If you think babies are too young to enjoy books, you're mistaken. If you think that you might as well wait until your child knows a few words before introducing the wonderful language of books, think again. While newborn babies don't focus well or even have the ability to distinguish colors in the early months, brightly illustrated books are crucial to their development, and you will have the opportunity to experience a precious one-on-one moment with your baby.
Experts have long believed that even infants who don't understand spoken or written language should be included in the reading community. Their eventual language and communication abilities can depend upon this early exposure. It's the words babies hear that set the foundation of literacy and shape the communication skills they will have for the rest of their lives.
Babies' brains are deeply influenced by their surroundings and are stimulated within the first months of life in proportion to their exposure to new experiences (chiefly through colorful and fancifully shaped toys and books).
Some parents, however, might understandably feel self-conscious reading aloud to an infant. At least one mother we know of has likened this activity to reading to a wall. Although babies may not understand language as we do, they love the lilting rhythm of words. It's music to them. Hearing the voices of family members and familiar friends reading creates a close, cozy, reassuring environment of trust, personal attention and care. It's as soothing as a lullaby (and for those of us who don't sing, a good substitute).
Children's author Maurice Sendak remembers what it was like for him, crediting the physical closeness of sitting on his father's lap during reading for his lifelong love of literature. That physical connection can easily translate your affection for reading to your child.
Perhaps the best way to introduce the concept of a book to a baby is to give her a durable book, made of board, vinyl, or fabric, as an everyday object to get acquainted with. Like many playthings, bright simple book covers help babies focus and provide important visual stimulation. Choose books with bold pictures of familiar objects, people and animals, with little or no text (such as Tana Hoban's wide-ranging visual series, starting with "What Is That?," "Black on White," and "White on Black"). Read them aloud frequently or just look at them together. Give these books to the baby as you would a toy. You'll be surprised one day to turn around and find your baby studying a book and turning its pages on her own or dragging books from the toy basket to play with.
By about 7 months, many babies are fascinated by photos of other babies and begin to delight in colors and bold shapes. Of further appeal are books with textures, such as the classic "Pat the Bunny" by Dorothy Kunhardt. Older babies enjoy 3-D books and those with liftable flaps and other novelties that encourage interaction.
In addition to providing your baby with chewable toy books, don't forget real books with paper pages. Because of their more fragile nature, these books should be read with parental supervision. Nursery rhymes may be the best place to start; from birth, babies enjoy patterned language, the cadence and rhyme and repetition in these verses. Perhaps the best place to begin a baby's library is with a big, colorful book of nursery rhymes that he or she will grow into.
Try to read verses and poetry to babies for a few minutes each day. You can do this anywhere--perhaps while nursing or rocking. Choose rhymes that sound nice and encourage interesting voice inflections. You can also read poems that are interesting to you. We'd recommend A. A. Milne or "The Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyam. If you enjoy the activity, you're likely to do it more often, and babies pick up on such acts of love and nurturing. Before long, you might notice the baby reaching out for the book and patting it, even seeming to recognize and really look at familiar pictures.
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Younger readers will enjoy these "Magic Bookshelf" suggestions for summer reading:
By Bruce Degen
HarperCollins: 32 pp., $7.95
Bruce Degen has written a joyous rhyming romp through the berry patches with a boy and a bear. Ages 1-3.
WHEN I AM OLD WITH YOU
By Angela Johnson
Illustrated by David Soman
Orchard: 32 pp., $15.95
A dreamy and wistful story with pictures to match about an African-American girl who imagines herself growing old with her grandfather and muses about what they will do together in their old age. Ages 4-7
COCONUT KIND OF DAY: ISLAND POEMS
By Lynn Joseph
Illustrated by Sandra Speidel
Puffin: 32 pp., $5.99
This excellent and explosively colorful picture book of short poems about the daily experiences of a young girl in Trinidad makes the sights and sounds of Caribbean culture come alive. Ages 4-8.
By Bill Peet
Houghton Mifflin: 60pp, $7.95
Scamp the farm dog suffers from a common affliction: He wishes he were something else, something flashier. That is, until an impish witch grants his wish and turns him into the dreaded and exotic Whingdingdilly. Ages 4-8.
MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN
By Jean Craighead George
Viking: 178 pp., $4.99
Young Sam Gribley comes of age in near-solitude after running away from his New York home to the remote Catskill Mountains. In elegant though rustic style, he learns to live off the land his family once owned. Sam's coming of age in the mountains seems far away from modern life, thus making it a perfect summer read. Grades 4-6.
THE ENCHANTED CASTLE
By E. Nesbit
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinksy
Puffin: 304 pp., $3.99
Gerald, Kathleen and Jimmy embark on magical adventures when they stumble on a wonderful garden, befriend Mabel and go on to discover an enchanted castle together. Grades 4-7.
By Bill Peet
Houghton Mifflin: 190 pp., $20
Prolific and popular picture book author Bill Peet spent a large chunk of his adult life as one of the top sketch and story artists for such animated features as "Cinderella" and "Pinocchio." In using his art as much as his words to describe his life, Peet has written a wonderful first biography for children to read. Grades 2-5.
ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN SOLVES THEM ALL
By Donald J. Sobol
Bantam Skylark: 96 pp., $3.99
These engaging and challenging stories provide young mystery lovers hours and hours of reading and thinking pleasure, even though they may not realize it. They're great quick-start-and-stop books for traveling or for breaks at the pool. Grades 2-5.
By Theodore Taylor
Flare: 199 pp., $4.99
Phillip Enright, a 12-year-old refugee from a ship torpedoed by a German submarine during World War II, is forced to live on a small Caribbean island. The only other person around is Timothy, a grizzled, dignified West Indian native with a lilting Calypso dialect. Grades 5-7. *
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $11.95
Shy, retiring Bilbo Baggins rises to the challenge of wizard Gandalf to help recover a treasure stolen from his dwarf companions by the dragon Smaug. A complex, richly layered book that challenges older children to track multiple characters and situations. Don't be surprised if older children try to read all three books in Tolkien's trilogy as the summer progresses. Grades 7 and up.