Best Books for Kids

Best Books for Preschool Kids

recommended by Janice Stewart-Yates

Peking Pugs: A Covid Caper by Janice Stewart-Yates & Nataliya & Nina Vota (illustrators)

Peking Pugs: A Covid Caper
by Janice Stewart-Yates & Nataliya & Nina Vota (illustrators)

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With travel restricted in much of the world due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, it is more important than ever to open children’s minds through books. Janice Stewart-Yates, a passionate Montessori educator, shares her recommendations for books that bring the world to children. These are some of her favourite picks for preschool classroom story time, as well as for reading with her own daughter.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

Peking Pugs: A Covid Caper by Janice Stewart-Yates & Nataliya & Nina Vota (illustrators)

Peking Pugs: A Covid Caper
by Janice Stewart-Yates & Nataliya & Nina Vota (illustrators)

Read
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When you pick books to read to preschoolers, what are you looking for, and what do kids respond to?

Children definitely respond to things that they can relate to. Most of the books I’ve picked today are realistic situations for children to imagine themselves in: they could be in the countryside, they can imagine themselves travelling to a Scottish island, they can go to a museum, and when they do travel they can go to see the art of that country. With Zonia’s Rain Forest it is maybe not as likely that the children I teach will get to go to the Amazon. But then I talk with them about the different paper that the illustrator uses, the banana bark paper. These are all things that make an impression on children which they carry beyond the classroom.

So you want the children to be able to recognise themselves in the books, but you also want to broaden their horizons?

Definitely, to inspire them to go out and see things for themselves. As an educator, and as a mother, I love to share stories about what it was really like where the story takes place, not just to hold the book but really bring it to life and get them thinking. And there’s nothing more inspiring than the lives of others, because we’re all humans. With these stories – Katie at the Museum and Zonia’s Rain Forest and Katie Morag – it’s exciting for children to see other children doing things that they can relate to, and it can give them something to dream about. I think that is important now more than ever, because nobody is travelling anywhere. It’s really exciting through a story – and through a project connected to that story – to bring the world to the children and open their minds, and to have them imagine and fantasise.

You mentioned that you wanted to pick one of Xiong Liang’s books, but it isn’t available in English translation. But this is an artist that you really like.

Yes, I must say I love all of his books. He takes Chinese folk stories and applies his own art to them. His art is fascinating for adults to look at as well as for children, and his books really transport readers to another world. They definitely have a Chinese touch, while they are also a bit modern. Paper Horse, that’s a favourite in my classroom and in my home. The way that he draws it and also brings in the traditional craft of paper cutting – which is very popular in China for adults and children – it’s such a beautiful tale.

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Let’s take a look at your first pick, a classic book for preschool children which won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1978.

Each Peach Pear Plum is a personal favourite of mine, because I remember very clearly being introduced to this book as a child, being three years old in my godmother Janice’s house, and seeing this book and hearing it for the first time. Even without looking at the book, you have all the familiar characters in the rhymes that you’ve heard growing up, like Tom Thumb, Mother Hubbard in the cupboard, the three bears and all that. So you’re immediately drawn into the book just by listening to it. And then the art! For me, it really reminds me of the countryside in Scotland where I spent a lot of time on a farm. On the cover you look at the farm with the house in the centre. As a child, looking at each page and finding the clues was just so exciting. It gives me goosebumps and makes my eyes water just thinking about it, because I can still feel the excitement of looking at this book. When I share it with my students and with my daughter, it’s something that they go back to again and again. My first viewing of this book was 37 years ago. I can really remember how magical that was, and I still see that in children today.

For children who don’t know the references, does the book still work?

Definitely, because there’s a lot to observe. For example, Tom Thumb hiding in the tree. Children love that. They love ›things that they can relate to like the family of the bears: mummy, daddy and baby. Baby’s always doing something very cute, like when he’s the last one running behind the tree. And the children follow what happens with the Baby Bunting basket falling down and floating down the river.

