When the invitation comes, it’s soft-pastel-sweet or super cheery with bright primary colors. But, in either case, the summons to a baby shower signals a great event and a need for a great present. There are so many possible gifts from which to choose: all those darling little outfits, soft warm blankets, and cuddly stuffed animals. But this being the Horn Book (and not a Carter’s store or Hanna Andersson catalog), it’s no surprise that we’re recommending books. Books for babies can provide meaningful play, special times alone with parents, diversionary tactics, windows into the larger world, and introductions to fine literature. As a book lover, you may be the baby’s first, best hope for establishing a personal library, for introducing him or her to the wonder and variety in books. But what to buy?
Forget Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or, if there’s a teacher anywhere in the parents’ immediate circle of friends or relatives, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?. More than likely, kids will receive these chestnuts or come across them in the near future. Go back farther, to one of children’s literature’s oldest contributors (and one often dismissed by modern parents): Dame Goose.
A gift of Mother Goose doesn’t have to wait for the baby shower; instead, we like to give it to expectant mothers early in their pregnancies. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease cites research indicating that the influence of a parent’s voice “starts even earlier than birth.” He suggests that babies who are read to in utero have already begun to associate tones of the parental voice with comfort and security. While this may or may not be true, there’s another reason to read these rhymes aloud before babies are born. By the time the infants have arrived, parents will have learned (or remembered) many rhymes, and can call upon them at will.
How convenient to be putting on those little socks while chanting “Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John.” Or to be ready to bounce that baby on a knee, already knowing the words to “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross.” And a rendition of “Pat-a-cake,” complete with clapping and slapping, can be just the trick for distracting a fussy toddler. This early, spontaneous language play can’t happen if parents have to consult a book mid-tickle.
Large Mother Goose compilations are initially intended for parents; they’re simply too bulky for youngsters to handle. But handle them they will, later on, so gift givers would do well to select a variety of Mother Goose books, since older kids like finding their favorite rhymes and comparing different illustrators. Available are the traditional (ranging from the familiar standby The Real Mother Goose to the more visually pleasing but less comprehensive Pocketful of Posies); the contemporary (Nina Crews’s Neighborhood Mother Goose); and those books that fall somewhere in between (Iona Opie’s My Very First Mother Goose and Here Comes Mother Goose, both illustrated by Rosemary Wells, and The Lucy Cousins Book of Nursery Rhymes). The bright colors of the last three appeal to many a youngster. Still, it’s not just bright colors that may catch a child’s attention. In Pocketful of Posies, Salley Mavor creates, with needle and thread, a lively cast of nursery rhyme characters made of soft textiles and embroidery. (These personable characters decorate the endpapers as well, a boon for babies “reading” the book on the floor during tummy time.)
New parents often have to learn to play with their babies. The silly sounds from Mother Goose begin that play as well as introduce the language these children will be babbling before acquiring conventional speech. And, as children grow older, early language play evolves naturally into verbal participation in books. Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La La La! challenges even the most prosaic of parents to read the famous lines in a monotone. “A cow says Moo” looks straightforward on the page, but when coupled with Boynton’s illustration of a recognizable but droll cow, it begs the adult reader to pause after the word says; wait for a response; and, if none is forthcoming, complete the sentence with a dramatic flourish. Boynton is not alone in providing parents and caregivers opportunities to invite their babies and toddlers into verbal play. Denise Fleming’s Barnyard Banter, for example, also calls youngsters to contribute animal sounds within the reading.
No one stays with layette sizes when buying baby clothes for a baby shower, for we want something that children can grow into. The same goes for books. Aimed at toddlers (in other words, a book to grow into), Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha’s Trashy Town is full of joyous sounds, while the refrain — “Dump it in, smash it down, drive around the Trashy Town!” — begs for interaction. And if toddlers don’t get the hint, there’s a recurring question that demands an answer: “Is the trash truck full yet? NO.”
As children verbally interact with books, they are learning that reading is an active process. Add song, and the activity bumps up a notch with clapping and singing. Traditional songs enjoy a wide variety of illustrators such as Paul Galdone and Melissa Sweet (Cat Goes Fiddle-i-fee); Annie Kubler (Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes); and Feodor Rojankovsky (Over in the Meadow). Moving to more modern music, Eric Litwin includes a CD (not to substitute for parents’ singing, but to help them learn the original song) in the rousing Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes. Karen Beaumont’s I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! provides the reader/singer with a variation on the song “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” The rhythm of singing aids the young child in remembering, and when youngsters can remember the words in a book, they’re on their way to recognizing the relationship between what’s on the page and their own verbal expression. And that’s reading.
