Showing posts with label literacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literacy. Show all posts

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sydney Taylor and the All-of-a-Kind Family Books

First book in the series of five, first published by Delacourt in 1951
Poop! I started writing this ages ago and meant to get it finished while it was still Hanukkah, but life is hectic these days. Well, it's not too late really, because these books, although they center around a Jewish family, also make fabulous gifts for Christmas, birthdays, and other present-giving occasions. They're universal, timeless, wonderful. (If you can track copies down - only the first seems to be in print still, though some of the others are available new as audiobooks.)

When I was a young child during the early 1960s, I knew little about the Jewish faith or holidays - even though I now realize one of my best friends was probably Jewish (her mother was a Holocaust survivor). My family, though not religious, celebrated the standard Christian holidays, and at school, we only discussed and celebrated these Christian holidays or the official American ones like Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. The local stores and my community then (Arlington, VA) only decorated for them too, and so if there were Jewish kids in my midst, it just didn't come up. In short, there was little to expand my cultural knowledge - except books, which I was lucky enough to have in abundance.

The Stair-step Sisters checking out library books in an illustration by Helen John
The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor introduced me not only to a Jewish family and the special days of their faith, they transported me in space to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in time to the turn of the 20th century. But however long ago, far away, and set in a different culture these stories were, the characters rang absolutely true to my life and family. Although there were only three girls in my family rather than the five in the books, my sisters and I were also stair-step siblings with similar squabbles, alliances, and shared experiences - and a warm, close family. I particularly identified with Sarah, who, like me, was the square-in-the-middle sister, and who, also like me, wanted badly to be a good girl, but fell short periodically through carelessness or stubbornness. (I was particularly pleased to learn recently that the author, Sydney Taylor, was actually the Sarah of the books, which were based on her own childhood and family. She changed her first name during high school - kind of like I did for a while during junior high when I added a fashionable "e" to the end of mine.)

Second book in the series
My sisters and I loved the whole series of five books, but I think our group favorite was the first one. I do know that after we moved to Ohio when we were on the cusp of adolescence, our tattered copy lived in the crammed-full bookcase in the third floor bathroom. That bathroom boasted a deep claw-footed tub where we took turns soaking away our teen angst while reading voraciously. Over time, that collection of much re-read childhood favorites became known in our family as "The Bathtub Books," and we squabbled again as we grew up and left home over who could lay claim to which ones. Which was silly, since they were all utterly waterlogged, stained, and tattered to the point of falling apart. (You can read more about them and other ideas for encouraging a love of books in your kids in an earlier post here.)

Third book in the series
To me, these books exemplify the best in multicultural literature. They are never preachy or didactic; instead, they focus on characters that nearly any child finds recognizable and interesting and feature strong stories with universal appeal. Long before the American Girls dolls appeared on the scene, they provided a gentle, inviting path into history and caring about people who might come from different backgrounds. And I can only imagine how much they must have meant to Jewish-American children, who at the time had few role models in children's books.

Fourth book in the series
All five books were beautifully illustrated in detailed pen and ink drawings by Helen John, though many of the later paperbacks have illustrations by other artists. Despite searching every which way, I was unable to track down any biographical information about Ms. John, other than a reference to her having been an author as well as illustrator - but then I couldn't find the titles of anything she'd written. If anyone out there knows more about her, I'm dying of curiosity.

Her illustrations added enormously not only to my enjoyment of the books, they really brought the time and place to life for me, by providing information not necessarily clear in the text. Looking these over again made me sad that relatively few middle grade novels today include any illustrations - kids don't outgrow their pleasure and profit from pictures when they begin to read alone.
Illustration by Helen John from chapter "Rainy Day Surprise" in All-of-a-Kind Family
The image above shows a scene from one of my favorite chapters. Papa, who has a junk shop, has just gotten in a large collection of old books. Before he resells them, he allows the always book-hungry girls to sort through them and choose some to keep. Among the treasures they find is a book of paper dolls, a wonder they hadn't even imagined existed. Here's an excerpt from near the end of the chapter:
With the volumes of Dickens, the book of fairy tales, and The Dolls That You Love parceled out among them, they trooped back to the front of the shop to show Papa their finds.
     "May we keep them all?" Ella asked.
When he said "Yes," they could hardly believe their ears. They never thought to own even one book and now they had twelve. It was too wonderful!

