25 things we found in books in baby-toddlerhood

I realised when our eldest had reached two that we’d been on a journey with books, and wished, then, that I’d done something to track this along the way, even if I had had little sense at the time of where we were going. This is an attempt to recover some of those moments retrospectively, as a little sister begins her own, rather different journey with books. Because while the advice is clear: share books! Read with your child! I suspect that no two journeys are the same, even with this. And though we talk of journeys, there is no linear route to follow; this is not chronological, and sometimes there are pauses or even what might look like backtracking. So as we find our way along, it seems the journey of reading depends only on where the fancy takes you. 

Much of what we have found has been unexpected, just as in every turn of the page there is the chance of surprise: 

  1. Classical music at the push of a button (The Nutcracker, Usborne Musical Books). This series of books offers so much to the senses: colourful scenes crowded with detail, amongst which are hidden – in different places on each page – buttons to entice little fingers. I would never have thought to search out Tchaikovsky’s music to play to my little one, but the brief excerpts in the book are perfect and make for much fun and experimentation as she quickly takes over the button pushing.
  2. There doesn’t have to be any words (Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner). When the story is told only in pictures, we are given the chance to make up our own words for what we see. I love how we quickly decided that “the little green men” had arrived in the home of Mr. Wuffles (a cat) in a “flying pan”: a colander reimagined as a spaceship. This is a fab book, and unlike many others, I don’t think we’ll have exhausted it any time soon.
  3. The bit where the words are. In today’s picture books, the words usually don’t stay in the same place, as if they themselves are at play, dancing around from page to page. So it felt quite exciting when a little toddler first started to talk about the text on the page, pointing to it and telling me “this bit next,” or “have you done this bit?” Given that at other times she likes pointing to single letters to identify the sound, it felt quite significant that she was able to talk about the words and the block of text as a whole in relation to their meaning. 
  4. Moments of poetry (Time for Bed). Most of the time, the Night Garden (Cbeebies) seems to be a world of bright colours, lights and noises: I associate it with a sense of clatter, motion and activity. But this little moment feels different: there is a mini shift in tone. ‘Take the little sail down, light the little light.’ I am not sure whether the toddler notices, but I find the words wonderfully soothing. 
  5. A timeless zone. For a long time there was never just one bedtime story in our house: the reading had to continue for as long as it took for our little night owl to get sleepy. Eventually, though, I realised I had come to enjoy this time which must – to one of us at least – feel timeless, even if the clock is still ticking downstairs. Though it is a cliché, I was reminded of that different space that we enter together each evening, as we came to the end of the Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds, by Anne Booth. Having fulfilled the role for which she has been summoned, Maya feels suddenly sad to have to leave the ‘magical world’ which she had entered through the book gifted to her by her mother. I have felt that so many times myself, wishing that we could stay in that precious space just a little while longer. 
  6. Cars that go to sleep at the end of the day (Car, Car, Truck, Jeep, by Katrina Charman & Nick Sharratt). There is an abundance of books in which things of all kinds helpfully go to sleep. Only on rare occasions have I known this to have any impact on the sleepiness of a little reader. (Thank you, Max at Night!) But in this colourful treat of a book, after so much noise and activity from a host of vehicles throughout the day, it has been a delight to note that the car, bus, train and house close their own eyes as night sets in. The exception here is the plane flying overhead, but we’ll try not to think about that one. 
  7. How ice lollies get eaten (Maisy Goes to the Cinema, by Lucy Cousins). Maisy does lots of everyday things in her books, but manages to make an event out of it in which nearly all of her friends are involved. In this one, we see a stack of ice lollies in the fridge as the friends select their snacks at the ticket kiosk. But this information only sank in when on the following pages, we noted that an ice lolly in Tallulah’s hand was getting smaller page by page. Needless to say we went back and forth tracing what had happened to that little pink shape.
  8. The one page where the ever-present owl isn’t there (Tree, by Britta Teekentrup). Initially I think I enjoyed the beauty of this book and its artwork a bit more than my daughter. But what she has loved about it is the presence of the owl, looking out from the tree, throughout every change and fluctuation in the seasons. That is, until everything goes completely still and quiet in the dead of winter. Where is he, we wonder. Maybe he’s gone to do the washing up? 
