Baby books with BAME main characters
7th December 2017
“What better way to welcome a little one to the world than with a brilliant selection of books?” This sentiment, which began the Toppsta blog “Top 10 Books for a Baby’s Bookshelf” (5th December 2017) is one with which I can heartily agree. And the suggestions, which included books by Beatrix Potter, Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs and the Ahlbergs, are all books that found a place in my own and/or my child’s nursery. But my daughter’s nursery also included books with people who looked like her. Recently, when we welcomed a new baby cousin into the family, I decided to send only books with BAME main characters in them—knowing that someone else would buy A Very Hungry Caterpillar for the little one.
My task proved to be harder than I had anticipated, especially with regard to that babyhood staple, board books. Children need books that will comfort, and if you’ve ever had a teething baby, you know there’s no comfort like a book to chew on.
Let's Feed the Ducks
One of my favourite board books for this purpose, because it is both eatable and about eating at the same time, is Pamela Venus’s Let’s Feed the Ducks (Firetree 2016). All of Venus’s board books for Firetree are lovely, but the cover illustration of this happy boy with his bag of duck food is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face—including your baby’s.
The illustrations in Venus’s books are realistic, and while I feel it is critical for small children to have accurate depictions of people who look like them, there is also a pleasure in more “cartoony” pictures—as evidenced by the success of authors like Allan and Janet Ahlberg.
There is something pleasing about the round shapes and simple features of the toddlers depicted in Carol Thompson’s Blankies (Child’s Play 2013), and the topic of comfort objects is one that appeals to most children.
Unsurprisingly, babies like books about . . . babies. Two of my favorites that combine lively, bouncy text with cheerful illustrations of families in love with their babies are...
No, Baby, No!
by Grace Nichols and Eleanor Taylor (Bloomsbury 2011—my copy has a cd of Nichols reading the text as well).
Zeki Can Swim!
by Anna McQuinn (Alanna 2016) and molly Bang's Ten, Nine, Eight (HarperCollins 2003) speak to common experiences (swim class and bedtime) for babies and toddlers in simple text meant to be shared between parent and child.
Molly Bang’s book brings up another category every good baby library should include: early concept books, those that teach the alphabet, counting, colours and similar basic ideas. Many of the good BAME alphabet books are designed for slightly older (4-6 years) readers—such as Valerie Bloom’s Fruits, a classic in its own right that introduces readers to ideas beyond “A is for Apple”, and Verna Wilkins’s ABC I Can Be, which discusses career options for all children.
Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns
For a similar age, I like Hena Khan and Mehrdokht Amini’s Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns (Chronicle 2015), which teaches colours and aspects of Muslim family life at the same time.
These are all good choices to stock a baby’s library, waiting for when they are ready for them; an early concept book suitable for babies and toddlers to enjoy is George Shannon and Blanca Gómez’s One Family (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 2015), a counting book that (without a huge fanfare) shows that everyone counts.
Finally, I think that any good gift library for new families should include nursery rhymes, which introduce the youngest listeners to concepts of rhyme, rhythm, and sound. Grace Hallworth and Caroline Binch’s Down by the River (Heinemann 1996) is a classic text including many rhymes familiar to all (parent) readers (such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away”) in an evocative Caribbean setting.
Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World
A less localized collection is Elizabeth Hammill’s collection of nursery rhymes, Over the Hills and Far Away (Frances Lincoln 2014) which has rhymes from around the world illustrated by a wide variety of illustrators.
These are just a few of the books available for the very youngest book audience showcasing children from BAME backgrounds. I offer them not as replacements for Peter Rabbit or The Snowman, but as additions to ANY new baby’s library. It is never to early to offer babies mirrors of themselves in books—nor to show them that other babies may look slightly different, but they all do baby things, make baby noises, and reach out for the love of their parents through the medium of books.
Karen Sands-O'Connor is a professor of children's literature at SUNT Buffalo state. She recently helped organise 'Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children's Books' at Seven Stories in Newcastle.
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