What Chinese Books Should I Read to My Baby?

As many of you know, I receive a lot of reader mail as well as encounter a lot of questions on multiple Facebook groups/boards on the topic of Chinese for babies/kids.

Recently, someone asked what Chinese books they should read to their four month old baby.

Below is my video response.

For the people who are morally opposed to watching videos, here is the gist:

Stop overthinking it.

Your baby is four months old. They can’t even see color yet. (Or if they can, barely.) They cannot follow plot or understand books.

Chill out.

Remember, Chinese picture books and baby board books are written for adults to read to their children.

That sounds like a super obvious statement – but what that also means is that you need to be literate in Chinese in order to read them. So, if you can’t read Chinese characters fluidly, there is no pinyin or zhuyin to help you out.

If you can read Chinese already then your Chinese is likely good enough to translate baby books and board books on the fly. If that is the case, you do NOT need to buy Chinese baby books. You can buy any book that you can read and then translate into Chinese.

Baby books are not meant to be complex stories. There are no plot twists or gotchas. You should be fine.

If you cannot read Chinese and your spoken Chinese is reasonably fluent, again, you can just translate books as you are reading them to your baby. Again, you do NOT need to buy specific Chinese baby books.

And if you cannot read Chinese and you cannot speak Chinese, then Chinese baby books are completely useless to you.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your four month old is NOT going to become literate staring at a Chinese baby book that you cannot even read to them in Chinese.

That sounds mean, but honestly, I just want to save you the money and the worry.

There are other ways to teach your baby Chinese if you’re not fluent, but that is not my focus today.

If you are fluent or can speak some Chinese, the best thing you can do is speak Chinese to your baby all the time.

Did you know I wrote a book on how to teach your kids Chinese? You can get it on Amazon (affiliate link) and it’s conveniently titled, So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.

It’s full of practical advice, detailed applications, and heavy amounts of snark. Find most of the answers to your questions about how you can get your babies fluent in Chinese.

 

How to Taiwan with Kids

Upon hearing that I took four kids 7 years old and under (including an 8 month old) by myself for a month, most people immediately say, “You’re so brave!” This is usually immediately followed by, “How do you do it?”

Well, the short answer is, “With a lot of yelling.”

The long answer takes a lot of time (and a lot of swears) but because I’m a giver, here is how I personally get through it (and without any alcohol, too!).

1) Ask for help.

I cannot reiterate this enough.

Do not be a jerk. Do not let pride get in your way. Either ask for help or accept help when people who love you offer.

I will be honest. I was offended and pissed off at my mother when she told me she didn’t want to go to Taiwan in the summer but was only going to help me on the plane (even though I did not expect her to come – NOR DID I ASK). She just could not fathom how my children would go to the bathroom.

I tried to explain that Cookie Monster (7.5) and Gamera (5.75) could go by themselves. I really would only have to help Glow Worm (~4) and as for myself, I have gone to the bathroom plenty of times with Sasquatch (8 months) strapped to my body.

I was a little less offended that my cousin rearranged his travel schedule to the US in order to accompany us on the trip back.

Either way, I felt as if they were saying I was not a capable person. After all, don’t I take care of my four kids every day?

But you know what? FUCK MY PRIDE. My mother and cousin were helpful. And I accepted their help (despite internal grumbling).

Even though my mom ended up not sitting next to us on the plane (and only checking in once for about a minute), she was still helpful at the airport, going through customs, and when we moved into the apartment. She helped me at bedtime for the ten days she was there.

THAT IS NO SMALL MATTER.

Plus, my kids got to spend extra time with her – and she is so wonderful with them. They got to hear stories and just laughed and laughed and laughed.

And on the way back, I forgot that since we did not have a direct flight, we would have to go through customs with all our luggage then recheck them in for our domestic flight.

I could not have gotten it done without my cousin there. It was hard. SO HARD. (I was still recovering from the flu and I just could not manage all our luggage along with all my children.) I am SO GRATEFUL he was there. Even a minor thing such as him being there allowed me to go to the bathroom without worrying about my kids being alone.

As for during our stay, several times, my cousins would bring food over (both in terms of dinner and in terms of fruit and snacks). They also lent me supplies that I needed for the kids’ school so I didn’t have to buy them. Super helpful!

2) Make a packing list at least a month (or two) in advance.

That way, you have enough time to order stuff on Amazon or go to a physical store and buy. And of course, anything you forget to purchase, you can most likely buy in Taiwan. It is, after all, a developed country. The only problem is that everything is in Chinese.

