How to curate baby’s first library: the ultimate guide

My friends and I recently threw a baby shower for our lovely pregnant friends (well, only one of them is pregnant. It was a co-ed shower.). They wanted a book shower, which is amazing, so everyone brought a book for the baby and wrote a note in it with their best wishes. I had a serious problem, though. I was paralyzed with indecision. She’s a PhD in cognitive studies and linguistics and he’s a letterpress artist and graphic designer. They’re well-read and inordinately, unintentionally cool. Choosing exactly the right book for them was hella intimidating. I eventually on Lenore Klein’s Henri Walks to Paris because it is beautifully designed, boldly illustrated, and delightfully written with a great message about adventures, journeys, and happiness (and also because the couple loves Paris).

But this process got me thinking. This couple doesn’t have any children’s books yet. I do not remember what that feels like, though I know that was once me. I felt like going to Winners and filling up a shopping cart for them. How do you get from No Kids’ Books At All in the house to our situation, which I like to call Overrun by Kids’ Books, wherein you’re constantly trying to corral the piles of books in the shelves and baskets all over the house?

So. If you’re building a baby library from the ground up, what books do you need? How do you cover all your board book basics? Here, then, for all the future babies in your lives and their parents, I present the Aardvark’s Apprentice Ultimate Guide to Curating Baby’s First Library.

Curating baby's first library: the ultimate guide | The Aardvark's Apprentice | Find the best books for kids

All you have to do is pick a book or two from each category to take comfort in knowing that all the literary needs of your future offspring are totally covered.

High-contrast books. Babies aren’t born with the ability to see colours, and high-contrast books appeal to them. As they look at the pictures (why is there always a picture of a fish in these books?), they are learning how we read books (the pages are turned from left to right) and they are associating reading with lovely snuggles, so you are using classical conditioning to make your baby love reading, which is awesome. (You could ring a bell every time you feed her too, and see if she starts to salivate when you ring the bell. That would be neat.) Here are some good high-contrast picks.

(1) blackwhite    (2)look-look1

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(1) White on Black by Tana Hoban. (also available: Black on White! And the thrilling sequel, Black & White!), (2) Look Look! and many subsequent titles by Peter Linenthal, (3) Art for Baby — this one is for very fancy people who are looking for “a perfect way to bring contemporary art to your baby.” (4) Make your own. Seriously. You can just cut some shapes out of black paper and stick them to white paper. Then you can become Pinterest-famous!

The classics. 

goodnightmoon  SnowyDayKeats  Pat_the_Bunny_image  HungryCaterpillar

You just can’t have a baby without one or more copies of

  • Goodnight Moon (though please note that this book is not without issues)
  • The Snowy Day
  • Pat the Bunny
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • Good Night Gorilla
  • Ten Little Fingers
  • A selection of Sandra Boynton books (start with Moo, Baa, La La La and But Not the Hippopotamus, perhaps.)
  • A few of the younger Dr. Seuss books.

I know it’s blasphemy to say this, but some of these books aren’t even that awesome. But that’s okay because you probably won’t have to buy them. People will give you these books. You are likely to receive multiple copies. That’s not a bad thing; you can either regift your third copy of Pat the Bunny and it can become someone else’s third copy of Pat the Bunny or you can hold onto it in case your baby turns out to love Pat the Bunny so much that you need copies in every room. (Totally possible.)

Lift the flap books. Start with just a few, but know that your child will rip all the flaps off. Keep tape handy. If you lose the flaps, your baby will probably be just as impressed by a vague shape cut out of construction paper that she can lift.

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(3) dearzoo (4) isayyousay

(1) Although I wish I could avoid them, I can’t help but recommend the pablum of Karen Katz in this category (see my post about these blandly addictive baby books here). (2) All the Spot books are adored by babies. Even though I feel like I could probably have drawn the pictures as well as Eric Hill, I probably wouldn’t have thought to put a snake in the grandfather clock. Oddly, children don’t seem to find the snake in the clock scary. (3) Dear Zoo is probably my favourite lift-the-flap. But, again, keep that tape handy. (4) I Say, You Say Colors accomplishes the secondary task of being a colour book, a category I am leaving off this list because whether you drill them on their colours or not, they will learn them. Unless they’re colourblind, in which case I guess having a colour book is a good litmus test to find that out.

