Board Books Go Boom

Not long ago, while browsing through the picture book shelves of a local book store, I came across something that immediately caught my attention: Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in a board book edition. One volume in the “Children’s Condensed Classics” series created especially for babies and toddlers, it opens with the line, “Long ago most forms of life were much different than they are today” and concludes, five pages later, with, “We’re lucky to share our world with so many different animal friends!” Somehow I don’t think this is quite what Mr. Darwin had in mind when he was trying to get across his theory of natural selection. Nor do I know of a single baby who would understand or appreciate Darwin’s life work, even in this greatly simplified form.

The Origin of Species, while an extreme case, points to a disturbing trend in recent trade publishing for children: the notion that any book (but most especially a best-selling picture book) can and should be reissued as a board book. Lately we’ve been inundated with board book editions of popular children’s books, from watered down adaptations of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House books (“Here is Laura. She lives in a little house on the prairie”) to truncated editions of new and old favorites.

Perhaps unwitting consumers believe they are getting the exact same story when they choose the sturdier board book edition over an original picture book edition. Sometimes they are. The board book editions of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, for example, lose nothing but their original size and shape in their conversion from picture book to board book. And, as an added bonus, Goodnight Moon actually works well as a book for babies since it has many of the qualities of the most successful board books. The Snowy Day, on the other hand, is still a story better suited to three- and four-year-olds; however, we can always hope that it will survive its owner’s infancy or find its way into the hands of an older sibling, cousin, or friend. At least these children will get a complete, unabridged version of the original.

Other board book consumers will not be so lucky. One may be tipped off to the changes in Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom because, even though the cover of the board book looks very much like the cover of the picture book edition, the title has been changed to Chicka Chicka ABC; indeed, the board book has only half the story of the original. The alphabet letters never recover after their fall from the coconut tree in the board book version. Upon hearing Chicka Chicka ABC for the first time, one twenty-month-old who was very familiar with the original book commented sadly, at the book’s conclusion: “Boom boom?” I can’t say for certain exactly what he meant, but his disappointment with the book’s transformation was unmistakable.

The best-selling board book edition of Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney pales in comparison to the original bestselling picture book on which it was based. The text in the twenty-page board book edition is word-for-word the same as the twenty-eight-page original. So how do you suppose they managed to do that with eight fewer pages? By deleting illustrations, of course, and by twice cramming what once spread over four pages onto two. This completely throws off the pace of the book, a feature that approached perfection in the original, and quite likely contributed to the book’s initial critical success. Ironically, the popularity of the original drives the success of the board book edition: who can resist a sturdier, less expensive version of this engaging best-selling title? People who know and love the original, that’s who! Why tamper with success? Why publish an inferior board book edition of a book that succeeds perfectly well on its own as a picture book? Sadly, the only obvious answer is: because it will sell. Why should publishers limit themselves to selling something only once when it can easily be repackaged and sold a second time?

With the current boom in board books, it seems that nearly every best-selling picture book is destined to become a board book, whether the content is suited to babies and toddlers or not. Conversely, we see fewer and fewer original board books being published—those that are specifically created with the interests and needs of the youngest in mind. In the rush to repackage successful picture books as board books, it seems that the ultimate audience for board books has been entirely disregarded.

Publishers don’t deserve all the blame for the misguided board book boom. After all, they’re just doing their job, giving the people what they want. And people want books for babies. Badly. Anxious to put durable books into tiny hands, parents and librarians avidly purchase board book editions of familiar picture books. But, if there weren’t board book editions available, how many parents would choose Rainbow Fish as a story to read to their baby? How many librarians would think of recommending Lois Ehlert’s Eating the Alphabet for a toddler? And yet these are books that are currently being purchased for this age group, simply because they are available as board books.

Perhaps we have never given true board books much in the way of critical attention. We have probably been a little too quick in the past to write them off as insignificant, unimportant, or ephemeral, not real books, after all. But is there more to true board books than mere form? What can we learn from looking at some outstanding board books that were published prior to the boom? How do these books serve the developmental needs of babies? What do they have that most of the boom books lack?