Another theme in the books that I’ve chosen is that the art is so precise. We underestimate what children see when they look at pictures. The younger the children are, the more we think that they just need bold colours and bright images, which they do enjoy as well. But they really have the most amazing ability to see details that adults don’t see because our heads are full of other things, like what’s for dinner, did I pay that bill?… But as children, they really can get absorbed in the art and that’s where their imaginations go into full-blown action, especially as they get to age four and five when they can really see the pictures and imagine what happened and take that detail somewhere else.

The Mitten by Jan Brett

Your second pick to read with preschool kids is also a board book, based on a Ukrainian folk tale.

Yes, you have the very typical scenes of Baba – Grandmother – knitting the mittens for Nikolai. It’s winter outside, and snow. Many children have experienced snow. There’s nothing more magical than that day that you look out of the window or you’re coming home from school, and there’s snow everywhere. I think all children in that weather have had their mother, father or grandmother telling them to keep on their mittens or scarf, telling them to put on their hat. So children immediately relate to that, and to the resistance of a child who just wants to get out into the snow without thinking about the hat or the mittens.

In all of Jan Brett’s books, the art is so detailed. In this book I love how, to the side of the main story, you have what’s happened and what’s about to happen. The next animal is coming from the left side of the page. When you introduce children to this book, initially they’re very caught up in the main picture, and it’s normally by the time the third animal is coming that they realise what’s happening in the margin. Then they are able to guess from the picture what’s going to happen next. That just shows how captivating the art is in the main picture of the storybook.

Children are attracted to animals and they love the stories about them. This is a fantastic story to teach them about animals, draw attention to different body parts, like the claws on the owl and the prickly spines on the hedgehog, so it’s great for vocabulary-building as well. When choosing books for younger children, very often we choose books that have one or two lines, because we’re not quite sure if they’re going to be able to focus or follow. But actually books with one or two paragraphs per page are perfect for children because it isn’t just about the written word. They’re drawn in by what’s happening on the page, by the art, noticing detail like how the mitten is knitted. They can take so much from that, they can go back and be absorbed in the story and retell the story themselves because the art really brings it alive.

The ending is fantastic, when the mouse is on the bear’s nose and the bear sneezes, and at the end Nikolai has one mitten bigger than the other. Children, when they go out and play in the snow, often come back with their belongings in a state, without being quite sure how that happened. This book is a great way of linking their experience to the imagination.

Have you ever had children comment on how it goes from being quite plausible – that you have a mouse crawling into the mitten – to being quite improbable, and then to becoming completely impossible? Do they enjoy that progression?

Definitely. You might have the occasional child that says that’s impossible, that can’t happen. But most of them just get engrossed in the excitement of how far can we go, how many more animals can you get into the mitten? And they really enjoy the animals and doing activities afterwards, like having their own mitten, putting little toy animals in it, and experimenting with that in the classroom.

Zonia’s Rain Forest by Juana Martinez-Neal

Let’s leave the snowscape behind and move to the jungle. What is special about the third book you have picked to read with preschool children?

This is quite a recent book. Juana Martinez-Neal is Peruvian, and she has written about the Ashaninka indigenous people, who don’t have much exposure. As an educator, you always talk about the Amazon in Brazil. I really like how this book brings attention to the part of the Amazon which is in Peru. It’s really well done, how she chose to highlight and draw the people from that part of the Amazon. This is the kind of thing that I feel that children will pay attention to: she did all the paintings on banana bark and paper. So when you look at the drawings, if you look very carefully you can see that it wasn’t just painted on watercolour paper, there is another layer of texture. And when you share that with the children, it exposes them to a completely different idea of how the book was made. It wasn’t simply ideas drawn on paper and printed. I always explain to them how the artist spent some time in the Amazon getting to know the people, getting to know the landscape, and that she wanted to bring to the children an understanding about deforestation in the world, and that’s why she used the banana bark paper made by indigenous people in the Amazon.

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The paintings are a bit bold, with great detail. Through the story, the little girl Zonia follows a blue morpho butterfly. When I do a continent study with children, I talk about the animals and the insects, especially in the rain forest. So there’s a lot there that they can connect to if they are learning about the rain forest, like when Zonia meets the sloth. When she gets to the part in the book where the trees have been chopped down, the question is asked: what can we do about this? It’s a book that leaves a lot to be discussed. It’s not so explicit in telling the children what you have to do, or this is what must happen. I think it’s great to have this kind of book, because it leads to a lot of conversation without it being too obvious.

