Monday, November 26, 2007

The joy of picture books

Now the kids are older, one of the things I miss most keenly from their early years is the sharing of picture books. We still read to both the children most days – sharing a bedtime book together. We swap over mums, every now and then, which means that Dani and I get to enjoy the children’s different tastes in fiction. Much as I enjoy the sharing of a chapter book, it is quite different to the moments we spent with picture books in years gone by.

One of the first books that Pearl loved was a board book version of a Dr Seuss book, “Mr Brown can Moo!” This was great fun, with lots of opportunity for making funny noises. We probably got this book when Pearl was four or five months old. I can remember reading it to her when she was crawling, and it has slightly chewed edges that indicate a baby mouth at work some time. Pearl was a very active baby, but I can remember her sitting still, looking into my face as I buzzed and mooed away.

Sharing books with babies is a good exercise in humility. If the baby likes the book, you can read it through two or three times. They flap, wave and bounce their appreciation. If they aren’t interested then they just crawl, or walk, away. Sometimes I’d carry on reading and the child would come back for their favourite words or pictures. Leo liked books of rhymes, especially ones with pictures of babies in – babies faces interested him. Pictures, in general, were very important. He loved the Pienkowsky pictures in Meg and Mog books. He was also quick to spot jokes or incongruity in the pictures – noticing little details. Pearl liked that too, giggling away at all the jokes in "Hilda Hen's Happy Birthday". I guess that was when she was three.

Pearl’s first clear word was “Go!” A lot of her early words were commands rather than the usual list of nouns that many babies have. “Up dere!” (there) was an instruction to be lifted to see or reach something. One of her favourite books about this time (maybe eighteen months) was a Shirley Hughes book of opposites called “Bathwater’s Hot”. This was a book of beautiful rhyme and warm illustration. Pearl loved it when we read the following text:
“The red lights says stop and the Green light says….”
“GO!” (Supplied with gusto by our purposeful little Pearl.)

One of the best things about our neighbourhood is a strong community culture of passing things on. Our next door neighbour gave us lots of great picture books from the late 1980s. So, as well as keeping up with new picture books, like Charlie and Lola, or the Julia Donaldson books, we could enjoy some classics of the late 1980s that came our way. We inherited a whole collection of the ‘powerful princess’ genre that was fashionable in 1980s picture books – “Princess Smartypants”, “The Paperbag Princess” and “The princess and the dragon.” We also had a wonderful, and quite dated, picture book called “I’ll take you to Mrs Cole”. This felt quite transgressive in lots of ways – a boy is left alone by his mum when she works, he ventures into the house of a neighbour, he finds a messy, chaotic household of warmth and care. The pictures were beautiful. Leo, in particular, loved the contrast between the dark forbidding outside of the house and the red glow of Mrs Cole’s face. I liked it that the boy solved his own problem and that the book showed that appearances can be deceptive.

The fact that the children developed favourite books was something that I loved. They needed the comfort of the familiar text and pictures. They could relax in knowing that the story would be the same as yesterday – that the drama would be resolved. Alfie would get up on that chair and open the door, triumphant, every time. Even if the real world was unpredictable, in their favourite books there was safety.

Leo was a toddler with strong interests. He used books as a way of pursuing those interests, from a very young age. He loved frogs when he was two and it was truly amazing how many pictures of frogs he found in the pages of books. One of the frogs we loved best was Frog from the series by Max Velthuijs. These books had a very ‘un-English’ feel – and sometimes read a little strangely, perhaps because they were translated. “Frog is Frog” had a very overt message of self-acceptance.
“That’s me, thought Frog, a green frog with a stripy swimming costume.”