THAT IS A REALLY BIG PROBLEM. (If you are mediocre like me.)

Here’s a pic of my packing list. Obviously, YMMV.

3) Know your limits.

If you are going to be single parenting it in a foreign country (or really, anywhere – and quite frankly, even if you have a partner in the picture), you really need to know your limits.

You have to be brutally honest with yourself about your capacity and ability to handle shit. BECAUSE SHIT WILL HAPPEN.

So, I know that I have a really low tolerance for sightseeing stuff – especially with so many wiggly and crappy kids. I also hate eating out with my kids. Or really, doing ANYTHING with my kids.

As a result, we saw nothing. We ate out at ONE restaurant. We avoided anything that I hated doing. If I knew something would piss me off if the kids were with me, I would either not do it or only do it when they were in school.

I also made sure I got enough sleep because I know that when I’m sleep deprived, I am even meaner. And because I have a low noise tolerance level, I was okay with the kids having a lot of screen time. Like, A LOT of screen time. Because that is the only time they are guaranteed to be silent. Because their brains are rotting.

4) Be OK with feeling stupid. ALL THE TIME.

I am not kidding.

I spent 99.9% of the time in Taiwan feeling like an idiot.

It’s sad, really. I always forget and think that I’m fluent in Chinese when I’m in the US because really, my Chinese is pretty good. When I am in the US.

When I’m in Taiwan? MY CHINESE IS SAD AND JUST ENOUGH TO KNOW THAT I AM MISSING SOMETHING IMPORTANT.

I cannot wait until my children’s Chinese is better than mine so they understand what people are saying to us. Better yet. When they can read the Chinese so that we don’t have to speak to anyone.

I don’t know how to explain to people who have not experienced this, but ultimately, it’s not that we don’t understand Chinese. It’s just that everyone speaks so quickly. Or they use obscure terms. Or super polite terms. Or super official sounding terms. Or normal terms that our parents never saw the need to teach us. Or terms our parents didn’t know to teach us. Or terms they might have taught us but we never retained.

Couple that with my functional illiteracy, I end up asking questions that are obviously labeled and answered IF ONLY I COULD READ ALL THE WORDS. OR IF ONLY I COULD COMPREHEND WHAT THESE WORDS I CAN READ MEAN TOGETHER IN A SENTENCE.

5) Have a routine.

This seems silly but routines saved me.

They ensured that I remembered to do things like pack lunches, refill water bottles, had clean clothes, sunblocked and bug sprayed my children, and washed the dishes.

I mean, would these things have gotten done WITHOUT the routine? Yes. Of course. How could they not?

But my life was much less stressful because these routines became muscle memory and I didn’t have to expend as much brain power trying to make sure everything got done.

6) Appropriate footwear is key.

I am a big fan of kids having covered toes and sneaker like shoes because Taipei is an urban city and the last thing I want is for their flip flops or crocs to get caught in an escalator or snag on uneven sidewalks and then end up at the hospital to replace a toe.

So, I made sure we had shoes that were breathable, had sneaker like tread, but could dry quickly if they got wet in the rain or water. I chose to buy (affiliate link) Stride Rite Phibians. They’re boring and sturdy and get the job done.

7) Take out is your friend.

I don’t understand how some of my friends would physically bring their children to restaurants and then eat dinner during prime people eating time. That sounds like my personal version of hell.

Maybe it’s because I have never trained my children to behave in public. Or that there are too many of them. But by the end of the day, I can’t think of anything my children want to do less than sit still and quietly while waiting for their food (that they might not eat) and then eating it. (And also hoping there are forks because only one of my kids can use chopsticks.)

No, thanks.

Instead, I found a place by my kids’ camp and bought off their menu almost every week night (before even picking them up) and then we would eat it at home while they zombied out on iPads.

8) Indoor play spaces are also your friend. (But they are expensive.)

Look, maybe my feral children are unique, but they are used to a lot more space in the States and being at parks and running around to let out their boundless energy.

It’s not that there aren’t parks (and great parks) in Taiwan. It’s just that it’s hot and there are a lot of mosquitoes. Nothing makes a park less fun than a blazing sun that is trying to melt you and incinerate your body with fire. And when you’re hiding from the sun, eating you alive with evil, tiny black mosquitoes.

Nope. No thanks.

So, indoor play spaces are great.

9) Make sure your kids understand how to navigate a city.

Since my kids are born and bred in the sprawl of an American suburb, they are not used to the density of people, the pace of the movement, and the rules of city life.