  9. The star loses his hat just when he loses the need for it (My Pet Star, by Corrinne Averiss & Rosalind Beardshaw). We never really noticed when the star, which had fallen to earth, acquired his hat. Looking back through the pages, it seems to be one of the administrations of care given by the little girl who finds the star and brings him home. On one page, he is being given a bath, and by the next page, he is wearing a hat. But what our little reader did point out, repeatedly, was the bit where the hat finally falls off, as the star, who has now reached the end of his convalescence on Earth, flies back happily into the night sky to rejoin the other stars. There is no sense of sorrow or loss in the pictures; only a rightful letting go. How wonderful! 
  10. Disasters happen and not everything can be repaired (Tiny and Teeny, by Chris Judge). The home of this little girl and her pet fox is no ordinary house. They live in a little red apple, beautifully divided into different rooms which we can view through the windows. So when, one starry night, a meteor crashes to earth and squashes the house, it is a huge shock. Tiny and Teeny avoid any injury, having been sat out in the garden, but are left staring at the rock that has replaced their home. We, too, had to pause for probably the longest time we ever have done with a book, asking the same questions over and over again until we could accept the answer. It’s an interesting one, because the book resolves the mini tragedy by having the community create a new house for the pair out of a watermelon, but this part of the story did not have nearly as much impact as the fact of the loss itself. Where’s the little red apple, we asked. How can it be present on one page, large as life, and then suddenly gone? It must have been the first time we had encountered such a phenomenon, and I am glad that we could do so through the pages of a big, encompassing book. 
  11. The world harbours inequalities (‘Grandma’s Pictures’, from Alfie: The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Storybook, by Shirley Hughes). Grandma tells a story about her brother Will’s successful attempt to get out of school for the day. He ‘only had one pair of good trousers’, she explains. “Why?” I was then asked. In that moment I realised that a child might take it for granted that everyone would have multiple pairs of trousers, and had to gently suggest that this is not always the case. 
  12. The world is full of characters, and often you can tell that from their names. When she starts using these names in her own stories, or making reference to them, it feels like they have truly gained an entrance into her world. And I don’t think the same thing happens as readily with characters from the television, as though they are not quite ‘hers’ in the same way. They exist ‘out there’, in the screen, not inside her. 
  13. Naughty little bunnies (The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, by Enid Blyton; Peter Rabbit, and a little random story in 365 Bedtime Stories and Rhymes, Cottage Door Press). There seems to be a veritable tradition of naughty little bunnies, made famous by the eponymous Peter Rabbit but existing elsewhere too. I guess bunnies remind us of children: they look and feel cuddly but can get up to all sorts of mischief. In Peter Rabbit’s case we take this to be relatively harmless mischief; Mr McGregor can look after himself! But the Binkle and Flip stories put a rather fun twist on this trope: stretching the bounds of what it might be acceptable for naughty bunnies to do. When the naughtiness gets too much for the residents of Oak Tree Town, Wily Weasel the policeman is called in to deal with them. When the naughtiness gets too much for us, we read Binkle and Flip.
  14. Chameleons: once you know what they are, they seem to crop up everywhere! Having first met one on the front cover of Wild and Wacky Animals, we spent quite a bit of time spotting her in her different guises within the pages of My Colourful Chameleon, by local author Leonie Roberts. In the kitchen … the garden … the living room … the hall. So by then we knew her name and could happily identify another one in Hello Oscar! (Zoe and Beans series by Chloe & Mick Inkpen). Regardless of their clever ability to change colour, the name itself is also a rather fun word to get your mouth and lips around. 
  15. Poems (101 Poems for Children, ed. Carol Ann Duffy). I hadn’t been sure, beforehand, where or when poems would come in. But it turns out that when there is a book of them hanging around, sooner or later it is picked up and there is no need to make it feel harder or stranger than any other book. 
  16. The dramatic pause (Previously, Allan Ahlberg & Bruce Ingman). This book offers a wonderfully playful take on several well known fairy stories, stringing them together as if a number of the main characters are somehow connected to one another. Each new character and story is introduced as the anticipated conclusion of a sentence, but the reader has to wait for the turn of the page to find out what this conclusion will be. It wasn’t until we started hearing these dramatic pauses echoed in the stories that our daughter tells herself during the day that we realised just what an impact this feature had had, and began to notice it more clearly in other places too (famously of course, in Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell). 
  17. The use of ‘exclaimed’. Again it was only when she started using this word in the stories she narrates to herself that I realised she had picked it up. It is the kind of word one could only have got from a book and I was curious about which one it had been. It occurs towards the end of the first story in Binkle and Flip, titled ‘Swee-ee-eep’, in which they steal Brock Badger’s brushes in a bid to make some money of their own. When Brock finally arrives at his cousin Binnie’s house for his usual day’s work, she is no longer waiting for him: ‘ “Well, Brock Badger!” she exclaimed. “This is a fine time of the day to come!” ’
