One of the things I've been meaning to do for awhile now is write out reviews of some of my (and my children's, where different,) favourite books that we read together. I know quite a few bloggers do this, and I always appreciate them when I find them, because it can be a pain in the arse figuring out which of the many many children's picture books are the cream of the crop. Ignoring my own childhood, I've been acquiring a go-to list of great books for over five years, ever since I started helping out with the toddler class at what is now my son's school.
But the first book I'm going to review is my daughter's choice. I recently set up a box of board-books by the sofa, so she can pull one out and drag it over to me to read to her. This has the advantage that I don't have to collect the book myself and the disadvantage that I can't sit on the sofa without having a book shoved at me. Oh, and of course, that independent, she gets to choose the book and time to read thing (which is just as well, since I was very forgetful about making time to read prior to this).
This approach worked like a charm in instigating my son's love of books, and it's had the same effect on my daughter. Her particular favourite was Eric Carle's The Very Busy Spider, which has now been relegated to her bedroom, so I only have to read it at bedtime, as opposed to twenty times a day.
The Very Busy Spider
Eric Carle is best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which is brilliant for a number of reasons) and he's done a number of other books, some of which are brilliant and some not so much, but generally, he's a fairly safe bet as authors go. I personally don't find The Very Busy Spider as engaging as some of his other stories, but both my children have loved it.
The gimmick of the book is "A board book to feel as well as read and hear." The spider's web is raised on the page, so children can feel it. The spider herself is outlined with a series of raised bumps, and there's a fly on most pages that gets the same treatment. It's kind of fun, although the overall story and presentation are better.
I don't know if this is available as a paper rather than board book, but my recommendation would be to get a board book edition. As with most of Eric Carle's art, it's very simple in layout, with big colourful animals and no backgrounds, appealing to babies while textured enough to fascinate older children. The story is a little long for the youngest babies, but short enough to keep the attention of the under-threes (my daughter just turned one).
The overall story (and I am going to assume that nobody reading these reviews cares about spoilers!) is about a spider spinning her web in a farmyard, and ignoring the various farm animals who come and talk to her. Double-page spreads are used throughout the book, mostly with a farm animal on the left with a fly buzzing around them, and the fence with the spider spinning her web on the right (she starts the web at the beginning of the book, and it is complete by the end).
Except for the beginning and end, the left-hand text goes: '"[animal sound]!" said [animal]. "Want to [activity]?"' The right hand text is: 'The spider didn't answer. She was very busy spinning her web.'
The final page features a night-time scene, and the web is invisible against the navy blue background, but the spider and her web can still be felt (my daughter usually ignores the previous web-pages, but she always scratches at the last one with a giggle).
Notes for the Parent
Once the spider's web is finished, she catches the fly that appeared on the lefthand pages (although it is not mentioned until the spread when it's caught). The book doesn't mention what happens to the fly after it's caught and the next page depicts a fly-free web. Basically, if you're squeamish about explaining to your child that the spider ate the fly, you don't have to. It's too complicated a concept for me to bring it up with my daughter, but if her three year old brother is listening to the story, I tell him that spiders eat flies. When the spider catches the fly, he now shouts "And ate it!" with entirely inappropriate glee.
The loose moral to the story is to work instead of play, but it's a bit vague, and you could equally say that it promotes anti-social behaviour, since the spider-heroine resolutely ignores the animals' friendly overtures!
The protagonist is female. No other genders are specified (although one assumes the cow is female, the rooster is male and the duck appears to be a female mallard), but it's not really a story with characters to identify with, just to entertain. There are no human characters.
This doesn't really teach anything, unless you count the animals and their noises. It does introduce the concept of spiders spinning webs and catching flies. The progress of the web-spinning is shown over different pages, which is a nice sequencing thing, although it's probably too complicated for the target audience to follow.
The art is done in Eric Carle's distinctive style, and although all the animals are coloured correctly (save the spider, which has a blue head and red body), it's not aiming at realism. The spider itself has a more anthropomorphic than arachnid face (two eyes and a nose). Due to the small size of the character, it's only really noticeable on the front cover.
Like a lot of Eric Carle's work, it encourages a left to right progression, with all the animals facing to the right. The first two pages of the book, feature the spider-thread trailing across the pages (ultimately leading to the fence where she spins), and older children can trace this from left to right with their finger.
The animals are loosely ordered by size, going from large to small--although they are not drawn to scale! It reads a little like a reverse of "There was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly", starting with a horse, and ending with the spider catching the fly on the suggestion of a bird.
Overall, it's probably the repetition (and the animal noises) that makes this a big hit with my children. After several iterations of 'The spider didn't answer. She was very busy spinning her web,' my daughter will turn to me, grinning broadly, when the spider catches the fly instead. My son was besotted with it at a similar age, and still enjoys it, but he never chooses it himself. He's moved onto more elaborate stories.
For a parent book recommendation, check out the series of books based on the webcomic, the Order of the Stick, the proposed reprints of which have been making Kickstarter history for the past month. Grown-ups can have picture books too!