Best Books for Kids » Ages Baby-2

The Best Baby Books

recommended by Barbara Band

Barbara Band, librarian and former President of the UK’s Library and Information Association, explains why reading aloud for babies is not only a great bonding experience but also an important part of early childhood development. She shares some tips on reading with babies and introduces her top baby book recommendations.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Before we get to the books, would you like to talk a bit about reading for babies? Why is it important for babies to look at books and for adults to read to them?

I love books for all ages, and I read books for all ages. When I go to the library I come back with a huge pile, from baby books, picture books, all the way through to adult books, nonfiction and fiction. And although I work as a school librarian, I’ve done research and reading around the development of language and the development of reading skills in pre-school children. It is so important to read to babies from the word go. A lot of people don’t realise that reading actually starts with language, and language starts with play. If you don’t have those language skills, you don’t really develop reading skills. Children that aren’t exposed to vocabulary through people talking to them and reading to them will be at a disadvantage, because they have a much lower grasp of vocabulary than other children. I’m not talking about reading here, I’m talking about knowing what words mean, being able to see a car and identify it as a car, for example. So it’s never too early to start reading to children.

Sometimes parents might question the point of reading to a four week old baby if the baby is not going to understand any of it. But there is more than one aspect to this. As well as developing their vocabulary and the oral skills, it’s helping their visual skills because babies’ eyes develop as they grow. Looking at books helps that development process. Also, you need to introduce children to vocabulary that is not just within their own sphere of understanding. If you just read for ten minutes a day to a child, they will have been exposed to so many more words when they get to school age compared to if you don’t. There was a study by Ohio State University a few years ago which found that children who are read one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by the age of five than those who don’t have adults or older children that regularly read to them. If you read five books a day to a young child then the difference by the time they start school is well over a million words.

Parents reading to children sometimes feel slightly self conscious, and might feel that they’re reading a book wrong. But with a lot of baby books there aren’t stories in them, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to read a book to a baby. A baby is not going to turn around and say, “hey, that’s not what it says” or “you’re talking about the car but I want to talk about the bus”. The baby is just going to sit there and enjoy. When you put a baby on your lap and open a book and read, it’s an enjoyable experience for both of you. That baby is being cuddled, it’s being paid attention to, it’s looking at the pictures, you’re introducing it to things. It is really important, especially for parents who may have low literacy levels or have English as an additional language themselves, not to worry about the words on the page. Baby can’t read them. Talk about the pictures, the noises the animals make, the different types of food, the colours. This is reading for pleasure rather than reading for improvement, that is, teaching children how to read. They’re going to have enough of that when they get to school, with phonics and reading schemes. So if you can introduce reading as a pleasurable activity before they start school, then you’ve won half the battle, because they will want to engage with books. Another side of this is that a child needs to be ‘reading ready’, they need to know how you hold a book, which way to turn the pages, and if they’ve never been introduced to books how are they going to learn that?

Let’s talk about your first baby book pick, Where’s Mrs T-Rex? which is part of an award-winning series by Ingela P Arrhenius, an author and illustrator based in Sweden.

There are lots of books to choose from in this series. I tend to veer towards books that go against stereotypes, because I think it’s really important that we don’t put stereotypical images in front of young children all the time. They pick up these messages so quickly from nursery, from the media, from the things they see in books. So I’ve gone for Where’s Mrs T-Rex? because animals in books are often male, especially if they’re strong animals. If you think about books that feature lions, they’re not lionesses. I know a lion looks wonderful with his mane, you can do lovely illustration with them, but we don’t have many books with lionesses even though they’re the ones who hunt. To get away from stereotypes, for me this baby book pick was a toss up between Where’s Mrs T-Rex? and Where’s Mr Unicorn?

This is a small board book, which is ideal to start babies off with because when you’ve got a baby on your lap you haven’t got a lot of room. Sometimes it can be quite a juggling act to have a bigger book and the baby reaching out, because they all want to touch the book. So this is ideal for when baby is sitting on your lap and also for babies to hold themselves. It’s got flaps in it. Very little children, from a few months old, soon learn that if you lift the flap you’ll find something underneath. A lot of flap books tear after a few times of handling, and then you lose that excitement of lifting the flap, but in this series the flaps are made of felt so they won’t tear. At the end of the book there’s a surprise – a mirror – and of course babies love to see themselves in mirrors.

I think there is a mirror in all the books in this series, which allows for a good interactive moment with the baby reader. In terms of the art, the illustrator is apparently very influenced by 1950s and 1960s style.

