Q: When should I introduce books to my children?
A: From the time they can focus their eyes! Of course, you'll have to hold the book and turn the pages, but these early experiences introduce children to the pleasures of reading: pointing, laughing, exclaiming and much more. Safe in your lap, they learn to connect books with warmth and comfort and language used in a most interesting way. A great beginning for every would-be reader.
Q: What sort of books should I choose?
A: Go for quality and variety. If you want advice about quality, talk to people who know about children's books: local librarians, kindergarten and school teachers, and staff at bookshops that stock a good supply of children's books.
Variety is also important. Everyone has changing tastes in books. Let children choose their own books whenever possible – that's how they'll develop into book buffs. But don't ignore a child's desire to hear or read the same story over and over again. Only they can say when they've had enough. A child's passion for just this story, poem or song is the real thing, not a trivial matter.
Q: Are nursery-rhyme books important?
A: Nursery rhymes are important for many reasons, including that they introduce very young children to the sounds and patterns of their native language. These rhymes are mostly short, playful, rhyming, rhythmic and repetitive – qualities exactly suited for the development of the young.
Nursery rhyme books are useful collections of these rhymes, often attractively illustrated. From them we can enlarge our repertoire of the little poems and ditties we all hold in our memory, passed on from generation to generation.
Q: Should I teach my children to read before they start school?
A: Some children learn to read more or less by themselves at an early age. That's fine, but there's nothing wrong with the intelligence and capabilities of the majority of children who don't learn to read until their school years. There's no evidence that early reading makes a difference to school or later educational achievement, and there's plenty of evidence to advise against forcing children to learn to read before they are interested. Young children should never be made to feel that reading is a duty; it's likely to turn them against books.
Once a child can read, don't stop those daily reading-aloud sessions. Adults reading to children remains one of the clearest markers of school success: if you regularly read to your children, you are helping them to do well at school. Of course, there's no reason they can't read aloud too – it's a great way for them to learn to read and speak with lively expression; the three little pigs must never sound like the wolf!
Q: How can I help my children develop a love of books?
A: If you love books, they probably will – it's catchy in a family. But even if you aren't a bookworm, if you read to your children, join them up at the local library, always give a book at birthdays and other special occasions, then you have a very good chance of rearing youngsters who love to read.
Q: Why do children love stories?
A: Who doesn't love stories? We are always telling each other stories: what happened at the weekend, the boss's amazing outburst in the office, etc. Stories are a way of making sense of life, of taking the chaos and disorder of daily events and giving them shape and meaning.
Stories also let us into other people's lives. That's why television dramas and soaps are so popular. Children especially are eager to understand the world, how people live, what is good and what is bad, how things work, and so on. Through stories they can feelingly experience life in a way not possible in ordinary reality; they can imagine being a pirate, flying to the moon, losing a loved one – all from the security of a parent's lap or the safety of a comfortable armchair. How else can so much about the nature of being human in the world be learnt so easily?
Q: Are there bad books for children?
A: Certainly. There is plenty of cheap (and sometimes not so cheap) and nasty rubbish printed in the hope that someone will buy it. The more you know about children's books, the better you'll be able to choose well for your children. Fortunately, responsible bookshops try not to carry poor-quality material, and libraries also carefully select the books they stock.
However, children – like adults – sometimes take a fancy to a book you might not think is much good. In these cases, I would generally trust the child's judgment – they will have a reason for wanting this particular book, even if they can't explain why. Perhaps everyone has a copy, perhaps it makes them feel more grown-up – whatever the reason, a few mediocre books won't do any long-term harm. The main aim is always the same: a book-loving child.
Dr June Factor is an author of children's books and an honorary senior research fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.