It is supposed to be a goody bag, but it looks like homework. From October the nation's 18-month-olds will be handed a red nylon book bag that has an unmistakable air of "school" about it. For those who are not put off, there are two free books inside and two more to come by the time they are three.
The Department for Education and Skills' Sure Start unit this week agreed to fund the distribution of nine million books over three years in an extension of the Bookstart scheme. Bookstart has been giving baby books to new parents via health visitors and nursery nurses since 1992 (in 2000 it became the first national books-for-babies scheme in the world).
The red Bookstart+ bag to be given to toddlers from October will contain two books (one board book and one paperback picture book) plus drawing materials.
The My Treasure Box giveaway for two to three-year-olds earns more presentation points. It comes in a sturdy cardboard "treasure chest" with a boy-friendly design including a false bottom to conceal goodies such as coloured pencils and sharpener, and two picture books. Strangely, it also includes a large plastic bag, which parents are urged to keep out of children's reach.
A parents' booklet on early learning with contributions from authors Tony Mitton and Gervase Phinn points out how children's language awareness, social skills and love of books can be developed through visits to parks, libraries, museums and galleries, counting the stars at night or helping to do the shopping.
Parents also get an invitation to join their local library, suggestions for more books for their child and bookplate stickers from the My Home Library scheme set up by Anne Fine, a past children's laureate, to encourage families to collect second-hand books.
The core collection, selected by Wendy Cooling, children's books consultant, with input from librarians, will change regularly, but from October into spring 2006 the giveaways will be drawn from a list of 11 books.
Titles for Bookstart+ include modern classics such as Rod Campbell's Dear Zoo (21 years old this year) and Quentin Blake's Mister Magnolia (25 this year) and more recent hits such as Come on Daisy! ("A neat plot, a playful text and sensuous visual effects," said the TES review in June 1998).
Strong stories, often rhyming, and plenty to share and point out are common factors between the age groups.
In the second batch of books, two to three-year-olds can marvel at the incompetence of Jez Alborough's Duck in the Truck, who got stuck in the muck in 2000 and would be there still if not for Sheep in his jeep and Goat in his boat.
Down by the Cool of the Pool, in the same batch, also has a bouncy rhyming text with plenty of action and opportunities for joining in.
Jacqueline Wilson, the children's laureate, said: "Bookstart has been going for a while now, and I think it is wonderful that the Government is now behind it.
"When I was a young mum with little money I would have been delighted to have been given free books to read to my children."
WHAT'S IN THE PACKS?
At 18 months
Bookstart+ One of the following board books:
* What do you do? by Mandy Stanley (Collins)
* Whose Tail? by Sam Lloyd (Little Tiger Press)
* Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell (Campbell Books) Plus one of the following picture books
* Snore! by Michael Rosen and Jonathan Langley (Collins)
* Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake (Random House)
* Come on, Daisy! by Jane Simmons (Orchard Books) Plus a counting frieze, jumbo crayons, a scribble pad, a set of My Home Library stickers and a "toddler's first book list" by Booktrust For two to three-year-olds
* Treasure Box and two paperback picture books selected from:
* Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough (Collins)
* This and That by Julie Sykes and Tanya Linch (Little Tiger Press)
* Kids by Catherine and Laurence Anholt (Walker Books)
* Over on the Farm by Christopher Gunson (Random House)
* Down by the Cool of the Pool by Tony Mitton and Guy Parker-Rees (Orchard Books) Plus coloured pencils and sharpener, scribble pad, more My Home Library stickers and two booklets: Bookstart's Great Books for Three to Five-Year-Olds and Treasure, ideas for early learning.