What to look for when choosing children’s books that are ‘Montessori-friendly’ so that you can get the most out of your public library.
The topic of Montessori-friendly children’s books is a controversial one, there are purists who will insist on only offering young children non-fiction books with photographs as illustrations, some will also avoid nursery rhymes (presumably due to their Montessori-aggressive tendencies) and others will shy away from rhyming texts.
In our house we are not purists! We frequently cross lines into what I consider mild fantasy and occasionally include books with cartoon style illustrations in our monthly reading list. I do this because as a former children’s librarian, as a primary school teacher and as a bookworm I know the value of well written books (particularly rhyming books) and I KNOW that these benefits far out way the negatives. So what do you do if you (like me) do not have limitless resources to buy the perfect library and must rely on your local public library? Well you make a judgement call! To make it easier for myself to choose books that fitted with our Montessori intentions I made a short list of what of qualities to look for, if I like a book and it can meet most of the following standards then I read it, best practice be damned!
There are a 5 things on this list that you should keep in mind when choosing for your little one, and they are all there because of this one reason; young children have an absorbent mind, anything you show them will be taken in and form a part of their world view. It’s also worth noting at this point that most picture books (a category usually aimed at children under 8) are actually more likely to be suitable for children between 6 and 12. At this age we are normally encouraging our little readers towards chapter books and making it a much more solitary activity, if you’re a Mama to older children don’t rush away from these wonderful sharing books!
Scroll to the end for a subtitled video of this post (Time poor Mamas and aural learners I got you!!)
It is a book
My first and most important criteria! Reading anything is better than reading nothing. Expose your child to as much written material in as many formats and locations as you can. Read books, magazines, street signs, menus, the back of cereal packets. When there’s nothing to read make up word games or sing. Language and literacy should be about fun and expression wether you are a montessori family or not. Learning will come after that.
Like all things Montessori there is an emphasis on presenting a child with something attractive. So when looking for a children’s book consider how attractive the book is, there are no rules for this but I try to include a number of artistic styles when we fill our book bag. It’s best to pass over anything too cartoonish, the majority of cartoons are meaningless to young children who, for example, do not yet recognise that two black dots at the top of a beige circle represent eyes on a face. Books in this style tend to also present an overly simplified vision of the world which will be alien to the point of being confusing and unrecognisable in the eyes of a child. When else is an apple red, grass green and the sky blue? Before enjoying these illustrations we must first learn to reconcile what we have learnt about the world through our absorbent mind with these boldly coloured 2D images and that takes time. A beautiful book, filled with thoughtful, hand-illustrated images which reflect the creative process of the artist will result in a far more meaningful experience for a child. Even better can you make your child a book? Perhaps using photos of yourself or your home?
Books should be uncluttered and laid out in a logical manner. This means avoiding comic style layouts or books with lots of text boxes or books which force the narrative to perform aerobics all over the page! I usually avoid books that change font too regularly, especially in the middle of a sentence. A child who is working hard to translate shapes into sounds needs consistency, when the shapes suddenly change it makes it harder to find the sound. This is especially true for children with dyslexia or similar struggles. Too much clutter and too many fonts forces a child to do too many things at once. In Montessori we are always trying to enable concentration so we must isolate the stimulus, look for visual simplicity.
It’s also worth noting at this point that most picture books (a category usually aimed at children under 8) are actually more likely to be suitable for children between 6 and 12 due to their crazy layouts, alternating fonts, fantasy elements
Real Life Setting
Montessori best practice recommends that a child is not exposed to any fantasy or science-fiction until they are 6 years old. This means no flying babies, no aliens in underpants and no talking animals. Instead focus on stories that unfold in a world familiar to the child filled with characters and settings that are recognisable. Until they are six they are still operating with their Absorbent Mind, their reasoning skills are not strong enough to consistently differentiate between real life and pretend and there is a chance a child may become confused or frightened. This makes sense – it’s why the monsters under the bed are so scary. There’s also the very real fact that fantasy worlds will enforce another person’s imagination onto a child who is still forming the creative elements of themselves. By avoiding fantasy you are not limiting their imagination you are setting it free!
If you want to learn more about the merits of avoiding fantasy there are two informative (and persuasive) articles which go into more detail on the topic here and here. Both are are well worth a read if you want to understand this issue in more detail.
When you start to use your library discerningly you’d be surprised how repetitive children’s books are. It’s embarrassing how many books are gendered! I have always found that there are only so many ‘stories for boys/girls’ that can be told before it all starts to sound familiar. Strive to choose books that don’t expect to be read by one gender (for quick reference avoid books that are pink or blue). It’s also embarrassing how many books are about white middle class children. Challenge yourself when you pick a book! Remember, you’re little one is absorbing these books as part of their world view! What are these character’s telling your child? Does that world look like one you’d be happy for your child to live in? Does it reflect the society they’re likely to live in? Have you picked more than one type of book?
Having a 100% Montessori home isn’t always possible, I know because I’ve tried! It’s expensive and exhausting and fills your house with items ‘for rotation’, it can take away some of the simplest joy to be found in parenting. The more organised you are, the more relaxed you can be, but it’s still expensive and resource heavy! This list has made my library trips far easier, our book bag isn’t always perfect but it’s always full of beautiful books to share and that’s what matters!