Recently I was interviewed by Fatherly, a website that focuses on providing parenting advice to dads. They wanted some book recommendations for babies, toddlers, and kindergartners. This link will connect you to the first in their series on this topic, and below I provide elaborated answers to these timely questions.
What is the ideal form of baby books?
Babies very early on exhibit what is called the palmar reflex… that is if something touches or grazes their palms, their little hands lock on it. I guess that keeps them from falling out of trees or something. Try touching a finger or your hair to a baby’s palm and it will be gripped tight. They maintain this reflex until about 4-5 months of age, and after that, their natural inquisitiveness takes over, and they will then grab almost anything within reach including books, and by about 9 months many babies want to turn the pages themselves. What all this means is that the typical paper-paged book is not ideal for reading to babies—unless you don’t mind the almost certain wrinkling, tearing, and even eating of pages!
These days that isn’t much of a problem: there are board-books (with cardboard thick pages, ideal for baby’s tiny but fumbling fingers), and cloth books, and even rubberized plastic books for bathtub reading. For the first year of so of a child’s life, these books with indestructible pages are the way to go. Babies love them, and parents don’t have to worry about hurt books.
The best of these imperishable books will be those that fit not just your baby’s grasping hands, but their budding minds as well. Research shows that reading to infants improves their attention spans, ability to share a focus with others, and language abilities; recent studies even claim that such sharing improves infant problem solving and communication. Some books are better for supporting these things than others.
Certainly, any book that captures your baby’s attention is a keeper. For infants, that usually means bold simple (not too detailed) artwork with bright colors, faces, and simple objects. These kinds of books intrigue children and get them to look longer. They also provide a great opportunity for learning the names of objects and people.
Research says that this kind of naming activity should eventually be more than just category labeling—"this is the monkey” and “this is the cow”—though early on that helps. Eventually, the best books for a baby should include multiple instances of, say, monkeys or cows—each with their own individual names or sound effects, and human characters should have names, too. (If the book doesn’t provide such names, you can always add your own.)
Babies enjoy simple language and simple rhymes. Books like “Pat the Bunny” both sound and feel good (books with flaps and buttons and different textures and sounds make books into a kind of toy for babies). Some others that fit the bill are “Shhh! This Book is Sleeping” and “Llama Llama Red Pajama”
What makes a book great for a toddler?
This is a wide-age span: from 1 year or 18 months to 5 years. The best books, early in this age span, will closely resemble the baby books just described. By the conclusion of these pre-K years, the best books will be pretty similar to what I’m going to describe for kindergarten. Even when a two-year-old is capable of sitting alone and turning paper pages, she’ll still usually be interested in her old board books; I know my granddaughters are.
Generally—and we’re talking about little kids here so there are going to be lots of exceptions—younger kids in this age range will want to go through a book with someone else and as they get older they become more independent, able to engage with books productively on their own.
During these years, the benefits to be derived from books divides. That means there will be books for your child to read on his or her own and a different, though overlapping, set that you can read to your young child.
Toddlers begin to love real storybooks, stories with simple plots that focus on familiar experiences or characters (“Make Way for Ducklings,” “The Little House,” fairy tales). Toddlers often enjoy following a particular character from book to book—whether Grover from Sesame Street, Babar the elephant, or Curious George; the familiar is both reassuring and joyfully enticing.
Of course, toddlers continue to appreciate toy-like books: with flaps to flap and buttons to push. Books like, “Can You Make a Scary Face,” are such a hit at this age because children enjoy acting out the funny faces every bit as much as listening to the reading. They enjoy the humor of odd sounds and strange names, and repetitions and language patterns that capture their attention. Whether we’re talking about hands-on treats for the fingers or funny farty sounds, infective patterns, and catchy rhymes for their ears, the toddler seeks to experience books actively.
A three-year-old I cherish sleeps every night with a well-worn copy of “I’m a Little Teapot.” This devotion is likely due to the fact that she “knows” that song and can sing it herself.
Wordless books can be fun at this age, too, because kids can make up their own stories or name the pictured objects themselves.
Finally, toddlers are nothing if not silly, so it should be no surprise that their tastes often turn towards the absurd… they adore books like “Don’t Let Pigeons Drive the Bus” and the “Book with No Pictures.” The latter was my kindergarten grandson’s favorite book when he was a preschooler and it’s his favorite book still, though his reasons have changed. When he was a 4-years-old the silly sounds and funny names tipped the balance;
I mean, come on, even William Shakespeare would have to go a way to beat a euphonious locution like “BooBoo Butt.”
