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Rumpeta-ing through Reading: Picture Books for the Very Young

My daughter Emily has always been a reading omnivore: we have photos of her poring over books from the time she could first sit up. Everything was of interest: catalogs featuring photographs of children; books verging on toys, with flaps or holes or even wheels; concept books; story books. Gradually, certain authors and books became favorites, and through a curious alchemy of interactions — child and parent with the book, and child and parent with each other — they seemed only to get better and better over time.

We read books by Eve Rice, especially Sam Who Never Forgets and Benny Bakes a Cake. Rice’s world in these books is immensely reassuring, with small disasters (Did Sam the zookeeper really forget to feed Elephant? What will happen now that bad dog Ralph has eaten Benny’s birthday cake?) transformed into hugs, birthday parades, and other expressions of love. Rice’s books surprise when read out loud: her prose has a tendency to form itself into meter and rhyme, appropriate for these structured stories.

We read Anne Rockwell, one of the best at reflecting and celebrating a child’s own world. Her pictures are perfectly ordered, whether crammed full of detail (an entire town busy with seasonally appropriate activities, in First Comes Spring) or rivetingly simple (a close-up of a sled, in The First Snowfall). Rockwell is also spectacular on that other topic of perennial interest to toddlers, machines and vehicles. Big Wheels is a modern preschool classic.

And we read Shirley Hughes, a master at inhabiting the minds and emotions of small children. Particularly appropriate for the very young are her Alfie and Annie Rose books (Alfie’s Feet and Alfie Gets in First being our personal favorites), her small-format concept books Bathwater’s Hot, Noisy, and When We Went to the Park, and her “doing” books (Giving, Chatting, Bouncing, etc.). Hughes’s specific, urban British settings add to her books’ believability: her child characters are so rooted in their home places that the child reader feels at home as well.

But the two creators most consistently on Emily’s hit parade were Donald Crews and Byron Barton. Crews’s Freight Train is a spellbinder; it creates such a strong mood that the words — like the smoke of the train that’s “going, going, gone” — quite literally seem to hang in the air for a few minutes after you finish reading. Crews’s strong graphics are perhaps the most appealing aspect of his other books; in School Bus two-year-old Emily developed a ritual of pointing out all the vehicles of interest: school buses, city buses, taxis, and the particularly exciting garbage truck (and each time we found the cameo of the author-illustrator himself, on a street corner, portfolio tucked under his arm, Emily would croon, “Donald CROOOOZ!”).

Byron Barton is a guaranteed success with his direct, no-nonsense texts (“Hey, you guys! / Let’s get to work. / Knock down that building. / Bulldoze that tree”); his bold typefaces; his black-outlined, color-blocked pictures of machines, astronauts, construction workers, dinosaurs (hear any bells going off in your toddler-interest geiger counter?). There wasn’t a detail Emily wasn’t fascinated with, from counting how many construction workers were girls and how many boys in Machines at Work (quoted from above) to carefully tracing the Diplodocus’s “long, long neck” and “long, long tail” in Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs.

There were many other individual favorites, as well. In addition to high-interest subjects, these books shared three other characteristics. First, a pacing appropriate for the material and for the age group. Successful books take into account the young child’s attention span. The length of the text per se is not a guarantee of success. Some of our favorites had quite a lot of words; however, these books had zesty texts full of repeated phrases and a lot of broad action. Other books contained few words, but the field of action was limited, and the pictures carried much of the story.

Second, a use of repetition, whether in repeated words or in story structure. We saw this in almost every book we read and loved. Some of our favorites were the Provensens’ Old Mother Hubbard, with a page turn before the dog’s nonsensical reaction to each Mother Hubbard action is revealed; Blueberries for Sal, with its parallel stories of Little Sal and Little Bear and its chantable kerplink kerplank kerplunk sounds; and Sue Williams’s I Went Walking, similar to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? but with a satisfying and child-pleasing story framework.

Third, a construction that allowed for (but did not demand) some kind of reader participation. Many of the best books for small children seem to be constructed with some room in them — space that lets the child and the adult expand the reading experience. For instance, one of the first things we all seem to teach our children are the sounds different animals make, and many books seem to tacitly encourage mooing and meowing simply by picturing cows and cats. (See Nancy Tafuri’s Early Morning in the Barn for an ingenious, overt animal-sounds book.) These books are complete in themselves, and work perfectly well when read aloud without embellishment. But they also seem to promote participation — whether it be points in the narrative art that call for comment; strategically placed wordless spreads that provide a chance to recap action or to prepare for what comes next; words or phrases in the text that call for gestures or actions; or situations that call for something as simple as added sound effects (like animal sounds). And some of them provide opportunities to carry over some of the delights of baby-play (such as “This little piggie” or “Trot, trot to Boston”) into the comparatively new experience of reading.

Nancy Tafuri’s minimalist The Ball Bounced was one of our earliest favorites — a perfect transition from board book to picture book. With its brief (33 words), verb-heavy text, its homey, familiar setting, and its satisfyingly circular plot full of surprise and action, it affords a short but complete reading experience, and mirrors the adventure small children find in the most mundane of activities. As a baby is being carried out the back door in Mother’s laundry basket, he jettisons his ball, and off it bounces. “The cat jumped. / The water splashed. / the dog ran / the door slammed,” etc., until the ball stops — right next to the baby. “And the baby laughed.” (The ball’s eventful and entertaining journey is baby’s to enjoy alone, by the way: Mother has her back turned, hanging out the laundry — a shared secret between book character and child reader.) Tafuri’s pictures are bold, in extreme close-up; they held Emily’s attention completely. But the active verbs encouraged me to add a kind of fingerplay to the already-satisfying experience of the book: I would walk my two fingers along the pages as the dog ran, flap my hand up in flight along with the bird (and land with a tickle), and “slam” the book with my arm in imitation of the door. She never failed to laugh at the end, along with the baby.

