7 things to look for when you’re buying books for babies
Not too long ago, a new friend asked me how I choose the books I include in my book gift baskets for babies and I really had to think about it.
When I’m looking through a book, it doesn’t take me long to decide whether I think it’s a good book for a baby but I realised when my friend asked her question that I’d really never thought much about why.
What makes a particular book a good choice for a baby? Are there things that the best books for babies have in common?
So here, in no particular order, are my thoughts about what to look for when you’re choosing books for a baby.
1. Characters we care about
Great books for our tiny humans have at least one appealing, relatable character who makes you and the baby care about them and about what’s happening to them in the story.
Think Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare in Guess How Much I Love You; bumbling, well-meaning Winnie-the-Pooh; and soft, round Koala Lou in Mem Fox’s classic book Koala Lou.
The books which feature Pooh Bear and Koala Lou were written many years ago but the characters are still as fresh and as loved as they were when the books first appeared.
These characters are not perfect. They have fears and flaws, as we all do. But they love and are loved in return by the other characters in the stories and this is familiar and reassuring for young children.
2. Trouble or a problem of some kind. Yes, even in books for babies.
Children love the experience of feeling worried about a problem faced by someone in the story and then feeling relieved and satisfied when the problem has been solved or the trouble has been overcome.
This is why you’ll notice that the best books for babies incorporate a problem or some kind of trouble.
This one’s not that important for newborn babies because, of course, your little one will not be aware of the trouble or problem. He or she will be listening to the sound of your voice and enjoying the snuggles with you as you read.
But it won’t be long before your baby will be wondering about what’s happened to the missing green sheep or what will happen to Hairy Maclary when he comes face to face with Scarface Claw and the books you read to your newborn will become her favourites as she gets older.
In fact, by about six months of age, you’ll be able to see that your baby is paying attention to the story and to the misfortunes of the characters in the books you read over and over again. She may kick or get excited when you read or she may watch your face intently. Or she may babble and point at the pages, “talking” to you about what you’re reading together and looking to you to respond.
These kinds of interactions as lovely and they’re also really important. Your baby is learning to communicate with you and how great is it that she’s communicating her enjoyment of a book you’re sharing?
3. Emotional impact
Great stories for little people have an emotional impact of some kind on the heart of the little one who’s listening.
It can be hard to work out why some books for babies have this and others don’t but it’s easy to recognise the emotional impact when it’s there.
I still remember how desperately worried I felt for Peter Rabbit when he disobeyed his mother’s instructions and squeezed under the gate into Mr McGregor’s garden. My heart was in my mouth when Mr McGregor spied Peter and gave chase and all these years later, I can still clearly recall how frightened I felt as Mr McGregor looked under the watering can for poor Peter.
We’re reading these books to very young humans, after all, and the experience of sharing a story should be a happy one. This is why the best books for babies always incorporate happiness in some form.
Sometimes the happiness comes from the funny illustrations. Sometimes the story itself is funny. Sometimes there are elements to both the story and the illustrations that make us feel happy as we read or listen.
And sometimes the happiness comes at the end of the story when the problem has been solved, the trouble has been overcome and the characters are safe.
5. Rhythm, rhyme and repetition
A really great picture book for babies doesn’t always have to have a wonderful story to it.
A book which combines wonderful illustrations with an original pattern created by rhyme, rhythm or repetition – or all three – is very likely to become a favourite with your baby.
Mem Fox, author of some of the best books for babies around, says that it’s the rhythm of the text that brings children back to their favourite books again and again and I think it’s the rhythm that also makes books enjoyable for us to read aloud to our little ones.
Mem says that creating a pleasing rhythm in a children’s book involves quite a lot of agonising over choosing exactly the right words and placing them in exactly the correct place in the text and that this is something that can take months, even years, to get right.
So why does this matter? Why are we drawn to the rhythm of certain books for babies?
Well, humans seem to be biologically drawn to rhythm in all its forms. There’s a theory that this is because the first sound we become aware of in the womb is the comforting, rhythmic sound of our mother’s heart-beat and that we therefore find rhythm soothing.
This seems to make intuitive sense and could explain why human beings seem to be naturally drawn to language which features a pleasing rhythm: it makes us feel safe and happy.
Babies love listening to the rhythm and tone of your voice as you read which is why you’ll find rhythm, rhyme and repetition in many of the best books for babies.
Rhyme and repetition are easy to spot in a book but the only way to tell whether a book you’re considering buying has a pleasing rhythm is to actually read part of the book aloud to yourself.
You will be able to tell.
My two all-time favourite books which incorporate rhyme, repetition and a lovely rhythm are Mem Fox’s Where is the Green Sheep? and the gorgeous Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd. Both are included in our Baby’s First Library Gift Basket.
6. A familiar theme
Babies may not say their first words until much later but we know that they can recognise familiar words from at least as early as six months of age. This is one reason the best books for babies usually involve a theme which is recognisable and familiar to them.
Examples of themes to which little ones really respond are: going to bed (Goodnight Moon; Guess How Much I Love You); dogs and going for a walk (Hairy Mclary); and having a new sibling and wondering whether mum still loves you as much as she used to (Koala Lou).
These books all involve familiar events and feelings which babies recognise from a young age.
Seeing and hearing these themes represented in books is reassuring for babies and helps them begin to make sense of their world.
7. Wonderful illustrations
The illustrations are, of course, an important part of any picture book. In fact, in really great picture books, it’s the illustrations which tell the story and the words simply complement them.
Judy Horacek (Where is the Green Sheep?), Lynley Dodd (Hairy Maclary) and Sandra Boynton (The Going to Bed Book) are three of my favourite picture book illustrators and have illustrated many of the best books for babies you’ll find in bookshops.
So what do these three illustrators have in common?
Well, apart from being incredibly clever (and, as I’ve just realised, all female), the characters they draw are always hilarious and full of personality.
After reading these books probably hundreds of times to my own kiddos and to many other children over the years, I still smile when I open them and see the characters these talented people have created. They bring such joy to the stories and make them a pleasure to read again and again.
So there you have it.
None of this is really rocket science, I guess. Most of it’s probably stuff we intuitively look for when we’re choosing books for babies.
But I did find thinking this through and writing about it helpful. I hope it helps you too.
Over to you
Is there anything I’ve missed?
What do you think makes a great book for babies?
What’s your favourite book to read aloud to your baby?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.
I’m Felicity. I write about children’s books and reading and about their potential for enriching the lives of young humans.
I review picture books, board books and sometimes books for older children.
As well as being a lover of all things to do with books and reading, I’m a mum of three young adults and a primary school teacher. I also create gift baskets filled with the very best books for children from newborns to four-year-olds.
Welcome. It’s nice to meet you.