So most of my stress was making sure my kids weren’t impeding the flow of traffic by coming to a dead stop in front of an elevator, turnstile, stairwell, escalator, MRT door, middle of a crosswalk – YOU NAME IT, THEY’VE JUST STOOD THERE LIKE IDIOTS WITH MOUTHS AGAPE.

Oh, I was also worried about them plummeting to their deaths from the 3-4 story high escalators.

Also? My kids are not quiet. Or well-behaved.

Taiwanese children apparently know that they’re supposed to be quiet and well-behaved in public and on public transportation.

So, other than trying to civilize my children, I also had to make sure I didn’t lose them among the crush of people on escalators, MRT trains, buses, and THE SIDEWALK.

10) Remember, your children get culture shock, too. And jetlag. My God, the jetlag.

You know how everything is hard and foreign and overwhelming to you? It’s the same (and perhaps moreso) for your children.

Be kind. And gracious.

If you can remember. (I often did not.)

11) Get internet access for your phone.

You can buy a SIM card with a Taiwanese phone number at the airport and/or at local telecom stores. Or, you can rent a hotspot. Either way, YOU NEED INTERNET ACCESS.

In Taiwan, you buy two separate services: talking minutes and data. You need to buy both, but data is VITAL.

How else will you find what foods, attractions, activities, and addresses are by you?

12) Google Maps and Pleco are your best friends. 

This is, of course, predicated on having internet access.

Google Maps has improved so much since I started going back to Taiwan three years ago. (Has it really only been three years?)

As long as you know your destination, Google Maps will tell you how to get there. Of course, you can always take a taxi – and Google Maps will tell you how long that will take.

But, it will also tell you how to get there (and how long it will take) via public transportation (MRT, bus, train, etc.) or walking.

Plus, now if you click on the bus numbers, Google Maps will show you all the other buses you could take, how many minutes until they arrive, how many stops there will be until your destination, and how much it will cost!

Just keep in mind that there is sometimes more than one bus stop in a given location. It took awhile for me to realize that the buses are grouped by each stop (logical) versus just listing all the possible buses you can take near you. You need to click on the separate bus listings to see all the other possible buses that are available to you.

Also, you can also change the date and time when you’re searching. This is important because if you search directions in the middle of the night, you might think there are zero to no options when in reality, during the day, there will be lots of options. Or, if you search during commuting hours but then travel on a weekend or during non-commuting hours, you will think you have more options when really, you have few.

Ask me how I know.

For the MRT, Google Maps will tell you which exit you take (there are many exits per MRT station) and trust me when I say, the longer you can stay within the air-conditioned confines of an MRT station and avoid the fiery ball of gas outside the better.

As for Pleco, unless you are native fluent and also functionally literate, YOU WILL NEED A GOOD TRANSLATION APP.

Some people prefer Google Translate. I prefer Pleco.

Plus, Pleco has OCR where you can just scan characters and it will tell you (for free) how to pronounce the characters (but not their definitions). That is useful if you understand Chinese but just can’t read. Not so useful if you don’t.

13) Don’t bother with car seats. 

If you are super worried, just take public transportation or walk. For the rides to and from the airport, you can call ahead and book a taxi that will rent you up to two carseats. (In this same vein, there are companies where you can rent pack ‘n plays and other baby things.)

Just keep in mind that no taxi will wait for you to install/uninstall a car seat – and even supposing you do find a taxi that will, are you really going to be walking around Taipei carrying a car seat along with your children?

Get over it. Kids here ride ON MOTOR SCOOTERS.

Anyhow, I hope this was helpful.

If you have a lot of time on your hands or just want more of me, here’s my Facebook Live video that discusses a lot of these same things (but unedited and with perhaps some more swears).

I Didn’t Believe My Own Advice

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. 

I have a major confession to make.

Even though I have written a book about teaching your kid Chinese and have written extensively on how to get your kids bilingual and bi-literate, I secretly was afraid it wasn’t true.

That I was full of crap.

That maybe, what I was advocating was fine in theory but kinda sketchy in the application.

I mean, I had seen examples of people ahead of me on the Chinese journey and it’s what they did (and did successfully), but I had yet to really see my kids get to a level where I could semi-breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, yes.

They’re not bad, but where was this miraculous “just make them read and they will start becoming more literate” thing going to kick in for me?

Cookie Monster is almost eight. WHEN IS THIS GOING TO HAPPEN?

In fact, right before we left for Taiwan, we were going through a rough patch of reading. We had been going through a daily reading workbook as well as the 小書包 (xiao3 shu bao)/Little Back Pack series, and Cookie Monster was getting better at reading comprehension.

