With the Astronaut’s landing, my reading has come a full circle. As well as managing my own book-mania, I am trying to create a small bookworm. A book-fiend in training. Thus far, early signs are positive. The Astronaut’s first words on waking up are to request a book and a the most common cause of bedtime drama is when he does not feel that he has had enough stories. The big learning experience for me though has been how little my own preferences matter here. I have been passionate about promoting childhood literacy all my life. During my (short) teaching career, reading aloud was my favourite part of the day. When I was pregnant, I thought I knew which would be the best books to read to my baby. I scoured the shelves of charity shops, I used up all my Waterstones points. But I had forgotten that literary taste is a very personal thing and that the Astronaut himself would have his own opinions. And from very early on, he really showed them. Two years in, we frequently end up reading the same book five times in a night with enthusiastic squeals of ‘Again!’ at the end of each rendition. There are few words sweeter to the ears of a Mummy Bookworm than ‘More books p’ease!’ and these are the Astronaut’s current Greatest Hits.
Where’s Mr …?, Ingela P Arrhenius
These days, this series is more of an ‘old friend’ rather than a regular favourite but they were the earliest books that we loved. I always preferred them to the Usborne ‘That’s Not My …‘ series for a couple of reasons – the drawings are a little more imaginative, who doesn’t love lifting the flap and then there’s always the mirror at the end which is a sure-fire hit. I remember the Astronaut at about eight or nine months pressing his nose up against it with a huge smile on his face. It took months for the Astronaut to willingly sit through a ‘story book’ so these were great for solidifying our ‘book before bed’ routine. I think every family should be issued with at least one at birth.
A Squash and a Squeeze, Julia Donaldson & Axel Sheffler
We are a big Julia Donaldson household, which is funny because my vague pre-baby impression was that she was so ubiquitous that I initially just wanted to avoid her completely. In the end though you just can’t fight the rhythm and when my in-laws gifted us a box-set, I was officially lost. She and Axel Scheffler have definitely struck gold together. There were a number that I could have picked here. I more or less know all the words to Room on the Broom (Down! cried the witch as they flew to the ground, they searched for the wand but no wand could be found when …) and we have the complete series of Acorn Wood. (Incidentally for any other fans out there, what is the symbolism of all the duck decorations in Fox’s Socks? Serious question.) The Astronaut is also a big fan of Monkey Puzzle and enjoys shaking his finger and shouting ‘No, no, no’ to each of the Butterfly’s suggestions. But for some reason, A Squash and a Squeeze has his heart. I don’t know why. As best as I can tell, it’s the tale of a woman coming to appreciate her small home by wrecking her few possessions through inviting her livestock in to live with her. It may be because he’s in the middle of a farm animal phase or maybe I’m just missing something.
Farmer Duck, Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury
Another farm animal one here and oh so beloved by my firstborn. Over Summer 2020, I was regularly reading this ten times in one day. My performance hit a real dramatic peak although my partner insists that I completely overdid it in how I voiced the farmer. We both agreed though that Farmer Duck is like a strange child-appropriate origin story for Animal Farm. What does it signify at the end when the Duck is clearly in charge as the animals bring in the hay? Is Duck going to become the new ‘Farmer’? It’s quite possible I’m reading too much into it but it is a fantastic book. My son gets excited and puts his fingers to his lips when the animals start to sneak in to punish the Farmer and shouts ‘Boo!’ when they bounce him out of bed. Martin Waddell is always fantastic – Owl Babies is another bedtime friend – but this book is always going to stand out in my mind.
The Baby’s Catalogue, Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Another one that should be handed out to every single baby or toddler in the United Kingdom. Not only is it lovely, as is every collaboration between Janet and Allan Ahlberg, but it has an unbeatable child’s-eye view. As an adult, I enjoy the charm and beauty of Each Peach Pear Plum and I really pick up on the sub-text to Peepo, but I can see that The Baby’s Catalogue is the book that really strikes at my toddler’s level. For the Astronaut, Catalogue is a dream. Starting from the wee small hours of the morning to the late hours of the night, it tracks a day in the life of a baby, from getting dressed to having breakfast all the way to bath and bedtime. Along the way, we see the different types of mummies and daddies that children might have, their toys, potential siblings and pets – it’s a fantastic way of explaining both the Astronaut’s personal routine but also the world he sees around him. The only page that’s missing is one on germs and pandemics …
Press Here, Hervé Tullet
There are many books like this but Press Here is the first and best. The premise is that you follow the instruction on each page, turn to the next one and the pattern of the dots has changed. I gave this to my son when he was only a little over one and he just ‘got it’ very quickly. It’s really funny seeing him blowing on the page or shaking it up and down to get to the next instruction, plus it does reinforce learning colours.