Any book, of course, can be read aloud to a baby, from nursery rhymes to T. S. Eliot, but board books have been especially designed for them. Constructed of heavy cardboard stock covered with a washable, glossy surface, they stand up to rough handling by babies, who are more likely to throw or pound on or suck on a book than they are to turn its pages. Rather than telling a detailed story, board books help babies begin to understand the idea of books: here is an object that has something to look at and something to say, and we make it work by opening it up and turning the pages like this. Once babies catch on to the idea of turning pages, they are generally very eager to do so, whether they are able to do it themselves or have to prod an elder to turn the pages for them. Those who create the best board books recognize and nurture this enthusiasm by using few, if any, words.

Consequently, most board books have little space for plot development. They may be as simple as Tana Hoban’s Red, Blue, Yellow Shoe, a wordless book featuring photographs of ten colorful, familiar objects, or Lucy Cousins’s striking animal board books, Country Animals, Farm Animals, Garden Animals, and Pet Animals, which consist of boldly colored, stylized portraits of common animals, each one labeled with its name (duck, hen, pig, etc.). More recently, Monica Wellington has created a baby-centered series of object identification books with her What Does Baby See? series. Her Baby in a Car and Baby in a Buggy both highlight the sorts of ordinary things babies typically get excited about seeing when they are out and about, including traffic lights, balloons, fire trucks, balls, and garbage trucks.

Helen Oxenbury offers a few more words in her series of four large, square board books, All Fall Down, Clap Hands, Say Goodnight, and Tickle, Tickle. Each one shows chunky, active toddlers in day care who engage in typical activities such as singing, bouncing, running around in circles, clapping, and waving good-bye. Oxenbury’s brief rhyming text averages just five words per page, perfect for an audience whose attention span and energy level probably matches that of Oxenbury’s young characters. Cheryl Willis Hudson uses a slightly longer (ten words to a page) rhyming text to celebrate the routine of two dramatic occurrences in every baby’s day: waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Her large-sized board books, Good Morning Baby and Good Night Baby, both feature African-American toddlers, a rarity in the nearly all-white world of board books.

Rosemary Wells is one of the few authors who actually manages to develop plot and character in this context (although Wells, too, uses few words). In her popular series of board books about a headstrong baby rabbit named Max and his bossy older sister, Ruby, she is able to build a simple plot by focusing on conflict between the two siblings. In Max’s First Word, for example, Ruby tries to expand her little brother’s vocabulary:

Max’s one word was BANG!
No, Max, said his sister Ruby. Say CUP.
Bang, said Max.
POT, Max, said Ruby.

As Ruby goes around the kitchen, pointing out objects and asking Max to repeat their names, Wells is actually using the tried-and-true technique of object identification, common in books for babies, but she is creatively raising it to a new level by making it part of a natural interaction between siblings. Her clever repetition of the word bang, an infant crowd-pleaser of a word if there ever was one, also helps to hold the attention of young listeners.

One feature that these books have in common is their simple, flat, boldly colored artwork. Like the text, art in board books is best streamlined and uncluttered by background details. The kitchen setting of Max’s First Word, for example, is implied through Max’s highchair and by the array of objects Ruby points out to him. Nowhere do we see the stove, refrigerator, or tile floor, as all of the action takes place against plain, vividly colored backgrounds. Similarly, Oxenbury’s day care center is implied by her diverse cast of four characters who all appear to be the same age. Behind these four is a clean white background that helps the young audience focus on and define the objects or characters in the foreground. Another feature they all have in common is the authors’ keen understanding of the common interests and capabilities of babies. From the identification of clearly recognizable objects and animals to the portrayal of everyday routines and activities familiar to most babies, these are the subjects which are likely to hold their attention through the five to seven page-turnings required to take a board book from beginning to end.

It is this rare ability to hold a baby’s attention that is the key to any board book’s success. When a baby is able to focus on the book as a whole—not just as something to chew or pound or throw, but as something that opens up to a world of words and pictures that uses the same ingenious page-turning technique over and over again — then we can actually see the origin of our own peculiar species of readers.

From the March/April 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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