a simple minded and trusting bear whose hat is missing, and a deceptive and Orwellian rabbit who has stolen it. The bear takes the rabbit at his word, even though the rabbit is wearing his hat, but later wises up and confronts him. Adults steal, and when confronted lie about it, but they need to be called out and brought to justice. Pretty big stuff, wrapped up in a cartoon. Adults also trick children into learning about morality by packaging their cultures norms and mores into parables.
Creative Language. This is Dr. Seuss’s bread and butter. I don’t know if hearing nonsensical language like ‘truffula trees’ helps babies, but I’ve heard rhyming does, and if he can rhyme it with something, babies do seem to love it. And to be honest, its pretty fun to read.
A few other favorites:
- Knuffle Bunny, Mo Williams
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle (not, by the way The Very Quiet Cricket, which is very repetitive)
- The Monster at the End of this Book, Sesame Street
- Littler Critter: First Day of School, Mercer Mayer
- Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
- Calling All Animals, Matthew Porter
And as I alluded to earlier, my most despised book award goes to Sara Anderson’s, Vegetables, narrowly beating out her other Weapon of Mass Lunacy, Fruit, only because I prefer fruit to vegetables in a gastronomical sense. (Also, because she lists ‘Tomato’ in the vegetables book. Really Sara?)