Fifth and final book in the series

Most of my family's copies of these books arrived wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with white ribbon in the giant boxes of Christmas gifts my grandmother sent to our family from her home across the continent in California. Most of the gifts were books obtained from the bookstore where she was a clerk and squirreled away all year until the holidays in a large sandalwood chest she owned. To this day, the sight of red ribbon against white paper or the scent of sandalwood sets my heart beating with anticipation.

Now for the sad part: as I mentioned in the first paragraph, most of these books are no longer in print, and even the old editions are hard to find. What's worse, many have not been in print for years. Most of my copies are pre-1984, the year of doom under CPSIA. Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act continues to prohibit all children's books printed before 1984 for use by children, regardless of how miniscule the risk they might pose (see the links in the sidebar for more information about the law and the safety of books). Many libraries have already removed all these older copies from their shelves (and discarded or destroyed them); many used booksellers won't carry them for fear of incurring gigantic fines and criminal penalties; and they are getting harder and harder to find at prices families can afford. I thank God every weekend that the yard sale people still don't seem to have heard of the law.

 I have hope that with a new chairman of the commerce committee (Henry Waxman, former chair, will be replaced when Congress reconvenes) that Congress will finally relent and revise the law (or at least hold hearings on it) - but meanwhile, these precious books continue to fade away. It would be a crime if they were lost altogether. After the holidays, please write again to your senators and congressional representative. (By the way, the stay of enforcement for testing of new, harmless books expires in February - so expect prices of kids' books to rise still further and choice to drop still more if nothing happens legislatively. See this Publisher's Weekly article here.) And maybe we can all persuade Delacourt to re-print them again...

Hope springs eternal in this season.

To end on a more upbeat note, it's clear that many adults still have strong and happy memories of these books. Check out the Amazon reviews about the books, and Anita Silvey's wonderful book-a-day blog post on the books here. You can also read a detailed tribute to Sydney Taylor, who lived a fascinating life (including a stint as a Martha Graham dancer), at the Association of  Jewish Libraries here. Finally, much of what I learned about Sydney Taylor, I gleaned from her thorough biography in Children's Books and Their Creators: An Invitation to the Feast of Twentieth-Century Children's Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), edited by the always fabulous Anita Silvey! (If you love kids' books, it's a great reference book to add to your wish list.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

CPSIA: Should Schools Be Exempt?

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, public domain
There has been little discussion in the press or even the blogosphere about how schools will be affected by CPSIA - but that doesn't mean they aren't concerned, confused, and seeking guidance from both Congress and the CPSC. They are particularly worried about the ban on pre-1985 books (as well as the impact of testing on the costs of books and other supplies going forward), which flies in the face of the CPSC's assertions that schools have no pre-1985 books to worry about (more about this in a minute). 

Michael Resnick, Associate Executive Director of the National School Boards Association, wrote to the CPSC on March 6th, urging them to recognize the safety of books and exempt all of them. He noted that schools are concerned about liability even during the one year testing stay, and need some guidance immediately. So far, I do not believe any has been forthcoming (based on a discussion with a school official following the law and the lack of any follow-up correspondence on the NSBA website; I'm awaiting comment from their go-to guy).

Resnick further asks that schools be exempt from the law all together. A public school official I spoke with today (off the record) noted that her school district is well aware that many of their ordinary, necessary actions would classify them as "manufacturers" under the guidelines issued to small businesses etc. and thus either subject them to unaffordable testing or force them to drastically change the way they operate. For example, schools frequently assemble and bind packets and books for students to use and keep (with plastic comb, stapled, or glued bindings); they put together science kits; they make art projects that are intended for use by children; and many of their fundraising and charitable projects also involve "manufacturing" things for children. (For example, parents at my kids' elementary sell handicrafts, many intended for children, at the holiday shop that funds many school extras; the kids assemble toiletry-and-book packages for kids in homeless shelters; and the school sponsors book drives either to promote literacy or to donate to children locally or abroad.) Recognizing these issues, Mr. Resnick asks:
"As you continue to address enforcement and implementation issues, NSBA urges the Commission to exempt local school districts from the lead level requirements under the law; or at the very least, to establish a transition period that would enable public schools and libraries to meet the spirit and intent of the law without creating financial burdens on states and local communities in this dire economy and extreme reductions in their revenues. "

