This year we will celebrate 20 years since the publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ by J.K.Rowling. Last year we commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakepeare’s death. We remembered that it was 150 years since Beatrix Potter was born. These anniversaries have made me think about books and authors memorable to me. It took me back to thinking about books for babies.

From babyhood

I recall books that were read to me and that I could look over, from childhood. My parents knew that bedtime stories were crucial to my development and our relationship. Such practice offers essential bonding time, opportunity to extend vocabulary, imagery, imagination, thinking skills, general knowledge, and the ability to infer.

My mother read me poetry, especially works by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson, stories by Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner, and picture books like ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ and ‘Madeline’. I can still recall big chunks of text and ‘see’ the pictures clearly. Hearing and seeing stories impacts for life. My mother realised the advantages of books for babies.

Early years

Miss Metcalfe, in Year 3, read us ‘Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ by Ursula Moray Williams . When Mrs Melvin, announced that she would read aloud from our set text ‘The Garden Party,’ in sixth form. Initially, I felt an adolescent insult. Within days, I was at home, trying to recreate the setting I heard and saw in watercolours. I can still see Crescent Bay in the early morning as the incomparable Katherine Mansfield described it.

The joy of listening

Listening to stories continues through the radio. Through podcasts, ‘The Listening Project’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’, Radcliffe and Maconie’s musings on 6Music, and a devotion to ‘The Archers’ my day is shaped.

Our senses are incorporated into the reading experience. Reading is not about sounding out, expression, correct pronunciation; these are decoding skills, and more about presentation. Reading is the message, the understanding and the joy. That is why the bonding process of reading is realised in books for babies.

The joy of books

My heart breaks every time a child demands a ‘chapter book’ or, a parent boasts that her or his child is reading the ‘Harry Potters.’ Part of the joy of listening to stories is the pictures. Picture books have the most complex vocabulary of any genre, because of the need for text to be succinct. Picture books offer opportunity to discover, read over, contemplate, recall and really develop one of the most important reading cues- context.

At a book fair I bought ‘Until I Met Dudley (How Everyday Things Really Work) by Roger McGough and Chris Riddell. Household items are described through detailed illustration. The text is an addition. I learned how my refrigerator really works, through ‘reading’ a combination of cues.

The gift of books

The Princess Blankets’ was a wedding present from a very close friend. ‘Look at the pictures’ she said, ‘the colours are for you. Watch them warm and envelop you. Look at the textures.’ I bought this book, in turn, for other friends. Meanwhile, Jane Ray signed ‘Heartsong’ as a birthday present for a family member. It will be cherished.

Picture books offer a unique opportunity to read, listen, look, share, question and bond. They should be revisited, loved and kept. They are essential to the bedtime reading ritual. Don’t overlook them.

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