The phase of storytelling, improvised communication “over a book,” precedes reading as such. That is, at the start of a child’s reading journey, it’s important to choose books which can be—and this is critical—a resource for us as parents, for our own spoken improvisation. These should be books that have pictures we can use to tell the story. The text, if there is one, is more of a guide for what we say.
But books specially made for this—for storytelling adults—are few. Publishers never set out to make them specifically. They make books for “children ages one to three,” which, in itself, is an absolutely meaningless designation. There’s a world of difference between a child of one year and a child of three and it’s measured in units of speech development.
There are three types of young children: those that don’t speak, those that are starting to speak, and those that speak well. Generally, we tell stories to a child that does not—or is only beginning to—speak, and read books to one that has already learned to speak. The criteria for “age-appropriate” are very different here.
Before a child begins to speak, we don’t need to worry about finding texts he will “understand.” At this stage, the meaning behind a text—no matter how short, simple, or expressive—is sacrificed no matter what. I’ll reiterate: we have to find books that in looking over together, allow us to joyfully communicate with a child.
It would appear that interactive, or touch-and-feel, books are best suited for this. They invite the viewers to engage with the book: pull a string or tab, press a button, spin a wheel, pat something fuzzy. It seems just right—all actions that are appealing to a child and come naturally. But if this activity doesn’t allow communication to go any further, we can’t truly relegate it to the realm of books. It’s no different from interaction with other objects, after all. If our only goal is for the child to engage in activities that further development, it’s much more effective to use specialized toys rather than books.
In communication over books, activities like opening or closing, spinning a wheel, and touching should be supplementary only: their main purpose is to focus the child’s attention on the picture, to help him focus.
Any activities should easily blend into our storytelling, help the narrative along. If they do so, the interactive book is designed well. If the action is enough in and of itself, or superfluous to the book as a whole, then the “toy” element outweighs the book element and is more likely to be a nuisance, rather than an aid, as the child examines the book.
Our aim is to help the child gain experience in exploring the images a book presents. We barely acknowledge how important this experience is, or the far-reaching consequences it may have. What is “looking at pictures,” after all? What does it mean at that early age, when speech is only developing, when a child is literally “entering culture”—standing up on his own two feet, taking his first steps, learning the world of objects?
Looking at pictures means seeing symbols. Here’s a spot (a collection of lines) that the adult calls “cat.” But of course it’s not a “natural cat,” not the one we show a child out in the yard. It’s an image of a cat, or the symbol of a cat. The symbol of a cat is the result of convention, an agreement between the representatives of one culture to recognize a cat in spots or lines on a flat surface, as a function of certain characteristics. In just the same way, we have an agreement to designate sounds. There are symbols for them, too—our letters, the alphabet. When we examine illustrations with a child, she gets her first experience in “reading” symbols. It prepares her for reading mastery in the future.
And not just by means of reading. It’s no accident that we show a child pictures, rather than “naked” symbols. As artistic images, pictures don’t just symbolize an object but express the artist’s emotional relationship to it. This relationship is contagious: that’s the impact of art. When we speak of an “expressive picture,” a “strong image,” we mean that the image has the capacity to affect our emotions.
On the one hand, a child’s emotions are still very simple and fit neatly in the dichotomous model of “I’m okay/I’m not okay.” Their emotions have yet to develop, gain complexity, be mastered. A young child is a being driven by emotions. Those emotions, in turn, are an engine delivering all kinds of information to the “processing center.”
An illustration that we show a small child should excite emotions in her—positive emotions, stimulating curiosity. This means, in turn, that the picture and its images should have something that the child can relate to her own experience, since the main emotional driver is recognition. The point here is not that a child should see only familiar scenes on the page, or that we can show him a cat, but not a crocodile, which he has never seen. There’s a lot he hasn’t seen in real life, or more importantly, seen illustrated. The point here is different.
Recognition is based on lived experience. The main experiences of young children are tied to actions and movements. A young child is an “actor.” Movement is the source of his development in the most diverse areas: physical, mental, emotional, and so on.
Movement is what will draw the child to the picture. That concept forms the foundation for the idea of incorporating interactive elements into books. Yet the movement here is “external.” There should also be motion hidden in the picture itself. The illustrated characters of children’s books must be engaged in their own movement. And we, the viewers, should be able to easily identify those actions and movements.
If we, as adults can name these actions using words, if there are many separate identifiable actions, the book fits. In other words, the more verbs are “visible” in the picture, the better. And, naturally, the illustrations should be well-drawn.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Follow us on Facebook.