Real reading, real kids

The who, why and what

The focus in Reading With Babies, Toddlers & Twos is on little ones. But we cannot find a better shared activity than reading a book together with your child as she grows. It’s perhaps the most profound win-win pleasure for both of you.

Real reading, with real children, is rarely a picture-perfect process. Babies fuss; toddlers tear books; twos throw them. Trying out an ebook or app? She’s all over every button or swipe of the screen, including those that shut the whole thing down or email your boss.

You may think books are for reading. Your baby sees that books are almost infinitely useful for playing peek-a-boo, experimenting with Newton’s Law of Gravity, and forming a bridge to allow the giraffe to walk into the plastic barn door.

It seems as if there’s an enormous gulf between what the two of you are trying to achieve: you’re trying to get to the end of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and your baby is trying to taste the book cover. You want to read; she wants to experience. Her experience, though, is really akin to your reading-rich with audio-visual-sensual experiences with a story.

Whether she’s mouthing Harold’s cover or using him for a hat, she’s happy. Isn’t that what you really want—creativity, experimentation, imaginative play, talking and laughing and doing something together? Let go of the goal and savor the experience. You probably already know how it ends, anyway.

Why read? Because you like to, that’s why. 

Why do you want to read together?  What will either of you take away from the time you spend together, book in hand?

Reading is one of the first activities you can enjoy together. At its best, it’s a chance to snuggle in tightly and quietly enter another world. At the very least, it’s a distraction from a difficult moment or a difficult day.

Researchers say that the number of different words a baby hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success, and social competence, if those words come from one of baby’s special people—mother, daddy, grandma, nanny—rather than from a box on the wall. Reading counts.

To your child, though, reading is so much more than just fun. The world comes to your baby through her eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingers. Reading allows you to bring her even more aspects of that world in smaller, easily absorbed packages. A real truck is a big, scary, noisy thing to a four-month-old or even an eighteen-month-old. A truck on the pages of a book, or even in an app, is small and predictable, something that can be held and controlled or sent away with a turn of the page. The same holds true for monsters and green peas. A book lets a baby take in the world on her own terms.

Books link kids to our world and our culture. Winnie the Pooh, Curious George, Where the Wild Things Are, Chicken Soup, Dr. Seuss—they’re a backdrop for our world. Not everyone will have read Great Expectations or To Kill a Mockingbird. But surely everyone knows some version of Cinderella! Familiar characters and their stories shape our view of places and things that, as a child, we haven’t usually seen yet. Their experiences give us a framework for dealing with our own. As you read to your baby you welcome her into the culture that will become her own, and you can share other cultures with her as well.

What to read?

If your child asks for a particular book multiple times per day, take note. It’s got something of real importance in it for her. Think about it. Can you find the secret tips or developmental issue in it? Just keep reading and you’ll learn important lessons along with your child.

Ten picture books we dare you not to enjoy.

  1. The Adventures of Taxi Dog, Debra Barracca, Sal Barracca, Mark Buehner (illus.). Even kids who’ve never seen a taxi will enjoy the bright, graphic adventures of the dog who rides daily with his owner in a New York City cab.
  2. The Everything Book, Denise Fleming. Something akin to a Richard Scarry book in the sheer amount of information and entertainment on every page, with gorgeously textured illustrations.
  3. The Hiccupotamus, Aaron Zenz. There’s fun in the colorful, antic illustrations and the travails of the hiccuping hippo as well as the nonsense rhymes. 
  4. Higher! Higher!/¡Más alto! ¡Más alto!, Leslie Patricelli.  A girl begs her father to swing her “Higher!  Higher!” on the playground swing with fantastic results.  In Spanish and English.  Try Faster! Faster! for more in the same vein. 
  5. I Love Colors, Margaret Miller.  Big baby faces joyfully sport colorful accessories.
  6. Little Night, Yuyi Morales.  Mother Night and her daughter, Little Night, play and prepare for bed in Morales’ luminescent art.
  7. Lola at the Library.  Anna McQuinn, Rosalind Beardshaw (illus.).   Every Tuesday Lola and her mother spend the day together- at the library.  Also: Lola Loves Stories and Lola Reads to Leo.   
  8. My Friends/Mis amigos, Taro Gomi. A little girl learns in very simple ways from animal and human friends.  In Spanish and English.
  9. No, David!, David Shannon. Shannon’s illustrations, roughly and childishly drawn, perfectly capture David’s amazing knack for trouble as well as his charm. Popular with every kid who’s ever heard that sudden shouted “No!”
  10. Where is the Green Sheep?, Mem Fox, Judy Horacek (illus.).  Playful rhymes and droll art introduce us to a variety of colorful and eccentric sheep. 

Susan Straub founded the READ TO ME program more than 20 years ago, a national workshop encouraging young families to read to their babies that is still thriving. Ms. Straub’s work with READ TO ME has been celebrated on NY1 television and in Oprah’s O magazine. She lives in New York City.

Rachel Payne is the coordinator of early childhood services at the Brooklyn Public Library. She knows why some books are carried around, colored on, taken to meals, and slept with, while others are pushed away after a single page.

KJ Dell’Antonia is the lead writer and editor of the New York Times Motherlode parenting blog. Also as a children’s book reviewer and a mother of four children, she knows which books work best and why. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two young children.