Reading bedtime stories to my children is one of my favourite parts of the day. They are squeaky clean and fresh-smelling from their bath, snug in their pyjamas and relaxed and ready to cwtch up before bed.
It’s been a big part of our daily routine since they were tiny – Little E was just three weeks old when we introduced regular books at bedtime to her, and her brothers joined in with bedtime stories from the day they were born.
We don’t just read books at bedtime, of course. We read them in bed in the mornings; we read them if my children are tired or need to chill out; we read them just because they want to; and if we have nothing else on we’ll head to the library for an hour and read half a dozen or so stories, before borrowing a bag-full. One of their favourite games is ‘bookshops’, which involves taking all the books from their shelves, laying them out all over the floor and then choosing which ones to buy for their imaginary children.
Not surprisingly for someone who writes for a living, I think reading to your child is one of the most important things you can do as a parent – and I don’t think babies are ever too young to have a story read to them.
It’s such a lovely bonding experience. Real one-to-one time – or more often one-to-three time, in my case! – where all your focus is on them and the story you are telling.
Even the smallest of babies love the sound of their parents’ voices; it’s calming and soothing for them. They get excited by the pictures, they enjoy the rhyme and rhythm of the words, and love turning pages.
It helps their communication skills, it improves their ability to concentrate, it builds their listening skills and their vocabulary, and they are introduced to letters, numbers and objects from the world around them without really realising it.
I love listening to Cardiff Daddy reading to our children too, all three of them sat on his lap. He misses out on so much of their lives from being at work every day, so this is real quality time for them and him when he gets home.
Hearing Little E and Little O reading to each other and to Baby I is heart-warming. At the moment, it’s more reciting text they have memorised – their ability to remember dozens of books amazes me – but even before she was four, Little E suddenly started recognising words and began reading by herself, without any formal teaching. Unsurprisingly, the first words she could read and write were ones that feature heavily in her books.
I don’t think you can ever own too many books – we have hundreds in our house and I am always adding to our wish-list. Having a baby in the house again has meant rediscovering lots of old favourites and it’s lovely to see Baby I enjoying the same books his brother and sister did before him.
Here are 10 of our favourite books for babies – ones I think every child should read before their first birthday. I’m concentrating here on simple books for babies. You can read my 11 classic books to read to toddlers here and I’ll soon be posting one for pre-schoolers, too. Are any of these among your little ones’ favourites? What else would you add to the list?
1. Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Penguin Books
With plenty of repetition, peepholes that show the pictures on the next page, and beautiful old-fashioned images, this is a delightful book. My children love the cry of Peepo! that follows each verse of the rhyme. The text itself is simple, charting what a little baby sees throughout the day. But it’s the images that add a real depth. Set during the second world war, we see a soldier daddy in his uniform, a tin bath, and a family who might live in an untidy house with few luxuries, but who seem happy enjoying life’s simple pleasures. First published in 1981, this is still one of the most popular first readers over 30 years later. If you like it, I’d also recommend Each Peach Pear Plum by the same authors, which introduces popular characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales through simple rhymes and pictures that draw you in with their attention to detail.
2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Puffin Books
Both Cardiff Daddy and I remember reading this one when we were younger, so it’s lovely to now share it with our own children. They love the different sized pages, the unusual collage-style pictures, and poking their fingers through the little holes in the food the caterpillar has munches his way through. It cleverly introduces the days of the week, numbers, different types of food, and the idea that caterpillars turn into butterflies. First published in 1969, this one has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
3. I Love My Daddy/I Love My Mummy by Sebastian Braun, Boxer Books
Little E bought her daddy this book on her very first Christmas when she was just three weeks old. It brought a tear to her daddy’s eye when he first read it to her. He’d kill me for telling you this, but it still does when she or Little O choose this one to read before bed. The words – detailing all the lovely things the daddy bear does with his little one – are simple but tender, and the images are wonderfully heartwarming. I was so pleased when Little E gave me the accompanying I Love My Mummy on my first birthday as a mummy; it’s just as gorgeous.
4. Postman Bear by Julia Donaldson, Macmillan Children’s Books
If you’re new to parenthood, get used to the name Julia Donaldson because she writes such fantastic children’s books she will no doubt feature strongly in your children’s reading library. This one – with illustrations by Axel Scheffler, her creative partner for her most famous book, The Gruffalo and several others – is perfect for young readers, with flaps for them to lift, simple repetitive rhyming text, and an introduction to different animals and counting.
5. On The Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman, Feiwel and Friends
I first read this book at a friend’s house and it made me cry. I immediately bought Little E and Little O a copy each. I’ve bought it for several special children in my life, and Little I will also be getting his own copy for his first Christmas, as well as the accompanying baby record book. Every child should have this book read to them so they know how special they are, and how wonderful it was when they were born. It’s a real celebration of our uniqueness. The words are full of the wonderment and sheer joy felt by the arrival of the “you” of the story, while the dream-like illustrations are tender and full of emotion.
6. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle, Puffin Books
Full of repetition and rhyme, the text in this book is simple but effective. Each page asks a colourful animal what they can see, with that animal introducing us to the next one. Baby I looks so excited when he sees Carle’s trademark collage-style illustrations, and his big brother and sister love reading this one to him, helping him to learn different colours and animals. I’m sure it won’t be long before he is joining in with the rhymes himself.
7. That’s Not My Tractor/Fairy/Puppy/Dinosaur/Monkey/Robot etc by Fiona Watt, Usborne
One of the most popular series of board books for young readers, these touchy-feely books are brilliant for babies and toddlers. The structure is always the same: “That’s not my xxx. Its xxx is too xxx” and then the baby can touch said area of the page for a real sensory experience. Each book ends with “my” animal/object being found. The pages are full of clear, brightly coloured pictures, the words are large and prominent and the books are so chunky they can withstand being chewed and dropped. There’s so many of these books in the series – we have about 10, many of them from charity shops and eBay – so there will certainly be one to suit your baby’s tastes.
8. Guess How Much I Love You? by Sam McBratney, Walker Books
This is such a heart-warming book. We got our copy for 50p in a charity shop when Little E was about four months old and although I was thrilled to find it so cheaply, I was surprised someone could bear to part with it. It features Little Nutbrown Hare trying to tell Big Nutbrown Hare how much he loves him – “I love you as high as I can hop” – but Big Nutbrown Hare always manages to go one further – “But I love you as high as I can hop.” My children love acting this one out with me and trying to think of something really big or far away that can demonstrate that they love me more than I love them. As every parent, including Big Nutbrown Hare, knows, that’s just not possible though!
9. Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, Macmillan
A little child writes to the zoo asking for a pet, but everything the zoo sends isn’t suitable for some reason – too grumpy, too tall, too jumpy. And so the animals get sent back, until finally the perfect pet arrives. Older babies will love opening the flaps to reveal the animals inside the crates, while the repetitive text means they will soon be reciting the words.
10. Hug by Jez Alborough, Walker Books
They say a picture tells a thousand words and that’s exactly why I love this book. Most of the pages contain just one word – hug – and babies will soon realise that a word can be said in different ways and used to convey different emotions. Bobo, the little chimp in this story uses it to show happiness, love, sadness and anger. Having so few words is a great way to introduce the idea that children can tell stories themselves by saying what they see in the colourful pictures and imagining what Bobo and the other animals are thinking. Jez Alborough is a great children’s author – we also love his Duck In The Truck and It’s The Bear series – they’re full of punchy rhyming text and engaging images.