You can read the whole letter here

Meanwhile, the CPSC seems to be getting their information about how schools are affected from some other source - some unnamed "trade associations" (not sure who the public schools trade association would be). On page 17 of Nord's response to Rep. Dingell, the Commission asserts: 
Based on information from the trade associations with information regarding books in libraries and schools, the Commission staff understands that most textbooks in schools are less than ten years old. Likewise, the information received suggests that most library books lent to children are recycled approximately every 18 lending cycles or three years. Thus, it appears that few of the books being provided to children in their schools and libraries would be more than 20 years old.

The school official I spoke with today just laughed at that statement; she said if schools were forced to discard all their pre-1985 materials, they'd basically stop being operational. Although schools do strive to replace text books more often than that, occasionally they get stuck with a series for longer, especially in subjects where the information changes little (math for example) or where the books are for a minor subject (like Health). Not only is buying new sets of textbooks expensive, it's a slow process, more akin to turning an ocean liner than swinging a Mini Cooper around - it takes years for most districts to go through the textbook adoption process. The bigger problems though, are with things like classroom sets of novels (which get used for a few weeks at a time rather than all year), classroom libraries, and books in the school library, which most certainly not are not fully recycled every three years. 

Another problem for schools, libraries, and used booksellers, is the high number of books that lack accurate print date information. For example, the easy readers above (all still in good shape after heavy use by my 3 kids) were purchased new in the 1990s, and I suspect were printed sometime near then - but they all have copyright dates prior to 1985 and no print date information at all. A librarian I know said some libraries could track likely print dates through purchase records, but that would take hours of research, especially since few libraries had gone electronic in the mid 1980s. And it would still leave them uncertain in many cases and vulnerable to a dispute with a disgruntled patron. (Keep in mind the expenses of defending a lawsuit are typically not awarded even if you win, so every lawsuit is bad news.) If the law remains as is, they'll probably just toss questionable books. 

All of this is a huge headache for school districts - and for Congress and the CPSC. On the one hand, if they enforce the law for schools, they'll send school budgets out of control and probably deprive many students of necessary materials at least in the short run. On the other hand, if they exempt schools, they open themselves to the criticism that they either don't care about kids since they're willing to force them to wallow in dangerous lead-laden environments 6 hours a day, 180 days a year, or that lead in things like books and school supplies really isn't much of a threat to kids at all. It's basically a lose-lose proposition, which is probably why the CPSC guy I spoke with danced around the issue, promised to get back to me, and never has. And my congressmen have been utterly silent in response to my specific questions too.

The book above, about a school that's as ridiculous as the CPSIA, is much funnier than the law because it's fantasy. It's also not clear whether it's a banned book, since it was printed in 1985. For quite a while, CPSC seemed to be using that as the year that was safe going forward, which would make this copy okay to sell or distribute - but more recently, agency spokesmen have been using a new cut off year - 1986 - which would make it toxic waste. (See, for example, this AP article).
These books above are all well used cheap paperbacks, all printed in the 1970s or earlier. The pages have yellowed a bit and a couple of the most heavily read have mangled spines (like the copy of The Four Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright which was part of the "Bathtub Books" collection in my family growing up - it's a really excellent, old-fashioned yet timeless story about a large family living in an interesting old house in the 1940s). But all are perfectly usable - and are still re-read by me and my kids occasionally and are similar to books still found in many classroom libraries. This is part of what CPSC doesn't get - old books, even the cheap, not particularly well-made ones, typically have very long lives. The good quality hard covers go on and on and on, and may well outlast new paperbacks. I can only remember having thrown away about a dozen books in my whole life - I've donated or passed along plenty of others - but few have been in such bad shape they only deserved tossing. 

