Building Your Baby’s (or Charge’s) Library one great book at a time

By Jacalyn S. Burke
What’s in a book? (I mean a real book made from trees, no batteries required) How many of us can truly remember those first few books that our parents read to us? I have vague memories of Winnie the Pooh but much more memorable is the feeling of being held and read to, and of being read to before bedtime. My love of books was nurtured diligently by both parents and it is a life-long gift. Thank you Mom and Dad!
But choosing books can be overwhelming especially when you’re newly pregnant. There is so much to do: putting together a nursery, finding a good diaper-changing table, a crib, not to mention the tons of clean onesies and the diaper pail, the diapers, sterilizing equipment, breast-pumps … but what about that bookshelf next to the nursing rocker? It needs stocking too – the dilemma is, with what?
Often relatives and neighbors will gift books for newborns but parents will want to have some say in what their little munchkin sees and listens to for his first few years. I have over a decade’s worth of experience working with infants, toddlers and small children. I have tried and tested most Picture books on the market. I am an avid collector of exceptional books. I love nothing more than to curl up on a sofa and to read to my favorite children. So this post is a labor of love….
Books like all things come in a few basic varieties.
  • Artsy Books (good for those dreamy times ‘downtime’ rainy day times of the day)
  • Educational Books (good for those early morning, bleary-eyed, first cup of Joe times of day)
  • Bedtime Books (good for those snuggly, winter bedtime, times of day)
  • Fun Books (good for car journeys, train-rides and vacation taking times of day)
You will want to source a mix of books for your baby – for no matter how engaging those clever enrichment books are – your infant will also want to simply enjoy his story-time, not perform like a little parrot on cue. Besides the heady coupling of looking at real Artwork and reading gorgeous Words aloud are enriching in and of themselves. But let’s get to the point … here are my suggestions.
Buying books …. I don’t want to sound preachy but if you can go to a high-street bookstore preferably an Independent one then do. You will be supporting a suffering industry populated by wonderful procurers of literary delight. Walk in and browse and flick through the books on offer. Talk to the buyer. What’s new? What’s beautiful? You will see the proprietor’s eyes light up and likely you will quickly receive an arm full of treasures. There’s a joy to book-buying.
Artsy Books
Artsy adult books look good on grown-up’s coffee tables. Let’s be honest Artsy kids books serve the same function. They say you appreciate culture enough to expose your baby to it. Amazing artists need to make a living too so buying books that do not involve Disney products is a soulful move. Another BIG plus for buying Artsy kids books is that they are often the best. They showcase the top talent in the arts and discover new wordsmiths. If the right editor comes along it’s a win-win. Books that appeal to both adults and children are good books. It suggests complexity and dimension. It opens up a gap inside of us and fills it with something rich. Here are my personal chestnuts.
The gloriously handsome Irishman Oliver Jeffers weaves exotic tales set to breath-taking prose and sometimes verse. There is a melody to his story-telling like the rhythmic soothing of soft waves hitting a shore. My personal favorite is The Heart and the Bottle.
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The illustrations are achingly whimsical – a word alas I will use a lot here – and yet rich. Jeffers leaves great big blank spaces around his characters as if to allow them to dance. He is not afraid of sounding scary or too didactic and I think that’s why children are bewitched by his books. This book is about emotional integrity and you’ll be surprised at how readily even small children get the value of his message.
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I was lucky enough to take a writer’s class with Italian artist and wordsmith Sergio Ruzzier a few years ago and to watch him create his breath-taking beautiful, watercolors. Hey Rabbit is filled with sumptuous double page illustrations lovingly offered without words. But on the pages where words exist they are lyrical and engaging. It’s a good book to drum home the value of sharing and friendship – a theme not popular with toddlers.
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This wouldn’t be artsy complete without one Brooklyn made, 100% recycled paper, created by local artists, board book from Home Grown BooksA Place to Live weaves the minimal with the sublime. This book is simple but that’s its point. It allows a baby’s mind to fill in the blanks with ideas and words of their own. Plus you get to support living artists. Double winner. Check out Home Grown Books ‘how to read to your baby’ videos here.
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Educational Books
From 0-24m I whole-heartedly recommend buying a box set of Lakeside object word books like this set above.  They do the job and they are reasonably priced. Yes there are hundreds of big fancy object word and counting books but they all pretty much amount to the same thing: bright copyright free type images of everyday things, you point to the object and state what it is, your baby looks and overtime begins to point to the object and then as a toddler to try to repeat the names of the objects. It’s pretty much a game of daily repetition. Farm animals and everyday objects are a huge hit of course. As your toddler grows you can branch out and splurge on more complex books but for 0-24m I’d stay simple.
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Bedtime Books
Goodnight moon is a classic bedtime staple for sure but consider adding Once Upon a Cloud to your baby’s daily snooze. Rob D Walker is a Brooklyn dude and a dad of five. He’s also a friend with an incredible talent with words. How else can you describe an author who fills an entire book talking about clouds?
“Are clouds comfy cushions
where birds take their naps
resting their wings
and hiding from cats?”
Artist Matt Mahurin illustrated Walker’s book and he supplies the perfect synergy of dreamy ethereal illustrations to the author’s concept rich stanzas. Trust me … your baby will have her head in the clouds after reading this book.
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Fortunately very small children do not understand the risk of curling up next to tigers. But author Mary Logue does understand a child’s propensity to do anything other than go to sleep of a night. In 2013 this book won the Randolph Caldecott Honor Award for good reason. It flows magically with the same question and answer cadence as other great classics. Pamela Zagarenski provides the book with a rich tapestry of interwoven yet paradoxically abstract images that mirror perfectly the bizarre thoughts small children often have just before they nod off to sleep.
Fun Books
Fun books will make a baby giggle or a toddler squeal with delight. Fun books are goofy, silly even … but their magic lies in their engagement with our infant’s attention. Some fun books simply have slapstick pictures, others have a goofy rhyme or both. Others are funny because they talk about poop or making messes. The point is small children like to have a good laugh too! So make reading times fun times.
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Bob Shea has a background in whacky cartoons having once worked at PBS Kids, Comedy Central and Nick Jr – and it kind of shows. His illustrations are like freeze-framed animations – bright, energetic and downright hilarious. Plus how many times will your child hear those immortal words “Don’t play with your food!”
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For toddlers it’s all about the bass about bass about the bass no trouble and that means POOP! (and butts) so this book is an instant hit. Plus it prepares toddlers for potty training. That’s the nice side effect. Taro Gomi doesn’t skirt around the issues of stink or butts. But he does so in a refreshingly open way. No pun intended but this makes a good toilet book.
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I didn’t set out to like this book. In fact I resisted it every time my toddler handed it to me. I’m like “Seriously? A book about trucks?” But once I’d read it a couple of times I got hooked on its lovely cadence, its funny animals and of course the mud. It’s the mud that makes it to be honest. I won’t give the story away but it involves everyone getting covered in gloopy brown mud. A joke that just never gets old. The illustrations are whimsical too. Cute. Good for boysand girls. Despite my original misgivings.
What are your favorite books?