  18. The meaning of ‘scared’ (Thank you for being my friend, Parragon Books). It was a bit of a shock when she first started talking about being scared (somewhere between age 1-2) and I was worried she had been fed this idea too early, despite all the advice about teaching ‘emotion’ words. Initially her own use of the word didn’t seem to be about being scared by or about something so it felt almost unnecessary to be using it, and being scared was also probably the last thing I wanted her to have to feel. But much later I thought, perhaps this ought to be another reminder to me of the lesson in books: that there are no bad words, but instead each one adds to the stock of tools with which one might fight bad things in life. When Cleo is able to tell Daphne the duck about the (perceived) monsters, it gives her the opportunity to help him.
  19. Words that can be applied to babies (The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, by Enid Blyton). It’s fair to say I was mortified when a two year old started gleefully referring to her baby sister as a ‘little nuisance’, and of course the more I protested, the more gleefully she stuck to it. Well, it turns out that if you will insist on diving into books you have to take the good with the not so good, and so after several months we managed to pinpoint the line from which the word had been picked up. Flip, Binkle’s partner in crime, has taken on the utterly ill-fitted job of nursemaid to a set of fox cubs and quickly finds he has taken on more than he had bargained for. As he struggles to dress ‘the biggest baby’, she sets her teeth into him and, startled, he cries out “Ow! You little nuisance!” giving the cub ‘a cuff behind her little pointed ear’. I’m fascinated by how quickly our little reader translated this tiny moment into something she could use and apply to her own situation, the word dropping into her mind during a cosy reading session and then being pulled back out some time later. I was, as I say, mortified every time I heard it, and wished I could stop it; my husband did later censor it when reading the story again so as not to further reinforce it. But I also suspect that being able to reach for this word will have helped her during this time as her own world was being turned somewhat upside down by the new arrival. 
  20. Sentimentality is not for us! She doesn’t stick for long with books on a theme as blunt as “I love my mummy”. 
  21. The thought that things, and people, can change (The Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb). Most of the pages of this book follow the adventures of the paper dolls which a little girl and her mother have crafted together. But then the story shifts as, in the space of one page, the little girl grows and becomes a mother herself, prompting a little voice at my side to say: “can I grow into a mum?” This noticing of the possibility of things changing reminded me of how her favourite page in Hello Baby! (Lizzy Rockwell) had been the double page spread of ten images showing ‘how a baby grows’ from a tiny cell into a fully formed being ready to be born. 
  22. Stories by Jill Murphy that make Mummy feel a little less alone. Reading Peace at Last and a couple of the books about the Large family has felt like a revelation: as if someone else has lived in our house, endured the neverending bedtime sequences, and woken up to repeat the haphazardness and chaos for another day. These tales raise a smile, but with no edge to it of irony, bitterness or complaint: unlike the tone of many social media messages that perhaps aim to reassure by “telling it like it is”. Just One of Those Days gives another rendition on a similar theme, starting this time with the phase of getting up and getting Baby Bear ready for nursery. There is a tacit, shared understanding when we read that this ‘took even longer than usual’. 
  23. Tips for good mental health (Sugarlump and the Unicorn, by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks). Sugarlump is a rocking horse who undergoes a series of transformations, with the aid of the unicorn, in a bid to experience what he feels has been denied to him in comparison with other horses. But as he comes to the end of his quest, and realises the children who used to play with him are now all grown up, he is faced with almost a sense of despair. “I wish I had never been born!” he says to himself. And then comes the voice of the unicorn, who this time does more than simply respond to Sugarlump’s wishes: “But I have a better wish for you,” she says. I love this moment, which seems to illustrate the very best that we could hope for from a friend, when at our most fragile. That ‘better wish’ is often just what we need.
  24. It doesn’t have to be a “children’s” book. I have a set of big fat cake recipe books which our little reader will sometimes request I bring down for her. I don’t think it’s just about the allure of the pictures; I think she loves the idea that these, too, are heavyweight reads and that she is (of course) permitted to have a go at them.
  25. The puzzle of God, humankind and the universe. As I watch my daughter begin to grapple with questions that I haven’t yet answered for myself, it occurs to me that the answer isn’t to be found in any one single book, but that the continued retellings and new renditions of the story can help us to piece the picture together in some way, even if we then have to break it up and start the puzzle afresh. Rather wonderfully, this little reader’s preferred way to begin with the Ladybird Bible Story Book that she has inherited is to point to a place on the contents page and ask to start there, so at least we also have a map to help us navigate our way through. 

