What Makes a Good Board Book?

Before launching into any venture, whether it be conducting a meeting, planning a toddler story time, or simply making a trip to the grocery store, I take a cue from my inner two-year-old and ask why. Why am I doing this? What do I hope will happen? Thus, when faced with the task of assessing what makes a good board book, I began with this basic and underlying question: what do we (the grownups) want to happen when we share board books with the very youngest children?

Although there are many possible reasons for reading to babies and toddlers, several general responses immediately come to mind. Sharing books with young children can:

  • Nurture a love of books and reading
  • Provide sensory stimulation in support of brain development
  • Develop language
  • Impart knowledge of the world and how it works
  • Create a joyful and loving connection between babies/toddlers and their grownups.

Certainly these are some big tasks for such small books, tasks that require multiple readings of a wide array of books. Fortunately, the number and variety of board books available is substantial. The challenge is in selecting those that the young listeners will enjoy and the adult readers will happily share time and time again.

Board books, most fundamentally, are a format-specific subgenre of the traditional picture book. Consequently, they are subject to the same evaluative criteria used when considering the larger group, namely the quality of both the text and the illustrations as well as the successful interplay of the two. Board books, however, must also be appropriate for the very youngest child, whose visual acuity, verbal skills, and attention span are in various stages of development. While the target group varies in age by only about thirty-six months, their developmental levels are remarkably different from one end of the spectrum to the other and from one child to the next.

So what is the loving parent, the doting grandparent, the committed care provider to do when selecting board books to purchase and to share? I suggest considering and categorizing the options. Understanding and classifying the board book universe will help you provide a variety of reading and language experiences across the developmental spectrum that describes babies and toddlers.

The Text: Concepts or Stories

color zoo What Makes a Good Board Book?Textually board books divide naturally, if not always neatly, between those that contain some semblance of a story and those that support conceptual understanding. There are any number of board books that afford “point and say” opportunities for identifying colors, shapes, numbers, and other concepts. Lois Ehlert’s Color Zoo, originally published in a trade picture book edition and later reissued in board book format, supplies the young child with two conceptual experiences. Although the abstract depictions of the animals may not be obvious immediately, Ehlert’s unique exploration of colors and shapes provides the reader and the listener with a wealth of conversational opportunities. Mem Fox approaches animals from a narrative rather than conceptual perspective in Time for Bed. Her rhyming text introduces a variety of animal babies settling in for the night, culminating with a sleeping child receiving a mother’s wish for sweet dreams. Bill Martin Jr. finds the textual middle ground with both the trade and board book editions of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, which reinforces color concepts using language that is both patterned and narrative.

The Illustrations: Photos or Drawings

baby faces What Makes a Good Board Book?An important visual distinction among board books are those that feature drawings or paintings and those that are illustrated with photographs. For a young child, the jump from a real object to a visual representation of that object is often a shorter distance when the representation is photographic. Margaret Miller, cognizant of both the challenge of this visual jump and the fact that babies love looking at other babies, provides a visual explanation of emotional and sensory responses in Baby Faces. She pairs expressive photographic portraits with simple descriptions such as stinky, yucky, and yippee. Helen Oxenbury populates her books with babies and toddlers as well. Like Miller, she depicts children that are ethnically diverse and have expressive faces, although she draws rather than photographs her subjects. Originally published in 1987, Oxenbury’s quartet, which includes All Fall Down, Clap Hands, Say Goodnight, and Tickle Tickle, was reissued with revised covers in 1999. The series exemplifies a sensitivity to the daily realities of toddlerhood while extending a rhyming text with illustrative nuances.

The Mood: Soothing or Stimulating

barnyard dance What Makes a Good Board Book?Board books speak to the many moods of childhood. Through skillful use of text, illustrations, typography, color, and layout, board book creators establish a mood that can be enhanced with the proper delivery. Amy Hest has created an engaging but soothing bedtime tale in Kiss Good Night. After hearing a story, enjoying a glass of milk, and snuggling in with his stuff ed animal friends, Sam waits for his mother’s good night kiss and then drifts off to sleep. At the other end of the excitement continuum, Sandra Boynton provides lively, stimulating stories that call for boisterous readings and elicit wiggling responses with her books Barnyard Dance! and Moo, Baa, La La La!

