WHEN PAT THE BUNNY has been patted gouged, gnawed and torn, when that first baby book has been digested, one way or another, you might find, as I have, that there are very few other books simple and sturdy enough for a year-old child that also have appeal for the adult who helps the baby "read" them. These five board books published first in England and now in this country, succeed admirably in this difficult and almost uninhabited territory of children's books.
Each volume introduces the child to seven words, all nouns that represent familiar subjects of a baby's experience. In Family, the words are mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, grandfather, and baby. Friends presents seven familiar animals, Dressing presents articles of clothing, Playing toys, and Working, by far the most amusing of the five books, presents the words highchair, potty, carriage, bowl, bathrub, bottle and crib. It is refreshing to think of these objects, as a small child must, as instruments of labor.
Each word has a two-page spread, with the word (given not for the child to read, but for the adult to say) written on the left-hand page. On the same page is an illustration of the word; on the facing page is an illustration of a baby with whatever the word represents. These pictures are obviously crucial to the success of a book in which the text is so, shall we say, modest. The pictures themselves are simple -- line drawings either pencil colored or washed in color. The baby's head, for example, is little more that a circle, its eyes dots. Yet everywhere in the drawings there is subtle humor: the baby's head held just a bit tightly by an aggressively maternal older sister; the baby's hand held out tentatively with its crumbs of toast for a mallard; the special way a child lifts his feet when he is wearing new red shoes; the learned look he has while reading a children's book upside down. And in all these attitudes the baby strikes, there is a keenness of observation on the artist's part, a familiarity with the ways of the baby.
Organization, wilt, keenness -- all these appeal to the parent, or to the adult who buys and presents books to children of this age. The cynic says this adult is the only person children's books are written for anyway. But what about the child? In my survey of one -- my son, 13 months old -- I observed a passing interest in the Oxenbury books, an interest passing about 45 seconds, when he was unfairly distracted. But I'll bet that under better conditions he'll like the books as much as I do, although for different reasons.
With the exception of a few of the animals (and I, confess, the potty), these are words we already are teaching him. The sound of the word and the picture accompanying the word "box" (found in Playing ) will give him the pleasure of recognition, and he'll have the further pleasure of seeing the baby sitting in the box, as he himself is wont to do. Perhaps he will even pick up the humor of the situation. At least he will share the pleasure I get from the humor, and feign a hearty appreciation. And the next time he sees the picture his mirth will be real.
Pat the Bunny makes an admirable attempt to show the child how that which is on the page corresponds with something the child has experienced -- how art imitates life, you might say. The child scratches the rough paper and scratches the father's rough beard. Do babies enjoy this book so much because they recognize these correspondences, as we hope they do, or simply because of the sensual pleasure to touching rough paper, or of seeing the shiney mirror. The Oxenburg books, which are for children older than six months, depend on these correspondences between word, image and object. Because they do no have the sensual gimmicks of Pat these books may answer more conclusively whether your child is making such connections.
The Oxenbury books, which are about 5 1/2 inches square, are a nice size for a small child's hands. The corners of the pages are rounded, making them safe for eyes, and, according to the publishes, the pages (which have a shiny finish) can be wiped clean and are nontoxic. The pages are stiff cardboard, and the binding looks strong, so the books seem likely to last about as long as one of those leathery chew-bones last around a dog.
The only book in the series that troubles me somewhat is Family , because it tends to stereotype. Father is wearing a tie and coat with an upturned collar; he obviously is just coming or going someplace in his active, busy life. Grandfather, on the other hand, wears a collarless shirt and a cardigan; he looks like he hasn't done anything useful in days. And all the faces are a nice scrubbed British pink; this would be an anomaly, happily, in melting-pot America's children's books. But on the whole, these books weathered their trans-atlantic crossing better than do many children's picture books published in England.