The Influence of Books in Early Childhood
by Katie Fitzgerald
During the past few months, I have read two wonderful vintage books about the influence of reading on families with young children. Annis Duff’s Bequest of Wings (1944) is a lovely reflection on her family’s relationship to all different books as her children grew from infancy to adolescence. Drawing on her training as a children’s librarian, Duff provides recommendations of favorite books for others to enjoy as well as anecdotes about her children’s conversations and make believe games inspired by those books. In Books Before Five (1954), another children’s librarian, Dorothy White, shares the diary she kept in the first five years of her daughter’s life. Here she has carefully documented each book her daughter enjoyed and the impact of these titles on the young girl’s imagination and worldview.
My daughters, who will turn one and three this Fall, are the children of two librarians, and they have both been surrounded by books since birth. I have always recognized the importance of reading to children, and the positive influence it can have on a child’s development of language. What I did not realize, however, is how delightful it would be to see the more personal influence of books on my individual children’s lives. Thanks in part to Duff and White, I have been paying close attention lately to how the books I and my husband share with our older daughter infiltrate her play, her conversation, and her understanding of the world. What I am learning is that books do much more during early childhood than prepare a child for independent reading; in truth, they help a child build up her own relationship to the world.
Books enrich a child’s vocabulary. The most obvious way books have influenced my daughter is by building up her vocabulary. From books, she has learned to say “I scraped my patella” when she skins her knee, and that grasshoppers breathe through spiracles. She doesn’t just push a basket across the room, she gives it a “mighty heave” a la the animals in Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car, and thanks to a National Geographic easy reader, she knows that owls “swoop and snatch” their prey. On Fourth of July weekend, when we went to see fireworks, she said, “I wish every day could be the Fourth of July!” quoting a favorite character from her Highlights High Five magazine. Books give her words that the average adult doesn’t use every day, and she incorporates them into her own daily speech in unique and surprising ways.
Books help a child make sense of the world. It is always easier to learn something new when you can build upon knowledge already established. Books have given my daughter background knowledge in everything from the work of firefighters, to the clothing we wear in the winter, to how to interact with a new baby. When she sees a firetruck, she recognizes it because “that’s what Dot the Fire Dog rides on!” Thanks to a poem from Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young called “The Mitten Song” she knows exactly where to place her thumb and fingers when putting on mittens to play in the snow. And the many big sister books we bought and borrowed when her baby sister was born last September gave her the confidence to assume her big sister role with great aplomb. It is also much easier to explain new concepts to a child who has been read a variety of books, as there is always something on which to hang the new information. I have used Stanley the Mailman to explain to her what the mail carrier in our neighborhood is doing each day, and nonfiction easy readers have helped prepare her for seeing fireworks, going to a baseball game, seeing the doctor, playing a piano at her grandmother’s house, and attending a birthday party.
Books inspire a child’s imagination. My daughter’s make believe world, which is frequently brought to life on the living room floor with blocks and peg dolls, is a mishmash of the many characters, authors, and themes she has first encountered in books. For a while, she was calling one of her baby dolls “Maurice Sendak” after the beloved author of Where the Wild Things Are. After reading The Relatives Came, she suddenly became insistent that peg dolls of certain colors all be addressed as “uncle,” and she announced periodically that her toy cars were headed to Virginia. At the park, clumps of trees become “the forest” and passing dogs might be identified as Harry (Harry the Dirty Dog), George (Bark, George), or Willie (Whistle for Willie.) Her rubber ducks are sometimes called by names from Make Way for Ducklings (Jack, Kack Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and/or Quack), and she frequently reenacts dramatic scenes from The Tub People and The Pea Patch Jig, complete with entire sections of dialogue lifted from the books. Because hearing stories has allowed her to look in on experiences she has not had in her own life, her pretend play is complex and nuanced in a way that it could not be without books.
Katie Fitzgerald is a trained children’s librarian, author of Story Time Success: A Practical Guide for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and blogger at storytimesecrets.blogspot.com. She lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, with her academic librarian husband and two daughters.
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