However, for some reason, he started having trouble with his tones. I was getting super mad at him and yelling and he would be in tears.

And even though he went on a trip to DC with my mother to visit my brother and she said Cookie Monster did really well with reading in Chinese that trip and that both she and my brother were really impressed, I wasn’t reassured. (Although, Cookie Monster did text me a lot in Chinese and he was handwriting the texts and it was hilarious and awesome.)

Then, we went to Taiwan for a month and I did not bother making him read at all.

When we got back, we started back up with the reading again and he was again, super horrible with his tones. I couldn’t understand how he could go from having no problem with tones to having HUGE difficulty with discerning and saying the second and third tones.

Needless to say, I was not patient or kind and my poor child shriveled before my eyes.

I had to super chill out and remind myself that I was not a failure and neither was Cookie Monster.

But mostly, I was pissed off that I had wasted so many dollars on zhuyin teachers and Chinese tutoring because clearly, he was not improving – and not only that, he was regressing.

And then, this week, it happened.

IT HAPPENED.

I think it was the eclipse.

On a whim, I decided to issue myself a two week challenge to try and have Cookie Monster finally attack a chapter book after a year long break. (We had tried the Little Bear series and though he read them, he wasn’t that interested and it seemed a little hard for him.)

I made him read the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel (I will be reviewing this next week) and halfway through the second book, IT HAPPENED.

Something clicked and he refused to stop.

Cookie Monster started to pick up the book without me asking him to and would read a chapter or two. Then he moved on to reading a whole five chapter book in one sitting.

He even started reading silently to himself.

And when he was done with the series? He asked for more.

He said that he liked longer books because they were more interesting.

And then, Cookie Monster went looking on our bookshelf and took out a Mr. Men and Little Miss book. Even though these books are harder to read than to listen to on CD, I think because he had heard them so often in the car, it wasn’t so bad for him.

And read he did.

For years, I would hear of my friends complaining that their kids would just read and not do anything else and how it seemed ridiculous to complain about it, but FFS, the kids wouldn’t do homework, eat, bathe, or sleep.

I would laugh and say, “Too bad I don’t have this problem!”

But now, I do. (Or at least, I have had this problem for the last few days.)

I AM BOTH SO HAPPY AND RELIEVED AND ALSO ANNOYED THAT I NOW HAVE THIS PROBLEM.

He has now started following me around to pester – I mean, ASK – me about zhuyin pronunciations. EVEN WHEN I AM TRYING TO LOAD KIDS INTO THE CAR FOR CLASS OR PUT SASQUATCH DOWN FOR A NAP OR WHEN I AM GOING TO THE BATHROOM.

This just goes to show you that I will never be happy.

Cookie Monster has now attempted to read while I was trying to teach him the different types of matter (solid, liquid, and gas), while cleaning up (and as a result, walking into things), and while eating lunch.

He has refused to play with his siblings because he wants to read – and Gamera and Glow Worm were baffled.

And annoyed. They were really annoyed.

Gamera kept asking me why Cookie Monster wanted to read so much. (Literally word for word the same thing Cookie Monster would ask Fleur’s eldest daughter, Bebe, when she was reading Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter.)

He even told me today that he really wanted to read a lot and to get better at reading Chinese.

Seriously. I almost checked the sky to see if there were pigs flying.

So, is there a point to this post other than my shameless bragging about my firstborn FINALLY showing an interest in reading (which is one of my favorite pastimes)?

I’m so glad you asked.

Other than another totally legitimate way to plug my book and my excellent advice that though I doubted, CAME THROUGH AFTER ALL, I thought I would give some unsolicited advice about the process of literacy (Chinese or otherwise).

Incidentally, the process in general is: Front load as many characters as possible (usually via Sagebooks). Teach zhuyin. Read, read, read.

And of course, all of this is useless without comprehension so obviously, increase that. (Just buy my book already.)

Alright. On with my unsolicited advice.

1) It’s okay to doubt the process. Do it (the process) anyway.

I mean, again. I wrote a book about it. I still worried and felt like a fraud. But I put in the work (although somewhat inconsistently) and eventually, it paid off.

2) Consistency is key.

I’m pretty sure if I had just consistently persisted with helping Cookie Monster read daily, he would have made the leap to chapter books and considering reading as pleasure much earlier.

I am trying to learn from my mistakes and be MUCH more consistent with Gamera (5.75) who, though she loves to hear stories in Chinese, is really resistant to reading in Chinese. Because it’s hard. And takes effort.