New favourites: yours and my own

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

(from The Toys, Coventry Patmore)

We are in what feels to me like a year of transition, between age 1 and 2: where the markers at the opening and close of the year are clear, but the path between them is not. The changes are rapid, and nothing is fixed forever yet. 

At the beginning of the calendar year, I wanted to commit to making a log of the little things, month by month, for as long as I could manage. We’ve made it now to six months – albeit with some flagging towards the end. This is a record of how my daughter is discovering for herself her favourite things, before casting them away and finding something new. But it is also a reflection from us as her parents on our own favourite things about her: on what she does and how she does it.

I hope this has some relevance even if your attention is not taken up much of the time with little people. On some level I am also trying to explore what it is to be in the world, and to be in love.


i) There has been a succession of three favourite books this month: Not So Silent Night, its solid pages given over to the noisy animals of the nativity, Car Car Truck Jeep, sung to the tune of Baa Baa Black Sheep, and Who’s That Scratching at My Door, about a boy who has plenty of toys but wants a real playmate. Each book must have had a reign of about a couple of weeks, during which time you would have it read again at any opportunity. It’s lovely to see how you will often sit back content once you’ve got one of us to start reading, letting the story simply unfold before your eyes (and ears). 

ii) One of your favourite pastimes is to pursue the cat who is a long-time resident at grandmother’s house. But your interest in dogs – of any shape, size or colour – is not far behind either. At first I thought this was to do with coming across creatures who seem to be on your own level (closer to eye-level, and harbouring similar kinds of energy), but now I wonder if it is the other way round, and more that you feel able to speak their language? ‘Woof woof!’ you call, in a gentle whisper.

iii) It’s funny how the ‘firsts’ that count aren’t always the ones you had expected. One of our favourite discoveries over several weeks has been that you are now ready to give us a hug. You lean in and extend your arms around us, knowing now exactly what a hug is for. And it comes in the most casual of moments, and not necessarily for long, but it is certainly deliberate, chosen. There is something to understand here about intimacy: it has a slow build, but once it is established, it emerges freely and easily – not through the big, significant gestures but more often in the day to day postures of living.


i) You have taken to studying things en masse, to see if you can pick out individual things: the array of different birds spread across the inside cover of A Busy Day for Birds, the pattern of little pictures on one of your old hats, or the woodland creatures on your wallpaper. It is so easy for me to gloss past things but you remind me to take a second look:
Yet take another look and you may bring
From the dull mass each separate splendour out. 
(from ‘Dream and Thing’, Edwin Muir)
Incredible, really, that you can transform something from ‘dull’ to a ‘splendour’ just by looking, isn’t it?

ii) Your affections are shifting and now there are occasions when a toy will receive a big cuddle: as you hold it tight against your chest and rock slightly from side to side. For those few seconds, your award of attention is total. 

iii) It is so exciting to hear you verbalise a new word for the first time. It feels as though you pick your moment, when suddenly the word sounds like a thing to you. It happened the other day when you were marshalling together the unlit tealights. Grandpa offered to help you count them, but when you got to ‘two’, you stuck on it, and for a while afterwards everything was ‘two’. It must have felt great in your mouth as you kept repeating it with that long drawn out “ooh?”


i) You’re much, much more choosy about your books now and quite a few of the old ones don’t get a look-in. But the board book version of The Gruffalo is having its moment. We wander in a rather pedestrian way through the pages meeting various animals who fail to make much of an impression. But when we reach the last page a smile slowly spreads over your face as we come to a picture of that creature about whom we know much less. Is he friendly? Should we be scared?

ii) You’ve been practising your wave for a little while now, but I think the gesture is starting to take on even more meaning for you. Often you don’t wave until the person has gone, or hung up the phone, but then you will call out ‘byee’ with great fervour, as if you’ve caught just the right moment. It seems less about communication and more as if we’re playing a game and this is the pose you strike when the music stops. 

iii) You must recognize many words now, but it’s a thrill to get an insight into just what those are. Often you will point to an object and make a sort of generic noise for ‘that’ or ‘there’, but if we ask you to point to something first we can find out if you already know what it is / if you know the name for it. I normally start with “can you see a …” but I’ve been amazed at some of the things you’ve identified for me in response. The world is coming alive again as you assign each thing its place. 


i) You know the names of the things you love, and bunnies in all shapes and sizes are generally greeted with an exclamation: “booies!”  “bweez!” – or something akin to that. I wonder if it’s anything to do with the fact that the cuddly bunnies we have look much more person-like than some of the other animals on all fours. Certainly today you were keen to waggle some of your chopped apple in the face of your favourite bunny, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he/she was soon to be offered tea.