When I read requests by people with children of three, four or five who are looking for reading scheme recommendations, my heart sinks a little. I suppose some people do find reading schemes useful, somewhere along the way, but I think they are, by and large, a rip-off. We did have a few of the Alan Ahlberg “Red Nose Readers” knocking around. But I reckon that if you want to spend money on books for young children you should spend it on a selection of picture books. They will have been written as books, not as a selection of words of a certain level of difficulty. They will have real content and will have been written to attract a reader – not to be doled out to a child as ‘the next level’. And they will often have pictures that stay with children in a way that words may not.

I cannot, of course, really understand how my children learned to read- though there were interesting differences to observe between the two of them. That said, I credit picture books as the start of their love of reading. But, that is not the reason I’m glad that we shared those books. It wasn’t a master plan to turn them into early readers. It was an expression of love and a means of communication, even before they could talk. It was a comfort. It was a joy. If I had one moment of my life to live again before I died I think it would be reading a picture book to my two children when they were tiny.


Liza said...

I miss reading to mine :(
As soon as he learnt to read for himself I was no longer allowed to read to him.
We used to get into bed at bedtime and read for hours, he'd quite often not go to sleep till midnight coz he was too engrossed in a story to let me put it down. I tried short stories for bedtimes to limit the late nights but he wasnt happy with that!

(btw i have a new blog)

HelenHaricot said...

i love reading to mine. and am lucky that both like to snuggle with a book.

a said...

Thank you for sharing that, I loved reading it

alison said...

I do like chapter books with pictures in for reading together and matching the pictures with the text. I've been reading The War Horse to the kids today (for hours ...) and the edition we were given has some lovely paintings in.

And it always amuses me when I'm reading a picture book to the youngest and the others creep up to listen too :)

Anyway, fortunately 'proper' picture books and reading scheme picture books aren't mutually exclusive, so I wouldn't bother with the heart-sinking ;-)

Allie said...

Point taken, Alison. Sadly, I think that some people do miss out entirely on the notion of enjoying books with very young children - just for their own sake. The message that children must read independently, at an early age, lines the pockets of reading scheme publishers. Most people have a limited budget for things like books. I think that if someone spends £100 on a complete jolly phonics box of tricks then that's probably £100 they won't be spending on other books. Home educators, in particular, are likely to feel that they need to provide some of the resources that their child is 'missing out on' by not attending school. Frankly, IMO a lot of that stuff is the literary equivalent of junk food. I just wanted to celebrate the value of quality picture books, many of which are available for free from the public library.

Clare said...

I loved reading your post and share your feelings. We have absolutely loads of picture books - books and shoes are the two things I'm happy to spend money on! Flopsy's recently started to enjoy chapter books and our bedtime 'routine' is to read a few picture books then a chapter from her book. Flopsy and Mopsy have both always adored books and Cotton-tail will sit still on a lap for quite some time while being read to. Current favourites in our house are Lynley Dodds books (Hairy Maclary and Slinky Malinki) and things like The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Flopsy's certainly learning to read the 'whole words' way and, although we have a few reading scheme books in our house, they're all charity shop buys and she's not at all interested in them! Boring stories with inbuilt pressure! I really feel it's far more important to get them loving books young than to get them decoding words young - they'll naturally want to learn to decode words when they have a love of books.

peri said...

J and I still read together - it's great to share books and we often read old books of mine that I had beavered away. I love to share them with him and to rediscover them myself.

We also had a love of Frog among many others. We have kept some picture books for nostalgia - and occasionally still sit and read them (it makes us both giggle). Not that long ago we shared Fox in Sox, just because J hoots with laughter as soon as I try to read the bit about tweetle-beetles - damn those tongue twisters!

alison said...

"which are available for free from the public library."

As are reading scheme books, lol! Also kind of reduces the impact of your argument that people will spend all their money on reading schemes and have none left for 'real' books. ;-)

Ernest's favourite books when he was learning to read were these graded readers he found at the library, because they had the number of words in them written on the back, and that appealed to him greatly!

