During our visit to the library yesterday, I found myself in a conversation with another parent about books and toddlers. A. had been ecstatic to find himself another “Fred and Ted” book. While I can appreciate a few of the less-tedious Dr. Seuss books, there is no excuse for P. D. Eastman. And yet, we have “Fred and Ted Go Camping,” a gift that was given to A. when he was born, the giver thoughtfully assuming (correctly) that A. would go camping a lot. (And he does — his first trip was at 3 months.) So, we tolerate the camping book, but I was not about to add another P. D. Eastman book to our pile. (Although we did read it in the library.)
The conversation in the library (the one with the other parent — not the one with A. in which we discussed how Ted’s house was red, and Fred’s house was green, etc., etc., etc.) clarified for me two ideas I have on the topic:
1) The importance of quality over quantity. In general, the issue of quality/quantity is one I find myself thinking about a lot, probably because of our very limited space! It seems that many people feel that having a lot of books around will result in children who like to read. I think that, to some extent, this is likely true. We have a lot of books in our small apartment (not nearly as many as we used to – each time we move, there seem to be more steps involved and fewer people wanting to carry boxes of books up multiple flights of stairs, and so we have downsized our book collection by more than half in the last two moves). A. sees us reading frequently, and will help himself to books (both ours and his) and sit and “read” to himself for long periods of time. Sometimes all of us are just sitting quietly and reading in the same room together.
However, I think it is also important to read discriminately. Paper is cheap and there are many books out there that are not worth the time or mental space that they take up. I can certainly understand that parents who are dealing with a struggling or disinterested reader may find that sometimes stories that are less-than-literature may help interest or motivate a learning reader, and that’s fine. Children go through a stage during which they can consume enormous volumes of pages, or during which they want to read a lot, but they can only read at a certain level, so they need access to lots of easy readers (this would be an appropriate place for P. D. Eastman).
But simply because A. could have a hundred books (from garage sales, thrift stores, library sales, and the book warehouse) does not mean that he should. We try to emphasize high quality stories with illustrations that appeal to and help develop a child’s sense of beauty and wonder. For this reason, some of our mutual favorites include Blueberries for Sal, the Elsa Beskow books, Circle of Seasons by Gerda Muller, and Caps for Sale. Of course, we have a range of books – no toddler collection of books is complete without books about farm animals, the alphabet, word books, and dinosaurs. After Christmas, realizing that his collection had grown beyond the bounds of our storage system, I culled a large “donate” pile from his stacks. At first, I felt stricken with guilt – I was getting rid of books. What kind of mother takes books away from her child?
Yet, I went ahead and donated the pile. We truly did not have a good storage system for so many books, and this prevented A. from learning to take care of them properly and respectfully. Too many cartoonish, silly, or sloppy stories that made me unhappy led to my reluctance to read certain ones to him, which created a conflict during storytime. By minimizing the books that didn’t meet my standards, and keeping only one or two of them which A. seemed to particularly enjoy, we eliminated that source of stress. And, as was the case with toys, too many books had been distracting him from focusing on any one book for any length of time.
2) This brings me to my second thought on books for young children: rereading. As anyone who has ever read to a toddler knows, he either has a 30 second or 30 minute attention span for a book. In the second case, “THE END” is immediately followed by strong indications that he expects the same book to be repeated immediately; this may take the form of actual words, signing “more” or “again,” or grunting and pointing and shoving the book back in the reader’s face. Some people oblige, some people say once is enough, and some people resort to subterfuge by hiding said book at the first opportunity, possibly one involving graham crackers as a distraction.
I fall into the first category philosophically, but after enough repetitions, have been known to slide into the third. I do believe that obliging this interest (as long as it doesn’t verge on the obsessive — and I admit I don’t know where that border is; although my own personal sanity comes into play around the 7th re-read) is important in helping a child develop a longer attention-span. Each time we re-read, A. seems to notice something new. He delights in the security of knowing what is coming next. He thoroughly enjoys the book on each encounter, and his pleasure doesn’t diminish from the repetition. Although I am not in favor of pushing early reading skills, repetition is one of the important steps in early literacy – a child will often memorize a book, then “read” it back, before noticing where each word is on the page, and from there begin the process of decoding.
However, our goal in trying to raise literate children is not simply to have them master the skills of reading – I’d rather have a child struggle to decipher the words, but love the story. The enjoyment of literature for its own sake is sometimes overlooked today, but I think it is an important one. Indulging a child’s desire to re-read and savor a book over and over seems to me to be one step towards encouraging this kind of enjoyment. I try very hard to keep this in mind when A. brings me a huge pile of books, but really only wants to read the top one six times. I don’t always succeed, but it remains a goal.
Perhaps it seems strange or silly to think this hard about board books (but understandable, I hope, when board books do take up such a large chunk of one’s daily life!) I certainly don’t feel that my conclusions are the only ones a reasonable person can come to. As always, things may change in the future – as A. begins to read to himself, I am sure that his tastes and reading level will come into play – and we will try to stay flexible. But for us, this is what is working right now.