Finding a Toddler-Led Reading Rhythm
by Victoria, Marketing and Communications
If you grew up reading, you probably have fond memories of a parent, caregiver, teacher or librarian who shared engaging storytime experiences with you. Or you may have developed a love of reading later in life that has become a meaningful part of your routine. Either way, avid readers who become parents are excited to begin reading to their baby or toddler.
I have vivid memories of my mom reading stories to me as a child. She put inflection in every word, made different voices for each character and never complained when I asked her to read “Stephanie’s Ponytail” (or whatever the current favorite was) over and over and over, and yes, over again.
When my babies were infants, I was reading aloud to them. I started reading chapters of “Mary Poppins,” blasted the “Harry Potter” audiobook narrated by Jim Dale throughout the house. When I read picture books to them, I give them my absolute best voice work with every page turned.
Studies show that social influences play a huge part in fostering a child’s choice of leisure activities as they grow. In a 2015 survey published in the Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, they found that the majority of adults reported that a parent taught them to read, followed by an educator. Others reported that another family member, such as a grandparent, sibling or step-parent, taught them to read . Many also reported that they were self-taught or even learned from a neighbor, babysitter or “Sesame Street.”
Almost 65% of respondents also reported that the individual who taught them to read, whether in an active or passive way, had a positive influence on their attitude toward reading. Passive influence, in which the influencer did not teach them to read in an instructional sense, is also essential. Respondents reported passive influencers gave them access to books by taking them to the library, modeled reading behavior by their own reading for enjoyment, provided encouragement or helped them select books within their appropriate reading level and interests. In conclusion, the researcher noted that, “when respondents were exposed to a love of reading, whether through observation of a loved or respected figure, a social influencer’s taking the time to actively provide access or support choice, or through social interaction and shared enjoyment, a lifelong reader could be fostered.”
Finding a reading rhythm with my toddlers has not been easy. Early on I felt like I was reading to myself because they walked around and played while I read, but then one day it just clicked. They started actively listening, patted a spot on the carpet with their hand, crawled into my lap and handed me a book. There are still times that they will become distracted or indecisive and take one book out of my hand halfway through and hand me a different book, but through trial and error I have learned the kinds of books that best engage them.
My girls are almost 2 years old now and we read every evening together. I have noticed, to my surprise, that some of their most treasured titles are not illustrated. They love books with real life photography, especially photos that include images of other babies. I was surprised by this because I do not remember reading many non-illustrated titles as a child. I was always enamored by fun and colorful looking illustrations.
My girls love the book, “Show Me Happy” by Kathryn Madeline Allen so much that the last time they spent the night at their grandparent's house and got a little fussy I simply said “Show Me Happy” over the phone and they instantly stopped crying. Or after reading “A Kiss Means I Love You” by the same author I will say “show me caring” and they will give themselves a hug, and if I say “show me caring for Mama” they give me a hug. The photographs have gone a long way in helping them understand complex feelings like empathy.
Now I am on the lookout for more titles with photography to share with my littles, so if you’re looking to dive into some new reads with your baby or toddler, here is a list of titles with rich photography to consider.
I recognize that their tastes will change and they will develop new favorites and may even go through phases where they seem less interested in reading, but it is my hope that by fostering an environment in which I give them access to books that interest them, I can help them become lifelong readers.
Please share your favorite children’s books or reading experiences in the comments.
Toddler Favorites with Real Life Photography
“Show me Happy,” by Kathryn Madeline Allen
My girls love this one and ask me to read it multiple times a day. It is great for showing children what different actions and emotions look like through photos of other babies. When it says “show me hiding,” my girls instantly cover their eyes like they are playing peek-a-boo and then uncover them when it says “show me found.” They want to test their ability to do what the babies in the pictures do (hopefully the “show me giving” one will at some point sink in as sharing). Allen has a variety of wonderful books with photography, including “I Am a Baby” and “A Kiss Means I Love You.” Each of her titles teaches empathy in a simple but powerful way.
“All Kinds of People,” by Shelly Rotner
I only recently discovered Rotner’s books, and my girls love them! This particular title of Rotner’s features photographs of children and talks about their different skin tones using adjectives like almond, copper, tan, coffee and others. The photos are beautiful. My girls point and say “baby” or “girl.” And because they have had such little interaction with other children their age this year due to the pandemic, I think it’s important for them to begin to understand that not all children look like them and not all mommies and daddies look like their mommy and daddy. “There are Many Shades of People.” Rotner has a variety of books featuring photography that captures early concepts that are difficult to teach a young child like diversity, lifecycles in nature and growth.
“Hands Can,” by Cheryl Willis Hudson
Hudson introduces young readers to the power of working with your hands and all that your hands can do through simple rhyming and photographs of children holding, mixing, waving and more. Even though I think my daughters have grasped how to do these things, I think that putting a name to the verb and seeing other children engage in activities that use those motor skills is helpful in teaching abstract concepts.
“ABC: The Alphabet from the Sky,” by Benedikt Gross
Whether or not your child is ready to fully grasp the alphabet, the photography in this book is beautiful. It’s a seek and find type in which you find the letter in a photo of landscapes. Geographer and designer duo Benedikt Gross and Joey Lee use satellite imagery from around the world to show each letter of the alphabet.
“Little Humans,” by Brandon Stanton
Stanton is a New York Times Bestselling author and photographer best known for his book based on his blog of the same name, “Humans of New York,” featuring stories about real people living in the Big Apple. His book, “Little Humans,” features beautiful photographs of children alongside a simple free-verse poem.
