This is a topic that I constantly skirt around: living books for babies and toddlers. It’s a bit easier to decide what a living book looks like for older children, when they’re wrapped in beautiful language and the ideas get our children talking. But what about the littlest ones? Sometimes books for this age group are a little too silly; sometimes they don’t have much going on. How are we to tell which books are going to spark that love of reading that is so crucial for children?
My active toddler will not listen to and engage in the same stories that his sister does. And board books are really helpful, because he likes to help turn the pages and regular paper wouldn’t survive that kind of aggression 🙂 So, I’ve been paying close attention to board books I come across to see what I consider to be a living book.
Living books can vary from person to person. You might have different standards than I do, and that’s okay! It doesn’t really matter what we think, anyways:
A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind.” (School Education, pgs. 228-229)
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Books with Context
Some of the books we read to little ones don’t have a story line. That’s okay with me. The lack of story line is not what keeps it from being a living book, in my eyes. Instead, it’s the lack of context. Some books for babies and toddlers might seem to have beautiful ideas, but they are mostly idea after idea piled together. These books are hard for a little one to follow. Charlotte Mason believed it was important to create a mental image, not possible with these types of books.
Thinking about the book Goodnight Moon– there’s a context, but no real story. It takes place at night-time in a great green room. This makes developing a mental image easier. Will my little baby make mental images from what we’re reading? Probably not. But presenting tots with real stories that have literary qualities will help them develop the habit of reading good literature as they grow up.
Books Without Lots of Repetition
I say this with a grain of salt, because some repetitive books can very well be living books. But many of these fall into the “easy reader” category that Charlotte Mason warned against. A little history here: easy reader books were designed according to the theory that words should be repeated a specific amount of times within a book. If you read a classic Dick and Jane reader, you’ll see the same word repeated 5 times per page, sometimes 30 times throughout the short book. Those sort of books aren’t living- dead!!
In the 1980’s, when the whole language movement became popular, experts revolted against these repetitive easy readers. So they started creating repetitive reading books. Fighting repetition with repetition. These books didn’t limit the amount of words in a book. New words were introduced with the thought that children should expand their vocabulary in this way. However, the same phrases are often repeated throughout the book, with a new word thrown in at the end of the phrase. There’s a book that we own that repeats the same phrase on every page, so I hid it on a very high book shelf 🙂 If you’re interested, you can read the research paper that explains all of this here. This form of book seems to talk down to children, and limits the inspirational ideas.
Here’s where I think there’s an exception: nursery rhymes. Charlotte Mason encouraged nursery rhymes for the early years, and some are a little repetitive. Some modern books are even spin-offs of nursery rhymes. An example of this is the book To Market, To Market, which expands on the nursery rhyme.
I’m Ok With Silly Books- In Moderation
In the past, I’ve had it in my head that only serious, profound books can count as living books. But I’m coming around. Charlotte Mason referred to silly books several times, and didn’t call them twaddle. One of these is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland .
By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he read The Swiss Family Robinson.” Home Education, page 152
(BTW- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is NOT a book I’d recommend for babies and toddlers 🙂
There are several kind-of silly books that we’ve really enjoyed during the toddler stage. I think they’re well-thought-out and well written, even if they aren’t literary masterpieces. The key is to not have an entire library made up of these silly, funny books. Referring to “books of comicalities,” Charlotte Mason said:
When cultivated to excess, it is apt to show itself in a flippant habit.”Home Education, page 152
Books That Aren’t Dissected Versions of Others
Charlotte Mason warned against abridged versions of books, but I think it’s even more important to be aware of with board books. There are some board books out there that bear the name of a series or another famous work, but they’re really just bits and pieces of the original. The tricky thing is that sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re getting the real version, or the “board book version.” I’ve made this mistake before: lesson learned.
Read about our favorite board books here!