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The Joy of Reading

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Babies and toddlers

What they love about books:

  • Open. Shut. Open. Shut. Openshut.
  • Bright colors
  • Cool pictures
  • Cardboard's good for chewing  -- not too hard, not too soft
  • Books mean pleasant, rhyme-y, happy voices
  • Book time is snuggle time

What they'll be learning:

  • How books work  -- we open them, the story is inside
  • We read from left to right
  • Books can tell a story
  • Stories have a beginning and an end
  • Books are a normal and expected part of life

What you can do:

Read aloud  -- to a point. It's just as important to let your baby play with books as he pleases. If he shows no interest, it's not a big deal.

Keep it brief. Little people have little attention spans, and ten minutes  -- even five minutes  -- is a long time.

Interact with the book and your child. Ask him to find simple things, like the baby's eyes or the pretty flower. "You're bringing what's happening off the page and into an interaction between the two of you," says Amy Flynn, director of the Bank Street Family Center at Bank Street College of Education, in New York.

Follow your child's lead. If your baby grabs the book from you to explore it on his own, let him  -- just hold him on your lap and cuddle with him as he looks. "Playing with books is a precursor to reading, just like playing with food is the first step for a child learning to feed himself," says Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children.

What to look for when choosing books for babies and toddlers:
Durability. Babies aren't going to treat books with care, and you don't want to try to make them. So buy tough board books. This is not the age for cute pop-ups and easily torn paper.

Options for exploration. Shiny surfaces, fur, textures, or elements that move or smell are ideal. Those kinds of bells and whistles may seem gimmicky, but babies and toddlers love them. Take your baby with you to a library or bookstore and show him board books with bold colors, squeaky buttons, and soft, fuzzy fabrics  -- seeing what captivates him can help you choose which ones to bring home.

Illustrations of real things. Young eyes (and brains) will delight in objects they recognize. Good choices are ones with photos of everyday items.

Not much plot. They simply don't need it and won't get it. (This also means you can skip reading the text entirely if it doesn't seem to be thrilling your child  -- or you.)

What to look for in first picture books:
Simple, clear illustrations. They needn't be realistic, though  -- a mouse in overalls is fine.

Straightforward but limited text. Many classic titles for toddlers, like Good Night, Gorilla and Hug, have little or no text, allowing you to tell the story behind the illustrations however you like and to speed along or slow down depending on your child's attention span.

Repetition  -- think books like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, says Flynn. Toddlers like to hear the same words or phrases over and over and love being able to memorize or say one or two along with you.

Barbara Rowley is a contributing editor of Parenting.