One funny note about ratty paperbacks: one of my kids used to consistently select the most bedraggled looking copies when I gave the kids money to get a book or two at a library sale or used bookstore. When I asked him why he picked those particular books over the nicer ones, he said (quite logically) that the beat up ones had obviously been read many times which meant they were probably good.
Illustration for Ring o' Rosies by L. Leslie Brooke, public domain

Finally, a reminder to consider joining the April 1st rally in DC, either in person or via the webcast at And check out recent coverage of the law on Walter Olsen's Overlawyered, the Deputy Headmistress's Common Room, Valerie Jacobsen's Bookroom Blog, and Rick Woldenberg's Learning Resources, Inc. blog. (I have no idea why Blogger is underlining all this text, but it won't stop!)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

CPSIA and Books 5: The Threat to Staple-Bound Books and Literacy Efforts

Vintage books are not the only ones affected by the CPSIA interpretation of which books are exempt from the testing and certification rules. According to the Statement of Commission Enforcement Policy on Section 101 Lead Limits, dated February 6, 2009, which grants the exemption to ordinary books:

"The term "ordinary book" in this context means one that is published on cardboard or paper printed by conventional methods and intended to be read. It excludes children’s books that have plastic, metal or electronic parts. "
This definition is a footnote to Section 5 at the bottom of page 4 of the document. You can read the whole pdf here.

In other words, this definition of "ordinary book" excludes many popular children's books: for example, the "touch and feel" baby books like the classic Pat the Bunny by Dororthy Kunhardt; cookbooks and craftbooks with metal or plastic spiral or comb bindings; what the trade calls "book plus" formats (for example, a book packaged with a stuffed animal, one that incorporates a finger puppet or some other toy element, or a project book that incorporates supplies, like the enormously successful Klutz line and many American Girl craft books); many cloth and all vinyl baby books; and those horrid things that have buttons kids push to make screechy electronic sounds at the appropriate moments (or inappropriate ones, as the case may be - personally not sorry to see those go).

There's lots of gray area too: what about paper and board books that seem no different from other ordinary books except that they're intended more for play than reading, like the ones that form a play set or include paper dolls? What about pop ups that have a fabric element (since fabric is deemed safe too)? Books with metallic lettering or foil along the binding (like the Little Golden Books) or gilt edges like many children's Bibles?

I'll discuss these issues in later posts, but for today I'm going to focus on books with stapled bindings (which in the trade are called "saddlestitched" bindings). The books above and in the top photo below are typical examples of staple-bound paperbacks, held together not with glue or thread but with two small metal staples. Extra tall picture books might have three staples. (The ones in the second photo before are examples of glued bindings, called "perfect bindings.) These stapled books are tremendously important to literacy groups, schools, and other organizations that promote reading.

The staples are clearly metal and equally clearly part of the book, which under the CPSC's earlier definition of an ordinary book seems to make them subject to the same testing and certification requirements as other non-exempt children's products. I say "seems" because there's some confusion about whether they are in fact included in the ban, confusion that arises in part because of CPSC's inconsistent language in defining an "ordinary book." For example, in their more recently published Guide to Small Businesses, Resellers, Charities, and Crafters, a guide that nonprofit literacy groups, thrift stores, and small used booksellers might well rely on to make decisions about which books it's okay for them to distribute, an "ordinary book" is defined this way:

Children’s books printed after 1985 that are conventionally
printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play"

Note the absence of any language about metal, plastic or electronic parts. I've come across similarly abbreviated definitions of an "ordinary book" in other documents posted by CPSC. I spoke with a lawyer about whether this change in the wording could be interpreted to reflect an actual change in the definition. (While not an expert on CPSIA or product liability in general, this lawyer deals pretty much daily with other federal regulatory agencies.) He said that typically agencies are extremely precise about their language when offering guidance, so most of the time it would be reasonable to assume that yes, they'd changed their minds about the definition if they changed the wording. In this case though, because the language occurs in a glossy brochure written in layman's language, he'd caution against relying on the more casual definition and advise you to consult with someone at the agency.

Good luck with that.

I've emailed and called CPSC dozens of times now with specific questions about this and other issues. I assume my emails go through, but my calls to the ombudsman's office don't. I'm working on a couple assigned articles about the CPSIA, which makes me a member of the press so I tried the media number early in the week and did get through to someone - who couldn't answer my questions. Late Friday someone else finally called me back (after I got my congressman's office to intervene for me) but unfortunately I wasn't home and he didn't try my cell phone despite having been given both numbers. So I still don't know whether staples are in fact okay, but I'm inclined to think not.

