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I’m excited to introduce my very first contributor to Miranda’s Notebook: my mum, Donna! With a background in English Literature, and an especial expertise in children’s books and how to get young children reading, she’ll be making some regular book-related contributions to the blog. For this first post, Donna describes one of our much-loved Christmas traditions: buying a special book each year for Christmas. She also gives some brilliant suggestions for books to buy for a baby or toddler, as well as tips on what to look for when buying picture books for small children.
Christmas Reads for Babies and Toddlers
by Donna Mills
It’s that time of year, Miranda and I “get the Christmas books out” and pop them in baskets, on shelves and in piles around the flat wherever we might be tempted to pick one up and browse its pages. Carefully put away for the rest of the year (shelf space is rarer than hens’ teeth chez nous!), I can not tell you how much fun it is to see the treasured volumes again, read and share aloud pages or whole stories to one another.
‘How fun it is to see the treasured volumes again, year after year.’
When you have a newborn or toddler, you generally don’t have much time to think about “making” traditions: you’re too busy in December doing – helping them make Christmas cards and decorations, their first gingerbread house and biscuits, and praying that their inevitable colds and coughs won’t turn into whooping cough or go to YOUR chest. Nevertheless, if you have time for a thought at all, one of the most undemanding and fun Christmas traditions you can start is to have a collection of books that come out only in December and that you read and share with one another. No child? No such tradition? Don’t worry! It’s never too late to start one for oneself and, indeed, Miranda and I are still adding to our own collection and can never resist the urge to pick up something new (to us at least) in the bookish line for Christmas to read and wrap for one another, ready for Christmas morning.
My suggestions for anyone starting such a collection is to by all means try out titles from the library first and then always buy the best version of the book you can – if all you can afford at the time is a discard from the library shelves 20p paperback version, get that, if you’re able to spend a bit more go for a hardcover version every time. Generally for babies and children of 2 or under you want to be with them, reading the story, talking about the illustrations and generally being unobtrusively in charge, showing by example that books are treated gently, pages turned carefully and with joy, and are always put back from whence they came on high up shelves carrying book and child to show them where it goes (take it from me as a mother and former teacher, tidying up is a skill you cannot start teaching too young!). If the book is available in a board book format get one of those too if you can swing it. Children need their own little shelves and baskets where robust versions can be handled independently, pored over and shown to teddies, Daddies, dolls and you.
‘Children need variety as much as adults.’
Remember, children need variety as much as adults. The books you choose for them (or for yourself!) should be rich in language and style. That’s not to say they should all sound like the St James Version (though of course you’ll want a picture book of the nativity whose text is exactly that). You want the poetic and the commonplace, American, British, Canadian, New Zealand etc, don’t forget translated texts beautifully rendered into English – the more varieties of English as it is spoken then and now the merrier. Here too is your chance of placing before your child’s eyes a variety of illustration styles, and all of the highest quality. Search out everything from black and white line drawings, to woodcut prints, to watercolours and oils, to comic style and rich abstract design. As long as the illustrations illuminate and enhance the text, you can’t go wrong. These books can be about Christmas specifically or about Winter generally.
And now to some specifics: Miranda and I have put our heads together to give you a small list of what you might consider buying this December in the picture book realm. I would say avoid too long and involved a story at this stage. Poetic rhymes and beautiful illustrations, things for baby’s eyes and fingers to discover, words you can learn quickly by heart are all perfection.
1/ The Twelve Days of Christmas by Jan Brett.
Who doesn’t love Jan Brett’s vibrant illustrations, and coupled with the traditional Christmas song, they’re a sure hit with little ones. Knowing the words off by heart is a talent likely to endear oneself to the very young: you can keep both eyes on them and their responses to the pictures, and they don’t have to wait for you to scan the pages hastily as they hop from one page to another pointing out what they see in the illustrations. However bad a singer you are, you can also be assured your little audience won’t mind.
2/ Dear Santa by Rod Campbell.
Rod Campbell’s bold, colourful and deceptively simple illustrations have been proven delightful time and time again in our household. This Christmas lift the flap one is wonderful. Your toddler can lift the flaps to see what Santa has sent in a series of wrapped presents. There’s a touch and feel element and the last flap reveals the perfect Christmas present!
3/ Spot’s First Christmas by Eric Hill.
From one and up Miranda was enchanted by the Spot Lift the Flap Series by Eric Hill – both the Easter and the Christmas ones are classics, charming without being saccharine and both easy on the eye and and to read out loud. This is the board book version, but ours is the ordinary hardcover. It was robustly made with firm pages that little fingers find easy to turn and the flaps stood up well to all the delighted lifts they’ve received from Miranda herself and other visiting toddlers over the years.
4/ On The Night You Were Born written and illustrated by Nancy Tillman
Reading this one aloud catches you in the back of your throat a bit, but it captures in the most perfect way the celebration of a baby’s birth (and in the end what if not that is Christmas about?), the words are poetic and lilting and the illustrations beautiful in a dreamy, timeless style. Nancy has also written and illustrated a more specifically Christmas title, The Spirit of Christmas, stuffed full of the sugarplums that dance in your head and definitely worth buying, but it’s this, her first book, that I’d press you to buy first. Bonus: available in every format, including board book.
5/ The Christmas Story by Ian Beck
Sadly now out of print, but readily available for 1p plus postage as an Amazon secondhand bargain, this beautifully illustrated and simply told story of the nativity story is well worth searching out. Ian Beck’s illustrations shine and illuminate every page and the language is not too complicated or sophisticated for little ones.
6/ Christmas by Jan Pienkowski
Again, now out of print, but to my mind the perfect mix of King James’ Version language with awe-inspiringly beautiful cut-outs and silhouette illustrations. A forever classic – do search one out for your own Christmas before secondhand hardcover versions go up in price and become “collectible”.
7/ Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr
Now sold as a sturdy boardbook as well as a paperback and hardcover version, what right thinking child once introduced doesn’t love Mog. Again easy to read aloud with lovely detailed illustrations and with plenty of humour to keep you smiling even on the 50th read aloud!
8/ Christmas Parade by Sandra Boynton.
Boynton has some of the best board books for the very young: simple rhymes, bold and bright illustrations and a quirky sense of humour that appeals to parents and children alike, I can’t imagine not giving a Boynton board book in a parcel for a new baby and ALL the words of her Moo, Baa, La La La! are still bubbling in my brain nearly 30 years after I first read them to Miranda. Christmas Parade has all the hallmarks of her best work and makes a lovely addition for baby’s first Christmas.
Do you have any book-buying Christmas traditions? Which are your favourite picture books to read to babies and toddlers this time of year?
Article written by Donna Mills for Miranda’s Notebook. Get in touch with Donna @penandpencilgal