And Violet would have been a long time learning to read from picture books, because by the time she was keen on reading, she wanted long, long stories, not picture books. Her literary experience was mostly from audio books from 4-6. (How anyone could go to sleep to the sound of various LOTR battles is still beyond me.) And then she discovered Peter and Jane and loved Jane's clothes, so she read lots of them.

I just don't see any point in making generalisations - isn't that the main driving force of HE, that people learn in different ways and it's best to support them in whichever way they prefer? So why conclude from your own experiences that everyone should do it your way?

Allie said...

Oh well, there you go, my skills of reasoning are somewhat impaired by snot and lack of sleep. Actually, you can't get reading scheme books from our public libraries - they don't stock them. Probably because they aren't generally great works of literature and librarians have such great taste ;-) Mind you, that doesn't quite explain the spinners full of Mills and Boon dross...

I'm not really trying to make a point about how people should HE, except to note that home educators are a damn good market (albeit still a small one in this country) for the people who sell 'educational' resources. If I want to take anything/one to task its the educational establishment's delivery of 'literacy' to the children in schools - and the 'new' (which is anything but) enthusiasm for synthetic phonics.

I have direct experiences of that, from the time P spent in school - and from seeing what has happened to other family members since. I'm not anti phonics - many (probably most) people do need a certain level of awareness of phonics to get started with reading. But the tedious drill of learning the sounds is dismaying to me as an *introduction* to literacy. The national literacy strategy does have quite a lot in it about appreciation of books - but it's too little and 'too late' if you're going to be pushing that at children alongside boring phonics exercises.

This piece is about celebrating picture books as the foundation of a relationship with literature. That's something I'm passionate about. Yes, people can, and do, learn the mechanics of reading in many, many ways - using all sorts of resources. P did a lot of early reading from shop signs, road signs, and so on. Maybe reading schemes are fine for that element of the learning, for some people, but they are not 'books' in the same sense as proper children's literature. If children don't experience the wit, style, and beautiful, elegant craftsmanship of real picture books then they are missing something that Peter and Jane, or Biff, Chip and thingummy can't provide.

I wouldn't presume to tell anyone that they were 'doing HE wrong' but that isn't the same as not holding any beliefs about learning at all.

alison said...

"This piece is about celebrating picture books as the foundation of a relationship with literature. That's something I'm passionate about."

And it would have been perfectly adequate as such without the penultimate paragraph. Why try to create a false dichotomy between 'real' books and learning-to-read books? It doesn't make lovely picture books any MORE lovely. It just seems as if it's put in there deliberately to knock anyone who uses a reading scheme, and the tone of it really spoilt the whole piece for me.

Allie said...

Ah well, you can't please all of the people all of the time. If it sounded smug or snidey then that's probably an indicator of my over-tired state. Or maybe it's the real me? Who knows?

I guess I don't think that it is a false dichotomy between 'real' books and learning-to-read books. The reading schemes aren't (maybe with the exception of Ahlberg and the Red Nose Readers) written by the giants of children's literature. That's because, by their nature, they are very limited in choice of vocabulary, imagery, and so on. I imagine they are horribly boring to write. Their aim is to get the reader to learn a set of sounds, or words. This makes them a different thing to a book like, for example, Shirley Hughes 'Colours' book. That book, which I read to ours as toddlers and under fives, was poetic in a way that a reading scheme book just isn't.

If people want to use schemes then I'm sure they will and they can rest assured that I am not judging them! Like they care? I'm just some woman who writes a blog.

Lucy said...

Hey! Did someone slate Mills & Boon? I'd still be on the picture books myself if it wasn't for them!

Hope you feel better soon X

Gill said...

ROFL @ Lucy! Er.... and same here, probably! ;-)

We haven't looked at many reading schemes here, except the Ladybird ones - who are they? Someone and Jane and a dog? I forget. They were dire anyway, *in my own personal opinion* which we were all still free to state (especially on our own blogs) when I last checked.

Ooh, a bit more of my opinion: Allie, you never sound smug.