In 1954 the psychoanalyst, D W Winnicott, who did much pioneering work with mothers and babies, wrote in a book aimed at new mothers*:
‘Each baby is a going concern. In each baby is a vital spark, and this urge towards life and growth and development is a part of the baby, something the child is born with and which is carried forward in a way that we do not have to understand… The baby grows, and you are the mother providing a suitable environment.’
Most parents do indeed want to provide ‘a suitable environment’ for their baby and enjoy responding to its needs. Nowadays, thanks in no small measure to the work of Book Trust’s Bookstart initiative, books are increasingly seen as part of the environment from the earliest months.
Kathy Henderson and Brita Granström’s Baby Knows Best is a picture book that takes a wryly humorous look at what can happen to our (in this case book orientated) best efforts:
She’s got a rag book about farms
That’s full of ducks and pigs and goats,
she’s got my old book of nursery rhymes,
and a plastic book that floats,
she’s got books with cardboard pages
and bright pictures just for her…
And what does she want to look at?
Baby does indeed know best about the excitement of tearing and chewing paper – an important stage in the process of enjoying books. This happy book with its freely expressive illustrations will be greatly enjoyed by parents and older siblings as well as by baby her/himself.
Not all babies are as tactful as this one, of course, in developing tearing skills via newspapers rather than on books themselves. There will certainly be some casualties along the way – babies are surprisingly strong and their curiosity will undoubtedly lead to torn pages. It’s not the end of the world and providing old magazines and newspapers can help at the ripping paper stage.
The first thing that almost all babies see is their mother’s face and reading it is their window into knowing about themselves. Three recent novelty board books develop this theme with lots of possibilities for looking at faces, including the baby’s own, as each book includes a little mirror. Jane Cabrera’s Floppy Ears, illustrated in bold painterly style, has a series of animal portraits, some with small ears (guinea pig), some with big ears (elephant) and so forth. The mirror on the final page reflects, of course, ‘your ears!’ and affords the baby and parent a delightful opportunity to participate together in putting words to body parts.
Rod Campbell’s Fluffy Kitten with clear, rather static drawings, is a touch and feel board book about a playful kitten with large expressive eyes that babies will relate to. Kitty likes looking at herself in the mirror and so will baby. The final spread has a peek-a-boo cloth flap behind which baby can find the sleeping kitten. So much can be experienced from this little book – the all important theme of lost and found that is intrinsic to peek-a-boo and to early development, the mirroring of self, and the stroking of the ‘kitten fur’ that introduces the idea of different textures.
Mick Inkpen and Stuart Trotter’s Kipper’s Sticky Paws is a touch and feel board book about a dog and a pig with sticky fingers and faces that need wiping clean. The sticky paws touch-and-feel is very effective and fun but the mirror in which baby is invited to look to see whether her/his face is clean is disappointingly poor quality. Jan Ormerod’s I Spy You! is a thin card board book with peek-a-boo flaps behind which various babies are hiding. The illustrations are rather muted but the repetitive simplicity will greatly appeal.
For slightly older babies Jane Simmons’ Daisy’s Hide and Seek is a picture book illustrated in her warm, painterly style and with flaps of the Where’s Spot? kind. Daisy and Pip, the little duckling, are playing hide and seek round the farmyard so there are lots of opportunities to identify the animals as well as the excitement of looking for Pip. Dramatic tension in this little story is just the kind of thing to engage a baby even if s/he doesn’t yet know quite what it is all about. Why do some publishers think they can get away with pedestrian texts for babies?
David McKee’s Elmer’s Hide-and-Seek is a lift-the-flap book in which the multi-coloured little elephant looks for bird behind the pink rock, orange log etc. Words for identifying colours as well as a variety of animals are thus incorporated into this stylish little book.
Books as toys
Board and cloth books have of course a double function – toy as much as book – and being chewed, dribbled on or thrown around is par for the course. Such books do, however, implicitly convey to babies how books work. As the adult turns the pages, the baby, in the UK at any rate, is learning that pages are turned from right to left. This is why I find concertina books like Andy Everitt-Stewart’s First Cot Book less satisfactory for our very new ‘readers’ despite its decorative patterns and good ‘peepo’ mirror, safely incorporated. Jo Brown’s Humpty Dumpty Play Book is a touch-and-feel cloth book (with pages to turn) that introduces the first line of a nursery rhyme on each page. Thus we have ‘Baa, baa, black sheep,/have you any wool?’ and a jolly sheep picture with touch-and-feel woolly middle. The assumption is, however, that the adult knows the rest of the rhyme and this is, sadly, not an assumption that I think it safe to make. Curiously, it is suggested that this title is suitable for 6-18 months. My own experience is that babies love hearing rhymes well before six months. It doesn’t matter if the words are not understood – it’s the cadences, rhythms and sounds of the language that they respond to and will begin to mimic as they begin to make their own sounds.
