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.