When we think of preschoolers, we think of them running, splashing, playing, screaming (let s face facts), and, finally settling in for a nice bedtime story-Goodnight Moon or Knuffle Bunny, perhaps. But preschoolers are also insatiable learning machines. As many studies have shown, tremendous brain development takes place between birth and age five. There's no substitute for real-life experiences, but toddlers do bring their own interests and powerful sense of curiosity to the adults in their lives and ask to learn more. Series nonfiction books help feed that hunger for information, even at the preschool age.
Creatures, Cars, and Circles
As libraries with a train table can testify, children love the world of transportation, and most publishers with series for the youngest offer sets of books covering things that go--it's perhaps the largest single area of preschool publishing. Many series take one volume per form of transportation, such as Paul Collicutt's excellent picture books beginning with "This": This Train (1999), This Plane (2000), This Truck (2004), and even This Rocket (2005), among others. Publishers understandably look for series that are ongoing, and construction equipment provides especially fertile ground for extending the transportation theme (libraries could offer their young readers seven or eight titles on bulldozers alone). Some of the best series are Child's World's Machines at Work, illustrated with satisfyingly large photographs; Picture Window's Working Wheels, giving a glimpse into both machine and driver; and the newest of the group, ABDO/Magic Wagon's Mighty Machines, one of our Top 10 Early Literacy Series (see p.63).
Animals are another topic beloved by preschoolers. Even the very youngest seem to enjoy pointing out the creatures they recognize and making the accompanying sound. Although there are still series covering farm animals (PowerKids' Barnyard Animals is one), many series use animals as a starting point for introducing other ideas. For instance, two tides in Abbeville's How Artists See Jr. set of board books (a Top 10 series) combine horses and dogs with paintings in a variety of styles as a way to meld information about animals with discussions of art and artists. Four books in Heinemann's Spot the Difference series (another Top 10 series) discuss a different body part and display that part in many animals, turning the lesson into one of anatomy. PowerKids' Animal Clues invites children to guess which animal is shown in a photograph focusing only upon the animal's nose, eyes, or ears. This playful approach takes advantage of a child's desire not only to learn but also to observe and interact with a book.
The subject of shapes is used so frequently in preschools that almost every publisher targeting this audience has something to offer. Picture Window's series Know Your Shapes devotes one title to each of the four basic shapes; in Party of Three (2006), triangles can be spotted in everything from the shape of a dog's nose to the strands of hair beneath a birthday hat. Children's Press' City Shapes series goes beyond the square and circle to include stars and ovals. Marshall Cavendish's Shape of the World series is a little less successful in trying to tie actions to shapes-for instance, a picture of a chick hatching out of an oval egg is matched with the text "Ovals crack," and a literal-minded three-year-old may find that assertion puzzling. One of the best shape series, Heinemann's Spot the Shape, earned a starred review in Booklist (Shapes in Sports, reviewed September 1, 2009) for its artfully composed illustrations and challenging shape-finding activities.
Reasons for Reading
Preschool series nonfiction moves beyond the bedtime stories in part to give adults the chance to promote some of the six early literacy skills. One skill, vocabulary, is developed by all of the pointing and naming that is part of sharing these books, which usually take every opportunity to use labels. Another is "print motivation," persuading a child that books and reading are enjoyable. When children acquire an interest in a subject, it often becomes a passion, and connecting books to that intense thirst for more information benefits the child far beyond just learning a few facts.
Some series books can also answer questions a child may have about the unfamiliar. For instance, children in the U.S. are unlikely to have much idea of what a real castle is like, but they will come across the word in movies and other books. Marshall Cavendish's Inside Story series (another Top 10 entry) uses diagrams, photographs, and other artwork along with simple text to explain on a preschool level the parts of a castle and what a castle is for. Another child who has noticed the world of bugs underfoot may want to know more, and that teachable moment segues nicely into such books as Philemon Sturges' I Love Bugs! from HarperCollins (2005; see the Top 10 list) or Are You a Bee? (2001) from Kingfisher's Backyard Books series. Also from HarperCollins, Ann Morris and photographer Ken Heyman's now-classic photo-essays depict the way people live around the world, allowing preschoolers to broaden their global horizons. Loving (1990), Play (1998), and others feature lyrical text and vibrant photos.
Children also love books about themselves or other kids doing the things they naturally do. Children's Press' Play Time series depicts kids playing classic outdoor games--Let's Play Jacks, Let's Play Hopscotch, and Let's Play Hide-and-Seek (all 2000). These can help a child understand what to do when a game arises or may give them a glimpse of what older brothers and sisters are up to. Likewise, Children's Press' Rookie Toddler--Sing Along Toddler series (another Top 10 entry) might help a child cue into what's going on when they are in a group setting and a song begins. That shock of recognition that the song they are singing has almost the same words as the board book showing a teddy bear doing "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes" in the book Knees and Toes (2009) will reinforce the idea that books connect to real life in significant ways.
Part of the surge in publishing for preschoolers is driven by increasing numbers of preschools and day care centers teaching thematically or working their way through a prescribed curriculum. They spend weeks or months focusing on particular topics such as apples, friends, bears, penguins, community helpers, plants, places, shapes, and multicultural studies. Publishers have responded with books on all of these topics, both fiction and nonfiction, and many preschool teachers turn to the public library for books to reinforce their own smaller collections.
One trend is putting a loose fictional framework around copious amounts of information. Nancy Elizabeth Wallace combines cut-paper collage and photo graphs of real things in Marshall Cavendish's Apples, Apples, Apples (2000) or Seeds! Seeds! Seeds! (2004). In each book an endearing animal or child investigates the topic with very little fictionalizing, incorporating hands-on activities as well as poems, sayings, songs, and other material perfect for use in a group setting. Each title in Monica Wellington's series on careers from Dutton (such as Firefighter Frank, 2002) focuses on a fictional main character with an interesting career and moves step by step through his or her routine. These shelve in the picture-book area, but the information is plentiful, accurate, and illustrated with bright, warm pictures.
Shelley Rotner's Early Childhood Library picture books from Millbrook (another Top 10 series) cleverly combine two topics into one series. In crisp color photos, Rotner shows children using their senses (one topic) at a specific place (the second topic); for example, in Senses at the Seashore (2006), they "smell the seaweed at low tide."
Nonfiction for preschoolers tends to come in two basic formats. They are either large picture books, great for use with a group, or they are smaller with large type, intended for individual viewing or parent/child learning. With these easy readers, particularly in the area of science, sometimes the subject will be far beyond the understanding of a preschooler developmentally, so choose carefully. Increasingly, a third format is coming into use; though it may sound incongruous to some, there are now plenty of nonfiction board books, including the 44-count Rourke Board Books. These are generally for the very youngest and typically only have one sentence per page that highlights or explains something in the picture. Take a look at the Top 10 Early Literacy Series (p.63) to see our choices of series that best educate the littlest ones while still managing to inform, engage, delight, and respect their audience.
Susan Dove Lempke is head of Youth Services at the Niles Public Library District in suburban Chicago.