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Why We Keep Coming Back To The Same Children's Books

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Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.

Perhaps it's the cadence of the language that lulls children to sleep, or the sweet message that even intimate objects need their rest. Or the illustrations, which oscillate from saturated oranges and greens to monochrome on every other page, as though the reader is dropping into a dream state. Margaret Wise Brown’s story of a bunny in a nursery is the sleep book to end all sleep books, and steeped in nostalgia for those special moments when my own mom and dad read aloud to my younger self. But why is it so powerful?

During the early months of my son Aidan’s life (“the suck,” as my sister so poignantly referred to that stretch of sleepless nights and foggy days), I grew tired of singing the same lullabies to Aidan. So, I grabbed our copy of Goodnight Moon to read aloud. However, he was too little for a typical read-aloud interaction with a book, plus my goal for reading the book was to lull him to sleep. A-ha! My deep-tissue memory as a young singer forged a simple melody to transform the words into song lyrics. This way I could sing Goodnight Moon wherever we were when I so desperately needed Aidan to nap.

As the months wore on, and Aidan began to self-soothe, the "Goodnight Moon" lullaby took a sabbatical, and I had all but forgotten about our little ritual.

I sang the story to him, and his reaction to hearing something familiar — but this time being able to link images to words, turn the pages, and more fully participate in the reading experience — was nothing short of a parenting miracle.

Fast forward a year to our current ritual of reading board books before Aidan goes to bed. Much to my surprise, he found the book’s orange binding on our bookshelf and insisted we read it together. Naturally, I sang the story to him, and his reaction to hearing something familiar — but this time being able to link images to words, turn the pages, and more fully participate in the reading experience — was nothing short of a parenting miracle. From then on, Goodnight Moon has been our mainstay ritual before naps and bedtime.

We talk about nostalgia when we revisit children's books, but there is something more complex at work when your L.O. signals for you to re-read the story from the start. To understand Aidan’s strong attachment to the text, and your child's love of Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes, or The Watermelon Seed, I draw upon the theory of scaffolding — something I use in my work conducting educational research around language — to understand what’s going on.

The great Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky understood that cognitive and linguistic development were two sides of the same coin. Accordingly, he argued that parents should create as many high-quality interactional opportunities as possible with their youngsters to tug them a little bit beyond what they are capable of doing by themselves. His theory hinged on identifying a child’s "zone of proximal development" — essentially a space that exists at the edge of their current comfort zone. The idea is to design tasks with adult-support to help the child engage with and ultimately succeed in accomplishing said task while slowly removing the supports along the way. Training wheels are scaffolds for a bicycle; sippy cups are scaffolds for cups; pacifiers are scaffolds for the thumb. Et cetera et cetera.

How is my Goodnight Moon story an example of parental scaffolding? Let’s review my goals for each interaction with the book to shed some (moon)light on the answer.

When Aidan was an infant, my purpose for the text was to lull him to sleep through song and a rocking motion. The physical text didn’t figure into that interaction: it was all about using patterned sounds to achieve soothing. Yet something else was happening: he was familiarizing himself with the discrete phonemes and cadence of the English language as represented through the books’ words (or in this case, lyrics). His little brain soaked up the sounds and rhythms, such that when he returned to the story a year later, it was already familiar to him, so he could engage in new meaning-making ways.

My hunch is you all have similar stories of revisiting a book (or toy, or place, or even discussion).

Now he points to the images he recognizes as the sounds become meaningful words, and he turns the page, noticing when the song progresses. In short, we have mutual goals for interacting with the text and as time goes on, and Aidan gathers more expressive language, he’ll sing along and point to each word, and possibly ask questions about the story.

In other words, Goodnight Moon is an artifact that we will return to at different stages throughout Aidan’s journey into language and literacy. Each moment with the book will unearth a new set of goals, experiences and memories that map onto each associated stage in his development.

I share this unexpected “when theory meets practice” anecdote with you, my fellow parents, because my hunch is you all have similar stories of revisiting a book (or toy, or place, or even discussion) where newer meanings and purposes become realized, with your son or daughter forging the way.

Moreover, now that you have some educational theory in your back pocket, you can have an informed discussion with your child’s care-provider/teacher about which scaffolds have worked best for your L.O. and, correspondingly, inquire what scaffolds work in the other setting.

So thank you, dear Margaret Wise Brown and all the prolific children’s book authors, for giving me a tool that has, and will continue, to enrich my child’s linguistic and cognitive development. Because now I understand that when that bunny goes off to sleep, he's got a lot to ponder.