ii) You use your fingers creatively: to tickle our backs, which is apparently where we are most ticklish, or to feed us whatever you have suddenly decided to turn into food. It must be such a delight to be in command of reality in these moments. It is your turn to be the rule-maker, except that here, for now, there is no judgement.

iii) Never mind learning a language, sometimes you’re content just to tell us what you think in your own. Your chatter has all the intonation of matters that are at once serious, engaging and not to be refuted. Not for the first time I have the sense that you know it all before we’ve even attempted to teach you.


i) These two new words have changed everything. Now that you’ve started to say ‘story’, there is not a time of day that doesn’t offer itself to be filled with a reading. And it starts as soon as you’re up. But of course it makes sense that the other word you’ve taken on is ‘again’. The ending invites the beginning.

ii) Your hands have acquired another new skill, as Daddy provided you first with a pen, and then a set of crayons to draw with. But when you decide it’s time for “drawing”, the paper often cannot be provided quickly enough, as you seize your chosen colour and make ready. Then, just as quickly, it is over and complete, and I find myself rather envying you your ability to be satisfied with your work in a matter of moments. 


Our drawers of odds and ends have to be emptied out time and again as you sort through the random cluster of things. For once, the euros and dollars that may never recover their purpose as currency have a use, as you gather up all the coins into a box, and tip them out again. Perhaps when you tire of this we will need to make a new musical instrument …

Some final bitesize thoughts on what I am learning:

  • life adds up to something; though it can feel like we have done “nothing”, this is never the whole truth
  • paying attention is worth it, and is its own reward
  • though as adults/parents we are forced to question this day by day, the world you inhabit is enough. You are making something of it with every step. 

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

Words: with and without

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – 
That perches in the soul – 
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 
Emily Dickinson

I have a hunch that these lines may not be, as at first they seem, an attempt to define “hope” as something to which one can point as a verifiable and distinct entity. This brings me back instead to the sense that I don’t really know what hope is. Hope in what? For what? Who has it, and why, and how? 

Hope is the “thing” we start off with. Because according to Dickinson, it is what we know even as pre-linguists, in our first and original wordless state. 

Babies go for months without uttering what we can really describe as a word. I find this fascinating. There is a stage during which, as little human beings, we have no need for words, and do not feel the lack of them. 

Children and birds are related, somehow. They are the lovers of song. Small enough not to worry about their place and size in the world. Flexible enough to flit here and there, to move and wobble and balance and not stay put. To sing the tune and follow the notes without needing to know the chords, nor reach a final end point.

And yet, whilst we can’t go back to being children, this ‘thing with feathers’ is the part of us that ‘never stops’. ‘At all.’ It doesn’t sing about anything that can be defined, or pinned down. But it sings. Oh hell, it sings. 


How do I reconcile this then, with The Word? Why bother with language? Why ‘progress’ to books?

I guess purely because it allows us to speak to one another. Whether we’re physically present to one another or not. The Word spoken and written. The Word inscribed on stone and smashed to pieces. The Word that had to be repeated, repeated, repeated, in different voices, in order to stay alive. The Word that was buried, over and over, and encased in wood and board, until someone should find it and bring it once more into the light of day.

Otherwise, books become a burden. The heaviness of them, their weight. The way they sit there, unread. 

And the heaviness, the difficulty, starts early. What on earth is one meant to do with a book?! How bring the book to the child, or indeed the child to the book? How attempt this when books cannot yet mean what they say, when there is no knowing yet that books carry meaning? 

To the parent asking such questions, for whom the advice about reading every day to your baby doesn’t yet feel realistic or practical enough, I would say: don’t panic. I know the advice is ‘it’s never too early’, but really – she will find it in her own time. 

It starts with turning the page. It was when, one day, having been left to her own devices for a moment, we returned to her turning page after page of a board book that we knew something had clicked. You can do something with books; they aren’t just static objects. And you can see something different if you turn the page, something perhaps unexpected or new.

But there is no reason, yet, why the pages should go from left to right. So you may find yourself going backwards for some time. And words and writing don’t yet exist, so there may not be time for any reading, try as you may. 

For now, the books that work have at most one short sentence per page; bold, colourful pictures without too much detail; new characters to be met on each new page; and something to touch or hold onto – but not necessarily flaps as they’re in danger of being yanked out or torn!

And so it begins. The world opens up, and wherever the book has come from, it finds now another reader. 

Image by fokustier from Pixabay