Reading is an important part of a child’s development. A good deal of essential brain development occurs in the first three years of an infant’s life, well before even learning to read. In recognition of this fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents begin reading to infants from birth: “reading, as well as talking and singing, is viewed as important in increasing the number of words that children hear in the earliest years of their lives.”
So what books should parents read to babies? For newborns, it does not seem to matter what you read to them, so long as you are reading something. They “understand the emotion in the words that are being read to them very, very early” but not the content: at this point “it starts with the parent’s enjoyment and then becomes a shared enjoyment” of reading. So, for the science-fiction and fantasy lover, start your newborn on whatever captures your imagination, whether it is A Game of Thrones or a Star Wars expanded universe novel (I understand the Thrawn trilogy is essential for the true Star Wars fan).
But after a few months, when you notice your baby’s starting to respond to the meaning of the words, you will have to make a switch from Red Wedding twists to something a bit more age appropriate. But what could possibly be age appropriate for a baby and also keep you entertained?
Here are some of the books I grew up on that helped to foster a love of fantastical things, and that I would return to again as an adult.
The Works of Maurice Sendak
I have already touched on my love for Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) in a previous post. But did you know that he wrote a number of other fantastic children’s books in addition to his most famous work?
In the Night Kitchen (1970) is one of Sendak’s other well-known books, and his most controversial. How is a children’s book controversial, you might ask? Because Mickey, the protagonist, is depicted as naked for most of the book and the illustrations include full frontal nudity. This is seen as inappropriate and unwholesome by some, yet Sendak has said that the reason Mickey is naked is purely innocent: he is naked “because he’s a boy” and boys do not wear pants “when they’re dreaming.”1
If you are uncomfortable with encouraging nakedness around your child, then consider Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months (1962), a book that is both enjoyable and will help your child learn about the months and seasons of the year. The book is even better when paired with a real bowl of chicken soup with rice.
I could list others, but I will let you discover them on your own by browsing Sendak’s works for yourself.
The Works of Theodor Seuss Geisel
Another well-known childhood classic, most readers today grew up on Dr. Seuss. Start your child on Green Eggs and Ham (1960) if you want to encourage good eating habits and a healthy sense of whimsy.
However, for something a bit meatier, and which speaks to the adult in us, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990) is a wonderfully reflective piece on the world of possibilities that await your child. This is a book that will ignite a child’s wanderlust spirit early. (Also, if you are the kind of person to plan ahead, think of asking your child’s teachers to sign the book every year for a personalized high school graduation gift.)
I can’t move on from Dr. Seuss without mentioning The Lorax (1971), my favorite Seuss work. A commentary on economic and environmental issues that is still very relevant today, the fantastical drawings and creatures also appeal to children. They won’t fully grasp the message, but will still be entertained, and a bit saddened, to follow the plight of the Lorax, the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Swomee Swans, and the Humming Fish as the Once-ler expands his Thneed business.
Check out the rest of Dr. Seuss’ work to find a whole range of children’s books to get you through many nights of bedtime reading.
Children who love cats will adore Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928), which bears the honor of being the oldest American picture book still in print. A story about a man who sets out to bring his wife a cat, he cannot choose between the “millions and billions and trillions of cats” that he finds. So he brings them all home and he and his wife let the cats choose amongst themselves which cat is the “prettiest.” Cats + vanity = epic cat fight to end all cat fights.
Do you like horror? Gear up your kid (pun intended) early with the classic telling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff (1957), written by P. C. Asbjornsen and J. E. Moe, and illustrated by Marcia Brown. This is a fairy tale that pulls no punches with a lurking, frightening bridge troll and a bloody ending. I loved being scared as a child (I devoured the Goosebumps series), and children’s books like this are what helped me develop into a horror fan.
Last, but not least, I will end with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989) by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith. A humorous twist on a classic tale, Scieszka’s story brings new life to the three little pigs through the viewpoint of a bumbling wolf who only wants to borrow a cup of sugar.