What makes a good first picture book?

Board books by Helen Oxenbury I was prompted to write this after reading an interesting post by Pippa Goodhart here on Picture Book Den. Pippa wrote a very thoughtful post about children needing to see themselves reflected in the books they are offered, and that one way to be inclusive is to steer away from people and use animals as characters to identify with, as this cuts through some of the multiple factors that may be involved in inclusivity. (You’ll have to read Pippa’s post in full as she puts this much more effectively than I can if I try to précis her thoughts.)

However, using animals presupposes that a child can identify with animals, that they’re ready to understand the wonders – and conventions – of storytelling, where a tale about a bear and his ursine mum is really a tale about me not wanting to go to bed yet. And it set me to thinking about my experience of children with developmental delays who, at an age when most children are romping away with story-books, need something much more literal than that and yet books that still show themselves, their lives and and their interests reflected.

For years and years (and years) I worked with the families of very young children whose development was not progressing as hoped for. I visited them at home, always with a bag of toys – and always with a book. The books we chose for our project’s library had to be tough, so mostly board books: they would get a lot of use, and from children who maybe hadn’t handled books before. They had to be simple and engaging. They had to show children – and sometimes the adults involved in their lives – that books are great for so many aspects of development and also, just as important, are fun.

Wibbly Pig Likes Bananas by Mick Inkpen

Familiar stuff and simple vocab, though he’s still an animal!

Many of the children I worked with (most were aged 1 or 2 or 3, though sometimes a bit older or younger) were just at the stage of single word acquisition when we began. That’s not being able to say single words – saying comes much later – but being able to understand single concrete words that were important to them: cup, teddy, biscuit, duck, Mummy, Daddy, bye-bye, car. The kind of words most children start to acquire between 6 and 12 months.

So I needed books full of such simple things – but not too full! Many First Words books have a core of key words and then are bulked out by stuff that really wasn’t helpful for my purposes. Fine if you are a baby just primed for eating up words, familiar and unfamiliar and just plain daft, but if you are struggling to make much sense of your own small world you don’t need objects you never see, like a sailing boat or an iron or a kite. And so much too long – bor-ing! Just as many toy manufacturers often don’t appear to have consulted an expert on child development before bringing out their products, as the buyer for our toy and book library I often got the impression that publishers of baby books had not asked a specialist speech and language therapist about suitable early vocabulary.

But – there are many delightful and appropriate first board books! Not that many pages to turn, a simple clear image on each one (a plea to leave out the purely decorative twirls of irrelevant daisies and butterflies beloved of book-buying grannies and godparents – that just clutters the place up!)  and tiny-child-friendly stuff going on. Familiar stuff. Taking a bath, going to the supermarket, playing with friends and pets, sitting on Grandad’s lap and having a story.

Honourable mention here to the lovely books by Helen Oxenbury, some of which were passed from my own children into our toy library.  And you’d be hard-pressed these days  to find a first book of babies – small people love pictures of other small people! – which does not reflect a decent variety of ethnicity, whether it’s in photos or drawings. It’s just that this doesn’t seem to push further up the age-range. And they hardly ever show babies and children with visible disabilities.

Many of these books have no text at all, or just one word or sound per page, ‘Splash’ or ‘Baa!’, which is great when you are trying to get a child to connect them with what’s going on, and later imitate. By the way, sounds are easier to copy than ‘proper’ words at first. Which is why books with animals are so brilliant. Quack! Moo! Woof! Everyone has their own way of saying them – and I have to confess I never mastered an elephant noise that convinced a single child, though we had a lot of laughs trying. And animals seem to break the rule of relevance. Young children don’t need to have seen a real tiger or crocodile in order to get terribly enthralled by them.

Friends board book by Helen Oxenbury

Lovely friendly pets, one per page, in this delightful book.

There is a developmental hierarchy to interpreting visual images, which starts with photographs of the real thing. Most young children are just so adept at skipping through the stages of learning – they’re hardwired to do it – that apart from being impressed by how clever and (a)cute they are, we adults barely notice how they’ve done it. But some children need to start with a photo of their very own cup before they can understand that ‘cup’ is still a cup in a variety of shapes and colours. When they’ve grasped that, they can move on to clear uncluttered drawings, then to more stylised and fanciful representations, and finally to busy pages full of detail where they can isolate and identify a particular item amongst many.

This sounds really dry, but if you don’t understand the stages you may well turn some children off from looking at books that have no meaning for them. A beautiful, arty, graphic picture book an adult might chose can be hopeless for a child who cannot see anything they recognise in pictures which are too sophisticated for their developmental stage, however ‘simple’ they look to us.

I used to use photo books, but these can be hard to find, and as photos date quickly they may not be a publisher’s first choice. Early Learning Centre sold a range of books such as My Home with a just a few clear, separate images of everyday objects on each page. But they were never updated and things like the telephone and the TV became hopelessly antique and unrecognisable to young eyes, even if the socks and the potty and the banana looked familiar! Other text-free books often of Scandinavian origin, on topics such as Seasons, or Playing, or My Nursery School, showed photos of ordinary children in everyday settings. But, again, the clothes began to date terribly until grown-ups couldn’t look at the pictures without sniggering (‘Gawd, I had brown dungarees just like that!’) and these books with photographs seemed to fall out of fashion. But some children really like and need photos, however wonderful drawings can be.

So I must mention Dorling Kindersley’s range of early books with really high quality photos, often with clear white backgrounds. I’ve known a  child try to grab the lifelike banana off the page, very cross that it didn’t do what she expected. Some are board books, but many have paper pages which were quite risky for my needs (and limited budget). And they tended to be a bit too detailed and distracting for my first-book-users. The book below, My Day, is too recent for me to have bought, but looks like the kind of thing I would have been happy to try with abler children. (Though I hate the ‘learning to read’ logo on the front. That’s not all that books are about!)

My Day photo board book Dorling Kinderlsey

Everyday childhood activities

For some children the most exciting first book was one that their family made themselves. This really can be the ideal first stage for any child, and I knew kids who almost wore their books out through constant reference. A simple photo album – ideally a small one with one picture per page you could just slip in – with pics of them, their favourite people, favourite toys, and everyday stuff. Me with shampoo in my hair. Me on the slide. My baby sister in her buggy. My Nan asleep on the sofa. My teddy. Just perfect…and it led a way into loving looking at books. Because who knows what you might find inside?

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8 thoughts on “What makes a good first picture book?

  1. Really interesting, Julia. You’ve made me think! I’ve got a daughter who is studying children’s speech development, so she’ll be interested to read this too. Thank you so much.

  2. Really insightful post, thanks Julia. As a grandparent I’m revisiting the delights of sharing the joy of books that I had with my own children. But you’re right about keeping factual picture books up to date.

  3. Yes yes yes! The Ahlbergs’ Baby’s Catalogue – now out as a board book, hooray! Our battered paperback which simply fell to bits after many years of use by family and visitors, showed instances of every kind of familiar situation, and lovely visual jokes – accidents! But as I remember had practically no words, which allowed you and the baby to find your own, so that after a while they did the reading.

    • Yes, loved that book at home where we liked looking for the most similar buggy/plate/potty to what we had, and then looking at the differences and the wonderful details. But even this lovely book would be quite taxing at first for young children with developmental delay, as there is a lot of stuff to scan and process on each page. And although the drawings are clear they are not photographic realism. I had it in our project library but did not use it that often.

  4. Pingback: Clap Hands – come on, it’s easy! | Julia Lee Author

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