Founding Sapling editor, Jane, has been away from The Sapling for the past three months due to having a baby, Pete. Here she offers ten thoughts about books and reading in relation to hanging out with a new human every day.
1. When you’re holding a very new baby and only have, maximum, one free hand, it is far easier to turn board-book pages than paper pages.
2. Children’s books give caregivers something to say so we don’t have to keep thinking up topics for one-sided conversations with our newborns, NOTWITHSTANDING THE FACT we are already experts at plucking topics out of the sour-milk-scented air: lookatallyourtoes, toesy toesy toes, tinytinytoes etc. Songs are good for this, too, for filling in the silences and passing the time. I’ve never sung so much in my life. Singing is like reading aloud, because it’s words and rhythm and inflection exaggerated into melody. But while singing can also be a physical act (you can boogie and jiggle while singing), reading kids’ books can be visual. However:
3. New babies don’t really care about illustrations. For the first few weeks of their lives, they simply like blocks of high-contrast. That’s all they can see, apparently. After that, colours and faces and patterns start to appear! And they are so fascinating! It must be a total trip to be a baby. When else are we so accepting and enamoured of completely new concepts (like colours, faces and patterns)? Not when we’re commenting on the internet, eh.
4. I’ve been thinking lately about how weird it is that babies generally experience representations of things before the things themselves. Pictures of fish before seeing actual fish, soft toy bunnies before rabbits, cartoon elephant patterns on their onesies. I have no idea what this does to the brain and its development. It’s probably fine. Something about the importance of learning abstraction and metaphor, perhaps. Brains are incredible and strange.
5. When you’re buying books for kids, instead of approaching your choice in terms of ‘Is the child a boy or a girl?’, how about ‘What sort of person do I want to help this child become?’ (Answer can be as simple as ‘someone who likes to read.’)
6. What if Pete doesn’t like reading? What if he struggles with it? Who will he turn out to be?
7. I specifically remember sitting on the mat at school when I was five and being SO BORED by Hairy Maclary because it kept repeating itself. Like, Yes, we know those dogs are there, you already told us. And soon after, overhearing somewhere that repetition was good for young readers because it helped them learn or something. And thinking, Ugh, boring, whatever. But I get it now! Repetition is like the chorus of a song! The familiar, catchy bit we can join in with when it comes on the radio! Or the bit we can recite on sleep-deprived autopilot. Three cheers for repetition!
8. Here are a few books I have enjoyed reading aloud – selection is based largely on what I can reach with one hand while sitting in the nursing chair and by no means exhaustive or original: My Animals by Xavier Deneux (Black and white rulz when you’re a few weeks old! I have no idea what sounds a panda or penguin make, so we skip those pages.) Peepo by Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlberg (Full of funny little things) Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (So weird! I had no idea!)A Summery Saturday Morning by Margaret Mahy (I think this was written about my two dogs) Open the Door, Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd (The ending made me swear out loud the first time I read it) The Word Witch by Margaret Mahy (The best book to give someone with a newborn – thanks Imogen! And such fun to read aloud.)My First Book of Patterns by Bobby George and June George (Arty and bold! Very well done.) Who’s Driving? by Leo Timmers (Great excuse to make funny noises)Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (Genius! Full of unexpected bits.) Help! The Wolf is Coming! by Cedric Ramadier (High-contrast pictures and it’s fun for the reader) The Reo Pēpi books by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (Can these be essential for every home in Aotearoa?)
9. Before starting maternity leave, I had secret hopes that I’d be able to finish writing the children’s novel I started years ago. Hahahahahahaha.
10. Today, Pete reached out and grabbed something (the antenna of a Buzzy Bee) for the first time. A deliberate movement! His mind and his body worked together, clunkily. It took a lot of concentration, and a lot of slobber. One day, going well, he’ll turn the pages of a book.
Jane Arthur co-owns and manages GOOD BOOKS, a small independent bookshop in Pōneke Wellington. She twice judged the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in 2019 and 2020. Her debut poetry collection, Craven (VUP) won the Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of poetry at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and a second collection will appear in 2023. Jane is also co-founder of The Sapling.