All my suggestions up to now have been for the types of books that children can interact with on their own or in the lap of a favorite adult. However, I’m a big believer in parents introducing more formidable chapter books to their toddlers, books that young’uns couldn’t enjoy without an adult doing the reading.
Here I’m talking about reading classics like “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Hobbit,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” “Peter Rabbit,” and “Charlie and Chocolate Factory.” These extended reads expose preschoolers to big ideas, complex language, and place extended attentional and memory demands while emphasizing the precedence of language over pictures in reading. These kinds of texts are remembered long after briefer picture books have fallen from memory.
My tendency as a father and grandpa has been to read storybooks to kids, but that can be a big mistake. Kids, even very young ones, may be interested in pirates, trucks, bugs, drones, dinosaurs, and almost anything else you might think of.
When my youngest daughter was about seven she asked, “Why do you always pick the books that we read?”
I was a bit surprised and asked if there was something that she wanted me to read to her. She didn’t really have an idea, but perused the shelves and picked out, “In the Shadow of Man,” by Jane Goodall. That was more than 20 years ago, but she is still a big Jane Goodall fan (and chose a STEM career).
For appropriate informational texts that I would suggest books by authors like Gail Gibbons (on topics like ladybugs, plants, seasons, tornadoes, frogs, etc.) and Bobbie Kalman (e.g., penguins, koala bears, butterflies, communities).
What are the characteristics for a good kindergarten book?
When in kindergarten, kids will still like a lot of the same books and same kinds of books they have already been enjoying. However, at this point, it may be dawning on them that they could possibly read some of these books themselves. That means that the new stars of the show will be books they can pretend to read, books that can help them to read, and books that they really can read.
In that first category, books they can pretend to read, I’d include wordless picture books that allow kids to make up their own stories; that give them a chance to stretch their narrative muscles. “The Giving Tree” is a good example of this.
I’d also include any books that might have been memorized or that can be memorized easily. Books that present song lyrics (Happy Birthday, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider) or nursery rhymes are great for this purpose. So are books with strongly repetitive patterns (“Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see, I see a yellow duck looking at me.”). These memorized books allow children to engage in finger-point reading, trying to touch each word as they say it or sing it from memory and having to figure out when to turn the pages. Such activities help them to develop print awareness, but many children even start to learn to read words from this as well.
One of the big things that kindergartners need to figure out in order to read is how to sound out simple words. Books that draw their attention to letter sounds, alliteration (e.g., Chicka-Chicka Boom, Some Smug Slug), and rhyming can be a big help with that.
Finally, the various “beginner books” and “I can read it myself” books are real hits during this period. I admit that these are rarely great books (The Cat in the Hat would be a wonderful exception to this rule). These easy readers tend not to be fine literature, nor do they present the best-drawn characters or the highest quality language… and yet, 5-year-olds often consider them to be favorite books. I guess it shows that a magnificent book that you can’t read isn’t worth as much as a vapid one that you can.
Earlier I noted my grandson’s love of The Book with No Pictures. He loved it when he was four because it was silly and he still loves it for that (don’t tell, but BooBooButt is his password!). However, now that he is all grown up at the age of five, the big thrill is that he can read the book himself (where else are you going to learn to read a word like, “Bluurf”). In other words, though the book has stayed the same, his relationship with the book has changed—and that makes all the difference when it comes to loving books.
Another grandson advises that anything by Chris Van Dusen is going to be wonderful for the fives (especially “Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit” because it includes the best of everything… baseball, robots, space).
Of course, children at this age still love to be read to—and such reading can include both those storybooks and informational texts that are just out of reach of the children’s own reading, and those more challenging factual and fictional extended reads that can really give them a chance to stretch. I’ll add to those earlier classics books like “Treasure Island,” “The Secret Garden,” “Peter Pan,” “Little House in the Big Woods,” and “Mary Poppins.”
As for informational books, the National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book Series (“Big Book of Why,” “Big Book of Space”, “Big Book of Dinosaurs”, “Big Book of Animals”, etc.). For kids into science, facts and non-fiction, those (and the Time for Kids series) are real winners, presenting such information in ways that kindergartners (and other ages, too) can understand and learn.
How should a parent ensure that a book meets educational criteria for their child?
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