I got a great question recently, and it’s one I’ve given a lot of thought to since Christopher was born last June. The question was about baby and toddler books. Last summer I went through our picture books and board books to set up the bookshelves in our nursery, and what I found is that many of the books we had for babies were counting books and ABC books and naming books (animals, body parts, colors, etc.). They did not have beautiful language. At best, there was a single word, letter, or number on each page; at worst, the words were anything but beautiful rhymes. And the majority of our nicer picture books were much too long for a baby or toddler to sit through. But it is never too early to read a baby beautiful language.
First, a few things about attention span. First of all, like anything, it’s a skill. It won’t happen on its own. So, reading longer books is not a bad thing. Help them to sit still for just one more page each day or each week. If they could sit through three pages of Virginia Lee Burton’s Maybelle the Cable Car yesterday, aim for helping them sit through four pages today. Build their attention span. That said, realistically, we wouldn’t expect a one-year-old to sit still on our laps through the entirety of d’Aularies Abraham Lincoln or maybe even Horton Hears a Who. However, there’s much to be said for reading to babies and toddlers while they’re in the room, even if they don’t seem to be paying attention. They could be playing with blocks or pushing trains around the room or gnawing on a teething ring on the floor, but they’re still absorbing the language of a well written book (be that a picture book or something longer, like the Chronicles of Narnia). Read your babies beautiful language even before they can talk! Also, the earlier you start reading to them, the more it will just be a natural thing for them to sit through books.
We do want them to have some shorter books, though, that they will be able to easily sit through in entirety. Counting books and ABC books and naming books have their place (more for toddlers than babies)–though they often sound notoriously like a poorly rhymed greeting card (try to avoid those!). But may I suggest that, while you can teach your child to count or name outside the medium of literature, it is much harder teach your child to appreciate beautiful language and develop beautiful language patterns themselves outside the medium of literature.
So what short books are left for you to read to your littlest ones? Books that can be finished in a couple of minutes, perhaps, with just a few words per page. Even better–books that come in board book form. (Do teach your children to be gentle to books starting from when they can reach for things, but, still, board books are a nice insurance policy.) But, most of all, books that are beautiful.
My first suggestion for something short is to read them poetry. Good poetry. Get a couple of beautifully illustrated children’s poetry anthologies and just read one poem at a time. These are a few illustrated anthologies that we have and enjoy:
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated either by Jessie Willcox Smith or by Tasha Tudor (There are a number of other illustrated editions; these two are my favorites.)
- A Child’s Book of Poems compiled and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa
- When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne, illustrated by Ernest Shepard (or get a complete volume of Milne’s Pooh stories and poems)
- A Child’s Treasury of Poems edited by Mark Daniel (out of print)
Really good children’s books, I’ve found, are a little bit like poetry. No words are wasted, and there is often a kind of cadence to the writing. And, like poetry, they make you imagine something and feel something. It isn’t easy to write a short, beautiful children’s book. (Maybe that’s why this list is so short.) Many, many books for babies are very poorly written. Here are a few short but beautiful baby books (I will link to the board book version when possible–but NOT if it has been abridged!) that we’ve found to expose little ones to beauty:
- Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
- Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
- Papa Small by Lois Lenski (out of print but worth it if you can find it inexpensively; my favorite of Lenski’s Small series)
- The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Julie Morstad
- Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
- Farmyard Rhymes and Action Rhymes and Bedtime Rhymes and Garden Rhymes by Clare Beaton (I’m sure Animal Rhymes and Nursery Rhymes are just as delightful.)
- Mini Masters books by Julie Merberg (some of these venture to greeting card poetry, but you could skip the words if you want and just immerse your little ones in the beautiful art–they will appreciate great art more if they are familiar with it; sometimes I just name the title and artist of each painting on each page)
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr, illustrated by Eric Carle
- All Creatures Great and Small illustrated by Naoko Stoop
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
- The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey
- We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen
- Jabberwocky: A BabyLit Nonsense Primer by Jennifer Adams
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A BabyLit Fairies Primer by Jennifer Adams
- Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading just one page of an unabridged Winnie the Pooh or Beatrix Potter (the little books are even better for little people, but much more expensive) or Brambly Hedge or James Herriot’s Treasury for Children or Michael Hague’s Treasured Classics while your little ones sit on your lap and just work through it one page at a time, one sitting at a time until the end.
There are many other wonderful children’s books, but most are much longer. Here I’m aiming at the shortest books for the under two crowd. Also, some ABC and counting and naming books are more lovely than others (usually because of the art), but I wanted to primarily focus here on books with beautiful language. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten [even ten months] which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”