I'm not the only one. Many booksellers are removing the stapled books from stock (see this post from semicolon and the coverage on books from Walter Olson at And other groups are simply panicking. I've spoken with representatives at several large literacy organizations. At Reach Out and Read, a very successful program in which pediatricians "prescribe" books and give out both books and lessons on reading to youngsters at regular health check ups (check out their website here), the coordinator opted to pay for testing of their inventory after doctors and parents expressed concern about the stapled copies that are the bulk of the books they give out to kids over three - and that's money she now doesn't have to buy new books or use to train doctors and nurses in teaching literacy. As she expected, all the books passed with flying colors. (In an earlier post, I linked to an article about this group's concerns - read it here if you missed it.)

But the most common reaction I get from groups that distribute these books to schools, from publishers to schools to other literacy organizations is "Huh?" If they've heard of the law, most have some significant area of misinformation: "It doesn't apply to us because we're nonprofit," or "They exempted all books except vintage ones," or "Someone would have notified us if we were supposed to comply with that." But the most common response is, "I have never heard of that law and I have no idea what you're talking about." (So far, no school district I've called has heard of the law at all so of course they are taking no steps to comply with it. One teacher I chatted with though noted that she regularly assembles packets of papers on a topic and staples them together herself or has the district bind them together with a plastic comb binding if they're thick and will get heavy use - guess that makes schools manufacturers of potentially deadly books too in need of testing and certification too.)

But back to stapled books. Why don't publishers and sellers just switch to glued bindings for their picture books and easy readers, if the stapled ones are a problem? After all, there are other reasons too that make stapled bindings less desirable than perfect bindings - the stapled books have no spine so it's hard to find a shelved book, they also often have lighter-weight covers and look more like a pamplet than a traditional book, and there's always the risk of getting poked by a bent staple, or swallowing one if you're inclined to eat your books (as CPSIA presumes).

First, there are as many reasons to prefer the stapled bindings as to dislike them. Glued bindings just don't hold well unless there are lots of pages, and a standard picture book has only 32 pages. You may have had the experience with a perfect-bound book of pages coming loose (like the book above - a copy of Alfie's Feet by Shirley Hughes, one of my favorite children's book author-illustrators) or even coming out all together and getting lost. The stapled bindings which fasten folded pages rather than individual sheets almost never lose pages unless they're ripped. In addition, the stapled bindings generally lay flat and stay opened, an advantage for little guys and kids just learning to read, who may find juggling holding a book open and steady to be just one task too many on top of the challenging job of deciphering the words.

Sometimes, especially with older books or ones that get heavy use like in classrooms, the glue in a perfect binding just gives out all together, and the whole book separates into chunks which come loose from the cover, as with this copy of Angus and the Ducks by the talented Marjorie Flack.

I'm going to blog about this vintage book in a separate post, so check back if you want to learn more about the notable book about the curious little Scottie .

The main advantage of the stapled bindings, though, is cost. Sticking a couple of staples through the pages and cover in one fell swoop is both faster and way, way cheaper than applying glue, letting it dry, then gluing the cover on and letting it dry again. The coverstock can also be thinner, which means it's cheaper, and in addition these books are often printed on thinner, lower quality paper.

Publishers can thus offer these stapled picture books at a pretty substantial discount, which is why they're common in the book club offerings, stocked by the checkout counter at the supermarket, popular with libraries with smaller budgets or who want to stock some books with time-limited appeal or lesser literary merit, used for classroom collections of literary readers, and much used for literacy programs that do free book distributions.

Many of the groups offering these inexpensive stapled books (like the book clubs, many of the larger publishers, etc.) also award bonus points that can be redeemed for classroom books or other supplies (like math manipulatives) when students order books, and others kick in extra books or even deeper discounts to organizations that buy in bulk.

