Sunday, September 13, 2015

Picking the right books for your baby: a by-age buying guide

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As I get older, I am struck by the fact that very few things have the power to change a society as much as reading. Indeed, when people talk about the things that you can do in the early (infant/toddler) years that positively promotes literacy, reading is way up on top.

The AAP states that:

"Parents who spend time reading to their children create nurturing relationships, which is important for a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development." 

Rather excitingly, a recently published study of the brains of 3-5 year-olds revealed that reading produces changes in the brain that are actually apparent through MRI:

"The MRIs revealed that children from more stimulating home reading environments had greater activity in the parts of the brain that help with narrative comprehension and visual imagery. Their brains showed greater activity in those key areas while they listened to stories."

More than literacy, books fire the imagination. Reading teaches you to look beyond the surface, something that not many people in any given society can do. 

But while a lot of parents give books a shot, reading to your children and getting them truly interested in books is not easy.
  • The reading technique matters, and the book picked definitely matters.
  • Additionally, the number of books counts: Reading 1-3 books/day (most infant books are done in around 3 minutes flat) definitely does not have the same impact as reading 5-15 books/day. 
While many parents are eager to buy books, they may get frustrated at a child's apparent lack of interest because they have not introduced the right books at the right age. As an example, I found that Gauri would reject certain books at certain time points, and I would be pissed off that I wasted my money, only to have her suddenly fall in love in love with them a few months later.

While there are many websites and resources providing lists of children's books, few really stratify by them by age. This blogpost aims to do just that.

0-3 months:

In this period, babies see in black and white, and are just learning to track objects. At this point, stick with black and white books. I have not reviewed these personally myself (because I started reading to G when she was 3 months old), but these are affordable, and look like good choices based on reviews: Look, Look!, Baby Animals, and Hello Animals,

3-8 months

Touch-and-Feel books are safe and excellent choices for this age, where I think touch is the sense to focus on.  

I actually only started reading to G at 3 months, with the Usborne series: I got That's Not My Monkey and That's Not My PandaShe listened well enough (at that point she was immobile, so could not wander off), but did not seem to show much active interest.

She started crawling at 6 months, which meant she had the option of wandering off if a book did not hold her attention. This allowed me to really gauge if a book held her interest. At around 7 months, I could really tell that her interest in books had increased significantly, when she started feeling each texture. Very soon, she came to have favorite textures: she would make me flip pages till she came to what she liked, and she would spend a while rubbing her fingertips against that.

I then got more in the series, including That's Not My Dinosaur, That's Not My Tiger (recommended), and That's Not My Lion (not their best effort). If I had a do-over, I think I would have gotten That's Not My Puppy instead.

Emboldened by her interest in the Usborne Touch-and-feel books, I started to expand my collection.  I got many books, and had many hits and a few misses: if she was bored, she would listen to me read a page, and she would just push off my lap and crawl off.

My recommendations from this point on are based on the hits and misses

8-12 months 

A great many things worked during this time:

She went nuts, nuts I tell you, for Goodnight Moon (for reasons beyond me), and also Moo Ba La La (slightly more understandable) instantly.

She was more guarded, but still enthusiastic for Peek-a-who (what kept her attention was the promise of the mirror at the end of the book). Her enthusiasm for this really simple book has actually increased, not diminished, in the 12-18 month period.

Dear Zoo was something I bought her later (at 13 months-ish) and it was met instantly with great enthusiasm: it is well-executed, and the flaps are well constructed. I am including it in the 8-12 month list here because I do believe it would have worked at an earlier point as well.  

Some Eric Carle books were also instant hits: again for reasons beyond me. I do not understand why Brown Bear, Brown Bear with its crude illustrations and really simple text (one animal sees the other, and the other, and so on) worked so magically. Its sequel, Polar Bear, Polar Bear (introduced at 13 months), was also a hit, though I think it would have worked at an earlier point as well. 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar introduced at this time was also a hit, but a rather conditional one: it worked in part because of the circular cardboard cut-outs in each page; those kept her engaged, and I do not know how successful it would have been without them.

A slightly off-the-beaten-track find at this point was The Game of Finger Worms. To read this one, you draw faces on your fingers and push them though really large holes in time to the story: I figured this would work because she loved the cutout holes in the The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and turns out I was right.

Other good books that worked instantly at this point, but also helped her get familiar with the different parts of the body were these two: Where is Baby's Belly Button and I Love You Through and Through (this one covers some body parts, and also emotions: happy, sad, angry, etc, and the illustrations are adorable---highly recommended). While I have not tried the third (Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes), I include it here because it is a similar category and appears to be well received.

13-18 months

I think their comprehensive abilities definitely go up after the one-year mark, and many 12-13-month olds may be ready for the multiple-lines-per-age books.

