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Early essentials

Every night for, oh, a year and a half, we read our baby The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate. “There was once a little man who had never seen the sea, although his mother was an old pirate woman,” we’d begin, Margaret Mahy’s words swinging us along with the motion and muscle of waves themselves. We read through the practical farmer’s objections and the philosopher’s whinings, past green, soft hills, under blue and varied skies, rolling with the pirate mother in the wheelbarrow as the little man lost his buttons and, finally, was confronted with glory: “He hadn’t dreamed of the BIGNESS of it. He hadn’t dreamed of the blueness of it…”

This book gave us all sorts of pleasure, including intellectual, emotional, and spiritual sustenance. Mahy’s prose — rhythmic, lyrical, funny — made the story practically read itself: it never became dull. The flamboyant mother, easily flouting gender conventions; the little man finding ecstasy; his persistence against nay-sayers (such a necessary quality in this life); the celebration of the grand, glorious sea…well.

We didn’t know then that our baby couldn’t hear. Sitting on our laps, she absorbed the story page by page, rapt in Margaret Chamberlain’s pictures as our voices rumbled noiselessly against her. Nevertheless, The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate formed the three of us. Poetry, the sea, an obliging son, the rakish pirate mother were all in us when we learned our baby was deaf, a firm foundation when it came to imagining where she could go, who she could be.

—Deirdre F. Baker, Horn Book reviewer


The book I couldn’t have survived my daughters’ babyhoods without isn’t a children’s book — it’s Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. My first baby cried all the time, and the second refused to eat. I wasn’t sitting around reciting nursery rhymes or looking at Tana Hoban books with either baby; I was simply trying to stay sane, and it was Anne Lamott who kept me from jumping ship. She made me laugh, even when I thought I’d forgotten how. (On giving her son a bath: “He peed all over me and into his bathwater just as the kitty walked past. She began rubbernecking with the most shocked and horrified expression on her face, clearly thinking, ‘Oh, my God, now I’ve seen everything.’”) She also made me cry; it was so wonderful to cry for someone other than myself. And she made me feel lucky — unlike her, I did have a husband to take over when baby duty was destroying my will to live; and unlike her, I wasn’t a recovered addict, though I did often dream about running away to a bar and staying for a few years. Operating Instructions is my go-to gift for new mothers because, like the bumper sticker says, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

—Jennifer M. Brabander, Horn Book Magazine senior editor


My husband Ken Silber and I couldn’t really name our baby Wilbur — or, for that matter, Sterling, Hi-Ho, or any other of his bun-in-the-oven nicknames. Upon entering the world, Baby Boy Silber became Joshua, and all references to E. B. White’s humble hero rightly went the way of morning sickness and priority bus seating. Just as Wilbur was a bit of a crybaby at first, so was his not-namesake. The only things newborn Josh found soothing were his parents’ warm bodies and the sounds of our voices. So my husband and I rocked him, and, like a certain gifted spider, we sang to him. And we took turns reading aloud, chapter by chapter, from Charlotte’s Web, while slowly getting to know the baby formerly known as Wilbur.

—Elissa Gershowitz, Horn Book Guide managing editor


My oldest daughter has never been a willing visitor to the Land of Nod. When she was a baby, my husband and I laid her slumbering form in her crib as if dismantling explosives — gently, gently, BOOM! Wires crossed, and we’d have to start the whole rocking/singing/walking laps around the dining room process all over again. This high level of maintenance extended through her toddlerhood to the ten-book nap. Every afternoon she and I toted ten picture books — no more, no less — into my bed for me to read to her. Normally she’d conk out by book five, but sometimes she remained perky through book ten, whereupon Mommy plopped her in front of a Teletubbies video and wept softly into the phone to Daddy. Eventually I learned to stack the stack, to never get under the covers without my secret weapon: A Child’s Garden of Verses. We chose the Gyo Fujikawa illustrated version for its sunny colors and friendly round-faced children. We flipped around to favorite poems, such as “Where Go the Boats” and “Bed in Summer,” and as Robert Louis Stevenson’s calming rhythms soaked into my daughter’s skin, her eyelids would start to flutter. So I’d go back to the top of the poem I was on and read it in a quieter and quieter voice, until away down the river she went, “Green leaves a-floating, Castles of the foam…”

