Sunday, April 13, 2008

Concept Books

They are not quite a blank slate, but babies do require an awful lot of topping up with really basic concepts, information, knowledge and wisdom. While the overwhelming majority of the distillation of concepts, information and knowledge is through the spoken word between parent and child, between siblings, and between child and friends, there is a small role for the concept book.

As parents, particularly first-time parents, I think it is easy to take for granted what we already know and overlook the simple basics that our young children have yet to comprehend. Our acquisition of these basic concepts occurs at such a young age that it is already beyond the horizon of recollection for most of us when our own children come along.

Take, as an example, the ability to know that just because you don't see something, doesn't mean that it is not there. I remember first encountering this in a real way with my niece, one or two years old at the time. We spent what seemed like the better part of an afternoon, with my hiding behind a sofa and every couple of minutes popping my head over the back of the sofa to her shriek of delight at this genuinely unexpected sudden appearance. While I did not think of it as so at the time - it was just a mindlessly entertaining way of entertaining her and there is nothing quite so pleasing as a child's genuine squeal of delight - I was teaching her the basic concept that things have an independent existence whether you see them or not. Psychologists have a learned term for this but it escapes me. Later in life many things are predicated on this basic concept and yet it is one that has to be learned.

The surprise we feel when we come across the blank spaces, (those concepts we assume everyone inherently knows but do not), is akin to that which we feel as an adult when we come across a peer that cannot swim or cannot ride a bike. We learned so long ago that we don't really recollect that it was a skill that did have to be acquired and we are astounded to find others without that skill which we take for granted.

Take the simple concept of numbers and counting. If you are interested in anthropology, the record is replete with instances of isolated tribes having virtually no concept of counting at all. Depending on the tribe, sometimes the numbering system is as basic as one and many. It seems inconceivable to us in a modern economy and society to be able to work with a numerical world consisting of only "one or many" but it works for them.

Many years ago I recall reading an essay by an anthropologist/linguist who was speculating about how the very nature of a language might shape and influence the development of a people. The particular example he was using was that of the ancient Greek language versus many of the old Germanic languages. He pointed out that, relative to many other languages, ancient Greek was filled with words for encompassing categories or concepts. While the old Germanic languages had words for red, blue, green, yellow, etc. they did not have a word for the concept "color". He posited that the Greek language, rich in conceptual terms, allowed them to think in a more abstract way than had previously been feasible. I tucked it away with a pinch of skepticism and have never seen any similar argument made since then, but it is an intriguing thought to pull out and mull every now and then.

Another phenomenon of which I have read a number of times but never seen a study on is that of the capacity to view two-dimensional images. Most of the instances of which I have come across have involved animal collectors or hunters visiting some remote village or community, trying to ascertain whether a particular species of animal is known to exist in the area. The collector pulls out a photograph of the animal and the people are unable to identify it, though it later turns out from the verbal discussion that the animal is well-known in the area. The issue being that your eye takes some training to interpret two-dimensional information (such as that represented by a photograph) and if you have never been exposed to that kind of image, your brain simply cannot process it in a comprehensible way.

Even in advanced economies, all countries deal with some marginal level of either functional or profound illiteracy. I recall a consulting project we were undertaking years ago here in the US with a municipal water authority. They were trying to figure out how to get more work done with their existing work force and we were tasked with helping that process. One of the first steps was to simply understand what actually occurred in the field on a day to day basis (rather than what the executives thought happened). To gather this information, we devised an information collection device by which first line field supervisors could collect an accurate picture of who did what in the field in order to get work done. The whole project took a detour at that point. Our industrial engineer who had designed the data collection process, which involved filling in some forms, sat down with the supervisors to go over with them how they were to collect the information and only then discovered that forty percent of the field supervisors were functionally illiterate. They were not stupid people but they had never learned to read and had developed some astonishingly sophisticated coping techniques so that it would never be apparent to anyone else that they could not read.

Children are the most reliable means of taking you back to the beginning of things when it is all as close to a blank slate as conceivable. When the whole world is magical and unpredictable. The concept of seasons doesn't exist because you can't anticipate the future - there is only the now. There is an awesome wonder when the whole world is fresh and unpredictable, but there is a frustration as well and children can make you well aware of that frustration. If everything is unpredictable, then you have no power - it is magical but there is that dark side of the magic as well. You are at the whim of an environment you don't understand and does not answer to your will.

