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What Meghan and Harry know about storybook time – and you should too

Meghan Markle has been reading to Archie since he was born, if experts in children’s literacy are any judge.

So that puts paid to this lot of Markle’s critics. There she was last week, sparky Archie sitting on mum’s lap to celebrate his first birthday.

While Harry videoed, Meghan read their son Duck! Rabbit! – check out Wittgenstein to see what this is really about – to promote Save The Children’s ‘Save With Stories’ campaign, which supports children during the pandemic.

Some described Meghan as attention-seeking and unmaternal and the whole reading-to-Archie event as phony. But experts in literacy say it’s never too soon to start reading to babies, even though it might feel awkward. Babies won’t recognise the words or even what the pictures are – but they soon will.

University of Sydney Professor Emerita Robyn Ewing specialises in early language and literacy and says we should start reading to newborns even though they won’t understand what we say.

“It starts right from birth. It’s about creating a language-rich environment which includes all sorts of talking, language play, sharing stories, reading stories, having conversations,” she says. “Babies recognise parents’ voices even in utero.”

And the quality of the books matter, says Ewing, who for 40 years has researched in this area. Read babies books which make sense and are enjoyable to read.

“It’s important that there’s joy in it for you,” she says. “We have so many absolutely fantastic picture books these days.”

When parents ask Gleebooks bookseller David Gaunt what books they should buy for their babies or for their grandbabies, he has the answers.

This year, it’s Bronwyn Bancroft’s An Australian 123 of Animals published in 2007 and already a classic. Anything by Alison Lester (Clive Eats AlligatorsRosie Sips SpidersMagic Beach) Peepo or The Baby’s Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg; and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

He begs new parents to go for board books first because any loved book will end up chewed at the corners. Gaunt understands why grandparents want to buy expensive editions of classic nursery rhymes or the complete Harry Potter series. Buy them, but put them away until the baby stops licking everything.

Ewing encouraged her first husband to love reading and that set an example to their children. She’s still at it. During isolation, she’s reading to her five-year-old grandson every single day, by Zoom. That technology wasn't necessary when businesswoman and non-executive director Marina Go read to her two sons.

“I found that it relaxed them and they seemed to be listening. Eventually that passive listening became active listening and then actively suggesting stories. My sons liked me to read their favourite books over and over again,” says Go.

What were those favourites? Bookseller Gaunt’s choice of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, plus the Spot books and any Golden books with animals, cars or monsters.

She's still reading to her sons; bits out of newspaper articles, other interesting items. And when they are home, they read right back at her.

Go also recalls being read to her by her own mother when she was very young.

“The only books that I can recall were the Enid Blyton books. I loved The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and The Magic Faraway Tree.”

Australian Children’s Laureate for the next two years and legendary children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky is thrilled Meghan Markle is reading to Archie.

“Meghan’s a fabulous example. Everyone should be reading to babies.

“You may not read every word and the baby may not pay attention all the time. But it’s the parent or the grandparent with the baby, slowly exploring, turning the pages. It’s a long process of accumulation.”

Dubosarsky has a granddaughter whose favourite book is Tohby Riddle’s The Astronaut’s Cat.

“She’s opened the book and turned the pages many, many times and she crawls over and pulls the book out and hands it to me. I’m sure Archie does the same.”

Dubosarsky says we should not only read to our babies. Yes, of course, read to them. But when libraries reopen, get down there and register your child for a card as soon as they are born.

And after a day of reading to baby? Delight in some devastating adult reading. Like an essay by Duck! Rabbit!’s author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who died of ovarian cancer in 2017.

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