I have to remind myself that I did not demand as much from Cookie Monster when he was her age and that though she is really good at reading with zhuyin (and honestly, better than Cookie Monster), she is still two years younger and has a much different tolerance level for hard work.

3) Having a library is important.

You know, Guavarama constantly blogs about building a Chinese library and often told me that I needed more books at certain levels and though I bought them, part of me was really resistant.

I mean, HOW MANY BOOKS DO WE REALLY NEED, AMIRITE?

Even the ever patient Hapa Papa was annoyed at all our Chinese books. He kept saying, “Why are we spending all our money on books no one is ever going to read?”

I wanted to smack him because he doesn’t read books in general, but also because he voiced a small, terrible fear that would whisper in the back of my mind as I threw down hundreds and thousands of dollars on boxes of books.

Anyway, I finally stopped buying so many picture books and early beginning reader books because COME ON!!!

But now, I’m worried that I do not have enough because Cookie Monster is tearing through the books. He read 4-5 Mr. Men books JUST THIS MORNING. (Thank goodness there are 96 in the set.)

This brings me to the real reason why you need a library in your home (or spread across the homes of your friends). If you are willing to put in the work and drive, your local libraries may also be useful.

You need a LOT of books available because your child may not read all of them.

This pains me to say, but though I have been methodically working my way through all the books we own with the children, they sometimes just aren’t interested (or don’t have the comprehension). So, some books just might never get read.

You also need at least two levels ahead of your kid’s current reading level. Why? Because kids jump levels or sometimes blast through levels very quickly.

And if you do not have those books at your home or readily available and you order books from Taiwan or China, for Pete’s sake, don’t be a cheapass. Pay for shipping by AIR.

What is the point of waiting two months for the books to ship by sea? HAVE YOU NEVER MET A CHILD BEFORE?

First of all, that’s two months your child could be reading.

Second, in two months, your kid might not care or regress or any number of things because children are assholes and live to thwart our will.

This way when lightning strikes, (and boy, did it strike), and your kid all of a sudden wants to read as many books as they can get their hands on, it’s fortuitous and expeditious to have the appropriate leveled books in your house.

All Cookie Monster had to do was go to our bookshelves and pick out the books he wanted to read. And he did.

Otherwise, he might have been interested and willing, but by the time I got books from a friend or the library or from a very slow boat, he might not have been interested and willing anymore.

You know how kids are. They suck.

Capricious bastards.

4) Competency and comprehension are vital.

It is belaboring the obvious, but that’s what I’m here for: to point out the obvious!

Look, it’s not fun to read if you’re not good at it.

Case in point: I can read Chinese books just fine if there is zhuyin. If there is not, it is a painful, laborious process and it doesn’t matter how awesome the story is or how great the illustrations, we are not reading the book because I associate it with pain.

The corollary is, it’s not fun to read if you don’t understand what you are reading.

Ever read the fine print in a contract (like when you sign away your life to Apple when you update your iOS or download an app) or the contraindications of a medication? Those are all words and you can read them, but are they comprehensible?

No. They are not.

No one reads these things for fun. If you do, YOU ARE A MONSTER.

If we as adults hate to read things we can’t read or understand, how much more so with children?

5) Age, maturity, development, and interest matter. 

As much as we would like to push our kids to be super readers, sometimes, it just depends on where they are developmentally and interest-wise.

It’s kind of like making your kids less picky eaters.

You just have to present a bunch of foods (or books) to your kid and make them try as many as you can and eventually, your kid either gives up and just eats crap they might not like, or they discover foods they didn’t realize they would like. But ultimately, it takes time – and sometimes, you just have to wait a phase out.

Hmmm. This metaphor may have devolved and not be as useful as I initially thought.

Whatever. You get the idea. You can’t expect your newborn to crawl, run, or be toilet trained. Same thing with literacy. Your kid just might not be there yet. The best you can do is to plug away, slowly but surely so that when the stars align, you’re ready.

See? I can be useful and non-braggarty!

I know I am nowhere near the finish line, but this week has given me hope and a very necessary boost. It helps me know that I’m on the right track and if I stay consistent, most likely the next leveling up will happen, too. (That would be reading books without zhuyin.)

Also? You’re not alone.

It’s totally normal to think that it’s taking forever and maybe it’s not worth it and OMG YOU HAVE WASTED ALL YOUR MONEY ON BOOKS AND CHINESE TUTORS.

Just keep at it and before you know it, another celestial event will happen and your child will be reading Chinese books. (Now, I just have to time it for GameraGlow Worm, and Sasquatch.)

For those of you who are ahead of us on this journey, any other advice? Let me know in the comments.