Yes, another thing I like about these books is that they’re very colourful, and the drawings are simplistic. So that’s really nice for very small babies whose vision is developing. It’s brilliant.

Let’s move on to your next pick of best books for babies, My First Words: Let’s Get Talking!

I love using these books with little children because there’s no story. Parents have a tendency to read the story word for word, which doesn’t always work with a very small child because it’s too long for them. The baby wants go to the next page or back to the previous page where there was a more interesting picture, and that can be frustrating for the adult who may have a more rigid mindset to reading the story. You need to be flexible when you’re reading to children. If they want to go back and look at the previous page or the start when you’re only halfway through, just do it. Let them lead the reading. This book is also part of a series. There’s one about numbers, things that go, busy home and others, but I’ve chosen this one because it has a wide variety of pictures in it. It’s a board book but it’s a larger format, published by Dorling Kindersley who use very high quality photos in their books rather than illustrations. The text is just matching words.

When you have a book with photos like this, there’s a huge amount you can talk about to babies. With younger ones you can just talk about the pictures, you can point to the picture and say “there’s baby’s nose” and then you can touch the child’s nose and say “there’s your nose”. Then when they get older you can say “where is baby’s nose?” So you can develop the book with the child. For example, you can talk about colours, so with the page about clothes you can say “there’s a red coat, you have a blue coat”. When you’re on the pages with toys you can say “you’ve got a teddy, do you cuddle your teddy at bedtime?” I find the first thing many children connect with is animals, they often learn the names and the noises of animals before they learn anything else. Children understand far more than you realise. They might not have the verbal skills to react, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t understood what you’ve said. There’s no story in this book and no right or wrong way to read it, so there is no pressure on parents who can just talk about the words.

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This book is arranged thematically so you could pick one of the themes or just talk about whatever takes the baby’s fancy. Babies will see lots of things in the book which they recognise, and you can point out new things if you want to tell them about something they haven’t seen before.

Each time you read it, there will be new things you can point out because their world is expanding all the time. They’re seeing new things and also noticing new things. You can do the same walk with a young child every day and then suddenly they’ll notice some dandelions by the side of the road that have maybe always been there. They connect more with the world as they grow and I think the photographs make the books more realistic to the children, they can recognise more in them.

Your next pick of best baby books is Monkey and Me by Emily Gravett, who is an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator in the UK.

Emily Gravett is one of my favourite illustrators and authors. This book is different from the others that I have selected because it is a story. It’s a very simple and repetitive story and if you break down the language in it there are not a lot of words used. It’s about a little girl who has a toy monkey. She says “monkey and me, monkey and me we went to see…” and on the next page is the animal they go to see. Emily’s got a wonderful way of using the space on the page. Once you’ve read it, you realise that the girl is copying the actions of the animal they are off to see. For example, when it’s kangaroo, she’s tucked monkey down her t-shirt like in a pouch. At the end she goes home to eat but she falls asleep and there’s an actual monkey who steals her banana. So it’s got a fun element to it and the drawings are wonderful. I’ve got three grandchildren and it’s been a firm favourite with all of them. Recently I’ve been reading it to the 18 month old and she loves it. It’s not too long a story, so when babies get a little bit older they will sit and listen to it. You can make it exciting by making noises and movements for the animals. Or it can be read very quietly and slowly, and that repetitive language is very calming so you can read it at bedtime. It’s a lovely book to read at the end of the day when you want to wind them down before they go to bed. Sometimes when I’m reading to the younger children I have to remember that I’m trying to get them relaxed and not wind them up, and this book you can do both with. It’s just a lovely book to read aloud.

It’s a good book for counting with young kids as well.

It is, and identifying animals. Like most baby books, if you look beyond the words there’s a lot you can do with them.

Your next pick of best books for babies is The Same but Different Too by award-winning author Karl Newson and illustrator Kate Hindley.

Again, this is a story, and it’s got that rhyming language. It’s a story about diversity and being different. You need to introduce this to children from a young age, because the world that very small children interact with may not be very diverse. This book is simple to read with younger children and it’s got that nice rhyming text but also lots of detail in the pictures. There are people that are tall and people that are short; actually the tall character is not a person, it’s a giraffe who is taking books off the top shelf for the little girl who is small. So it’s a book that will grow with a child. If you can choose books that grow with children, that’s fantastic. It’s better value for money to start with, you don’t really want to buy a book that they are not interested in a month later. With this book, as the child gets older you can start talking about more and more details and the differences between people. You can bring in different aspects of society when it’s appropriate to do so for the age of the child.

