Choosing Montessori-friendly Books

Since I last wrote how to select Montessori-friendly books based on my AMI 3-6 Assistants training, many lovely readers requested a Montessori booklist, which I was all ready to compile! However, after reflecting, I realised that a home collection of books MUST be as individual as the child it is for. With that in mind, I think it might be more useful to share 

  • elements that high-quality Montessori-friendly books have
  • how to make our own judgment calls about which books meet that criteria
  • and possibly most importantly, how to inculcate a love for reading 

The two most important criteria for selecting books:

1. Subject matter should be realistic, so no talking animals and no cartoons. It may be non-fiction or fiction, as long as they are grounded in reality.  (Also, if we restricted ourselves to non-fiction, we would lose so much of the wordplay and visual artistry that fiction has to offer.) Possible topics are endless! Cultures, life cycles, babies, seasons. 

Fantasy is avoided in the first plane of development (0-6yo), because children live in the here and now, and cannot distinguish reality from fantasy. Fantasies about fairies, dragons, superheroes are adult-created and would not happen in the real world. One common misconception about Montessori then is that avoiding fantasy limits imagination. That could not be further from the truth. Dr Montessori advocated giving children a firm grounding in reality, so that the child’s imagination would be free to create. Never underestimate the power of nature and real life for a young child. Even the humble centipede crawling across the floor is magical. Instead of giving them adult-created fantasies which would limit their imagination, offer to them the wonders of the natural world in rich language, which serves as a solid foundation from which their imaginations can truly soar.

Under the Ocean by Anouck Bisrobert

Young children do not respond well to fantasy because they cannot separate it from reality (although it’s perfectly fine for ages 6up, when they develop a reasoning mind). My coursemates teaching in non-Montessori schools shared that even popular classics like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Gruffalo caused nightmares for several students. On that note, some of the nursery rhymes that people tend to introduce to babies, have rather dark historic origins e.g. “Ring around the roses” was written as a warning of the Black Plague. If your 2.5yo is anything like mine, she will ask “why” until she is completely satisfied with your answer: so then do you tell the whole gory truth or a white lie? Our trainer suggested that such nursery rhymes are better saved for children in the second plane (6-12yo) who already possess the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, as a historical document from which they can independently research its origins. See point 7 for a quality alternative to nursery rhymes 🙂

2. Illustrations should be beautiful and characters should be sized proportionately to each other and the landscape e.g. the bird should be smaller than the human and the human should be smaller than the car. This supports the child’s need for order and making sense of his world.

Many children’s books feature bobblehead characters with disproportionately big heads and tiny bodies as they think facial features captivate the children, but that creeps me out. 

On the other end of the spectrum,  we need not always go for hyper-realistic/ photographic quality either. Having a variety of illustrative styles, from Shirley Hugh’s feathery line drawings to Eric Carle’s blocky collages, exposes children to the beauty of art early on.

All the vehicles are sized accurately relative to the others

Let’s pause for a bit to consider some books that don’t look like they’ll make the Montessori cut. 

On subject matter

My classmates questioned whether Spot the Dog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar were Montessori-friendly. 

One is a dog who goes on picnics and talks to other dogs. So, nope. (This was my childhood favourite plus the syntax is brilliant so it’s a hard one to eliminate)

One is a caterpillar who eats more junk food than a human. It is unrealistic that we are given insight into the caterpillar’s point of view, yet it is also logical that the food he consumes is too much and too processed. There are two very realistic lessons here- caterpillars should not eat crap, and neither should children. Therefore, this book stays. (And if you’re not convinced, our trainer said, “What’s wrong with Hungry Caterpillar? I love Hungry Caterpillar!”)

On illustrations

I know, this isn’t what you would expect of a “realistically and beautifully illustrated” Montessori book? I mean, yikes! Just look at all those jarring bright colors and lack of a naturalistic landscape background.

But on a serious note, the bright backgrounds on each page serve a rather Montessori purpose- the colors are a control of error, which is a way for the child to self-correct without the need for adult intervention. In fact there are multiple controls of error, for instance matching the top and bottom halves of the same animal, matching the sound word (“roar”) that appear on both the top and bottom halves of the page, or the animal name.

Further considerations for selecting Montessori-friendly books:

3. Handmake.

As I explained in this post on why we handmake and display handmade, making by hand allows us to customise the story not for a demographic or class, but down to each unique child. And if we want our children to eventually write, writing stuff ourselves allows them to see handwriting in a world of printed matter. Where else could I find a book about a Singaporean brother and sister celebrating Chinese New Year in London- unless I made it myself?

“Guo Nian”, a handmade book dictated by Dylan and Emmeline, transcribed by yours truly
Handmade books especially must be treated with care. We teach our children how to turn the pages at the corner to prevent tearing.

4. Honour diversity (fantastic list here, and actually The Kavanaugh Report’s entire archive  is spot-on). As a non-Westerner in a Western country, my hope is that we will move past lauding the few books that feature minority protagonists, and that it will become so commonplace to read about characters of different genders, race, nationalities and abilities, that our children will consider it the norm to see characters that look just like them achieving success or even just doing their thing.

We have a problem when girls are represented narrowly as pink-loving princesses
… and when outstanding women are hailed as “rebel girls” e.g. deviant from the norm

5. In line with that, give your child the world, and a sense of his place in the world. Go big:

Or go small, zooming into parts of things, for children in a sensitive period for refinement:

Our AMI trainers recommended this visual dictionary, so Andrew bought a used one for 2.98GBP before class had even ended!
How many times have I, while waiting for someone to open a door, done a three-period lesson on parts of a door to keep the children engaged…

6.  Meet your child wherever he is developmentally. We tend to introduce rather complex themes to babies who do not appreciate the full import of the story, and replace them too soon with newer ones. What happened to a key principle for selecting Montessori materials- isolation of stimulus, removing all extraneous design/ color/ detail that may distract the young learner? 

