A brief encouragement before I get to the titles: it doesn’t matter whether your child understands all the words and ideas in a book. Literacy begins in the act of sitting, looking, and turning the pages, full stop. It’s about connecting the act of reading with physical closeness and affection. You should start reading to your baby when she’s about 3 months old, and introducing her to the cadence of a reading voice. Don’t worry too much about explaining everything that’s going on. Don’t despair about whether your baby’s “getting” all the details – just dive in and it will work out beautifully.
The first books in any child’s library should be board books – babies need to be able to chew a book to see how it tastes, throw a book to see how it lands, tap a book to see how it sounds, etc. Board books do a fairly good job of withstanding these earliest lessons in literacy, and there are scads of them available. There are a few, however, that have been particular favourites at our house – they seem to work well for the youngest ages, and they have a bit of mileage too.
Some board books will stay relevant for years. At three months of age, your baby will watch you turn the pages and marvel at the changing landscape of colours and shapes. A bit later, she will catch on to the rhythm and intonation reading brings to your voice. Next comes comprehension of the storyline, and being able to pick out elements on the pages (colours, objects, etc.). And then they start memorizing the words, and then they’re reading it by themselves, and reading it to their younger siblings. Voila: the five-year board book plan.
If you only buy one board book, let it be Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton. There are many Boynton books out there, but this one is by far the best. The square dance rhyme and metre are perfect, as are the spare, engaging illustrations of animals gleefully cavorting across the pages. My kids have all adored this one from the earliest age, and it’s good fun for me, too. I can read it (well, recite it — I haven’t need to look at the words for about eight years) three times in a row without getting bored (the acid test). When I read it to my youngest the other night, my 6-year-old came in and asked me to read it again. If you like Boynton, the next best is probably Opposites.
Another that has staying power is Molly Bang’s Ten Nine Eight. Children’s literature is weak when it comes to representing ethnic diversity and nurturing dads (in fact, dads are often left out entirely), and Ten Nine Eight addresses these two critical blind spots. It’s fantastic to see a Black dad and his daughter rocking together on a rocking chair, then hugging and kissing goodnight as she gets ready for bed. The book starts with“ten small toes” and counts down to “one big girl all ready for bed.” The toes page is a favourite because the illustration is actual size: you can put your little one’s feet on the page and show them how their toes line up with the girls’ toes. The illustrations are folk-art inspired, with rich colours and plenty of details to chat about (where’s the cat? who took the shoe? what’s outside the window?), not to mention the introduction to numeracy.
One of the newer additions to the kid lit cannon is Olivia, by Ian Falconer. She has become a massive commercial success, with sequels, early readers, dolls, a TV show, etc. But I think the original is still the best. Done in the black and white scheme that appeals so much to babies, with splashes of bright red to liven things up now and then, Olivia the pig puts her own spin on basics like brushing her teeth, carrying the cat around, getting dressed, going to the beach, bedtime stories, bath time and, naturally, a trip to the art museum. And scaring her little brother Ian, when he leaves her no choice.
Eric Carle is a longstanding institution in children’s literature. I have a vivid memory of being young and sticking my fingers in the little holes in the fruit pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s a good one because it introduces the idea of the caterpillar changing into a butterfly, and (if you’re feeling sneaky) offers a chance to talk about foods that are healthy and make you feel good, and the dangers of eating a lot of questionable stuff at once. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is another good one: Carle’s artwork made of painted and pasted pieces of tissue paper are particularly impressive here in the animal illustrations, and the book sets up a pattern where your child can anticipate the next line and then turn the page to “read” it. However, the most popular Carle board book in our house is From Head to Toe, which encourages kids to wiggle their hips like a crocodile, thump their chest like a gorilla, wave their arms like a monkey, and so on. Babies will love the pictures, and watching you do the actions (all of which you can do sitting down, thank God), and my 2 and 4-year-olds get a kick out of showing off the moves.
The Mitten, by Jan Brett, is beautifully illustrated in her traditional Swedish style. When a mitten is inadvertently dropped in the countryside, various animals crawl into it for warmth, and it gets bigger and bigger. As a bonus, Brett has created side-panel illustrations that show the boy looking for his mitten, and which animal is going to find the mitten on the next page. The last illustration always makes me chuckle, and I think a 2-year-old would be old enough to get the joke. I have one problem with this book, and it’s an issue that appears far too often in kids’ books: out of the eight animals featured, only one is female (the mouse! ARGH!), so I often switch a “he” to a “she” here and there, in order to even things out.
It’s silly, but The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss is perfect for babies and toddlers. It’s a wee book that’s good fun. The pictures are bright, the feet are easy to relate to a child’s own life, and best of all, the rhyme and metre are pitch perfect. I’ll never forget my son, less than 2 years old, wandering down the hall with The Foot Book in his hands, looking at the pictures and reciting “Huh HA huh HA huh HA HA,” duplicating the rhythm of the lines.
I can’t imagine any child growing up without The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats — it’s truly a masterpiece of children’s literature. There are so many recognizeable images, done in Keats’ arresting, bright modernist style, that will appeal to little ones: window, bed, snow, footprints, tree, snowman, snow angel, bath, pocket, bedtime, sun…. The text is simple and succinct — made for easy, enjoyable multiple readings.
One last title: Sheep in a Shop by Nancy Shaw. The illustrations are so lovely and the poetry is perfection. There are lots of things to point out to your child that they’ll recognize: toy trains, blocks, a piggy bank, jackets with pockets, a birthday party, etc. However, the concept of not having enough money to pay for something and swapping something to make up for the shortfall….not an easy concept for little ones to get. They may also be a bit confused by the concept of clipping wool. All in all, though, this story about sheep shopping for a birthday present and then gleefully trotting to a party has something for a range of ages up to 4 or even 5. Better than its predecessor, Sheep in a Jeep.
Really, babies enjoy all board books. Mine (babies, not board books) have been particularly fond of the extra small ones (board books, not babies). The ones I’ve listed above are just the ones that I’ve enjoyed too, and that have had the most staying power in our family.
For some new board books on the market, try Chris Haughton’s Little Owl Lost and Oh No George! The design is way cool, with vibrant colours and a groovy feel, but they’re also honestly funny without being over a toddler’s head.
PS: If longevity isn’t one of your top criteria, try Where is Baby’s Belly Button by Karen Katz, which features giant colourful babies with flaps that hide and reveal eyes, nose, mouth, hands, feet, and of course, belly button. It’s basically a board book version of peek-a-boo, and what baby doesn’t love that?