What age do you think this book is most suitable for?

I would say five upwards. Four year olds could definitely appreciate it too. It doesn’t have a lot of text, but I think the ideas of what’s happened here and what’s causing deforestation, children five years old and up would be able to make more connections and understand, especially after learning about the Amazon in school or doing a unit on South America.

Katie Morag and the Two Grandmothers by Mairi Hedderwick

Your next book is set on a Scottish island, is it close to your heart?

Yes, I could be a bit biased, but I do think that Mairi Hedderwick captures island life perfectly in all her books. She draws so carefully, she captures the wind – every picture is windy – and there’s probably never a moment when it’s not windy on the islands of Scotland. I love that, and how everybody has their wellies [rubber boots] on. You feel transported there, you can really see the details of the houses and the post office and the jetty.

Yes, it’s very recognisably the Hebrides.

It’s just amazing. What I love about Katie Morag and the Two Grandmothers is that whether we have two grandmothers that are very different, or sisters, or aunties, it is something that children can relate to. I love how the story shows both the personalities, and how they struggle to get on with each other but in the end they make friends. I think that’s a very good life lesson for children: you will always have people that are very different around you, whom you love, and they might not be compatible all the time. So, as well as the art being so realistic that it makes you feel like you’re on a Scottish island, it is a very good friendship and relationship story. And a good example of how you can love two people that are completely different.

Katie and the Impressionists by James Mayhew

Your last pick is about another Katie and her grandmother. Can you summarise the concept of this ‘Make art an adventure’ book series?

In each story Katie goes somewhere with her grandmother, generally to a museum, and her grandmother falls asleep, which is when Katie jumps into each painting. I think this is exactly how children’s minds work. Every child is capable of being interested in art, and this is the best way to get them interested. If they’re introduced to art in in a very positive way, then they can appreciate museums. Often as adults, we underestimate how much children understand about art and how much they can observe and really appreciate in the detail. I spent ten years in Paris where I went to museums every weekend. When I was a teacher there, and when I was a nanny there, I would take the children to museums every month and do projects on artists. I love how the Katie series introduces children to different – mainly French – artists. It is a very charming series to show children how to look deeper into the paintings and invent their own story.

In Katie and the Impressionists the theme is looking at the flowers in each painting because Katie was looking for flowers for her grandmother’s birthday. This not only generates interest in artists like Monet and Degas, but also draws children’s attention to flowers. It’s a perfect springtime story as well as an artist story. I did a European artists unit two years ago, and that summer I had two students go to Paris to go to the museums because they love learning about the art so much.

Because you had introduced them to this topic in books at preschool storytime, do you think?

Because we had read about the artists, about their lives, we had looked at their art, at techniques, we had talked about what you imagine art to be, and looked at the detail close up. We spoke about how some paintings are big in fame but small in size and vice versa. That so captivated two of my students that they begged to go to Paris to see the art in real life, and came back and gave me a full report on it. I can remember as a nine year old child learning about Brussels, and at nineteen travelling to Brussels to see all the things I learned about as a nine year old. So I think it’s important to choose books that are inspirational and do leave an impression, because when you’re reading with children, what they take is beyond the circle time story, it gives them aspirations and ambitions.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Janice Stewart-Yates

Janice Stewart-Yates

Janice Stewart-Yates is an educator with over 20 years’ experience teaching preschool age children. Originally from Scotland, she is a firm believer in multiculturalism and multilingualism. Janice has been a teacher in the UK, Spain and France and is currently at the Montessori School of Beijing. She is consultant to schools globally on implementing Peace Education.

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Janice Stewart-Yates

Janice Stewart-Yates

Janice Stewart-Yates is an educator with over 20 years’ experience teaching preschool age children. Originally from Scotland, she is a firm believer in multiculturalism and multilingualism. Janice has been a teacher in the UK, Spain and France and is currently at the Montessori School of Beijing. She is consultant to schools globally on implementing Peace Education.