Picturebooks part 5 - Hands on!

Introducing babies and toddlers to books will set them on the way to being confident readers later on. Andy McCormack offers some advice and explores examples of age-appropriate titles

Clap Hands is part of Helen Oxenbury’s popular baby book series
Clap Hands is part of Helen Oxenbury’s popular baby book series

It’s never too early to start reading with children, and now more than ever parents, caregivers and teachers have access to a wealth of interesting, engaging picturebooks designed specifically for babies and toddlers. From sturdy board books to waterproof bath books and sparkly lift-the-flap books, picturebooks for babies and toddlers are enjoying an exceptional moment of popularity in the UK and around the world.

Children’s publisher Usborne reported that last year, there was a copy sold from its ‘That’s Not My…’ series every minute in the UK alone. Reading aloud with very young children offers a host of benefits, not least helping them to develop a literary taste of their own as they mature with experience of different themes and styles of book.

Remember, though, that your young readers will soon want to revisit a favourite text over, and over, again – so it is important to build a collection that you enjoy too!


Research has highlighted many important benefits of reading to babies and toddlers, including that of Lisa Scott, associate professor in psychology at the University of Florida, and her team.

Prof. Scott writes, ‘Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development. [It] also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

‘Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name-writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their four-year-old children.’


Nurturing a love of books in children and helping them reap the important benefits of reading requires an enthusiastic reader. Modelling is an integral concept in early childhood education, and giving children the opportunity to explore handling a physical text with the guidance of an experienced caregiver is an essential step in developing literary confidence and, later, confidence in literacy.

A 2018 debate at the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) evidenced the ‘disturbing trend of children in Reception and at nursery school picking up library books and trying to swipe left’. Kevin Courtney, secretary general of the NUT, said at the time, ‘Reading for pleasure is a skill for life and is consistently shown to be one of the most powerful springboards for children’s engagement with learning, thinking and creating. The Government needs to put libraries, books and reading for pleasure centre-stage in its vision for children and young people.’

Parents, caregivers and teachers can start this work by sharing books with babies and toddlers to ensure children grow up with experience of physical texts and an understanding of their capacity to be just as entertaining, informative, and fun as a tablet – and much nicer to hold and share!

While developing phonic decoding skills is an important function of picturebook reading for older children, sharing books with babies and toddlers is a time for beginning an appreciation for the relationship between words, sounds, images and meaning in its broadest concept – while having fun and interacting with books.


Reading with babies (from as young as three months) can provide a point of focus during a cuddle or as a soothing way into nap time.

Reading becomes more interactive as children get older: point to the words and pictures as you read, and don’t be afraid to keep reading even as children move away from the text – often they will still be listening, and come to expect the same relationship between the sounds and rhythms of a specific book.

Talk to children about what you can see and what might be going on in their favourite pages and illustrations. The talk that comes from sharing stories is often just as important as the stories themselves.

Fiona Watt, author of Usborne’s ‘That’s Not My…’ series, advises parents, caregivers and teachers reading with babies and toddlers:

  • ‘Start sharing books as soon as possible, even newborn babies will benefit.
  • ‘Don’t just read the words – point things out and talk about what you can see on the page.
  • ‘Be prepared to read the same books over and over again!
  • ‘Incorporate books into your bedtime routine.’


While it is easy to appreciate the many benefits of sharing books with babies and toddlers, far more challenging is finding books that are appropriate for this age range.

The tendency is for websites, from review sites to publishers, to include books for older children among their recommendations for under-threes. So you will need to rely on your own knowledge of child development and take account of children’s home culture and experiences when making your choice. But there are key types of books and features to look out for:

Types Aim to make your collection inclusive and include: rhyme and song books; storybooks – some with rhyming text and some with narrative text; information books; and dual-language titles.

Formats For babies, go with robust board or cloth books. Two-year-olds will be able to handle less-sturdy formats, but always make sure the book is a manageable size.

Novelty features Go for books with touchy-feely patches, flaps to lift, sound buttons and mirrors, to encourage interaction.

Themes Young children love books that reflect themselves, their families, experiences and routines, such as getting dressed and bathtime. Also add books with basic themes such as colour and animals to the mix.

Images Pick books with clear, bold, life-like photographs or illustrations that are inclusive and reflect the child’s world. Aim for a range of styles of illustration.

Text Choose books with big, clear text, which should, as always, work well with the images. And remember, children understand more than adults often think!

Another interesting piece of evidence from Professor Scott’s research found that ‘when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalise what they learn to new situations and show more specialised brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book… For infants, finding books that name different characters may lead to higher-quality shared book reading experiences and result in the learning and brain development benefits we find in our studies.’

If names are not in your young reader’s favourite book, the same benefits are evidenced if you simply make them up. It might be the case that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking, a crucial benefit of shared storytime in early childhood.

