Celebrating the tiny moments: how picture books can help babies develop

Published on: 14 December 2020 Author: Anna McQuinn

You don't have to be able to read to enjoy a book! Zeki creator Anna McQuinn explains how picture books with a knowledge of children's development can make a big difference to how little ones meet their first experiences - from going to the local library to having a checkup at the doctor's.

Photo kindly supplied by Anna McQuinnPhoto kindly supplied by Anna McQuinn

Working as a part-time community librarian as part of a Sure Start Family & Community Team in West London had a huge impact on my writing. I trained as a teacher and worked directly with children but never with parents – it was very daunting.

I have three big takeaways from those first few months.

One of my first outreach sessions was at the drop–in baby clinic in the local health centre.

I sat by a mum and her very cranky 10 month-old, offering a book to distract the baby. Mum smiled at me sweetly and explained very gently that her little one was only 10 months and couldn’t read yet.

I pulled one of my books out, said, "maybe she’ll like the pictures." It was a photographic board book and when we got to a page with a baby crying, reader, this little girl’s bottom lip quivered in sympathy. And Mum noticed!

Takeaway number two: modeling is far more powerful than telling!

My second lesson came when a Mum who was attending my session remarked that her little boy was “not into books”. Since he was only 14 months, I thought it a little early to have reached this conclusion.

We selected a few books from the box to try before writing off books altogether. At our next story time I modeled how much we can get from looking at and chatting about just one page of a story – no need to finish it in one go.

My third takeaway was on the responsibilities we have as authors, editors and publishers.

If a book is ‘for babies’, then parents assume it and its contents are appropriate developmentally.

If it’s not appropriate they often think it’s their child who is wrong, not the book. Oh boy!

Zeki Loves Baby Club Published by Alanna Max. Text © Anna McQuinn, 2014.  Illustrations © Ruth Hearson, 2014. Illustration: Ruth Hearson

When I came to write the Zeki books I wanted to write everyday stories and focus on the small familiar moments that are important to little children, so they could relate. I also wanted to use the opportunity to model ways to engage with young children, so I started the series with a trip to a Baby Rhyme Time in the local library.

After breakfast and a short buggy ride, Zeki arrives at the library. I hope this scene communicates how young children are welcome in libraries nowadays (not everyone knows this!). 

I was delighted to welcome so many dads to my library’s Nurture Club and Baby Book Club, so it was nice to reflect that.

A diverse cast of families reflecting the realities of our lives, each one saying ‘hello’. The illustrator, Ruth Hearson, has done such a wonderful job capturing the joy that comes from singing together, doing actions and so on.

Getting ready for swimming

In Zeki Can Swim I had an opportunity to show Zeki’s own Dad. To prepare Zeki for swim class, he helps him ‘swim’ in the bath, like a little fish, then reads a fishy bedtime story - Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle of course! I don’t think we have enough Dads like this in picture books – especially not enough Black Dads.

Zeki Can Swim Published by Alanna Max. Text © Anna McQuinn, 2017.  Illustrations © Ruth Hearson, 2017.
Illustration: Ruth Hearson 

As always in this series, because his parents have prepared him well for the new experience, Zeki greets the swim class with enthusiasm. In turn, readers of the story can prepare their children and I hope the ‘moment-by-moment’ approach will help walk a child through what to expect. When it’s time to go home Daddy has washed off all that pool water and moisturized Zeki’s baby skin – another favourite image of mine.

The first doctor visit

In Zeki Gets a Checkup, I wanted to tackle another big moment in a young child’s life – a doctor visit.I decided to focus on a developmental or wellness check versus an illness or accident.

Ruth Hearson has done an amazing job here. Each step is developmentally specific (standing on their own supporting themselves with one hand; anticipating what to do when getting dressed, using a sippy cup, using a two-finger pincer to hold food and so on…) but immediately recognisable.

Zeki Gets a Checkup Published by Alanna Max. Text © Anna McQuinn, 2018.  Illustrations © Ruth Hearson, 2018.
Illustration: Ruth Hearson

Once again, Dad is the one taking Zeki for his developmental check. Daddy encourages Zeki to bring what he needs too: his blankie, Mr Seahorse and an all-important book. Daddy is such a role model!

