Books for the early years, Feb 2008

Many parents today know the significance of books, but few realise how important it is to start reading to babies as young as 5 months old. Cuddling a little baby and reading a book together can be an intimate experience for both parent and child. Books stimulate babies and infants in many ways that helps their development.

An interactive discussion was facilitated at Sutradhar to focus attention on choosing and using books for children in the first three years. The Open house was designed as a space for collective discussion of a new genre, and parents and teachers were asked to bring along books that they felt were special or favourites. Usha Mukunda, a librarian at the Centre for Learning, Bangalore, was invited to facilitate the session. As a lead up to the event, she met with parents informally to understand what books had worked for their children and why.

Usha began by presenting opinions that she had gathered from her discussions. Participants at the forum were free to interject with their views, or to hold up a book that added to the dialogue. As the participants included storytellers, librarians, teachers, special educators, second hand book buyers and book publishers, the interaction was lively and informative.

On choosing books

Sensory stimulation: Young children are particularly sensitive to stimulation – aural, tactile, visual and kinesthetic. Books for babies could have sound, colour, texture and even smell. Squeaky, cloth, bath and scratch books fall in this category. Colour is an essential ingredient of all picture books. While books with vivid colours have a natural appeal, it is equally important to show infants the more subtle use of colour. Caregivers could make a special effort to hunt down and use books that use muted colours, or have diffused washes. Books that use repetitive words also stimulate children aurally. (eg 'Toot toot the engine')

Illustrations: Illustrations complement a story and bring it to life. Pictures are what young children first relate to. Usha quoted children’s book author Martin Waddell: when he writes a picture book, he believes that the text grows in the process of illustration, and between the author and the illustrator they create harmony. Some illustrations have a sense of space and lack of clutter that children enjoy. At other times, they enjoy detailed illustrations, as in books by well known author Richard Scarry.

Size: The right size of book is important for little ones. Books should not be too large or too small for this age. Board books with stiff pages are easier for children to turn by themselves in their second year. Usha shared how a child who was comfortable with Eric Carle’s 'A Very Hungry Caterpillar' in small size was positively intimidated by the same story in large format!

Surprise: Peekaboo, pop-up and pull-a-flap books have an element of surprise that children at this age love. Parents may need to mend flaps that have been repeatedly opened!

Themes: Books that have pictures and stories of animals, the sequence of the day, faces and people, the moon, nature – these are some everyday and loved themes. Books introduce children to their first concepts about the world.

Pace: a leisurely pace works well for this age. Children will be ‘reading’ books through the pictures, and the text on each page should be just long enough to hold their attention. A convoluted and long story just won’t work.

Rhyme and repetition: A repeating refrain, visual, or a song makes the story come alive and invokes the participation of the child (eg 'The Gingerbread Man') Such books encourage anticipation, and help children read the same stories when they are older. (eg Dr Seuss books that use small rhyming words)

Emotions and values: The story, visuals, and how the parent reads all communicate emotion. The fact that we all recount our childhood books suggests how deeply they influenced us. Stories help children relate to and cope with fear, anger, exclusion etc. Parents should make a special effort to locate books that are humorous and playful, as children love these. Humour helps to kindle children’s imagination. The Dr Seuss title, 'Marvin K Mooney' uses the element of drama through play with type and size: ‘go… Go… GO…’

Gender: It is important to look out for books that avoid or break stereotypes. For instance, the Bear series by Martin Waddell has just two characters - Big Bear, and Little Bear. There is no mother or father, no brother or sister. Such stories resonate with families that are differently composed.

On reading

Book reading is an intimate, comforting activity. For a child it is linked to the warmth of the reader, be it a parent’s lap or sitting in a circle at school with the teacher. It helps to make a regular ritual of the act of reading, such as bedtime. Bedtime stories should be slow paced, almost boring. If they are exciting, children can get over stimulated.

For infants and toddlers who don’t quite understand words, it is through intonation, voice modulation, facial expression and sometimes body language that they get a sense of the story. Children enjoy a sense of drama, with different characters speaking in varied voices. A participant interjected that her 3 year old once told her to ‘read properly and not talk funnily’. Perhaps excessive emotion can also irritate a child!

A participant shared how her daughter seemed to be addicted to books. There followed a debate on whether books are essential for the first three years at all, particularly when ours has been an oral culture. Here Usha suggested that times have changed, we are in an audio-visual society with television and computers. Participants concurred that reading should have an important place in a child’s life, but books should be balanced with real life experiences and social interaction.

While English is an important language, it is important to read to the child and tell stories in different languages, particularly the mother tongue. Indian languages have unique sounds and talk about Indian concepts in ways that English cannot capture. If teachers realise that storybooks can be used to introduce other languages, children may pick up second and third languages more easily. There are also bilingual storybooks that can be used to learn two languages.

A teacher suggested that children could play a role in creating books such as photo stories, books with newspaper pictures, or textured materials. Parents could write down their children’s little stories which they will enjoy hearing back.

The Open house concluded on the note that reading is a 3-way relationship between the child, the adult, and the writer/illustrator. Choosing correctly and reading in the right way become important as books have a significant role in the way we think, learn and communicate.