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Babies and the Bookness of Books

Guest blog as written for ‘Reading Fictions’.
We know how important it is for babies, even very small ones, to be read to by parents or carers, snuggled safely in their arms but I am passionate about babies also having the opportunity to explore books on their own. Children will learn through their own explorations that books have pages which can be turned backwards and forwards, that they have images which are interesting and colourful and eventually, if books are held in a certain way, that images can look the ‘right’ way up and may even follow in a meaningful sequence. Playing with such fascinating physical objects as books allows children not only to become familiar with the ‘bookness’ of books (my term) but also to learn more about the world about them through their bodies and senses. This playfulness and exploration is part of the natural process involved in fundamental general learning which all normally developing children gain in the first 3 years of their lives and which is the basis for all later skills (Every Child Can Learn by Katrin Stroh, et al, Sage 2008).
Books Always Everywhere came about when Evelyn and I were reviewing data for a chapter on how picture books can support the emotional learning of bilingual children (Arizpe, E. and Blatt, J. 2011 ‘How Responses to Picturebooks Reflect and Support the Emotional Development of Young Bilingual Children’, in B. Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed) Emergent Literacy. Children’s Books from 0 to 3. Amsterdam: John Benjamins). We were watching a video of an 8 month baby exploring books on her own. She was sitting on the floor surrounded by all kinds and sizes of children’s books and for some moments explored one in particular. She picked it up, dropped it, mouthed it, moved it with her foot, opened it, felt it, weighed it in her hands, smelt it, even looked at it from different angles, maybe even noticed that there were different shapes or images on different parts of it. Her whole body was focussed on the task she had started and continued on her own and for herself. There were the occasional concentrated grunts from her totally integrated body but no one told her what to do and certainly no one ‘helped’ her in her exploration.
Later, in another clip with this baby a few months later, we saw her making a mat on the floor with books, then making the books into houses for small figures. She piled them and built with them. She lay down with them and even put one of them on her head as if it were a hat. She was gaining more and more experience about the joys of the ‘bookness’ of books. She was also learning about ‘placing’, ‘matching’, ‘sorting’, ‘sequencing’, ‘building’, ‘banging’ and building up her early general learning.
The clips and discussion inspired me to write a picture book for babies exploring the physical nature of books. Nosy Crow, a new publishing company, were excited by the script: “One of the great things about the text is the elliptical, compressed and lyrical nature of it”.  ‘Book Big/ Book Small/ Book Wide/ Book Tall… came to life through the illustrations by Sarah Massini. The initial illustrations show only one baby and one book, but as the pages turn, more and more babies and different kinds of books appear. My original text went through some changes, not least losing the adult interaction and a sense of developmental progress but the result has been enjoyed by various reviewers including the Sunday Times: “Using rhyme and no more than 2 words per page, Books Always Everywhere, is a book lover’s dream. Books take centre stage in a range of babies’ and toddlers’ real and imaginative lives” (Culture Section, 23.06.13)
A variety of formats and sizes of books are represented in Books Always Everywhere –board books, buggy books, books with holes-   and the illustrator has added images and words in some of them. The words and titles are of course meant for the literate reader; some are real titles of fairytales and nursery rhymes, others are made up as a joke that can be shared with babies too, such as the book called ‘House Mouse’ upon which a small mouse is sheltered by a book opened in the shape of a tent – much like the books in the photograph. There is certainly lots to look at in the illustrations and one can easily imagine much ‘spotting’ going on when the book is shared with an adult. The words and the pictures also suggest relationships: ‘Book Give/Book Share’, and a way of engaging with others and participating in a community.
The book has been very successful. Is part of its success due to it being a book about books in this technological world when books are being replaced by the ibook? Are parents concerned that even babies are exploring digital gadgets too early, or that they may not encounter books in the same way as previous generations? Going back to my initial idea, unlike ipads or kindles, books can be played with as toys, put on one’s head, sat on, given as presents, used to build a house, dropped, hung from a tree, even. Will this generation of babies miss out on learning about the ‘bookness of books’?  Are our children losing out on the playfulness of play? Does this matter? Will this book be seen in the future as a quaint and outdated defence of books? Or will there still be, as the title suggests and is summed up, with all the aspects of the babies’ enjoyment of books in the final illustrations, ‘Books always…. everywhere?