I have always loved to read. I’ve had my nose in a book since I was 4 years old. Throughout my childhood, books were an escape. An escape from the summer heat, from school work, from chores (Seriously, I got grounded from reading once. True story.), and from life in general. I loved the adventures I was able to experience when reading. I would solve mysteries with Nancy and Ned, roam the prairie with Laura, and live in the Civil War era with Jo March. The library was, and is still, one of my favorite places to go.
It was probably only natural that I would become a teacher. Specifically, a teacher who taught reading. I’ve had countless hours of training and experience in helping students choose books at their appropriate reading level. I’ve even trained parents in this skill. “Yes, I would imagine your six year old is having trouble with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How about Green Eggs and Ham instead?” When choosing books for my students, I took a number of factors into consideration. How many words and pages did the book have? Fiction or nonfiction? Illustrations or photographs? Would the child enjoy reading about this subject? Hint: dinosaurs are more interesting than electrical circuits…most of the time.
So, why is it that as soon as I became pregnant I lost my mind?? I bought all kinds of books, pilfered books from my classroom library, and even unpacked some of my favorite books from childhood. I was consumed with being a good mommy and of course, being a good mommy meant instilling a love of reading in my own child. This meant she needed to be read to every night from birth. She needed to love Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, Kevin Henkes, and Margaret Wise Brown. Books like Hop on Pop, The Very Busy Spider, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, and Goodnight Moon were all part of Olivia’s book collection before she was even born. Everything I learned about kids and books as a teacher flew out the window and I completely focused on what I wanted her to like and enjoy.
For the first few months of Olivia’s life, all was hunky dory. I read to her from all sorts of books I pulled from the bookshelf in her room. I read to her from board books, cloth books, paperback books, and regular, old hardcover picture books. Books with just a few words and books with lots and lots of words. Our reading was coming right along. I was very satisfied with myself.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my baby was a captive audience. Homegirl was a newborn. She couldn’t move, so all she could do was lay there and listen. But, one fine day, she learned how to reach and grab and creep and crawl. Our reading went to hell in a handbasket. When I would try to read to Olivia, she would squirm, turn her head, or arch her back trying to get out of my lap. She would fuss during our reading time and didn’t really enjoy being read to. I wondered: Was she growing out of being read to? Did she not like it? Oh, the humanity!
Then, one day I pulled out a book my friend, Kirstin, had given me at my baby shower. It was What Does Baby Say? by Karen Katz. “Babies love these books,” Kir said. I thought to myself, “Hmmm. I’ve never heard of Karen Katz before.” As I read Olivia this book for the first time, she didn’t squirm. She didn’t turn her head. She didn’t arch her back to try and move on to something more interesting. She listened. She looked. She reached for the book. She was enjoying being read to. That Karen Katz (and Kir) was a damn genius.
That’s when it occurred to me. I hadn’t been choosing the appropriate books for her age and ability. 3-6 month olds have zero attention span. They can’t sit and listen to a 20 page book with a plot. I had to reevaluate Olivia’s book collection and figure out what was appropriate for our bedtime stories. I started by looking closely at the Katz book. It had very few large print words per page, flip up pages, and illustrations of babies’ faces.
Based on this unscientific study, I developed some guidelines for myself when choosing books for a child who is as young as 3 months and as old as maybe 12 to 18 months. Here they are with some photos that illustrate the concepts. Hopefully, these guidelines will help some other mamas so they don’t give up on reading because they think their babies aren’t interested.
1. Choose well constructed books. Both board books and cloth books are very durable and can withstand gallons of drool.
2. Follow the Rule of 10. Try to stick to books that have around 10 pages and around 10 words per page. For the purposes of these books I think of a “page” as two pages that face each other.
3. Look at the illustrations. Simple pictures without a ton of detail are the best. Bright colors are attractive to babies. So are pictures of other babies…the little narcissists!
4. “Extras” like tactile features that babies can touch and feel or flip up pages aren’t necessary but can go a long way in keeping your little one interested.
See how the puppy's ear and spot are fabric? Babies love to touch that.
5. Let go of the preconceived notions. For example, the books for this age are probably not going to have a plot. Too long, too complicated. Don’t think that a book has to be a story. The naming and question and answer formats that these books have help to develop a baby’s understanding of speech patterns as well as vocabulary. Also, don’t tell the mommy police, but for now I don’t read to Olivia every night. If we have a busy day and she’s cranky at bedtime, I don’t push it. I want her to love reading but if I make it a requirement, even at her young age, it could become something she resents later on and that would be my worst nightmare.
6. Think outside of the bookstore. If you are going to buy books, do your best to buy from your local, independent bookstore. And, although it is ideal to have a well stocked library for your child, the public library is an awesome resource. You can check out books for a couple weeks and try them out to see if your baby likes them without spending a dime. Another great idea is a book exchange with other moms who have babies the same age as yours. Trade a handful of books for a couple weeks and then get together for a play date to return them.
That’s it! I hope that you are already reading to your child, whatever their age. As a teacher, I can tell you that nothing inspires a child to read more than being read to and seeing their parents reading. Reading with your child can become a beloved ritual and I hope these tips help you get started!