Chris Kloet reports on a talk-in about Books for Babies.
“Books for babies? You must be kidding. Babies don’t read books, do they?” was the amused reaction of a local radio interviewer when I, seeking publicity for the event, told her about the IBBY seminar Chew on This: books for babies and toddlers, held in Birmingham in May. Her response gave me the cue to quote, missionary-like, from Dorothy Butler’s splendidly argued Babies Need Books – (as indispensable to the new parent, surely, as nappies?), while looking and laughing with her at the solemn concentration of the potty-enthroned infant pictured in Helen Oxenbury’s board book Working.
There was no similar disbelief, however, amongst the 145 publishers, librarians, booksellers, teachers and others – not forgetting the baby, who attended the seminar. Their presence bore witness to an appreciation of both the need for, and the current publishing boom in, books for the under-three’s. The time was ripe for a closer look at this new literary manifestation of cradle-power, what with Dorothy Butler, plus the Ahlberg’s The Baby’s Catalogue and at every turn, offerings printed on laminated board, (with safely rounded corners, naturally), bearing titles such as Mealtime and Bathtime which variously chart the youthful daily round. There’s a whole new meaning for the word Babygro with this expanding market.
The publishers spoke first
An overly cynical listener might have argued with Matthew Price, children’s publisher with Blackie, for his slightly rosy analysis of this publishing boom. He felt that a growth in the study of young children’s needs and an upsurge of idealism in children’s book publishing had led to publishers producing for a younger clientele than hitherto. When pressed, however, he conceded that the shrinking institutional market might also have influenced editorial decisions!
Rosemary Collins from Methuen talked about their list, from the Lars Wik photographic Mini-Books, originally Danish, which they pioneered in 1978, to more recent titles by established artists such as Oxenbury and McNaughton. She mentioned Leila Berg’s consumer research when compiling her Chatterbooks: Ms Berg showed babies a range of photographs. Those pictures which stimulated the most animated response were used in the books. Rosemary felt that books for babies “must have parent appeal” and humour.
Why, the publishers were asked, were there not more multicultural books for babies. Jennifer Holmes, head teacher of a Birmingham nursery school where 90% of the children speak no English on arrival, stressed the need for very simple books which cross cultural barriers. The answers seemed to be that no-one had given it much thought, and the artists capable of doing them hadn’t come forward. Publishers take note.
Alas, the speakers did not rise to the chairperson’s, (your present writer’s) bait, recalling Dorothy Butler, who did not regard board books as `proper’ books. I can’t help wondering if there’s been a world slump in the price of cardboard. That would account for the glut of board books. The question, “What has happened to rag books?” didn’t get many takers, although I later heard the remark that “rag books were only fit for wiping one’s nose”!
The view from psychology
For me, the day’s highspot was Harvey Cox’s lecture, illustrated with over 40 specially taken slides; he’s an educational psychologist with Tameside who has great personal enthusiasm for children’s books, as well as a professional interest in them. Called “The Child’s Perceptual Development”, the talk demonstrated, via the slides, the way babies and toddlers interact with books at successive stages of development. It was reassuring to hear Harvey, at one step removed from the professional `book scene’, setting a different discipline’s seal of approval on publishers’ and other book mediators’ efforts on behalf of the youngest child.
Librarians reaching out
Many publishers remarked afterwards how much they had picked up from the afternoon session on using books with the under-threes. Here, two (unrelated) librarians from Birmingham, Vivien Griffiths and Sue Griffiths spoke of their efforts to encourage book-sharing with the very young – from ensuring that libraries stocked and lent suitable books, to talking about these books with: childminders, playgroups, nurseries, CSE Childcare pupils, mother & toddler groups, PPA advisers, trainee nursery nurses, Under 5’s Consultative Group, National Childbirth Trust groups and so on.
The artists’ turn
Finally Shirley Hughes, Helen Oxenbury, Susanna Gretz and Colin McNaughton spoke about their works Helen and Colin both turned to doing books for babies and toddlers because they couldn’t find anything suitable when they were searching for books to share with their own small children. Susanna’s `Teddybears’ books began, not because she had a favourite teddy, but as revenge for a publisher’s rejection slip of an earlier work which remarked that her “drawings were not sweet enough for the grannies and aunties who buy children’s books”.
Shirley felt that before they learn to read, very young children are “visually more perceptive than they will ever be again” and she felt that the job of the illustrator for this age group was to facilitate “a marvellous mulch within a very young head – hearing your own language used with relish, coupled with some interesting images” – which was a very good way of summing up what the seminar had really been about.
Ready, Teddy, Go, Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Heinemann Daisychains, 0 434 92506 3, 99p.
Long and Short, Colin McNaughton, Methuen/Walker Books, 0 416 06150 8, £1.25.
The Birthday Party, Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books – First Picture Books, 0 7445 0035 4.
Find a Teddy, Stephen Cartwright and Claudia Zelf, Usborne – Find It Board Books, 0 86020 715 3, £1.00.