Most of the book distribution programs, like RIF (Reading is Fundamental), Reach Out and Read, First Book, and Beginning with Books are nonprofits with tight budgets and a determination to get not just one new book but many in the hands of needy kids at risk for low achievement. These programs are consistently successful and have the research to prove it, but they don't have the funds to buy as many hardcover or even higher-priced paperbacks for all the kids they try to serve. This matters because research has shown that kids who own more books are more likely to become both capable and eager readers (see this pdf of a study from Columbia University's Teacher College as an example, and see these links to studies about the relationship between the number of books a family owns, poverty and outcomes in the U.S. at the First Book website).

If these literacy groups have to forgo both older donated books (which some distribute and others resell as fundraisers) and either or test or discard their inventories of the affordable stapled books, their programs will be severely affected and many fewer children will get books in their hands this year. It's unclear what will happen to the prices or availability of these books once testing and certification of non-exempt products goes into effect in February, 2010 - but it can hardly be good.

And now to why this really, really matters, in terms of children at risk for lead poisoning. Right now, there are no effective medical treatments for kids with elevated blood levels. For kids with dangerously high levels, doctors do chelation therapy which removes heavy metals, but it's risky and not effective at the low levels more commonly seen. Bellinger, one of the major researchers on lead poisoning, has noted that there is not a consistent dose-effect relationship between lead and neurological functioning (information I suspect was likely missing from the Congressional hearing on this issue). See this abstract of a journal article on the research here. Based on his review of the body of literature and his own research, Bellinger hypothesizes that an enriched environment can prevent or ameliorate the effects of lead exposure, which is especially significant in light of the absence of an effective medical treatment. In the journal Pediatrics, Bellinger noted (emphasis added is mine):

Finally, characteristics of a child’s rearing environment might influence the
toxicity of a given lead dose.47 Lead seems to be similar to other biological risks, such as low birth weight, in that children from environments that offer fewer developmental resources and supports express deficits at a lower blood lead level than do children from more optimal environments45,48
and show less recovery after exposure.

In his book Human Neurodevelopmental Toxicology (at $250 from Barnes and Noble not a cheap read, but you can view the relevant pages on p. 76 at Google Books here) Bellinger asserts that his idea about the benefits of enriched environments is also supported by animal studies (which are critical in lead research because experimental studies obviously cannot be conducted on human beings). For example, in one animal study, lead-poisoned rats raised in an enriched environment outperformed non-poisoned rats raised in a regular rat environment and didn’t differ significantly from non-poisoned rats raised in an enriched environment. These findings are also consistent with the every day observations you see in blogs and comments to news articles every where: "If lead is always so bad, why are people like me who were obviously exposed to lead as a child just fine?" It's also consistent with the research going back many decades that consistently shows that children who read a lot (and thus would likely have had the most exposure to lead in books) typically have better achievement scores and lower rates of the behavioral problems like ADHD and aggressiveness than kids who rarely read (and thus presumably have the lowest exposure to lead in books).

And, what's one of the easiest, cheapest ways for a low-income parent to provide an enriched environment for his child? Books of course - which are free through the public library and book distribution programs, and inexpensive through used booksellers and book clubs.

Or used to be. Good luck with that post-CPSIA.

P.S. Reviewing the research on lead toxicity is tremendously difficult for the average person. Not only does it involve slogging through lots of technical language and reams of data and statistics, it's nearly impossible for someone who doesn't have access to a university library or a huge discretionary budget to obtain whole journal articles (you can often find abstracts on Google Scholar) and book-length professional summaries and analyses of the literature. It might not matter, except that folks like Jared, a staffer at the Senate commerce committee, informed me that the only thing likely to push the DeMint bill out of committee is high quality scientific research suggesting that the law is over-reaching. Since not only is conducting research like that out of the reach of the typical person affected by this law, but looking it up is too, it's going to be hard for the people who care to build the case that will persuade Congress to try again.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tuesday Tip Day: Reading to Babies

Rats. I wanted to use an incredibly cute picture of my oldest "reading" a book when he was about 5 months old to illustrate this post, but ever since I upgraded my Mac operating system to Leopard I haven't been able to get my scanner to work. (I have a Kodak EasyShare 5300 all-in-one printer/scanner/copier if anyone has any suggestions - tech support is stumped, though it's clear from message boards that I'm hardly the only one having scanner problems with Leopard.) So no sketches either until I get this worked out.