Books with baby faces. Why do babies like to look at other babies? I have no idea. But they really, really do. We like Global Babies because it’s one of the few books Tiny J (16 months) and Little E (3.5 years) can enjoy together — Tiny J looks at the babies and Little E and I talk about the different places the babies come from (India, Peru, Afghanistan…). Margaret Miller has a series of baby face books that may not qualify as memorable literature, but are certainly guaranteed to captivate your baby.

globalbabies  babyfaces  babyfood  babyfacessmile

Touch and feel books. The quality of these varies tremendously. Some “touch and feel” books have about as much texture as my shower tile. I don’t think you can beat the Usborne That’s Not My… series for variety of textures (I get a kick out That’s Not My Meerkat for reasons I can’t quite explain), but keep an eye out for books like Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? that have things that are soft and hard and prickly and tickly and feathery and funny to touch. If there’s one things babies love almost as much as baby faces, it’s touching and feeling things.

notmyfrog  tiger  fuzzy

Word books. These are the Most Boring to read, but babies of a certain age (somewhere between ten and fifteen months) adore them, and for good reason: their little brains are soaking up words like my new “waterproof” jacket from Old Navy soaks up the rain. These books are pretty interchangeable in terms of narrative structure (picture of item with name of item) so it doesn’t much matter which ones you get.

first100   firstwords

Bedtime books. Bedtime is the nicest storytime (unless you have a grumpy baby and you really just need to make that kid be asleep — in which case, skip the damn stories and just put that baby to bed. I guarantee you her cognitive development will not suffer from the occasional skipped storytime, but you’ll all suffer if you’re trying to make an exhausted baby listen to your funny Cat in the Hat voices). The sleepier the bedtime book, the better. Chances are pretty good that you’ll be tired enough that you’ll both fall asleep. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

bigredbarn  timeforbed  dreamanimals  bookofsleep

(1) Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown. (2) Time for Bed by Mem Fox. (3) Dream Animals by Emily Winfred Martin. (4) A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na. (One of our favourites; read why here.) Sweet dreams!

Nursery rhymes. Finish this sentence: “The king was in his counting-house…” Can’t do it? You’re going to need a copy of Humpty Who: A Crash Course in 80 Nursery Rhymes. It’s targeted at people who find themselves putting their kids to bed with the Love Boat theme song because they can’t remember more than a few words of the nursery rhymes of their long-ago childhood. The CD is great too. We have a few different treasuries of nursery rhymes — find one you like that has a lot of different rhymes and some lovely illustrations and you’ll be golden. Oh, and make sure it has a section of bouncing rhymes. That was how Tiny J learned how to sign “Again!”

humptywho  treasury

Books to make new parents cry. It’s a mean trick, but every new parent should be given a few books that will make them ugly cry. The best books for this seem to be Love You Forever (though if I’m climbing in through my kids’ windows in the middle of the night someday, someone please have a serious talk with me), Someday (the boy-oriented Little Boy follow-up is a little lacking — sorry, weepy parents of boys), and I Wish You More.

loveyouforever  someday  wishyoumore  OnTheDayYouWereBorn

A book of your family. This takes about ten minutes of work, and it’s very hard to find ten minutes when you have a new baby, so I suggest doing this before the baby is born or tasking a relative with this. Print out photos of your family — you can stick to your immediate family but it’s nice to include grandparents, aunts, and uncles, though you can probably safely leave out Great-Aunt Selma from Albuquerque — and put them in an album. Leave space for a photo of the baby if she’s not born yet. Add a bit of tape to make sure your little mischief-maker can’t get the pictures out. You can buy special soft albums to do this, but the albums from the dollar store work just as well (especially with the tape!). We have hundreds of books in our house, and the kids’ favourite remains the album of photos of all the people who love them.

And that’s how you put together the best library a baby could have! What do you think? Are there any categories of books you think are mandatory? Did I miss any of your baby’s favourites?

Happy reading!
The Aardvark

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Featured Author: Karen Katz

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I’m not going to lie here. I don’t like these books. I find them boring and repetitive and lacking in any regard for parents or older children who might be forced to sit through a reading. I feel like they underestimate babies’ ability to appreciate even a wee bit of depth.

It doesn’t really matter what I think on this subject, though.

Because babies freaking love Karen Katz books.

These books are like baby crack. Karen Katz books are to babies like Hallowe’en candy is to preschoolers. Every time I whip one of these puppies out for my ten-month-old, and we have at least four of them despite never having purchased one or receiving one as a gift that I can remember — I swear they breed like cockroaches when our backs are turned — her face lights up as though I finally agreed to let her put the put that ball of dog hair in her mouth. She delights in the babies’ weirdly large heads; she loves the patterns on their shirts; she chortles with glee at every surprise under every flap (spoiler alert: it’s a baby).