Besides building relationships between sounds, words, and letters, reading also involves learning to organize thoughts in a number of different ways. Books provide multiple models of such organizational patterns. Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Black? White! Day? Night!, for example, introduces children to comparing and contrasting, while Kevin Henkes’s Old Bear covers chronological order through the four seasons. Other fine picture books expand the short story narratives first encountered in Mother Goose and speak to the ever-increasing attention spans of babies and toddlers. Hurry! Hurry! by Eve Bunting, for instance, incorporates brightly hued animals for children to name within a simple narrative of the birth of a baby chick. Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed, a beginning narrative of a young boy’s persistence in growing one big carrot, contains a distinct beginning, middle, and end, while Byron Barton’s My Car punches up his buggy with an intriguing diagram of a Volkswagen Beetle–like car in the middle of this satisfying story about Sam, a man who loves both his car and his work.
Physical participation with books reinforces that active process of reading. The addition of a kinesthetic component to book sharing opens an additional channel for babies’ learning and enjoyment, whether they’re lifting the flaps in Karen Katz’s Where Is Baby’s Belly Button?, pulling up tag board blankets for all the animals going to sleep in Dean Hacohen’s Tuck Me In!, exploring the textures in Emily Bolam’s Colors (a Touch, Look, and Learn! book), or tracing the shapes in Lois Ehlert’s Color Zoo.
There may be nothing more interesting to a baby than another baby. In brightly colored dress from around the world, the smiling babies sharply photographed in Global Babies offer an entire community of friends. A companion book, American Babies, showcases happy children from our own diverse society, yet another network of book buddies. And for a portrait gallery of toddler emotions, Margaret Miller’s Baby Faces is just the ticket. Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes begs the reader to play with baby’s toes while chanting “both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes…” A book to grow into, Dan Yaccarino’s Every Friday offers a brief narrative of a father and his preschooler following their special Friday routine. After an interest in self comes one in family; Every Friday speaks to that awareness.
Curiosity is a natural part of the world of babies and toddlers, and, just as they do for adults, books open up avenues for their attention. What’s more wondrous than being able to name an animal, a truck, or a letter? Not much in toddler time, especially if each identification is accompanied with adult smiles and praise. Fine concept books, such as those identifying colors (My Colors/Mis Colores by Rebecca Emberley); opposites (What’s Up, Duck? by Tad Hills); shapes (Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walsh); letters (My First ABC by the Metropolitan Museum of Art); numbers (Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews); or animals (Simms Taback’s City Animals), offer opportunities for learning, naming, and play. Complex concept, alphabet, and counting books also serve older children well. Consider slipping in selections such as The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang, and Perfect Square by Michael Hall, and you’ll have just the right “fit” for toddlers.
Not only do books for babies encourage play with the content, the books themselves are also part of the play. To a baby, there’s no difference between a book, a ball, and a rattle; they’re all part of daily amusement. For that reason the bookshelf becomes an extension of the toy box.
Sturdy board books are best for babies to enjoy themselves. Rounded corners prevent poking accidents, the slick surfaces can be wiped clean, the books tend to stay open at one place, and the heavy tag board pages are easier for those chubby fingers to turn. Some former trade books transfer nicely to a board book format. Eve Bunting’s Hurry! Hurry! for example, works in either format. Often, though, features are lost in the transfer. The Carrot Seed misses a page turn in board book format. Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes loses white space (a valuable aid in slowing down the reading and the looking) in the transfer to a board book, and while the looking may be satisfactory, it’s a different experience than what the original trade book offers.
Books originally designed as board books, such as Helen Oxenbury’s Clap Hands, perfect the format. But beware. Although youngsters may view books as products, the authors and artists never should. There’s a lot of commercialization in board books; watch out for cartoon characters, small print, lackluster illustrations, and little story line or confusing factual information. Before buying any board book, consider this: “Is this a book that contains illustrations, a story, or information worth examining again and again and again?” Try reading it aloud. Do you stumble on the words? Do you pause to really look at the illustrations? Is there some opportunity for interaction? The answers here should be “No,” “Yes,” and “Yes.”
