Chapter One: BOOKS FOR BABIES
"A Future of Page Turns" - Martha V. Parravano
Babies don't need complex stories, elaborate artwork, or high educational content. Books for babies can be as simple as Tana Hoban's groundbreaking series of wordless black-and-white board books (Black on White; White on Black), with their high-contrast images of bibs, pacifiers, stuffed animals, and other homely objects associated with newborns. But though the books themselves may be simple, the interaction is anything but: with board books a baby is honing his visual and listening skills, bonding with the adult reader, and, yes, taking the first steps toward literacy. Every time an adult reads a book with a baby, she is passing on an essential building block of literacy: the page turn. The mechanics of reading—the fact that in order to read a book one has to turn its pages—is a basic skill, but it has to be learned. The page turn—the progression of left to right and front to back (at least in our Western culture)—is the foundation of reading. As an adult reader shares a book with a baby, she is transmitting that essential knowledge, the key to later literacy.
Babies watch with remarkable intentness the components of their universe: faces, their own hands, a mobile. First board books should be a barely differentiated extension of that small universe. It's not necessary to use books to expand a baby's world—a reflection is more than sufficient.
Babies respond to books that promote interaction—animal sounds, vehicle noises, movements, opportunities to name objects or body parts. Pictures in books for babies are not only visual feasts for the baby but prompts for parental commentary. Any book a parent reads to a baby, even a wordless one, will be an opportunity for expressive language, be it a re-creation of animal sounds or the naming of objects or the creation of spontaneous stories to go with the pictures.
Board books are specifically made for babies: with their stiff, sturdy cardboard pages, nontoxic materials, and glossy wipability, they will survive teething, spills, spit-up, and worse—anything a baby can throw at them (sometimes literally). The most successful board-book creators tap into babies' enthusiasms, attention spans, and (occasionally) senses of humor. Helen Oxenbury's series of oversize board books, ALL FALL DOWN, CLAP HANDS, SAY GOODNIGHT, and TICKLE, TICKLE, features four diverse, active toddlers in an implied day-care setting singing, clapping, falling about, and waving—all with toddler-appropriate energy and warmth. Rosemary Wells's Max books are about the power struggle between a willful baby rabbit and his bossy older sister, Ruby. In MAX'S FIRST WORD, Ruby tries to persuade Max to name various innocuous household objects, but "Max's one word was BANG!" Wells connects with her young audience because she is funny, able to shape plot and character with the briefest of texts, and always on Max's side.
One distinction to be aware of is between board books conceived originally for the format and those that started life as full-size picture books. Board books are big business for publishers. Consumers love board books, for good reason: compared to picture books, they're less expensive, more durable, and more portable—easier to tuck into a bag already bursting with snacks, extra clothes, toys, games, crayons, and puzzles. But beware: a board-book version of a picture book most probably reflects some compromises made necessary by the format change. While standard picture books have thirty-two pages, board books can have as few as twelve. So board books that are adapted from picture books must either conflate pages (taking the text and art from, say, two spreads of the original picture book and cramming it onto one page) or drop material altogether.
Ann Herbert Scott's ON MOTHER'S LAP is a classic picture book about sibling rivalry and familial love. It features a generous design based on double-page-spreads; a simple text; and a small, satisfying story. When Michael, a young Inuit boy, has the chance to snuggle with his mother in her rocking chair while his baby sister naps, he is anxious to include all his favorite things—his reindeer blanket, doll, toy boat, and puppy—in the experience. But when Baby wakes up, he balks at including her. "There isn't room," he says jealously. Mother persuades him to give it a try, and Michael finally admits that "it feels good." The book ends with an iconic picture of family warmth and togetherness, with Michael's mother telling him, "It's a funny thing . . . but there is always room on Mother's lap."
The board-book version (at four by six inches) is too small to be a satisfying lap read; it excises two crucial setup illustrations and an entire double-page spread that depicts the conflict (so that, oddly, the board-book version has resolution but no conflict); and it's not meant for babies. It is clearly older brother Michael who is the center of the story, Michael with whom readers are meant to identify. Despite the simplicity of text and layout, this story of a boy dealing with his feelings about a new baby is meant for older siblings, not babies.
A more successful translation from picture book to board book is Anne and Harlow Rockwell's THE TOOLBOX. Because the original picture book was aimed at very young children, the pictures (of a saw, a hammer and nails, pliers, and so on) are paramount, set against expanses of white space; the text is extremely brief, almost always one line per page; and the subject matter is of interest to many small children. The board-book version is a complete representation of the original, with no illustrations or transitions omitted, and it's fully two-thirds the size of the original picture book.
Excerpted from A Family of Readers by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano. Copyright © 2011 by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.