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“Early Childhood Literature: What Do You Need to Know?”

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, the Bank Street College Library hosted its first Writers Lab mini-conference, with a focus on early childhood literature.

To open up the conversation about the importance of books in the lives of youngest children, Dr. Perri Klass spoke of a presentation she made to a group of medical experts.

Using Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (an early member of the Bank Street Writers Lab), Klass asked,“At what age does a child fill in the missing word: ‘In the great green room/ There was a telephone/ And a red balloon/ And a picture of –/ The cow jumping over the ___’?” Audience member (and fellow presenter) Susan Milligan replied, “As soon as they can form words.” Dr. Klass confirmed her answer: “These experts should have known that. They forget.”

A baby’s babble leads to language. “If they’re not babbling, what do I assume?” asked Klass. “There’s a hearing problem.” Dr. Klass cited a piece that had appeared earlier that week in the New York Times, “The Power of Talking to Your Baby,” and echoed the author’s concern that as a society we’ve done little to bridge what’s been called “the 30-million word gap” uncovered in a 1995 study by Hart and Risley. The authors found that a three-year-old with parents in a wealthy socioeconomic household may have as many as 30 million more words in his or her vocabulary than a three-year-old in a household in which the parents receive welfare.

In the hospital rooms and clinics that participate in Reach Out and Read, which focuses on literacy as part of well-baby visits (Klass serves as its national medical director), Klass teaches doctors and nurses how to use board books to gauge a baby’s development. At six months old, they use the pages like a teething ring. By nine months, they should have a pincer grasp, and start to turn the pages. At about one year old, they know to hold the book right side up. At 30-36 months, they’re reciting the book and turning the page at the correct time. While families wait to see a doctor, blue mats serve as havens; the families call them “escuelitas,” little schools.


On a panel about “Creating Books for Early Childhood,” Robie Harris continued in this vein when she described her years as a teacher at the Bank Street School for Children. “The language of a young child gets me going,” Harris said. Her books stem from a child’s emotions, such as Mail Harry to the Moon, or a child’s questions, as with books such as It’s Perfectly Normal (both illustrated by Michael Emberley). Nina Crews talked about the advantages of parent and child reading together from a creator’s standpoint, “I can make a book rich and complex because of the adult reading with the child.”

Robie Harris

Robie Harris


Nina Crews

Both Jean Marzollo and Robie Harris spoke of the impact that Bank Street educator Dorothy Cohen made on them as writers. Cohen was an advisor for Let’s Find Out, a Scholastic magazine aimed at kindergartners, and consistently asked questions of Marzollo, who was editor of the magazine, to keep the content child-focused. “The I Spy Books would not have been written without Dorothy Cohen,” Marzollo said of her bestselling series with photos by Walter Wick. One of Amy Hest’s earliest memories involves trips to the library with her mother, who picked out books for her. Crews spoke of her “two great teachers at home”–her father, Donald Crews (Freight Train), and her mother, Ann Jonas (Color Dance). “There was a ‘say what you mean’ emphasis,” Crews said, as well as an emphasis on visual literacy–going to museums, and encouraging Crews and her sister to take photos.

Our distinguished panel: L to R, Moderator Susan Stires, Nina Crews, Jean Marzollo, Robie Harris, and Amy Hest

Our distinguished panel (L to R): Moderator Susan Stires, Nina Crews, Jean Marzollo, Robie Harris, and Amy Hest

Moderator Susan Stires, a member of the Bank Street Graduate Faculty, asked the panelists to describe their writing and revision process. “It takes a long time for a good idea to get out of my brain,” said Crews. “There’s a lot of untangling. I write and rewrite.” Crews said she might have an idea of what will “propel” her visually, but the writing comes first. Then she creates a storyboard and blocks it for her photographs. “I’m a better writer because I can’t illustrate,” Hest said, explaining that she has to make the text clear enough for the artist to picture. While Harris finds her inspiration from a child’s language, Hest said it begins and ends with her own childhood experiences, and sometimes you have to go with your gut. Hest used the phrase “a Duck family tradition” in the book In the Rain with Baby Duck, illustrated by Jill Barton. “They wanted me to take it out, but I fought for it,” she said. Like Crews, Hest believes you can challenge children who are reading with adults–they can figure things out from context.

Susan Milligan and Louise Rogers

Susan Milligan and Louise Rogers

Susan Milligan, a member of the Writers Lab, and Louise Rogers, who teaches with Milligan at Medical Center Nursery School, a Columbia University affiliate in New York City, led the group in a workshop exploring the possibilities of music in general and jazz in particular as a storytelling approach. They began with Chris Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. Rogers, a jazz musician herself, didn’t understand the book until she started performing it. She led the group in a call-and-response scat-reading of the picture book.

The audience sings along to Charlie Parker Plays Be-Bop

The audience sings along to Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

Milligan then showed us what to do if we don’t have the confidence to perform a book solo: just read along to the Blues. Two ideal texts: Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illus. by Ray Cruz, which can be read to Buddy Guy’s Blues guitar, and Owl Baby by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson, which may be read to a softer blues accompaniment.

In her closing keynote, two-time Caldecott Honor artist Laura Vaccaro Seeger (First the Egg; Green) emphasized visual literacy. “At some point in our development, we stop seeing the world around us the way very young children do,” Seeger said. In her book The Hidden Alphabet, she plays with negative space. The die-cut provides a frame that points the eye to what she wants us to see, then when the larger image is revealed with a turn of the page, we still see that smaller image within the larger context.

Walter Was Worried grew out of a game Seeger played with her young sons. “What’s the minimum you need to represent something?” she asked. “How much do I need to convey surprise? All my books have an element of play and interactivity.” She explained that in her Dog and Bear books, all the stories begin in the middle. “How did the bucket get on Bear’s head?” she said. “How will Dog get the bucket off his head?” For First the Egg, a book about transformation, Seeger “had to do something” with the die-cut egg shape, so she used it for the in-between stage. She could move from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. “I wanted it to be more meaningful than just a list. The die-cuts force you to see the same thing one way and then another way,” she said. Attendees got a preview of her forthcoming book, Bully, about a group of barnyard friends who experience a rift when one gets mean. She showed the stream-of-consciousness thinking, lists of words, drawings and storyboards. “It all starts in the journal. I love talking with children about sketches and drafts.”

From babbling to doodling to practicing and polishing, these esteemed presenters demonstrated just how much the creative process shares in common with a child’s development.

–Jennifer M. Brown

Many thanks to Cheryl Simon for our photographs and first time videographer (and outstanding sport) Dan for the video clips!

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