August 23, 2007KR BlogReading

Books for babies

A couple of weeks ago, I spent five days with two dear friends and their new baby, whose fourth month begins on Friday. This small baby–we’ll call her Lily, because that’s her name–was, as healthy three-month-olds do, spending much of her time beginning to get acquainted with her limbs and digits, waving arms and legs in the air, flexing fingers, perhaps dreaming of the day (not so long from now) when she’ll figure out that her toes are, in fact, her toes and will, in fact, fit into her mouth if she pulls them close enough.

The morning after I arrived, as the baby and I were enjoying some floor time together, I asked her mother (also a literature professor) if they had any cloth books. Back when my friend was still pregnant, I had bought hoary classics for her and the baby: Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny and Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon. But as I lay on the floor with the baby, joining her in waving arms and legs around, I realized that neither of those books was small-infant-friendly: even a board book becomes a danger if the person holding it has not yet achieved basic motor control. What we needed were some fumble-forgiving cloth books. When Lily’s mother said, “You know, we don’t have any cloth books,” the bibliophile in me jumped for joy: here was my next literary commission on the baby’s behalf. Here was an excuse to explore a realm of book-buying unfamiliar to me.

Fortunately, this story was unfolding in Lexington, Kentucky, where there are many bookstores within easy reach. That afternoon, we packed the baby into the family car and headed out to the local Joseph-Beth for lunch and book-buying. As soon as we’d finished eating, I bounced off down the escalator to find the baby books. Because lunch bumped up dangerously close to the baby’s afternoon naptime, my browsing time was short. As I zeroed in on the small shelves of cloth books, I had to be even more instinctive than usual in moving toward a selection–which was all for the best, I soon realized. In the world of baby books–in the world, that is, of books that may take only a few minutes to read once but that then will be read repeatedly, sometimes many, many, many times in a single sitting if a baby is absorbed enough–design is all-important, for both child and adult.

The first book that caught my eye was a bright tome called Fuzzy Bee and Friends, which (I have since learned) is only one book in a (presumably loosely confederated) series. I gave Fuzzy Bee a test run in the store: each of its pages features a single creature (a fuzzy bee, a spotty dotty ladybug, a fly, a spider, a snail, a dragonfly, a beetle) and a little rhyming couplet. The couplets are throwaways–they’re there to get you started, like running scales before launching into a full piece of music. The insects, on the other hand, animate the whole book: each one is textured and detailed differently, set against a simple, brightly colored background. Satin wings are flappable, cord legs bendable; eyes and shells are made of colored lam?? fabric. The whole book can be flown around over a baby who can’t yet make her own toys fly. Crouched at floor-level in the bookstore’s children’s section, I was enchanted. And so I had selection #1.

The next title I lit upon was The Boo Book, for which I can’t give you a link (just try doing an Amazon.com search for it and witness how many children’s books turn up for that title). Suffice it to say that it works as a call and response experience: each double-page spread is laid out vertically so that the top page asks a question (who’s hiding behind the haystack?), while the bottom page involves a flap that must be pulled down to reveal the answer (boo! it’s horse!). Each flap contains some kind of noisemaker: a squeaker, a rattle, a little music-playing device, or (that staple of baby toys and books) cellophane. The last page features a mirror–boo! it’s you! The colors are bright and simple, the book’s premise and purpose plain and clear.

By the time I had chosen this second title, my friend had arrived on the lower level with her daughter, who was watching the world from her carseat. I showed my friend the titles I’d chosen–as well as the ample number I’d rejected because they seemed overly infantilizing. (Babies are young, not stupid, but baby book designers seem not always to make this distinction.) While I talked to her mother, Lily watched our mouths–until the books caught her eye. I performed The Boo Book for her there on the store floor–and, to my delight, she was immediately enthralled. We paid and left with our new treasures.

Later in the afternoon, after her nap, Lily and I curled up on her parents’ couch and tried out her new titles. I gave her a little explanation of wordplay: see this book? it’s funny that it’s called The Boo Book, because that’s a cow on the cover, and cows don’t say boo! they say moo! And then we were off and running, finding the pig and the horse and the lamb and the baby in the mirror. She was rapt enough when we finished that I asked shall we read it again? She couldn’t refuse; we were off and running again. On our third trip through, I realized that I could prolong each reading by utilizing the book’s resources even more fully, making sure to crinkle the cellophane flap, to make the squeaker flap squeak, to make the sunshine flap sing before revealing the baby in the mirror yet again.

After our fourth reading, Lily was still up for reading, but I was ready to change books, and so we tried out Fuzzy Bee and Friends. Her eyes widened as we met the satin-winged butterfly, the iridescent-shelled snail, the blue-eyed fly. Her hands twitched and her arms waved; I brought the pages to her, one by one, so that she could feel each creature, pulling on their wings or patting their shells and spots. Then, to my surprise, on our second or third reading, her mouth opened in the face she makes when she wants to kiss someone (she has not yet mastered a pucker). Do you want to kiss the dragonfly? I asked her. Thinking quickly, I did what no bibliophile would do to a book made of anything but cloth: I folded the whole thing back on its spine so that only the dragonfly was showing. Then I (buzzing) flew the book in small circles until it reached her face. The dragonfly kissed her. And she kissed him back and opened her mouth for more.

As my time in Lexington went on, I relearned lessons in baby-reading that I’d half-forgotten in the years since my career as a teenaged babysitter ended. It’s crucial to position a reading baby so that she can see everything about a book and how it works. If the book is baby-friendly–no sharp edges, no fragile pages–then it’s also crucial to let the baby meet and greet the book. Though it’s not necessarily crucial, it is ridiculously fun to invent new narratives for beloved books–if only to keep things interesting for you, the reading adult. By the time I left, The Boo Book had become a primer in farm animals’ characteristic sounds, while Fuzzy Bee had transformed itself into all manner of stories about flying insects and crawling mollusks. Had I stayed longer, there’s no knowing what that blue-winged beetle might have gotten up to. Perhaps he would have turned out to be the villain of the piece.

There’s no way to know, of course, whether the baby will grow up to love books the way her parents and I do. But we are doing our collective best to show her how that love can work, and all the different shapes it can take. Her father started reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to her each night when she was still 20 weeks from being born, and one of her earliest pictures finds her in his arms, swaddled tight and half-asleep in her hospital beanie, as he reads Eric Carle’s words to her for the first time “on the outside.” Her mother keeps baby books in each room where the baby spends time awake. When the whole family is awake, chances are good that one (or both) of her parents is reading something, whether silently or aloud. When we visited her mother’s office one day during my stay, the baby and I spent some time bouncing and walking, talking our way through her mother’s fiction and literary theory shelves. In all, we three (her parents at close range, and I from an increasing, and increasingly poignant, distance) are demonstrating, again and again and in our own ways, that books play dynamic parts in our lives, that they afford times for physical stimulation and for imaginative play, as well as for quiet togetherness, rest, and calm.

And if her desire to kiss her cloth books is any indication, our various displays of bibliophilia might be catching.