What was your favourite story your parents read to you when you were young?
Odds are, something immediately comes to mind. Which just goes to show, the stories we share when we’re little follow us our whole lives.
None of this is news to Andy McCormack — in fact, it’s the very core of his work.
Andy is an Early Years teacher himself, and on top of that, he’s working on his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. With the Center for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, Andy’s research focuses on children’s literature — how the books we read when we’re young can help us grow and learn the rest of our lives.
I caught up with Andy at this year’s Nursery World Show in London, where we talked about what makes a proper children’s book, and why they should be at the heart of your curriculum.
You can take a look at some of the biggest insights from the interview in the clips below, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full 11-minute interview.
As Andy explains, one of the most critical factors of a good children’s book is how the text and illustrations work together.
He points to Rosie’s Walk as a classic example — by the text alone, it’s the story of a hen named Rosie who goes for a walk about the farm. But with the illustrations, we see the sly fox following her, and he gets tripped up and scraped in obstacles about the farm. So it’s about the illustrations telling a story of their own, too.
At the 1:15 timestamp, Andy expands on that point, and tells why the illustrator is just as important as the author. Especially for children, illustrations give expressions, colour and motions to the text, really bringing the whole thing to life. So in evaluating a good children’s book, it’s not enough to just look at the writing — you’ve got to think about how the illustration fills out the story.
There’s a lot of learning to be had in a good book. As Andy says, “Phonics and vocabulary are happy byproducts of engaging with a really high-quality picture book.”
In his view, a good children’s book gets right to a lot of the core learning laid out in the EYFS foundations. It’s got to have a good story, engaging characters, beautiful illustration, and a good interplay between words and image. If the book’s got all these, children will naturally want to come back to it over and over. If you pick the right books, it makes for an easy and appealing way to get children started on the learning goals that can often cause anxieties among educators.
That said, it’s not just about picking a good book — it’s also about the experience of reading it. If you think about your own experiences with reading stories as a child, a big part of that is likely experiential: Where you were, who you were with, how the story sounded, and how it made you feel.
So with that in mind, Andy says it matters that as an educator, you’re committed to sharing the experience of a story. You should definitely pick a good read, but also share the story in an environment that’s comfortable and engaging for children.
Just before the 4-minute mark, Andy gets into how stories can help children explore who they are, and what they’re interested in. Different children are drawn to different books — it might be the illustrations, themes or topics that catch their eye. There’s a story for each taste and experience, and one for nearly every curriculum teaching goal you might have. That’s why it’s important to keep a well-stocked library of children’s books.
So what makes a good library? Well, Andy says, having some classics in there makes sense. It’s good to have some books that adults might have grown up with themselves, because it makes it more special to share those with children. But there are plenty of great new children’s books coming out, too. Plus, there are plenty of organisations making lists of the best of what’s new. If you’re looking for inspiration, Andy recommends looking at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, BookTrust or Empathy Lab.
Right around the 5:50 timestamp, Andy gets into his personal favourite children’s books and authors. He says Emily Gravett is one of his favourite contemporary authors and illustrators of the moment. In terms of best reads, he points to Charlie McKazie’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse or Helen Oxenbury and Eugene Trivizas’ The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig as modern classics in children’s literature.
Again, it’s not just what you read, but how you read it. Think back to your own memories — who read to you, and what did you read? What images do you remember, what sounds do you remember, how was the rhythm of their speech?
The point is, these are things that the children in your setting will remember, too. Especially for children who might not come from a literature-rich background, taking extra steps to make story time a special experience will go a long way in boosting children’s vocabulary, speaking and listening skills.
Andy believes it’s vital that reading and sharing stories is embedded within the EYFS framework. But beyond the framework of a curriculum, sharing stories is just a good start for curious, thoughtful children — it’s a way for adults to model their own love of learning, and of reading.
Embedding that skill as a practitioner, Andy says, means you need to model that you value texts. Children see that in how you select stories, how you handle and treat the books themselves, and the way you share them with your children. By telling how important stories were to you when you were growing up, children start to understand how the stories we read know go with us for the rest of our lives.
Enjoy the full 11-minute interview with Andy, where he and I discuss:
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.