When I was pregnant, one of the things I was most excited to prepare was the bookshelves! I dedicated an entire wall to shelves which allowed picture books to face outwards. The covers would be displayed as works of art, and the shelf contents could evolve as our son grew as a reader. From the very beginning, I wanted our baby to be surrounded by books.
We read to him daily from birth. Sometimes it was children’s books, other times it was whatever we were reading. It was a wonderful way to bond, and books gave us a ‘script’ if we ran out of conversation to make with a newborn.
Not just for babies
When our son was born I had a huge collection of children’s books - some were my own childhood favourites, and others were from the Master’s degree in Children’s Literature that I’d done a few years previously. Because we had a house of children’s books suitable for a wide range of ages, we often read our son books that weren’t ‘just for babies’. It was wonderful to see the different ways in which he engaged - even if he didn’t follow the narrative, he could enjoy the pictures, the rhythm of the text, and the experience of being read to. Put simply, he was learning to find joy in reading.
Before he could talk, our son would look through a book and use baby sign to name things in the pictures. From babyhood, he demonstrated a deep connection to his books, handling them respectfully. I remember when we were in a cafe and he recognised a book he had at home, in the distant toy corner - he was so delighted, and we were amazed that he recognised the cover from afar.
Making space to read
As he grew, we incorporated children’s books into various rooms in the house, dedicating the lowest shelves of our bookcase to his books, so they would always be accessible to him. When he was about eight months old, we joined a baby book club, where we learned new ways to engage him with stories, discovered more books we loved, and met like-minded families. We continued to visit the library regularly, and to buy lots of books from local charity shops. We used books for bonding, to play, and to calm. He learned that books were a great way to carve out some personal space, and as he grew into a toddler he would often sit by his bookshelf and ‘read’ when he wanted some quiet time.
From early on, we took books everywhere with us - on the bus, in the car, on playdates, to the park, and to cafes - in the belief that books aren’t just for bedtime. Last summer, we got into reading books out and about in natural settings, and bringing the stories to life through related activities: for example, we read ‘The Storm Whale’ at the beach, ‘The Gruffalo’ in a forest, and the ‘Katie Morag’ books around a campfire. We recently attended a forest school where families gathered in a clearing in an ancient woodland, and enjoyed storytime around a campfire. It was a truly magical and mindful moment.
Our son is now three and a half, and a committed bookworm. He frequently relates things back to stories he knows as he learns about the world. The past few years have been a reading journey for the whole family, and we’re committed to making conscious choices about the books on our shelves. •
Here are some things we consider when choosing books
ENJOYMENT OF LANGUAGE
Young children respond brilliantly to rhyming text: it’s memorable, invites them to join in, and helps them to learn about how language works. Books with a lively rhythm can be enjoyed by all ages - even if a child’s too young to follow the narrative, they can enjoy the rhythm of the words. Here are some of our favourite books for their infectious rhythm and rhyme. Tanka Tanka Skunk Steve Webb, 2003, Even My Ears Are Smiling Michael Rosen, 2011, In the Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak, 1970
ENCOURAGING CURIOSITY ABOUT THE WORLD
Books are a great way to learn about the world and develop Global Citizenship. This can - and should - include aspects of this that we may find problematic or difficult to address with children.
We love The Barefoot Book of Children (Kate de Palma & Tessa Strickland, 2016). With colourful, detailed illustrations it talks about the diversity of children’s lives around the world and prompts interesting conversations. Children Just Like Me (2016) is a photographic book celebrating the everyday lives of real children around the world.
Atlases are wonderful too: The Picture Atlas (Simon Holland, 2017) weaves together nature, culture and history, as it explores the world continent by continent.
It’s important to us that stories portray gender equality. We choose books that depict strong female protagonists, men in caring roles, and children free to explore their own gender identity.
We love Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag series and Quentin Blake’s Mrs Armitage series for their resourceful female protagonists. For positive gender identity, we love Julian is a Mermaid (Jessica Love, 2018) - a story of being seen for who we are, by people we love. So Much! (Trish Cook, 1994), Leo Can Swim (Anna McQuinn, 2016), and The Baby’s Catalogue (Janet and Allan Ahlberg, 1982) are some of our favourites for their depictions of caring, proactive fathers, and positive portrayals of Black men.
We’re raising our son to feel connected with his mixed cultural heritage, by collecting books written not only in English, but also in Spanish and Welsh. It’s possible to find translations of familiar stories, so we have titles such as Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak, 1963) and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle, 1969) in several languages. We also have books which are originally published in these languages, rather than being a translation.
We also love books that are wholly or partially written in languages we don’t speak. Sometimes the illustrations are enough to convey the story, or you can learn a bit of a new language in this way.
We have several books with a non-Western cultural setting, such as We All Went on Safari (Laurie Krebs, 2003), Lin Yi’s Lantern (Brenda Williams, 2009) and Handa’s Surprise (Eileen Brown, 1994). We also have several that celebrate diversity, such as We’re Different, We’re the Same (Bobbi Jane Kates, 1992) and Mirror (Jeannie Baker, 2010).
There are several children’s books which address the topic of racism. However it’s important to us that our son also sees BAME characters in stories that are not about race or racism, but are about ordinary, everyday experiences. I believe this builds empathy and emphasises the similarities between people, regardless of race.
Hannah is a mum with a Master’s degree in Children’s Literature. She blogs at throughbookswegrow.wordpress.com
Main images: INNOVATIVE BOOK STORAGE AT UK.TIDYBOOKS.COM