“Baby Loves: A First Book of Favorites,” by Molly Magnuson Abrams
This book is simple and fun. It shows photos of babies holding simple things that are important to them such as food, drink and clothing items and then asks the reader to pick out the “sweater” from a photo of several clothing items. It closes by saying that babies love to feel loved. It teaches a general concept of loving things, but also could be used to teach naming recognition and colors.
“Yoga Baby,” by Amy Hovey
This book is not instructional like it may sound, but rather it shows babies doing different types of movement that is natural to them and tells the name of the yoga stretch with a rhyming verse about what they are doing.
“Bloom Boom,” by April Pulley Sayre
This is a great book to read as we approach spring. The photography of landscapes and flowers is gorgeous and shows the natural process of growth from bud to full bloom. Sayre has several titles with photography featuring STEAM concepts, including “Cityscape: Where Science and Art Meet,” “Being Frog” and others.
“My Hair is Beautiful,” by Shauntay Grant
This book shares a message of self-love, featuring toddlers with all kinds of beautiful natural hair styles. It is interesting as I observe by toddlers recognize physical traits like their hair. They will point out when my husband’s long wavy hair is in his face, or see me wearing my hair pushed back in a headband and pull on the headband or want me to put their curly unruly locks up in a ponytail. This is a wonderful book to show that we all have different features that are unique to us and beautiful.
Baby’s Day Bilingual Books
These are wonderful books for introducing Spanish to an infant or toddler. They have a rhyming verse written in English and then underneath it in Spanish. They also use repetition to further solidify how each of the actions are related, such as “this is the way we eat” or “when it’s time for us to rest.” Here are each of the four titles in this collection:
“Baby Dream: Soñando Con Bebé,” by Sunny Scribens
“Baby Food: Comiendo Con Bebé,”by Stefanie Paige Wieder
“Baby Play: Jugando Con Bebé,” by Skye Silver
“Baby Talk: Hablando Con Bebé,” by Stella Blackstone
“Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children,” by Sandra L. Pinkney
This book, much like “All Kinds of People,” beautifully describes shades of skin color as well as hair types and eye color. The photography shows children of all different shades of black and concludes by saying, “I am black. I am Unique... I am black. I am proud to be me.” Pinkney has several books featuring photography with diversity, including “I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me,” and a book about careers called, “Read and Rise.”
“Holi Colors,” by Rina Singh
This is a fun book that introduces the Hindu celebration of Holi in which people in India welcome the arrival of spring by tossing colored powders over their loved ones. Singh is an Indian Canadian author and self-proclaimed lover of photography and travel. She writes books that reflect her Indian heritage using rich colorful photographs. Another book of hers that showcases her love of photography is called “Diwali Lights,” a book about the October/November Indian celebration of the victory of good over evil.
“May We Have Enough to Share,” by Richard Van Camp
The photography in this book is beautiful! The message of gratitude is also clear and meaningful. Camp is a Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ writer of the Dene nation who writes both children's and adult literature celebrating his Indigenous heritage. “May We Have Enough to Share” is a story about gratitude complemented by photos from Tea & Bannock, a collective blog by Indigenous female photographers. Other books of his that feature photography include “Welcome Song for Baby,” and “Kiss by Kiss: A Counting Book for Families.”
“Watch this! A Book About Making Shapes,” by Jane Godwin
This book is not what you would expect from the title in that it’s not your typical book about shapes. Godwin uses photographs of children creating shapes with their bodies. This is a fun way to introduce shapes without it feeling like a geometry lesson. The children in the photos are simply playing, stretching, dancing and holding hands to create shapes with their bodies.
“A Girl Like Me,” by Angela Johnson
This title features mixed media art with photographs on different artistic backgrounds, celebrating individuality and rejecting limitation set by society, told through poetry. The book features girls who are dressed up in the clothes that make them feel good, dreaming and “thinking way up high.” This title shares a message of reaching for the stars.
“Pride Colors,” by Robin Stevenson
This book almost had me in tears because not only are the pictures beautiful, but the text is so raw and clearly sharing a parent’s unconditional love for their child. “I’ll love the person you grow to be.” Award-winning author Robin Stevenson goes through each color in the Pride flag and explains their meaning. Stevenson has written books for every age reader, each one celebrating the LGBTQIA community.
“Wrinkles,” by JR
I checked this book out thinking it looked unique and intriguing, but not sure quite what to expect. The black and white photographs of people with wrinkles from around the world against the bright red background just pop! This book does not have a ton of text, but it conveys so much. “These stories surround you in the wrinkles all around you.” This is a special book for sure, and my girls have brought it to me to read over and over.
“The Secret Life of Squirrels: A Love Story,” by Nancy Rose
Rose writes fiction stories featuring photography of squirrels in human settings made miniature. The author is a photographer and retired high school guidance counselor from Canada. Her books feature her own wild backyard squirrels, including her beloved friend Mr. Peanuts, the first to eat from her hand.
“Baby’s Best Friend,” by Suzanne Curley
This sweet book features the bond of baby and family dog through photography and rhyme. The photographs of babies and puppies together against a simple background are beautiful. My girls instantly picked this one up to flip through the pictures.
“Hello, I’m Here,” by Helen Frost
This book features photographs of a newborn Sandhill crane as it takes its first steps. Photographs together with poetic text are sure to delight your kids and teach them about nature and how it relates to their own humble human beginnings.