Clearly, one could break the bank with all these books! Some baby shower attendees can afford to; others will need to choose wisely from the wide variety of books available — rhymes, stories, quiet books, rowdy books, interactive books, concept books, early narratives. A group of people might want to throw a baby book shower and combine all of these. It’s not a bad idea, for although many new parents know how much a baby should weigh at six months or how old she should be when she walks or talks, they may not know what to read and when. Consequently, a book aimed at parental selection is always a good idea for inclusion. Our favorite is the Horn Book’s own A Family of Readers, but Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook and Pam Allyn’s What to Read When also provide solid information and guidance.
Reading aloud with a child has inherent educational value. Increasing vocabulary, supporting syntactic awareness, expanding conceptual understanding, and adding to general background knowledge are just a few bonuses babies receive from hearing and examining books. Our shower gift suggestions, however, are not made so that eighteen years from now, these babies can get into Harvard. As book lovers, we want babies to know the joy of reading. The cozy intimacy of sitting in a warm lap, enclosed within two loving arms, focusing on a terrific book with a caring adult is an experience we don’t want any child to miss. This experience is a prime opportunity for reinforcing the emotional connection that is important to both members of the reading pair — the child and the grownup. And just think, this lifetime of literary pleasure can start right here — at the baby shower.
As an addendum to this column, we asked several Horn Book reviewers to tell us about a book they found indispensable as new parents. Read these short pieces here.
Good Baby Shower Books
What to Read When: The Books and Stories to Read with Your Child — and All the Best Times to Read Them (Avery) by Pam Allyn
Ten, Nine, Eight (Greenwillow) by Molly Bang
My Car (Greenwillow) by Byron Barton
I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! (Harcourt) by Karen Beaumont; illus. by David Catrow
Colors (Tiger Tales) by Emily Bolam
Moo, Baa, La La La! (Little Simon) by Sandra Boynton
Hurry! Hurry! (Harcourt) by Eve Bunting; illus. by Jeff Mack
The Lucy Cousins Book of Nursery Rhymes (Dutton) illus. by Lucy Cousins
Ten Black Dots (Greenwillow) by Donald Crews
The Neighborhood Mother Goose (Amistad/Greenwillow) by Nina Crews
Color Zoo (HarperFestival) by Lois Ehlert
My Colors/Mis Colores (Little, Brown) by Rebecca Emberley
Barnyard Banter (Holt) by Denise Fleming
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (Harcourt) by Mem Fox; illus. by Helen Oxenbury
Cat Goes Fiddle-i-fee (Clarion) adapted and illus. by Paul Galdone
American Babies (Charlesbridge) by The Global Fund for Children
Global Babies (Charlesbridge) by The Global Fund for Children
Tuck Me In! (Candlewick) by Dean Hacohen; illus. by Sherry Scharschmidt
Perfect Square (Greenwillow) by Michael Hall
Old Bear (Greenwillow) by Kevin Henkes
What’s Up, Duck?: A Book of Opposites (Schwartz & Wade/Random) by Tad Hills
Where Is Baby’s Belly Button? (Little Simon) by Karen Katz
The Carrot Seed (HarperCollins) by Ruth Krauss; illus. by Crockett Johnson
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Child’s Play) by Annie Kubler
Over in the Meadow (Harcourt) by John Langstaff; illus. by Feodor Rojankovsky
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes (HarperCollins) by Eric Litwin; illus. by James Dean
Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Houghton) illus. by Salley Mavor
My First ABC (LB Kids) by The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Baby Faces (Little Simon) by Margaret Miller
Here Comes Mother Goose (Candlewick) edited by Iona Opie; illus. by Rosemary Wells
My Very First Mother Goose (Candlewick) edited by Iona Opie; illus. by Rosemary Wells
Clap Hands (Little Simon) by Helen Oxenbury (also All Fall Down; Say Goodnight; Tickle, Tickle)
Black? White! Day? Night!: A Book of Opposites (Porter/Roaring Brook) by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
The Sleepy Little Alphabet: A Bedtime Story from Alphabet Town (Knopf) by Judy Sierra; illus. by Melissa Sweet
A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Candlewick) by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano
Simms Taback’s City Animals (Blue Apple) by Simms Taback
The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin) by Jim Trelease
Mouse Shapes (Harcourt) by Ellen Stoll Walsh
The Real Mother Goose (Scholastic) illus. by Blanche Fisher Wright
Every Friday (Holt) by Dan Yaccarino
Trashy Town (HarperCollins) by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha; illus. by Dan Yaccarino
From the May/June 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.