Babies United!

A Board Book Every Week: No. 12


Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books)


No apologies for featuring another book illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. The puff quote on the cover says ‘Delightfully exuberant and endearingly sentimental’, and for once I agree. This book has to my personal knowledge made one strong man cry.

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox and Helen OxenburyThe story tells of babies born all over the world into different circumstances, united by the fact that ‘as everyone knows’ they have ten little fingers and ten little toes. Cities, hillsides, deserts and snowfields, houses and tents, all feature. Oxenbury’s gently varied babies should mean children of every skin and hair colour can find themselves in here. There’s even a ginger one! But none with, for example, hearing aids or glasses…maybe because they are still very tiny? Is that an excuse? Some very small children need to use them and are fitted with the things. It would be ideal to show that these babies have so much in common with others, too.

The babies here are exuberant in their shared play, waving hands, crawling, swinging swings, rolling about laughing, in a way that will be familiar to fans of Helen Oxenbury. Others follow chickens, watch the snow, help each other, and struggle over ownership of a blanket.

Mem Fox’s text is simple and direct, rhyming and repetitive, and ends with the perfect prompt for a shared book ‘…and three little kisses on the tip of its nose.’

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books


Clap Hands – come on, it’s easy!

A Board Book Every Week – No 5:

 Clap Hands board book by Helen Oxenbury

Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books 1987) 


Last year, on the 25th anniversary of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, I heard Helen Oxenbury talk about its origins. She said how glad she was to have this lively text to interpret and illustrate. She had been working for ages on a very simple set of baby books – with one image per page – and was bored, bored, bored. The series of little books she referred to (Playing, Dressing, Friends, I Can etc) was one I had relied on heavily with my own babies. Before I heard this I’d been thinking of complimenting her on them as I queued up for my signed copy of Bear Hunt. Instead I kept quiet. I didn’t want to confess that I loved those books that had ended up boring her.

But they really do have their place. I used them when I was stocking a library for very young and developmentally-delayed children. One image per page, and lots of white space to keep it clear, is much more user-friendly than stylised or complex pictures. (See my post about what makes a good first book.) And I also invested in the series that this week’s chosen board book comes from. The babies who people every page have deceptively simple features which reflect a whole range of appearances in a subtle but unmistakable way, so they were good for a diverse audience. And, very cleverly, the clothing hasn’t dated, so the books work well for contemporary readers.

Clap Hands by Helen OxenburyClap Hands is a large-format board book with four double-page spreads. Big babies take up all the space, doing joyous everyday baby stuff to a minimal text. Actually just 23 words in total. Short rhyming phrases. Perfect for very short concentration spans. (You can tell it’s affecting me now!)

First published by Walker Books in the 1980s, this series includes All Fall Down, Say Goodnight, and Tickle,Tickle.  I chose Clap Hands because it has the easiest actions for young babies to join in with – clapping, banging, waving. Waving and clapping are very early physical skills – lovely and sociable, too – and it’s easy for grown-ups to help babies on laps to do the actions in this book. They may not be able literally to ‘dance and spin’ yet like the toddlers in the illustration but they can be danced on laps and even spun about.Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury

The other titles are great, but I’d recommend Say Goodnight as part of a good bedtime routine. The soporific images of babies and grown-ups are enough to make anyone feel sleepy!

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?