Instead of telling Zeki not to worry, he simply brings along familiar things that will help Zeki feel comfortable and that will occupy him so he doesn’t get restless.

So, when Zeki’s turn comes, he is ready! He is enthusiastic about showing the doctor all the things he can do now and is quite content to be weighed and measured. He even copes with the vaccination. We decided to show the moment before it happened so that we didn’t raise too many fears – like most children, Zeki gets over it quickly and by the next page he is excited to get a book to read at home.

I was thrilled to be contacted by a reader who used this book with her friend that didn’t speak very much English. She was confused when she received an invitation for a health check as her child was not ill. The reader used the illustrations to talk her friend though developmental checks. That’s when I knew we’d created something special here.

Zeki Loves Mummy Published by Alanna Max. Text © Anna McQuinn, 2021.  Illustrations © Ruth Hearson, 2021.Illustration: Ruth Hearson

Introducing Mummy and Daddy

It is with great enthusiasm that I can here give a sneak preview of the next chapter of Zeki’s life and announce that there are not one, but two new books coming in 2021: Zeki Loves Mummy and Zeki Loves Daddy! In these I was delighted to continue to focus on those tiny moments that make up a small child’s day – those humdrum, everyday moments that stories sometimes gloss over but which are the core of a child’s life at this age.

Zeki Loves Mummy comes out in February 2021 and I was keen to show Mum’s nurturing side, but also her playful, creative sides too, as well as her physical strength (like the way she can lift that baby in yoga class!).

I wanted Zeki's Mum to be a three-dimensional person that readers would relate to.

Everything that Mummy does with Zeki is not just great fun but appropriate for his age: she wakes him up with a peek-a-boo game; they make dens with cushions and throws (such simple pleasures); and when they paint, Mummy focuses on the process and has set the activity us so mess doesn’t matter. And in Zeki’s house, the day always ends with a story. And once again Ruth Hearson has captured the joy in these small pleasures, and created scenes that every small child will revel in – these are celebrations of the familiar, the small, the everyday…

Zeki Loves Daddy Published by Alanna Max. Text © Anna McQuinn, 2021.  Illustrations © Ruth Hearson, 2021.Illustration: Ruth Hearson

Zeki Loves Daddy comes out later in May 2021. Again, I have Ruth to thank for showing Zeki’s wonderful, caring, competent Dad in all of his dimensions. Daddy’s bike might be the ‘zippiest’, but he can also cook breakfast, tend to grazed knees with gentleness, and do the dippiest dance moves – it’s no wonder he falls asleep before Zeki come bedtime!

I think it’s so important for children to see involved Dads in stories and for little boys to know it’s OK to express emotions, to be caring as well as daring!

My favourite spread is Dad and Zeki playing in Zeki Town – I love ‘small play’ activities because they are wonderful for developing language and social skills and I love the concentration Ruth has shown on their faces in the book. I hope it will prompt Dad readers to get involved in their child’s inner worlds…

That’s my hope for the series as a whole – that the stories will be validating and uplifting for young children and their parents – a celebration of all the everyday tiny moments that make up life with a young child.

Follow Anna on Twitter for more Zeki updates or check out Ruth Hearson's adorable illustrations on Instagram.

Explore the Zeki books

Zeki Gets a Checkup

Author: Anna McQuinn Illustrator: Ruth Hearson

Zeki is a big boy now – he loves hiding toys, playing ball, singing and dancing. Today, he’s going for a checkup at the doctors’ with Daddy and his toy Mister Seahorse. A lovely book to share with toddlers, which marks their developmental milestones.

Read more about Zeki Gets a Checkup

Zeki Loves Baby Club

Author: Anna McQuinn Illustrator: Ruth Hearson

Wednesday is Zeki's favourite day of the week because that's the day he goes to Baby Club and meets friends from all over the world...

Read more about Zeki Loves Baby Club

Zeki Can Swim

Author: Anna McQuinn Illustrator: Ruth Hearson

It is an exciting day. Zeki loves the water and today Dad’s taking him to his baby swimming class. Bright and colourful, this picture book for the very young is an utter delight, with a naturally diverse and subtly inclusive cast of characters.

Read more about Zeki Can Swim