It has a very nice message about how we’re all different and good at different things, but that we have things in common as well. This one can also be a bedtime story.

Yes, and when you have books that a child has grown up with, books that are familiar to them, they’ll often pick those at bedtime. If they’ve had a grumpy day, which they all have from time to time, and they just want to sit and cuddle, sometimes they want that familiar book. So it’s a comfort read, but also you can extend the reading to match their age and what they can take in from the story. I love it, it’s a fantastic book for little children.

Let’s talk about your final pick for babies, My Big Wimmelbook: My Busy Day by Caryad, a German illustrator who does puzzles and board games as well as books.

I cannot remember where I first came across these books, but I absolutely adore them. There are about 14 books in the series and they’re all brilliant. All the grandchildren from age eight downwards still love them. The youngest one, who is 18 months, goes to nursery and I chose My Busy Day because it is set in a nursery. You’ve got the children arriving, and they’re having their breakfast in the nursery. Then you’ve got playtime outside, they go off to visit a farm and they do painting, water play, storytime, all those familiar activities. There are no words in it, it’s all illustrations. It’s a board book, but it’s a slightly larger format. There are lots of details in the pictures but I’ve found children from around 12 months upwards like looking at them. It’s amazing what little children can spot, they spot things that you don’t see at all, the smallest thing like the dog hiding behind a barrel. When I sit and read this book with my granddaughter she recognises things. I relate it to what she does in her day, does she go outside and play, does she nap like the little girl who’s always asleep in each of the pictures? At the front of each of these books there are 15 or so characters that then feature on each double-page spread. They’ve got the same clothes on so you can spot them, but they’re doing something different on each page. One of the other Wimmelbooks is Animals Around the World by Stefan Lohr and there’s a carrier pigeon. In the first picture, somebody has given it a letter and then on each of the other pages you have to spot this bird with the letter, then in the last picture the letter’s being handed over.

I do different things with each grandchild with these books. With older children like my five year old grandson, he loves spotting things. We don’t spot all 15 characters because we’d be there for hours, we choose three or four things to spot in each picture. After a while they know where all the 15 characters are so you can extend that by choosing something yourself within the picture, something tucked in a corner and ask them to find it. If you ask them, for example, to find the sheep that’s rolling on the ground, that helps to develop their observational skills. For my eight year old grandchild I thought she would have grown out of these books by now but she sits with them and makes up stories with the people on the pages, with herself in the stories. The other thing is these books are interesting for adults to look at as well. Children do pick the same books all the time and when you’ve read the same book every day for six months, you think “oh, not this book again”. But these books have touches of humour in the pictures, there’s lots to talk about, and they are lovely illustrations so you find yourself not getting bored with them. You have to be a bit careful, because if you get bored that will come across when you’re reading. We don’t want children to be bored with reading, we want them to think of it as an exciting adventure every time we pick up a book.

It’s exceptional when an author or illustrator creates a book that appeals to children from baby through to older years. Obviously the interactive element is important, and the illustrations are very busy and colourful.

There is a huge amount you could do with them. You can do counting, you can talk about what’s happening on the pages, what children are doing in the pictures. This series has been my go-to gift for the children in my life that I buy presents for. I think these books should be more widely known because they’re brilliant, and excellent value for money as well.

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Is there anything you want to say in conclusion about the books, or about reading for babies?

It was really hard to choose just five. I’ve not gone for the firm favourites that everybody knows. That’s not because they’re not any good, I just felt this was an opportunity to introduce slightly different books to parents. In terms of reading for babies I would just say it’s meant to be a fun time for you and the baby, so find something that you can both engage with and relax. As I said earlier, there’s no right or wrong way to read a book to a baby, but do read to them, every day.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Barbara Band

Barbara Band

Barbara Band is a qualified and Chartered Librarian, as well as a school library consultant and trainer. She has over 30 years' experience as a school librarian and is Treasurer of the UK School Libraries Group and Chair of the Library Services Trust. She is a former President of CILIP, the UK's library and information association, and is Vice Chair of the Great School Libraries campaign. She is passionate about the value and benefits of reading to children of all ages.

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Barbara Band

Barbara Band

Barbara Band is a qualified and Chartered Librarian, as well as a school library consultant and trainer. She has over 30 years' experience as a school librarian and is Treasurer of the UK School Libraries Group and Chair of the Library Services Trust. She is a former President of CILIP, the UK's library and information association, and is Vice Chair of the Great School Libraries campaign. She is passionate about the value and benefits of reading to children of all ages.