Toddlers love books with lots of humour, rhyme and repetition, while two-year-olds can often follow a simple story and love joining in, so choose books with simple refrains or provide opportunities for making sounds such as animal or transport noises.

Many classic picturebooks, such as The Gruffalo, We’re Going on a Bear Huntand The Tiger Who Came to Teaare now available in redacted forms, but check the text and choose carefully.


Reading charities are useful sources of information, among them BookTrust (www.booktrust.org.uk), which lists its selection of Best Books for the 0-5 age range, starting with board and lift-the-flap books. So too are libraries and children’s bookshops (see box, previous page).

I have found publishers’ websites to be excellent places to start in finding high-quality board books to start building a collection for babies and toddlers, with many offering updated themed collections and advice in interacting with resources.

See, for example:

Straight from The Alligator’s Mouth

By Tony West, co-owner of The Alligator’s Mouth children’s bookshop in Richmond, west London

Even though a baby will not possibly understand the connections, I always recommend Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach, Pear, Plum because it is a ready-made masterclass in how to read aloud to your child. It is where you learn to read again for your new audience.

Others that we are fond of in the shop are My Dreams by Xavier Deneux and Jane Foster’s Animals as a cloth book. A recent series from Usborne has also proved to be a hit – Don’t Tickle the Hippo; Lion; or Dinosaur.

And for toddlers? I can always go back to Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?In the recent board edition with flaps in, it is even better than of old. Maybe look out for the board book of From Head to Toe, which we import from America. It is great for talking about animals, colours and body parts and movements.

With toddlers, parents will be starting to dip their toes into the foothills of picture books. They are usually impatient to turn the page so The Noisy Book by Soledad Bravi is a 50-plus catalogue of things that are noisy (like a donkey) or not (like spinach) – it is a lot of fun.

There are too many books for toddlers to be growing into, so talk to a bookseller who loves picturebooks and use the library.

Style and humour

Nosy Crow books are full of style and humour. Their sound chips are good and their picturebooks have a QR code so you can have the audio version too. Favourites are the Lois and Bob books by Gerry Turley, Nicola Slater’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Starand the Hello House series, and Ralphie Dog at the Stationby Melissa Crowton.

Usborne pushes the boundaries with its many touchy-feely books, such as the ‘Peep inside a fairy tale’ series and Sound series, including the garden, night and jungle.

Barefoot publishes a series of black-and-white photograph books of babies from all kinds of BAME families. Titles include Baby Dream, Baby Talk, Baby Food and Baby Play.

Templar publishes some smashing, quirky board books with moving parts. I Thought I Saw a… Panda, Crocodile, Penguin, Monkey, Dinosaur, Elephant and Bear (by Lydia Nichols) are all available and make me smile.

Surprise, surprise

What I would say is don’t be satisfied with books that merely do what you expect. Get some recommendations for something that will surprise and delight you, because if it can make you feel that, then you will enjoy reading it to your child so that they can feel the same.


Classics old and new

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill
  • Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg
  • Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
  • Press Here by Hervé Tullet
  • Oh No, George! By Chris Houghton
  • Walter’s Wonderful Web by Tim Hopgood
  • WOW! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

Some new board books

  • On the Go by Hector Dexet
  • Hop Little Bunnies Board Book by Martha Mumford
  • I’m Sticking With You by Smriti Hall, illustrated by Steve Small
  • What’s In the Egg? by Maikie Biederstadt

Books about animals

  • Spot Goes to the Farmby Eric Hill
  • Hatch by Heather Brown
  • That’s not my Chick! (Usborne Touchy-Feely Books)
  • Baby Touch and Feel: Animals by Dorling Kindersley
  • Noisy Baby Animalsby Patricia Hegarty

Popular series

  • Little Movers by Carol Thompson, includes One, two, three…Climb!; Run!; Jump!;and Crawl!(Child’s Play)
  • Small Talkby Nicola Lathey and Tracey Blackwell, includes At the Park and Bedtime (Campbell Books)
  • Amazing Baby seriesby Emma Dodd(Templar)
  • Baby Touch series, includes Peekabooand Moo! Moo!(Ladybird)
  • Finger Wiggle booksby Sally Symes and Nick Sharratt: Little Baby’s Busy Dayand Little Baby’s Playtime (Walker Books)
  • Helen Oxenbury’s baby books series includes Clap Hands, Tickle, Tickleand All Fall Down, as well as I Touch, I Can, I Seeand I Hear

Andy McCormack is an Early Years Teacher studying for his PhD at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge


  • With thanks to Tony West at The Alligator’s Mouth(www.thealligatorsmouth.co.uk)and Leah Chin, education manager at the Moon Lane Group of children’s bookshops(www.moonlaneink.co.uk)
  • ‘Birth to babble’, ‘Full picture’, ‘Page by page’ and ‘First steps’ by Opal Dunn on choosing and reading baby and toddler books are at www.nurseryworld.co.uk

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