One case in point: At 8 months, I had introduced Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a long, multiple-lines-per-page book about the alphabets climbing a coconut tree. She hated it at this point: she would listen to one page, impatiently push the book away and walk off or grab another one. I kept trying for a few months, and eventually gave up. Startlingly, one day around the 13-month point, she opened the cupboard, picked out this book and brought it to me, and sat through the first half of it. The next day, the same thing continued, and we inched forth, and soon she was listening to the entire book and demanding I read it to her 5 times a day.

Another such example is But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Bonyton. I bought this along with "Moo Ba La La La": while she loved the latter at 7 months, she showed all signs of detesting the former at this time. Mysteriously, at around 13-14 months, without any prompting from me---I had given up---this one became a firm favorite.

Other choices that worked at this age:

Little Blue Truck: this is a delightful little book comparing and contrasting a friendly little blue truck with a rude and loud yellow dump truck, and shows the power of being nice to people, and is really easy to read and emote. This was an almost instant winner. The ramifications of this one sink in slowly over time, and I think this book can be revisited by the child many times between the ages of 1~3.

The Very Lonely Firefly: I tried 3 Eric Carle books (The Grouchy Ladybug, Mister Seahorse, and this one, and Firefly was the only one that worked for this age). It is a nice book that teaches kids about the different sources of light, and also introduces them to the concept of finding friends, and when you get to the end of the board book, there is an electronic feature that makes the little fireflies light up, which my daughter does enjoy. Do not know if it is worth the extra $$$ though.

The Llama Llama series: This is a wonderfully illustrated series that really allows the parents to really emote while reading it: the words rhyme wonderfully. These cover various situations---a baby Llama who is feeling alone at bedtime after his mom tucks him in, and has a meltdown (Llama Llama Red Pajama), a baby who is feeling lost at preschool (Llama Llama Misses Mama), about a baby who has a meltdown while shopping (Llama Llama Mad at Mama), about sharing (Llama Llama Time to Share) etc. I have the first, which is the most popular one in the series, and my daughter loved it almost instantly.

The Best Behavior Series: On the first day that she went to a mother-toddler class, my daughter bit 5 kids out of sheer excitement. I was not to know that she would settle down by herself the next class, and ended up buying a couple of books (Teeth Are Not for Biting and Feet Are Not for Kicking) from this series the very next day. Even though they were not really needed for the intended purpose, I have to say that G went nuts for these straightaway, and that these books are useful: They cover the legitimate uses of teeth (chewing, smiling, and also discuss how to cope with teething pain), feet (walking, standing, running, jumping, and so on---my daughter was immediately entranced by the idea of jumping, and attempted it straightaway), and also tell kids how to respond if they are bitten or kicked. There are a couple of others in the series (Hands Are Not for Hitting and Diapers Are Not Forever) that look useful as well.

Learning books: Elmo's Big Lift-and-Look Book: This is a nice lift-the-flap book: it covers numbers, alphabets, shapes, opposites, etc, and my daughter enjoyed the crap out of it. The only downside with getting it at this age is that children can get too enthusiastic and rip the flaps off.
Ten Wriggly Wriggly Caterpillars:If one buys this book, get the hardcover version: It is a great counting book for counting down from 10 to 1, and is nicely constructed. Warning: my daughter ripped out every last pop-up butterfly on the last page though, and it physically hurt me. May want to hold off if you have a rambunctious toddler.

So far, all my suggestions are fairly mainstream suggestions got from other moms, and are mostly by American authors, other than Herve Tullet, who is French.

Now we get into the stuff that I discovered by accident--the very best way!

The Bizzy Bear Series: This series, a chance find in a books-by-weight sale of mostly British authors, is a total gem. While the appeal of most children's books (Eric Carle books are are great example) are evident to the children, the parents often fail to see the appeal. This books are different: babies AND parents will fall for them instantly. These contain cleverly constructed sliders and really cute illustrations (I would love to live in the town drawn up by the author, it is charming). The sliders in these books will keep babies busy for a while. but be warned, these books spur toddlers on to great enthusiasm, so there will be damage down the road.

They cover various situations: Firemen (Bizzy Bear: Fire Rescue!), pirates (Bizzy Bear: Pirate Adventure), modes of transport (Bizzy Bear: Off We Go!), Knights and dragons (Bizzy Bear: Knights' Castle) so they are useful for expanding the imagination as well. 

Julia Donaldson Books: This author is HUGELY popular in England (and hence her books are also available in India, the post-colonial influences still exist), but few across the Atlantic seem to have heard of her.

Here is a book by her that would be appropriate for the under-18-months subset: One Ted Falls Out of Bed. Gauri loved this on the second or third read, and it teaches counting up to 10 and counting down from 10 in a seriously charming way.

I got a rather limited board book by the same author from a library: the odd thing was that G was absolutely fascinated by her most popular character, The Gruffalo, which was pictured at the end of this rather ordinary book. Have to buy The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child for her when she is older. There seems to be a child's board book also featuring the Gruffalo that may be suitable for toddlers: My First Gruffalo Little Library: this one looks more interesting than the board book I got.