Engaging the Senses: Texture or Manipulation

colors bolam What Makes a Good Board Book?Young children learn much about the world through their senses. And while board books are made to be read, many also invite interactivity by providing textures to explore, flaps to lift, tabs to pull. Illustrator Emily Bolam combines bold colors with embossed textures in her Touch, Look, and Learn! books. The decision to use coated paper and embossed rather than furry or fluff y textures makes these books well-suited to public library collections. They are easily cleaned and thus stay fresh and inviting after lots of handling by lots of children. There are currently two titles in this conceptual series, Colors and Counting. Karen Katz has created a similarly well-designed series of lift-the flap books that stand up to enthusiastic use by multiple children. Her kewpie-doll toddlers can be found searching for their mothers (Where Is Baby’s Mommy?), their toys (Where Is Baby’s Beach Ball?), and even their body parts (Where Is Baby’s Belly Button?).

The Content: Familiar or Unexpected

i like it when What Makes a Good Board Book?For a young child just beginning to identify herself within the larger world context, seeing familiar events and routines represented between the covers of a book can be both reassuring and delightful. Mary Murphy depicts everyday toddler activities with the help of a penguin parent and child in her board book I Like It When…. The young listener and her grownup can play out the text as it is read by joining in when the penguins hold hands, play peek-a-boo, dance together, and kiss good night. Although initially unfamiliar to the young child, dinosaurs seem to hold some inherent fascination for kids of all ages. Byron Barton’s Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs offers an engaging but not-too-frightening introduction to these giant reptiles. His simple shapes, saturated colors, and understated text render the beasts less than terrifying even when they have “long sharp claws” and “long sharp teeth.” A side note: like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Color Zoo, and a number of other books mentioned here, Barton’s Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs was originally released in a trade edition and subsequently reissued in board book format. Not all trade picture books lend themselves to the board book transformation. In some cases the trim size is significantly, and unfortunately, smaller in the board book edition. Sometimes the details of the illustrations and even portions of the text are lost. However, a close examination of the copyright information should provide details on the publishing history and alert potential buyers to compare the board book with its original trade counterpart.

Putting It All Together

lillys chocolate heart What Makes a Good Board Book?As you have probably discerned by now, the categories suggested above are by no means mutually exclusive. Board books can feature stories as well as concepts. Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes, for example, is a simple narrative tale that relies on prepositions of place (under, inside, behind, etc.) for its conceptual underpinnings. And depending upon the personalities of the young listener and your method of delivery, many board books can be stimulating, soothing, or both. Conversely, you may well find board books that expand the boundaries established by the categories listed here. For example, the illustrations in Tana Hoban’s White on Black and Black on White cannot be easily classified as either photographs or drawings. Hoban has used a photographic technique to produce bold silhouettes of familiar objects and lets those objects stand alone without benefit of any explanatory or identifying text. The categories, then, are simply tools to help you understand the board book world. Hopefully, they will assist you as you provide babies and toddlers with a wide variety of literary experiences—experiences that will nurture a love of books and reading, provide sensory stimulation, aid in developing vocabulary and an understanding of the world while creating a joyful connection between the young listener and his grownup.

Good Board Books

Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs (HarperFestival, 1994) by Byron Barton

Colors (Tiger Tales, 2009) by Emily Bolam

Counting (Tiger Tales, 2009) by Emily Bolam

Barnyard Dance! (Workman, 1993) by Sandra Boynton

Moo, Baa, La La La! (Little Simon, 1995) by Sandra Boynton

Color Zoo (HarperFestival, 1997) by Lois Ehlert

Time for Bed (Red Wagon, 1997) by Mem Fox; illus. by Jane Dyer

Lilly’s Chocolate Heart (Greenwillow/ HarperFestival, 2004) by Kevin Henkes

Kiss Good Night (Candlewick, 2004) by Amy Hest; illus. by Anita Jeram

Black on White (Greenwillow, 1993) by Tana Hoban

White on Black (Greenwillow, 1993) by Tana Hoban

Where Is Baby’s Beach Ball? (Little Simon, 2009) by Karen Katz

Where Is Baby’s Belly Button? (Little Simon, 2009) by Karen Katz

Where Is Baby’s Mommy? (Little Simon, 2009) by Karen Katz

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Holt, 2006) by Bill Martin Jr.; illus. by Eric Carle

Baby Faces (Little Simon, 2009) by Margaret Miller

I Like It When… (Red Wagon, 2005) by Mary Murphy

All Fall Down (Little Simon, 1999; Walker Books, 2009) by Helen Oxenbury

Clap Hands (Little Simon, 1999; Walker Books, 2009) by Helen Oxenbury

Say Goodnight (Little Simon, 1999; Walker Books, 2009) by Helen Oxenbury

Tickle, Tickle (Little Simon, 1999; Walker Books, 2009) by Helen Oxenbury

From the March/April 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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About Viki Ash

Viki Ash is coordinator of children’s services at the San Antonio Public Library. She has taught children’s literature and library programming at the School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Woman’s University, and has served on ALSC’s Newbery, Caldecott, Wilder, and Sibert committees.

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