Katz appears to be generating these books at approximately the same rate as my preschooler makes messes (I imagine her rolling around on piles of baby profit cash), so the selection can be a little overwhelming. That’s okay. They’re all exactly the same. You can just choose one at random; every baby in the world seems to be attracted to all Karen Katz books equally.

The books are bland and silly, but do not let that stop you. Buy some for your baby. Because we’re still not going to let them put the dog hair in their mouths, but at least they can look behind the beach ball and find out what’s behind it*.

*It’s still a baby.

Review: This New Baby

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EDITOR’S PICK
GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book (also available as a picture book)
Age: 1-3 years
Author: Teddy Jam
Illustrator: Virginia Johnson
Publisher:  Groundwood Books (published August 2011)
Pages: 22
ISBN-10: 1554980887
ISBN-13: 978-1554980888

“This new baby / lies in my arms / like summer dark / sleeping on new grass …”

I love a book that is also a poem. This little book’s expressive, rhythmic words and contemplative watercolour illustrations bring to my mind Japanese poetry and Chinese brush painting — and yet are accessible enough for a young toddler to enjoy. Certainly a very young reader will not grasp the finer points of each simile (“my new baby’s cry / chases old ghosts / back into the shadows”), but I don’t believe that’s a good reason not to enjoy poetry together. This New Baby is a book that is impossible to rush through, one where each word dances in the air for a moment after it is spoken.

Please, give this sweet book to all the pregnant women you know. Its small loveliness deserves a presence on their bookshelves.

Review: I Love You, Little One

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GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 3/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book (also available as a picture book)
Age: Newborn to 18 months
Author and illustrator: Nancy Tafuri
Publisher: Scholastic Press (published March 2000)
Pages: 15
ISBN-10: 0439137462
ISBN-13: 978-0439137461

There are certain books that are more beloved by parents than their children. Love You Forever by Robert Munsch is a great example; while this perennial baby shower gift is guaranteed to reduce any new parent — especially any new mother in the throes of postnatal hormones — to a puddle of weepy sobs, it’s a book that parents are frequently more enthusiastic to read than their children are. I Love You, Little One falls into the same category. The sentiment is a lovely one: seven animals each ask, “Do you love me, Mama?” and receive reassuring, lyrical, and ecosystem-appropriate responses (Mama Duck says, “Yes, little one, I love you as the pond loves you, giving you food and places to swim. I love you as the pond loves you, forever and ever and always.”) The illustrations are fairly nice (though the animals are far better drawn than the people) and as the book progresses, the sun travels through the sky and the book ends with a mother putting her child to bed as night falls over a log cabin in the forest. I Love You, Little One is a soothing book that will inspire snuggly feelings at least as much in parents as in their children.

Review: Big Red Barn

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EDITOR’S PICK
GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book or picture book
Author: Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrator: Felicia Bond
Publisher:  HarperFestival (published January 1995)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0694006246
ISBN-13: 978-0694006243

“By the big red barn / In the great green field, / There was a pink pig /Who was learning to squeal.” Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952), the canonical author behind Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, brings her evocative prose to the barnyard and the entrancing animals that inhabit it. Sweetly illustrated by Felicia Bond, this book follows the animals of the barn as the day passes and evening falls. “And there they were all night long / Sound asleep / In the big red barn. / Only the mice were left to play, / Rustling and squeaking in the hay, / While the moon sailed high / In the dark night sky.” Children and parents alike will be comforted and warmed by this simple, cozy story: the perfect book to read at bedtime.

Review: Everywhere Babies

EverywhereBabies EditorsPick (2)

EDITOR’S PICK
GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book
Author: Susan Meyers
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Publisher: Harcourt (published Sept. 2004)
Pages: 30
ISBN-10: 0152053158
ISBN-13: 978-0152053154

This charming book uses simple, rhythmic rhyme and delightfully detailed illustrations to draw young readers into the world of babies all over the world: “Every day, everywhere, babies are born — fat babies, thin babies, small babies, tall babies, winter and spring babies, summer and fall babies.” The everyday lives of babies are captured and celebrated lyrically and visually: toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy pointing out familiar items and activities. I consider this book to be a blow for The Powers of Good in the Mommy Wars: a gentle, positive reminder that babies are raised in different ways in different places and we parents are all just doing the best we can. The illustrations depict families and parents of all sorts, including what I think is a same-sex couple, feeding, transporting, and enjoying their babies in all kinds of ways. The message is a lovely one: “Every day, everywhere, babies are loved — for trying so hard, for traveling so far, for being so wonderful…just as they are!”

This would be the perfect gift for a new big sister or brother, who will love combing through the intricate illustrations and will find new pleasures with every read.

If you like this, you might like Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox.