– By Anna McQuinn
“Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.”
(Sullivan, A and Brown, M; 2015)
For me, the question of choosing books for young children is grounded in what is likely to lead them to read for pleasure…
But so many books on offer (especially those for very young children) are often focused instead on teaching vocabulary (and very limited vocabulary at that – words that name objects only). No descriptive words, nothing to help develop emotional vocabulary…) nothing to prompt conversation… I think the problem is that these kind of books are so cheap and easy to produce yet they look attractive and we pick them up without thinking.
But when you do think about it, it’s quite absurd – babies and toddlers are just about mastering ‘Mama’, ‘Dada’, ‘Juice’ and ‘More’ –and we think they are ready to say (let alone understand) ‘circle’?
A more serious issue is how limited a sharing experience these books offer – there’s so little to discuss, everything is shown out of context, there’s nothing that relates to baby or toddler lives AND, just to make things worse, a ball is actually a sphere, so baby will have to unlearn this at a later stage.
So, what to look for instead?
I would look for four main ingredients…
1) Books, stories about topics young children can relate to, that engage;
2) Books with great art or photos
3) Books with a little story;
4) Books with nice language;
Books that engage – familiar and recognisable stories
For me this is the most important thing. When I say reading for pleasure, I’m not just talking about fun reads or exciting stories… I think for humans (including human babies), engaging with others is the highest pleasure: sharing, chatting, observing together, feeling comfortable, feeling understood, seeing your experiences reflected – all these make us feel comfortable and happy.
So I’m looking for books that prompt that engagement with the book, and engagement between the adult reader and the child. At this stage of development (while some babies and toddlers will be happy to browse through a book on their own) most of their reading experiences will need to be through an adult reader. So I try to find books that I will enjoy reading over and over – if I enjoy the story, that will come across to the children, so it’s always something to consider.
In a child care or educational setting, many of these experiences will be in groups, but if you can have some one-to-one story times too, that’s wonderful.
While working in a Stay & Play session, I set up a small ‘story tent’ and retreated to it now and again with one or two children for stories. The tent blocked out distraction and noise and helped the children to focus. It was particularly good for shy children or those easily distracted.
When it comes to choosing books, I’m always looking for something that’s familiar to a child – something they will relate to. For very young children, photos or artwork of other babies is always a winner.
This example is from a great book called Baby Faces and was my go-to book for outreach when I worked as a community librarian. The best reaction I ever got was when one toddler got a baby wipe and proceeded to try to clean Messy Baby’s face! Now that’s engagement!
Normally I’m looking for full sentences where possible, and this book only has one word per page. But, ‘messy’ is a great word – it is a describing word versus a noun and, more importantly, it prompts engagement and discussion with the readers… you can’t but exclaim when you see this mess – an instant emotional response! You may laugh, baby/toddler reader may laugh. You’re likely to say something like, “Oh no! Look how messy she is!” (i.e. you are likely to say the full sentence yourself).
Then you and your little reader will likely have a discussion about some time they were messy, or perhaps another child in the group who got messy / things that make you messy… the page is rich with talking prompts and opportunity to engage and relate.
So using a book like this with a child teaches them that books are fun, that books are full of things we can relate to; that books are occasions for chatting and observing – what’s not to like!
Books with great art
This next image is from a picture book, this time with a story. It’s called A Splendid Friend about an unlikely friendship between a quiet Bear and an enthusiastic Goose. I’m including it to show just how brilliant a good illustration can be at telling the story – something vital for pre-readers who are getting all of their cues from the illustrations.
Here we can see Bear’s reading being interrupted by Goose and really, even very young children will delight in these.
Books with a beginning, middle and end
For me having a story is very important. While my top priority is for reading to be an engaging and enjoyable experience, I feel that learning that stories have a beginning, middle and end is fundamental. It doesn’t have to be a complicated story – quite the opposite, something really simple is best.
Little Rabbit is going for a walk.
He sees a brown bear and a tiny mouse.
Little Rabbit is tired, so he curls up and has a sleep.
This little 3-sentence example shows how simple a story can be – but it has all the elements:
- It has a clear opening – Little Rabbit is off for a walk – we can talk about that already – What might he see? Where is he going? We went for a walk yesterday…
- Then the meat of the story… what he does on his walk… what we saw on our walk…
- Then a simple wind-down and ending.
Stories for little ones don’t need complicated twists in the middle or jokes at the end – but I think it’s vital to have a clear structure. I’ve been lucky to have an excellent editor who really understand story arc, and even in a book like my Zeki Loves Baby Club (which could just have been a series of little scenes of a visit to a library rhyme time) I try to have a clear beginning, middle and end.
Here I start with toddler Zeki waking up in the morning, and the various scenes familiar to any young child of toddler Zeki and his Mammy getting ready to go out together, through rhyme time and story time, until a wind down ‘good bye’ at the end. Really simple stuff.
And all the scenes are of the small moments toddlers experience every day.
They are both familiar and reassuring, and will prompt conversation and engagement.
And finally, a quick word about language…
Since all of these books will be read aloud, do read them aloud as you choose them. How they flow (for you the reader) and how they sound are significant. Many of the board books I mentioned in the opening are focused on teaching babies words (almost exclusively words for objects). However, babies and toddlers who are developing language need stories with words that sound good, that are enjoyable to say, and that help them develop an ear for the sounds and rhythms of language. And while I criticised the board books in the opening example for having words far too sophisticated for little ones, I’m not advocating books with limited words. Quite the opposite. A good story will have words that a young child will want to hear, learn and repeat.
So I’m going to close with two examples:
the first is quite simple, but with wonderful word choices – dart, dip and sip – that are evocative of the bird’s movement. So much work has gone in to these choices! The two words on the left alliterate and then rhyme with the ‘sip’ at the end – SO much is going on in terms of language here.
The second example has a longer sentence and more complex language but, I hope, the words are pleasurable for the reader to say aloud (when the reader enjoys reading the story, they will communicate this pleasure to the child) and sound soothing for the child – while they conjure nice night time images.
I hope these guidelines are helpful for you in making your own book selections.
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2015).
Reading for pleasure and attainment in vocabulary and mathematics.
British Educational Research Journal, 41 (6), 971-991.
Bio: I worked as a Community Outreach Librarian in London with a Sure Start Family Support team for 14 years (alongside my writing). My target was to get more families from disadvantaged families to join and use the local library, so I ran lots of Baby Rhyme Time and Toddler Nurture Groups for babies, toddlers and their carers there, and did lots of outreach to baby clinics, Stay&Play groups etc to meet mums and tell them about the groups. That’s where most of these ideas developed (I had to give lots of talks to parents and EY professionals about books, choosing books etc etc) as much as out of my years as a writer.