Board Book Roundup: Board Book Adaptations: When Picture Books Get on Board

One of my favorite picture books was re-released in 2023 as a board book: Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Ho Baek Lee (Clarion). It’s a faithful, uncut adaptation, but the new cover wisely zooms in on the young protagonist. Often board book versions of time-tested hardcover picture books, like this one that debuted in 2005, are produced years later. For other titles, board book versions can be second chances when hardcovers go out of print or sales dip.

But not every picture book should be adapted, and the transition is not as simple as reducing trim size and printing stiff pages. Publishers have tried board book adaptations of plenty of “classics” over the years, but being a classic picture book doesn’t automatically mean something will work as a board book. Goodnight Moon is a perfect board book, but what baby or toddler would be interested in the lengthy text and complex story of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?

Mary-Kate Gaudet, executive editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, shared some factors the publisher considers in board book conversion: “We always take into account the age-appropriateness of the work’s original text and illustrations first, and then consider if we would be doing either a disservice if we were to adapt them to our house standard 7 x 7-inch trim.” She went on to share that editors’ processes vary, but conferring with the creators of the original work is key.

My own considerations parallel the ones Gaudet named. I’ve shared them here along with recent picture books that successfully crossed over to the board book format:

Is art or text cut from the book? Are the cuts necessary?

Some picture-book adaptations into board books are heavily cut and others remain relatively intact. I prefer the latter, but condensing books can be useful for the audience. The lovely simplicity of Gail Gibbons’s art is perfect for toddlers, but her text is too long for them. Holiday House has stepped up by releasing trimmed board book versions with ­Monarch Butterfly and Seed to Plant. Things I Know How to Do (Abrams ­Appleseed) by the late Amy Schwartz is an adaptation of 100 Things I Know How to Do (Abrams). This edition ­sensibly reduces the number of examples, but the heart of this charmer still beats through.

Does the smaller trim size work?

While some illustrations can survive reduction, it can result in eye-straining imagery. Picture books with clear, graphically simple illustrations often work well, such as Aaron Blabey’s I Need a Hug (Cartwheel/Scholastic). His droll critters against solid backgrounds accompanied by punchy rhymes succeed in a board book. And many early readers transitioned to board books, such as I Hop / Salto by Joe Cepeda and I See a Cat / Veo un gato by Paul Meisel (both Holiday), work since they are already smaller in size and the clear relationship between text and art created for new readers also supports oral language development.

Is the content developmentally appropriate?

While many hardcover picture books can age down, it is not universal. Complicated plots and conceptual ideas may lose something in translation. Visually, a book like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (­Candlewick) may look perfect for adaptation, but toddlers still developing theory of mind (the idea that others have their own mental states) may struggle to understand this unreliable narrator.

Does the adaptation take advantage of the board book format?

Board books’ stiff pages can be an opportunity to add playful elements or make existing ones sturdier, like those of Hervé Tullet and Eric Carle. The 2023 board book editions of Big Red Fire Truck and Big Silver Spaceship, both by Ken Wilson-Max with paper engineering by Jo Lodge (Boxer), strengthen and simplify interactive features from these out-of-print picture books to ensure that toddlers can slide fire trucks, raise ladders, and spray (imaginary) water with gusto.

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When these factors are considered during hardcover-to-board ­conversion, we all win. Babies and toddlers get a chance to sink their teeth (often literally) into these offerings sooner, and buyers appreciate the lower price point. Here are a few more cases of picture books that successfully got on board in 2023. (Some books are reviewed from electronic galleys or page proofs.)

Marta!: Big & Small
by Jen Arena; illus. by Angela ­Dominguez (Roaring Brook)

(Picture-book edition rev. 5/16.) In this delightful exploration of opposites with Spanish adjectives interspersed, we see a child’s characteristics through the eyes of various animals. Dominguez’s clear images, outlined in subtle yellow, pop against the white background in this smaller size. While pages are condensed and the glossary removed, all of Marta’s “grande” personality is present. For another board book adaptation that includes both English and Spanish, roll out Dominguez’s I Love You, Baby Burrito (Roaring Brook; picture-book edition rev. 1/21).

Bird House
by Blanca Gómez (Abrams Appleseed)

(Picture-book edition Abrams; rev. 7/21.) In the gentlest of stories, a youngster recounts the experience of ­rescuing an injured yellow bird with their abuela. While the text is simultaneously spare and profound, most of the story is told through Gómez’s cozy paper ­collages, with little lost in the smaller edition. For additional heartfelt family dramas, see the board book version of Big Sister, Little Sister by LeUyen Pham (LB Kids/Little, Brown) and the original board book Lake Life with You by Cindy Jin, illustrated by Andrés Landazábal (Little Simon).

by Shelley Rotner and Anne Woodhull; photos by Shelley Rotner (Holiday)

Rotner’s work is a natural successor to Tana Hoban’s striking but grounded photographs. In vivid images that remain effective despite smaller pages, Rotner explores shapes in nature, in objects, and among people. The spare text holds surprises as “CIRCLES float” as bubbles, “TRIANGLES chime” in the percussion instrument, and “OVALS pop” as balloons. See Colors, also released in 2023.