When we help our children build basic concepts of time and numbers and letters, we are taking a little bit of the magic out of their world but we are also giving them the first tools that give them some power and control. The rest of our lives are in a way a postscript to this first learning - how to maintain an invigorating sense of magic while having the power of understanding.

Concept books are a highly focused and specialized part of the children's book market and are pretty ephemeral in the reading life of a child. You don't use them for more than a few months or a year. Though they may have strong preferences, children rarely bond with a concept book because it is not a story book: there is rarely a strong story line and no one with whom to bond. Concept books do, however, serve a purpose and can be a fun and beautiful addition to an early library.

The concept book intends to impart an extremely basic set of information to a child, information so foundational that all other knowledge acquisition is dependent on it. The classical concept books are alphabet books (learning the alphabet as the first step towards being able to read) and counting books (understanding the concept of quantities and counting). Over the years the boundaries of what might be considered a concept book have been expanded to include books dealing with color, shapes, sizes, opposites, directions (up versus down, in versus out), senses, textures, sounds, emotions, telling time, measurements, money, etc.

When you look over the booklists of concept books you suddenly realize just how much there is to choose from. How to choose? A useful and basic rule of thumb, which we will shortly also recommend breaking, is to keep it simple. Concept books that we found useful with our children included many varieties of ABC books and counting books, and then a scattering of shapes, opposites, and sounds type of books. "Concept" books dealing with more sophisticated concepts such as measurement, distances, time, months, seasons, and such may be selectively of value but they teeter at the edge where the child is too advanced for the simplistic presentation of a complex notion. It sometimes works and often it does not. Frequently these ideas are better presented in simple storylines in an easily understandable way.

Some concept books try and combine multiple concepts such as distinguishing red (color) squares (shapes) from red circles. Sometimes it works but it is usually better to focus on a single concept at a time when teaching abstract ideas to young children.

One of the reasons for the plethora of concept books is that they are relatively straightforward to produce and market. Have a favorite illustrator or favorite author? They have probably done an alphabet book and/or counting book. Is your child fascinated by a particular topic (dinosaurs, animals, machines, flowers, construction sites, racecars, foods, etc.), then there is almost certainly an alphabet or counting book cast around that topic. Any hook that catches the child's interest is worth using.

Having said that it is best to keep concept books simple, the one caveat that I would make to that statement is that combining concept books with poetry and rhyme seems to be particularly attractive to most children. There can be a playfulness and vivaciousness to the spoken words that they enjoy as they digest these new ideas. The grandfather (though not the first) of all alphabet books is Edward Lear's An Alphabet. There is something about his wildly random and nonsensical but rhythmic and repetitive rhymes that seems to engage every child that encounters them.



A was once an apple-pie,
Pidy, Widy, Tidy, Pidy, Nice insidy, Apple-pie!

And don't forget Xerxes, one of Sally's personal childhood favorites.



X was once a great king Xerxes,
Xerxy, Perxy, Turxy, Xerxy, Linxy, lurxy, Great King Xerxes!

Below is a selection of concept books which our children have enjoyed along with others recommended by community members and other sources. Let us know of any favorites you have.

Concept Books

Anno's Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno Recommended

A Gardener's Alphabet by Mary Azarian Recommended

Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang Suggested

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle Suggested

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle Recommended

Matthew A.B.C. by Peter Catalanotto Suggested

Opposites by Robert Crowther Suggested

One Big Building by Michael Dahl and illustrated by Todd Ouren Suggested

Dr. Seuss' A B C by Dr. Seuss Recommended

Color Farm by Lois Ehlert Suggested

Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert Recommended

Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert Recommended

Ape in a Cape by Fritz Eichenberg Suggested

The Wing on a Flea by Ed Emberley Suggested

The Letters Are Lost! by Lisa Campbell Ernst Suggested

Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming Suggested

Where Is the Green Sheep by Mem Fox and illustrated by Judy Horacek Suggested

The Abc Bunny by Wanda Gag and illustrated by Howard Gag Recommended

Exactly the Opposite by Tana Hoban Suggested

Of Colors and Things by Tana Hoban Suggested

Shapes, Shapes, Shapes by Tana Hoban Suggested

Alphabet City by Stephen Johnson Suggested

Alison's Zinnia by Anita Lobel Suggested

On Market Street by Arnold Lobel Recommendation

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin and John Archambault and illustratedby Lois Ehlert Suggested

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin and illustrated by Eric Carle Recommended

I Spy Shapes in Art by Lucy Micklethwait Recommended

Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

Chicken Soup With Rice by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

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