Old Macdonald’s Things That Go, Jane Clarke and Migy Blanco
If my son was running a Top 40 music station, he would pick “Old MacDonald” as number one every week. Judging by the Astroaut’s renditions, Mr MacDonald has quite a diverse range of livestock. Just today, I heard that there is a mummy snake, a daddy snake and a baby snake and that they all go ‘hiss’. To be fair, I think there’s been a bit of a crossover in lyrics between ‘MacDonald’ and ‘Baby Shark’. This book is a fun twist on the song though with vehicles instead of animals.
The Mog Books, Judith Kerr
Again, tough choices here. I really do love The Tiger Who Came To Tea. But my son’s love for cats turns the tide. Mog is a wonderful creation. I am a little more so-so about the ‘pilot episode’, Mog the Forgetful Cat. The drawings are slightly stilted, the ultimate denouement a little over-dramatic. But from there, it’s fantastic. Mog and the Baby is particularly funny to read to a child who really does get that excited over cats. And Mog and Bunny is just lovely. Judith Kerr was such a warm and witty woman and this really comes across in her books.
Meg and Mog, Jan Pienkowski
I find this series hilarious. I don’t actually remember it from my own childhood but I picked up the first book secondhand and then gathered up various others here and there once it became clear that the Astronaut was a fan. The basic premise is that Meg is a witch but every time she tries to do a spell, it always goes very wrong. Her companions are her cat called Mog (no relation to the Kerr Mog) and her owl called Owl. Funnily enough, my partner is less enamoured but the deadpan way that the trio try to deal with all the catastrophes that befall them makes me laugh out loud. Plus the plots are pretty simple and the illustrations very clear so it’s perfect for the toddler audience.
Baby Goes To Market, Atinuke and Angela Brooksbank
A very dear friend who lives a long way away from us sent us this book which makes it very special but it’s also been a big hit with the Astronaut. The cheeky baby is able to charm food from the market-sellers while his mummy wanders about buying the essentials. There are noticeable issues with diversity in children’s picture books and this is a great way of introducing the idea of other cultures. Plus it’s good for counting and encourages a lot of toddler participation.
Hop Little Bunnies, Martha Mumford and Laura Hughes
Another very popular song for the Astronaut and now in book form! We do like a good lift-the-flap book in this house and this one is particularly beautiful. The bunnies walk around and greet the sleeping lambs, chicks, ducklings and kittens – I really recommend this one as a bedtime wind-down story. At the end of the story, the animals gather together and get ready to sleep and it has helped the Astronaut accept that it really is nap time on more than one occasion.
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
As an adult, I haven’t been sure about this. It can seem a bit growly and there’s not a lot of plot. But reading it to my toddler, I realised that it’s actually perfect. The Astronaut is fond of roaring and being whatever animal that takes his fancy. He would love a trip to where the Wild Things Are. Particularly if they bowed down and accepted his dominance. I love the way that Max is resolutely unafraid when he meets the Wild Things. All these years on, I suddenly ‘get’ why children take to this book.
How to Catch a Star, Oliver Jeffers
I had been aware of Oliver Jeffers as a rising star in the children’s picture book world for a while but now I’m on the frontline of toddler bedtimes, I can really see why. He’s another writer who is able to sneak some good dry wit in there. Plus there’s an energy to his illustrations – he’s somehow very uplifting even when he’s writing with great pathos. My own favourite is probably Lost and Found, the beautiful tale of a boy making friends with a penguin. But my son loves stars and all things space so How to Catch a Star is right up his alley. I think that we will be reading lots more by Mr Jeffers though before the Astronaut gets too much older …
And as a bonus list, the books to not read to your baby …
Children’s books aren’t always fun. Sometimes they are quite the reverse. My partner’s main beef is with The Large Family. Mine is with the Mr Men. We both loathe Peppa Pig. And it’s not so much that we hate Beatrix Potter but the fact that all her books comes with little dust jackets make them prime for attack by the Astronaut. Our toddler likes to wake up, bum shuffle in his sleeping bag to the bottom of his cot, reach down as many Potter books as possible and then spend a happy fifteen minutes or so shedding them of their jackets and strewing these around the room. Matching them back up again is a major pain in the derriere. And also the Potter stories are a lot more violent than I remembered – has anyone else read The Tale of a Fierce Bad Rabbit? Otherwise, my main bug bears are stories with the incompetent Dad (Large Family and Peppa Pig both offenders here) and anything that relies solely on bodily functions to hold the reader’s attention.
Two years in, I can see that there is a lot more to story-time than just buying your child books that you like yourself. It’s about perseverance and patience. And lots and lots of repetition. This list is about the books that I have managed to read over fifty times without wanting to scream. Further suggestions would be rapturously welcomed. There have been a few instances now where I have found the Astronaut trying to read to himself from books that we have done so many times that he has some recall of the words but we still have a few years to go before he’ll be able to do it reliably solo – I need lots more ammunition if I’m going to turn him into a reader 😍