Caroline Jayne Church’s Bouncy Lamb cloth book has touch-and-feel elements (‘baby chick/smooth her wing’ etc) and engaging pictures of different animals. Lots of opportunities here for the parent or other carer to put words and sounds to the pictures.
Lost and found
For older babies, the theme of lost and found continues to be potent and never more so than in stories in which babies are lost, experience anxiety and then the relief of being found again. (Baby ‘readers’ know a lot about this…)
Anita Jeram’s popular picture book with its consummate drawing and fresh, appealing characterisation, Bunny My Honey, is now available as a small format board book. Bunny plays with his friends and Mummy Rabbit makes it better ‘if a game ever ended in tears, as games sometimes do’. But ‘one day Bunny got lost… Bunny started to cry. “Mummy, Mummy, I want my mummy!”’ A similar trauma is undergone by the lamb in Kim Lewis’s handsome picture book with its soft pastel illustrations, Little Baa. In both cases, you’ll be relieved to know, mother and baby are happily reunited.
Shoes, potties and other babies are amongst the things that fascinate older babies. Valeria Petrone’s board book Funny Feet has a duck called Tilda trying on new shoes. Babies will love the jokes and the bright, bold colours. Guido van Genechten’s picture book, Potty Time, is also wonderfully funny with animals of different sizes sitting on their potties (‘“Here’s a potty for my round pink botty,” said Percy Pig. “Oink, Oink!”’ and so on). Bold use of colour, outline and collage add to the impact. There is a crying baby in Cressida Cowell and Ingrid Godon’s What Shall We Do With the Boo Hoo Baby? Babies will be vastly amused by the desperate measures the animals use to pacify what turns out to be a tired baby who wants to sleep. The repetitive structure and animals noises will be much enjoyed.
Older babies and toddlers also, of course, love stories of domestic life and forays into the wider world and few achieve this better than Sarah Garland. In Ellie’s Shoes and Ellie’s Breakfast, mum and dad, respectively, are called upon to find shoes and make breakfast in a comfortably chaotic farmhouse. The small yet big achievements of Ellie finding the shoes in one book and an egg for her breakfast in the other are celebrated in bright illustrations with vibrant line that convey movement and liveliness. What better way to keep in touch with babies than sharing books like these!
* The Child, the Family, and the Outside World
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps.
Baby Knows Best, Kathy Henderson, ill. Brita Granström, Doubleday, 0 385 60070 4, £10.99 hbk
Floppy Ears, Jane Cabrera, Campbell Books, 0 333 90366 8, £3.50 board
Fluffy Kitten, Rod Campbell, Campbell Books, 0 333 90373 0, £4.99 board
Kipper’s Sticky Paws, Mick Inkpen and Stuart Trotter, Hodder Children’s Books, 0 340 78852 6, £4.99 board
I Spy You!, Jan Ormerod, The Bodley Head, 0 370 32633 4, £3.99 board
Daisy’s Hide and Seek, Jane Simmons, Orchard Books, 1 84121 767 0, £8.99 hbk
Elmer’s Hide-and-Seek, David McKee, Red Fox, 0 09 941098 2, £4.99 pbk
First Cot Book, ill. Andy Everitt-Stewart, Ladybird, 0 7214 9931 7, £3.99 cloth
Humpty Dumpty Play Book, ill. Jo Brown, Ladybird, 0 7214 9930 9, £5.99 cloth
Bouncy Lamb, ill. Caroline Jayne Church, Ladybird, 0 7214 2838 X, £5.99 cloth
Bunny My Honey, Anita Jeram, Walker Books, 0 7445 7583 4, £3.99 board
Little Baa, Kim Lewis, Walker Books, 0 7445 7544 3, £9.99 hbk
Funny Feet, Valeria Petrone, Scholastic, 0 439 01389 5, £4.99 board
Potty Time, Guido van Genechten, Cat’s Whiskers, 1 90301 211 2, £4.99 pbk
What Shall We Do With the Boo Hoo Baby?, Cressida Cowell, ill. Ingrid Godon, Macmillan, 0 333 73593 5, £4.99 pbk
Ellie’s Shoes, Sarah Garland, Red Fox, 0 09 969251 1, £4.99 pbk
Ellie’s Breakfast, Sarah Garland, Red Fox, 0 09 969261 9, £4.99 pbk