In John Steptoe’s Baby Says, the story is all in the two brothers’ faces. Baby — who, plump and cuddly in his molten-sunshine pajamas, is the epitome of babyhood, both nuisance and pure joy — wants out of the playpen, and pesters his big brother until that softy lets him out. Then, parroting brother’s words — “Okay. Uh, oh. No, no” — he heads straight for the irresistible tower of blocks brother has laboriously constructed, and knocks it down. Then follow two glorious spreads, one wordless, with brother glowering at mischievous baby, the next showing brother won over by baby’s spontaneous kiss. “Okay, baby. Okay.” By supplying just seven words in different combinations, the author forces the adult reader to pay close attention to this small home movie of a picture book. Intonation is everything. Knowledge of who is saying what is everything. But whether it was the emotion-filled pictures, the repeated words (with someone else being told “no”), or our own narration, Emily loved it. And since she called it “Uh-oh,” she could ask for it before she could talk.

A more recent beautifully-paced-for-toddlers book is Peggy Rathmann’s sweet and sly Good Night, Gorilla. What will your child like most about it? Following the progress of the released balloon? Eagerly awaiting that cartoon-like sequence of big and small goodnights followed by a pair of very surprised eyes popping open in the dark? It will probably vary from night to night, but there will always be something to keep a small child’s attention.

Two of our all-time favorite books raised the use of repetition to high art. Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs’s brilliant Elephant and the Bad Baby begins with a deceptive innocence: “Once upon a time there was an elephant.” We see a massive elephant standing still — though it soon will prove itself very light on its feet (and equally light-fingered) — dwarfing the airplanes buzzing about it like mosquitoes. The elephant meets up with a “bad baby,” and they soon become the Thelma and Louise of the picture-book set, rampaging through town lifting goodies from this shop and that. Though it looks like it has far too many words for young children, in fact it is the ideal two-year-old book: a romp so full of action and choice repetition and so perfectly paced that it is more like an exhilarating amusement-park ride than a picture book. Much controversy has arisen over the plot (we are talking rampant shoplifting here) and over calling the baby “bad” (though he does learn to say please); all that went right over the head of Emily-at-two. She loved the refrain, which virtually repeats as is on each page, with only the scenes of the crime changing: “Soon they met an ice cream man. And the Elephant said to the Bad Baby, ‘Would you like an ice cream?’ And the Bad Baby said yes. So the Elephant stretched out his trunk, and took an ice cream for himself and an ice cream for the Bad Baby. And they went rumpeta rumpeta rumpeta, all down the road, with the ice cream man running after.” She loved those galloping rumpetas, the contrast between the immense elephant and the small baby, the angry merchants going “bump into a heap,” and the reassuring ending to the wild adventure, as the elephant rumpetas off into the night, “but the bad baby went to bed.” Here is a perfect last sentence: the alliteration and the rhythm and the droning emphasis of those one-syllable words winding down the book like a worn-out baby.

John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing was practically Emily’s mantra as a small child (she used it, rather than the traditional blanket or stuffed animal, as her so-called “comfort object”). Here the repetition is in story structure, as two children and then a succession of animals, each larger than the last, politely ask to join Mr. Gumpy on his boat ride. “‘Can I come along, Mr. Gumpy?’ said the rabbit. ‘Yes, but don’t hop about.’” Never mind that the average one- and two-year-old doesn’t know enough animal behavior to be able to anticipate the inevitable disaster. The introduction of each personality-rich animal in close-up on the righthand page (as the left page shows the ever-more-crowded boat) and Mr. Gumpy’s unheeded warnings allow for the incorporation of a variety of sounds and actions (the most fun is the pig “mucking about” and chickens flapping: the mucking about calls for some creative interpretation, and the flapping calls for a lot of energetic exercise). The two double-page spreads — of the capsize and the tea party — provide plenty of time and space to locate and identify all the characters. (It was of particular interest to the pre-verbal Emily that the little girl’s hair flew straight up as she fell into the water; Emily would always make her own hair stand straight up as well.) The book’s pacing is impeccable, from the introduction of Mr. Gumpy and the build-up of the appealing animal cast, to the exciting, kersplashing climax, to the reassuring resolution. Again, the book has a remarkably satisfying last line: an open-ended, inclusive, circular “come for a ride another day.”

Two more recent examples of books using repetition with great success are Ashley Wolff’s Stella and Roy — a wonderful, toddler-empowering tortoise-and-the-hare variant, in which slow and steady wins the race for younger brother Roy on his little four-wheeler (“and Roy rolled right on by”) — and Minfong Ho’s Hush!: A Thai Lullaby, with its humorously overzealous mother trying to hush all the animals in the jungle in turn so that her baby can sleep.

These are just a few examples of what’s out there for the youngest reader. There is much more to recommend and share — whether you read books straight through or make them, when appropriate, into more participatory experiences. (Obviously, how much embellishment you add depends on the material, the situation, and the child. You wouldn’t add train sounds or quiz your child on color identification if you were reading Freight Train at bedtime to a sleepy toddler.) For us, the books in which we participated — the ones in which that curious alchemy took place — are the ones we both remember best. We’ve moved on now, to books for older picture-book readers — and Emily has long since outgrown the need for those transitional moos and bounces. But at age one, and at two, such participation helped make reading into something active, something she helped make happen. And that seems like the first step toward the more internal but just as participatory activity of independent reading — and toward a lifelong love of books.

From the March/April 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Connie Widney says:

    What a great way to add participation and early language skills to baby story times.

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