Another gem in my books-by-weight stash is this Smarties Prize finalist called  Five Little Fiends. While the recommended ages for this are 2-5 years based on one source, and 4+ years based on another source, it absolutely worked when I introduced this to Gauri at 16 months. This is a wonderfully simple, yet thought-provoking way to introduce the concepts of sharing and harmony: 5 little fiends, who live in 5 statues love to come out and marvel at the world around them. One day, they decide to take what each of them likes best (the sun, the moon, the sky, the land, and the sea) and keep them all for themselves, and they realize that nothing works without the other. At 16-17 months, I do not know how much G really understands of these concepts, but she loves this story, and this is one of those you just have to keep revisiting every few months. HIGHLY recommended.

Another book that is recommended for older kids (pre-school to Grade 2), but still really works for Gauri at this time is Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. I cannot begin to express how much I love this book. Certainly, my toddler loves the illustrations even though she cannot understand the ramifications of this story yet, but it is a wonderful story about breaking free from the pack and being true to your own self. It is also a story of acceptance of unconventionality or differences by society, and how one person (or animal) can lead the way for change. Buy this for your older children, definitely, but it may also work for the under-2 set. As this is not a board book, I am very careful when she reads this, because I want to preserve this book for the next 4 years, and have her read it again and again, so some of the valuable nuances I see as an adult may percolate into her consciousness as well.

Another real winner is this whimsical book with dreamy, lovely illustrations called The Pear TreeYou should consider this if you like singing to your child----it can be sung to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas, and it goes like "On the first day of January my grandpa showed to me, a pigeon in a pear tree" and so on. So it can teach a child about the months of the year, the changing seasons, various animals, and various relations, and it is about counting.My daughter alternately gets up and twirls to me singing, or is entranced by squirrels and starlings. Score, indeed.

This concludes my 13-18 month list. Check back in a while, I should have a new crop!


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  2. Great post. We have the Llama llama series and the Hands Are Not for Hitting Series. The Hands series was very helpful while Miss A was in the process of learning more appropriate ways to express her emotions.

    Another book Miss A really loves is the original Pout Pout Fish book ( When we first got it, she'd have us read it to her multiple times every night. It's still one of her favorites, though now she's moved on to others, so it's an occasional read at this point rather than a daily one.

    While we share a lot of her books with Baby Z, I also got him the Amazing Machines set of 10 books ( for his 1st birthday. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this series and highly recommend it. We're reading it to Miss A, too, though she's also capable of handling far more advanced books. What I love about it is that for each of the machines (car, truck, submarine, airplane, train, boat, etc.), it explains what the machine does and information about it, in a very fun, rhyme-based way. And the last page of each book has a drawing of the machine with words and descriptions of 5 or 6 different parts about the machine, which is great for learning. Plus, it comes in a cute little box, so it's easy to keep them all together.

    I've always been a voracious reader. My husband, not so much. I don't know if it's a gender thing or just a different kids thing or what, but it's been very interesting (and a bit perplexing) to see how Baby Z responds to books compared with Miss A. From the very beginning, Miss A loved to sit and listen to books. We'd read with her for 30 minutes or so, and she'd still want more. She was very engaged in the books.

    With Baby Z, it's actually physically challenging to read to him. He immediately grabs at the book you're reading and wants to just constantly open and close the cover of the book. We had to stick with board books for much longer than we did with Miss A, because he'd rip out pages if you tried to read a book with paper pages. It's still a risk sometimes. Now he's graduated to turning the pages of board books, so he's not stuck on just the cover any more, but he's still far more interested in the physical aspect of the book than the story itself. We try to give him one book to hold while we read from another, but invariably, he wants the book that's in our hands. So I'm a bit stressed that he's not hearing nearly as many words as Miss A did, but we're doing the best we can. Hopefully over time he'll become a bit more interested in the stories, too.

    1. Ooh will definitely check out the Amazing Machines book, thanks! It is funny you bring up the differences in responses: as a kid, I loved to read, while my brother was a lot more physical and less inclined. Nonetheless,as time went along, the pervasive love for books that invaded our house probably had an effect: as teenagers and adults, both of us are still voracious readers, and he actually has the more varied palate.

      I am coming up with some awful gender stereotypes here, but Gauri is very much like a boy in many ways: highly physical, exploratory, constantly on the move, high energy, all that, but I do wonder if her ability to sit down and focus on a book (she pulls out books and flips through them, and then comes and slaps her selections down in my lap) is slightly due to her second X chromosome, lol.

      Btw, try the "Bizzy Bear" series with Baby Z, I have a feeling the sliders will really keep him engrossed: they are SO well done.

    2. Rebecca, I noticed the same between my daughter and son. She was always open to reading--from 3-4 months old. He has been a challenge and it's just in the last month that he will sit and listen for an entire book (he's 13 months now).

  3. Thanks for this! Love these types of list. We have many of these but will be trying some of your recommendations.