Anyhow, I've been thinking about reading to babies ever since a recent chat with a neighbor who was complaining about how it was impossible to read to her 9-month old. It was clear to me that she was having a completely typical experience with a baby that age - he was squirmy, insisted on turning the pages himself every which direction, had no interest in the story, and only occasionally paused to check out a picture. She felt like he was getting nothing out of their storytimes - and all she was getting was frustrated. But believe it or not, that crazy kind of reading session is enormously valuable for a child that age - her baby's developing his fine motor skills, visual tracking ability, and sense of self and initiative while learning about the physical characteristics of books, and even absorbing some language - all good things. The only problem, really, is that the mom needed to be reassured that their experience was normal and worthwhile.

And then today I saw a great article by librarian and children's literature reviewer Karen MacPherson in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Beginning with Books' annual Best Books for Babies list. You can read the article, with its excellent tips for choosing and sharing books with babies and toddlers here. (Okay, it caught my eye because my book Cheep! Cheep! - pictured above - made the list.) But it reminded me of several difficulties parents face when trying to find and read books to the littlest guys: one, it's hard to find quality books pitched just right for babies; two, parenting books rarely inform parents what's normal about reading with different age babies; and three, that's important information, because babies of different ages have very different interests, skills, and needs - just imagine the vast differences in motor skills, language, and passions between a newborn and a two year old!

The following list of what kinds of books and how to read to babies of different ages is my own, unscientific one, based on my experiences as a parent and former infant and toddler daycare teacher, seasoned with my knowledge of child development. If anyone out there has different or additional info, please share it! And please, please, please, share your favorite book choices for different ages!

I'll start this week with tips for the first year of life:

Prenatal to 3 months Yes! You can start reading to your baby even before she's born, though people like my husband might laugh at you. Babies can hear well before birth, and there are clever studies showing fetuses not only recognize the voices they heard in utero, but the actual stories they listened to in the weeks before birth. Naturally, the illustrations don't matter - nor do they matter much for the first few months after birth, when babies' vision is fuzzy and they'd prefer to watch you making those funny faces as you talk anyhow. Your best bets are books with rhyme, rhythm, and repetition - Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, song lyrics - whatever you enjoy.

3 to 6 months Lap babies who aren't yet total wiggleworms are the perfect age for cuddle-reading. Especially if you've been reading all along, expect baby to sit on your lap and study the pictures while you read to her. Babies this age like to finger the edges of the covers and pages and to pat or "rake" the pictures. What's best? Very brief texts to accommodate baby's short attention span, lines with rhyme and rhythm, and illustrations that are simple and bold, with lots of contrast (bright colors, heavy black outlines, etc.). Babies this age LOVE to look at faces, and will smile themselves at a smiling face or stare soberly at a sad one.

6 to 12 months During the second half of this year, baby's emerging fine motor skills - and his drive to scoot, crawl, cruise and go, go, go make reading to him a real challenge. But his growing language awareness, his need to explore the concept of symbols (the idea that something -like a picture of a dog - can stand for a real thing, like an actual dog), his emerging ability to self-calm, and his rapidly developing visual and fine motor skills make reading practically an essential activity. This is the age for board books, cloth books, and those plastic books for the bath or high chair. When babies stick their books in their mouths, they're not just tasting them or trying to eat them, but learning about their tactile qualties using their enormously sensitive lips and tongues. Huh! How weird is it that that picture that looks like a fuzzy duckling feels cool and smooth and tastes like cardboard? The ability to grasp a page or group of pages helps refine baby's grasp, and he can play peek-a-boo to learn about object constancy (the idea that things still exist when out of sight) as he turns the pages back and forth, back and forth. Toward the end of the first year, some babies will have clear favorites they want you to "read." But forget about a storyline, or even trying to read one-word pages in order. Naming, pointing, and just playing "surprise!" or "Huh! Look at that again!" will make for a more satisfying storytime than trying to plow through a book front to back. Best bets: books with familiar objects, animals, and other babies, limited or even no text, and, toward baby's first birthday, ones with a bit of detail and perhaps an object or two to hunt for on each page.

Okay - comment with your suggestions please!

P.S. Those of you who love 3-D art, like I do, check out Salley Mavor's Wee Willie Winkie title on the Best Books list - it's breathtaking, as all of Salley's work is.