Ten Little Fingers by Mem Fox- still a favourite at 2.5yo, that she will request my 4yo to read/ sing it to her

This selection for babies nails it with short, repetitive verses and relatable illustrations (after all, baby’s favourite topic is baby!).

For 2.5yo Emmy, a wordless book so she could “read” independently.

And again, is a friendship between a flamingo and a girl likely? Nope. But is the underlying value of care for living things something I want for my child? Yes. Plus, at least this flamingo doesn’t talk

For 4yo Dylan, in a huge sensitive period for numbers and exploding into writing:

Coarsely-textured numerals for tracing. I will never forget how Dyl took this book, read it and then wrote out the numbers completely unprompted.

I’ve seen Number Work in home libraries for babies and toddlers, but it really shouldn’t be a substitute for those ABC and 1-10 books that publishers are fond of pushing onto the littlest tots who don’t grasp the abstract concept of numbers. Numbers require a huge mental leap from recognising quantities to realising quantities are denoted by specific signs e.g. numbers. Hence I think there is value in holding such books off until your child is ready for such work, since the sensitive period for numbers is 4-5.5yo. 

7. Let’s not forget how captivating poetry can be.

A poem by Shirley Hughes

Or rhyme.

Research shows that stirring poetry activates similar areas in the brain as music, making it a wonderful addition to any home library (which are often heavy on prose). 

Warning: Locomotive is a long read that will have you exceeding bedtime, but it’s so packed with sound devices like onomatopoeia and rhyme that it’s as fun to read as it is to listen to. Plus, for beginning readers, the different fonts assigned to different sounds facilitate whole-word recognition.

Age- and topically-appropriate poetry is hard to come by. In any case we need not be confined by “children’s poetry”, you could also print a few of your favourite poems and bind them into a custom poetry booklet. (Some incredible poetry recommendations on Wildflower Ramblings.)

8. Encourage a love for “reading”. Anything.

Reading is essentially the act of decoding verbal and nonverbal messages. Even babies as young as 10mo “read” their mothers’ facial expressions and smile or mimic them in response. Pressured by higher academic standards for younger children, many parents feel we have to drill them on their ABCs. But in truth, learning ABCs (and in Montessori we don’t call it ABCs but teach by letter sounds) is relatively simple compared to learning a whole language, with its nuances and accent. Yet babies do that without ever having gone through formal schooling! If we can foster a love for reading, the ABCs will naturally come.

Reading an abandoned newspaper supplement while waiting for coffee
Reading a menu with her name on it (she and the restaurant had the same name)
Even a paint catalogue.

9. Books are but ONE form of storytelling. Besides the written word, tell children oral stories, narrate an incident in your day (doesn’t have to be particularly funny or poignant, just has to be real/ realistic), make up little fingerplays and songs, tell them stories about themselves- their birth, their favourite pastime, what you value about them. All kinds of direct language input will be eagerly soaked up by their absorbent minds.

10. Make your home library inviting by displaying books frontally and rotating them occasionally.

A reading corner in a Montessori/ Waldorf school
And another reading corner in the school’s garden studio. Love the string lights, floor cushions and CD player for creating ambience.

Our smaller books were getting lost in our bookshelf and thus dog-eared. I commissioned fabric pouches with a simple button closure (the trick is to use elastic for some give) to protect the books.

While I try to be minimalist with toys  and clothing, it is very hard for me, former Literature major at university and high school Lit teacher, to resist books. I have two boxes of books, in Mandarin and English…

I rotate books from these boxes into this child-sized bookshelf so the collection is always fresh and follows my children’s current interests.

No outward-facing bookshelf? Use a magazine rack, a basket or simply stand them along the floor. 🙂

For some younger children, a certain book may be their comfort object so let it stay on the shelf for as long as necessary.

And finally…

11. Don’t guilt yourself if your book collection isn’t 100% realistic.

Mine is about 80% realistic. It took about four months to get here and I am quite happy with this equilibrium. I read all my kids’ books first, to make sure it teaches the values I want to inculcate (so no characters saying “you clever/ pretty girl!” or offering bribes to stop crying etc). I bought this Mandarin Miffy Goes to the Museum years ago, and while talking bunnies wearing clothes is the total opposite of Montessori, Emmeline loves her “Mippy”. (Her bunny-printed top was a coincidence.) I don’t intend to build a Miffy collection for Emmeline, but for this particular book I see value in Miffy’s trait of intellectual curiosity. Visually too, the economy of line and subtle aesthetic references to Mondrian, Picasso etc mean that I could use Miffy down the line to introduce art history and technique.

Instead of the more obvious Montessori book with the intricate artwork and seasonal descriptions, Emmeline goes for the talking bunny. And you know what, it’s fine by me.

A list of 10 more tips, including some specific to the classroom and how to conduct reading groups, here.


2 thoughts on “Choosing Montessori-friendly Books

  1. That’s still a minimalist collection! I must post a picture of mine! (my children are older so your collection might be triple the size when your children are older).
    Regarding the Gruffalo, I think it’s the rhythm that make it so popular as all the Julia Donalson’s books. Eric Carl’s books are surely more realistic and have the same kind of rhythmic text.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s