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Reading to Your Kids At First Seems Like Literary Regression

By Seth Meisel • March 19, 2018

Having two children in the last two years has exposed me to a whole genre of board books I haven't experienced in more than 30+ years. My personal favorite author is Leo Tolstoy, so as an adult I initially found children's books to be overly formulaic and repetitive when reading them aloud. I kept saying to myself, "I could write one of these books, they're so simple!" I've had to remind myself that these kinds of books are written for age levels that might not even understand the full meaning of individual spoken words yet.

Children's books thoughtfully combine pictures with simple language to teach children new words and visual concept recognition through simple repetition. They are purposefully repetitive with their use of word and image, like a song has a chorus that it keeps returning to. In that respect, repetition is the chorus that teaches kids language in children's books.

I also came to the realization after reading some of these titles for what seems like the 100th time that each reading is an opportunity for me to read it through in a completely different voice and make it more enjoyable for me as well. For example, sometimes I read an entire book to my son in the voice of Christopher Walken or give each character in the book a different voice. But overall, reading with my kids is a great activity to spend more time with them! Here are a few examples of excellent 0-2 years old age range board books that I've read so many times that some of the books have even fallen apart and are now bound with duct tape!

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann is about an absent-minded zookeeper that is pickpocketed by one of the zoo animals as he's saying good night to all the zoo animals for the night. The mischievous gorilla uses the zookeeper's keys to let other animals out of their cages. The elephant, lion, and the anteater all follow the zookeeper back home for the night. I feel like this book has taught my son the names for each of the individual zoo animals featured in the book as the zookeeper wishes them all goodnight! My son also likes to point out each time the elephant shows up on a page, and it's turned into his favorite animal.

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper is about a train full of toy animals and good things for boys and girls to eat that, unfortunately, breaks down en route to the children on the other side of the mountain. The occupants of the train must find a new locomotive to pull their train over the mountain. They seek the help of a shiny new engine, a great big strong engine, an old and tired train engine, and finally an energetic little blue engine. The little blue train is finally willing to try pulling them over the mountain. When I'm reading this aloud, I read the shiny new engine's part in my own rendition of a snooty waiter, the big strong engine in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for the old and tired engine's parts, a tired reading voice. The little blue train has the voice of a kind woman. The book teaches my son about having a can-do attitude. He also loves pointing out the elephant on each page it shows up on. 

Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees is about a clumsy giraffe named Gerald. Gerald is particularly anxious and sad about the annual Jungle Dance with the other animals. All the other animals seem to have found their own dancing style. For example, the warthogs were very good at the waltz, and the lions were comfortable with dancing the tango. Gerald is mocked by the other animals when he attempts to dance alone at this year's Jungle Dance. He retreats from the dance and is given sage advice by a small violin playing cricket about how to find his own style in life. For some reason I find myself giving the cricket an Irish accent when I'm reading it out loud. Overall the language and rhyming in this book is fun to read out loud and teaches my son the name of animals. The book has a good overall message about finding your own way of expressing yourself in life. My son also likes pointing out where the moon is on each particular page.

Jamberry by Bruce Degen is about a boy and his top hat–wearing bear companion exploring a world of different kinds of berries by canoe. From the beginning, it starts "One Berry Two Berry Pick be a Blueberry" and then launches into naming completely nonsensical kinds of berries like jazzberries and canoeberries that seem to be just for the sake of rhyming. It's a fun book to read aloud, and the boy in the book seems to be dressed like Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I'm honestly not sure what this book teaches kids, but my son enjoys listening to it and looking at the whimsical illustrations.

I hope by reading board books to him that I am contributing to my kid's language development that he'll use well into adulthood. Reading to my kids gives me a chance to practice using different voices and spend quality time with my son.

About the Author: Seth Meisel works on the Marketing team at ThriftBooks and has two kids.

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