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Reading by 9

How To Introduce Your Kids To Quality Children's Literature

Editor's Note: As part of The Times' Reading by 9 initiative, Book Review is publishing a monthly series on how parents can introduce kids to the best children's literature.

July 11, 1999|JANIE JARVIS and RICHARD JARVIS | Janie and Richard Jarvis are the authors of "The Magic Bookshelf: A Parents' Guide to Showing Growing Minds the Path to the Best Children's Literature," from which this series is adapted. "The Magic Bookshelf" can be ordered by calling Books America at (800) 929-7889

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.


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.



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



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

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