—Christine M. Heppermann, Horn Book reviewer


At the library where I work, people occasionally laugh skeptically at our hundreds of board books. They just don’t believe that babies will actually sit and listen to books. I always wish I could show them pictures from when my sons were babies and how deeply engaged they were. But of course part of the reason they were so enraptured is that we read great books to them, and the best of all were Helen Oxenbury’s set of four baby board books: I Touch; I Can; I Hear; and I See. Each one features the same little round-headed toddler, with a sprinkling of hair and a remarkably expressive face with just two dots for eyes and four lines to make eyebrows, nose, and mouth. The small, square shape creates an intimate reading experience as you look at the book together. Oxenbury uses the simplest of words, ones that a child knows, such as ball and cat. Her pictures show the toddler actively investigating and enjoying things like the softness of the cat in I Touch, or shying away from the loud barking of the dog in I Hear. It’s the baby’s own world, conveyed with tenderness, gentle humor, and a keen understanding of what is interesting to babies.

—Susan Dove Lempke, Horn Book reviewer


Soon after our first child arrived, there came in the mail from Helen Masten, revered librarian at New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room, a little book. It was one I’d loved and known by heart for as long as I could remember — Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Miss Masten had inscribed it, “A small cornerstone for the library of Jonathan,” and a “cornerstone” it was, and is, a perfectly fashioned tale with lovely, evocative illustrations, sized for little hands; a quintessential drama of exploration, capture, and escape, rounded out with appropriate consequences and a safe homecoming — and featuring such deep toddler concerns as lost shoes. The clear, graceful language is enriched with words that are neatly defined by their context (the sparrows “implored him to exert himself”); gardens may be familiar, yet the forbidden one that lures Peter is exotically strange and inviting; Peter himself, “naughty” yet resourceful, is perennially endearing. A child of three once corrected my telling — Peter “squeezed under the gate” at the beginning, she reminded me, but “slipped underneath” at the end. It’s a precious book to inspire that kind of devotion, and one my two-year-old granddaughter will soon be enjoying.

—Joanna Rudge Long, Horn Book reviewer


Every night, it seems, in addition to what other books we were reading aloud to our two small children, we read and reread the adventures of Tom and his beloved sock monkey Pippo. They played in the garden, went on their first sled ride together, met a girl in the park, and Tom hopes someday to go to the moon with Pippo. How, in such seemingly simple prose and illustrations, can a sock monkey have so much personality, and Tom so express the joys and momentary sorrows of toddlerhood? My children are grown now, but the sturdy books sit next to me here as I write, treasures to pass on someday to grandchildren or other lucky children.

—Dean Schneider, Horn Book reviewer


I can’t say I really know from baby baby books, but I’ve had great luck giving Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & the Mouse to two little boys, my grandson Miles for his first birthday and my young neighbor Mads for his second. Miles was gamely attentive; clearly too young to be able to construct what was going on, but happy to be encircled by his father while tracing the lines on the pages with his fingers. Mads, however, knew from lions, though I know not from where. “Lions are scary,” he whispered to me as we looked at the cover portrait of Pinkney’s magnificent beast. Like Miles, he also traced the lines of the pictures but with more purpose, following the action with his finger from left to right as his sister Julia, four, glossed the wordless pages for us all: “They TRAPPED him, Mads!” And when we turned the last page, to see the endpaper spread of the lion family and the mouse family out for a stroll, Mads revealed that the book had — literally, I guess — changed his mind. “Lions,” he said, “are nice.” Literature at work, or what?

—Roger Sutton, The Horn Book editor in chief

From the May/June 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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