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And here are some original, notable board books that were published in 2023:

When Stars Arise
by E. G. Alaraj; illus. by Martyna Czub (Orca)

Many of the best bedtime board books read like lullabies. Here the lyrical refrain also employs reverse psychology: “Don’t close your eyes / until the twinkling stars arise.” Mirroring the gentle verse, soft watercolors show a black-haired kiddo with medium-brown skin exploring the natural world before going home for bedtime. For more ­lyrical board book titles, look for Puddle Song by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Monique Felix (Creative Editions) and Barn in Winter: Safe and Warm on the Farm by Chambrae Griffith, illustrated by Taia Morley (Cottage Door).

Look: A Tummy Time Book
by Gavin Bishop (Gecko)

The Māori picture book author/­illustrator from New Zealand has been delving into board books of late. Here, accordion-fold binding makes the book a perfect engagement tool for infant tummy-time sessions, when little ones lie on their bellies to build up core muscles. One side of each of the eleven wordless panels is populated by a series of faces of various hues floating on bold backgrounds, including, notably, one person who has a moko kauae, Māori women’s traditional chin tattoo. The flip side reveals common objects and animals, including keys, glasses, toys, and a snail. Rounded corners would have made this board book more baby-appropriate, but it’s a unique addition to the small but growing tummy-time bookshelf. For another wordless, accordion-fold ­offering, this one starring black and white animals, unfurl Baby’s Black & White Contrast Book illustrated by Tabitha Paige (Paige Tate & Co.).

My Hair Is like the Sun
by St. Clair Detrick-Jules; illus. by Tabitha Brown (Chronicle)

In this jubilant celebration in verse, Black children liken their hair to various natural phenomena. Braided hair is “like a waterfall, rushing toward the ground,” and curls are “like a river, winding all around.” Gorgeous photos of children sporting natural hairstyles appear on the verso, and across the spread Brown illustrates the rhymes with clear graphics. For more Black-centered selections, head for The Numbers Store and The Rainbow Park by Harold Green III, illustrated by DeAnn Wiley (Running), concept books featuring two playful siblings.

I’m Hungry
by Elise Gravel (Orca)

A red, round, emoji-esque monster is hungry and eats whatever is in view: pizza, then the plate, then the pizza box. The cartoon creature is sure to cause giggles as the meals get increasingly silly with the consumption of the toilet, the house, and maybe even the reader. For another humorous title with critters who may (non-scarily!) munch on humans, try What a Pest!: A Creepy, Crawly Counting Book by Elliot Kreloff (Collective Book Studio), featuring some pesky bugs.

Flora and Friends ABC
by Molly Idle (Chronicle)

Some board books, rather than being direct adaptations, are instead wholly new stories starring favorite picture-book characters. From Atlantic puffins to zebra finches, Idle gives Flora (Flora and the Flamingo, rev. 7/13, and sequels, including both picture books and board books) new animal friends to meet and youngsters sturdier flaps to open. For more picture-book characters crossing over to board books, look for the bilingual Alma and Her Family / Alma y su familia and Alma, Head to Toe / Alma, de pies a cabeza (Candlewick; Alma and How She Got Her Name, rev. 5/18) by Juana Martinez-Neal, and the taco-shaped Dragon’s First Taco (Dial; Dragons Love Tacos) by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri.

The Wheels on the Costume
by Cindy Jin; illus. by Lauren Lowen (Little Simon)

This is a welcome, joyful board book featuring children using wheelchairs. The wheelchairs are integrated into children’s costumes, with trick-or-­treaters dressed as a construction worker driving a bulldozer or as carriage-riding royalty. The classic song “The Wheels on the Bus” is adapted for each child, and there are two cardboard wheels to spin while singing. For more books about wheels, rev up Driving My Tractor by Jan Dobbins, illustrated by David Sim (Barefoot), with a song available online performed by ­SteveSongs; and I’m Your Ice Cream Truck by Hannah Eliot, illustrated by Belinda Chen (Little Simon).

Don’t Mix Up My Puppy!
by Rosamund Lloyd; illus. by Spencer Wilson (Tiger Tales)

I appreciate when board book ­creators, designers, and paper engineers innovate.­ This offering combines a ­spinning dial with ­touch-and-feel elements. Little ones can twirl it until they align the ­correct tail with the right puppy. The text offers ­vocabulary-building ­descriptive words including “velvety,” “flowy,” and “fluffy.” Other series editions feature dinosaurs and ocean life. For more creatively interactive titles, slide the panels of Puppy, Puppy ­Peekaboo (other series titles star a ­duckling, a cow, and a lion) by Grace Habib (Boxer).

Cheera [Simply Small]
by Paola Opal (Simply Read)

In the latest installment of the Simply Small series, Cheera, a cheetah cub, can’t seem to settle at naptime. Told through spare prose and adorable, thickly outlined cartoons, it’s a simple but emotionally resonant scenario that toddlers will readily recognize. The cuteness continues in Kawwa, a title in the series starring a hatchling. See also Hello, Tiny Bear! by Yusuke Yonezu (Minedition), featuring flaps and a curious cub.

Little Bear, Where Are You?
by Ekaterina Trukhan (Nosy Crow)

Often, the Mylar mirrors featured in board books are embedded on the very last page. This title puts one under each animal-shaped flap. The text, based on the “Finger Family Song” with a recording accessible via a QR code on the back cover, asks the various animals, “Where are you?” The frog, deer, rabbit, and bear respond with the refrain “Here I am! Here I am!” and ask the infant reader, “Where are you?” When the flap is opened, babies will see themselves in the mirror, which provides an answer. Little Dog, Where Are You? is also available.

From the January/February 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Rachel G. Payne

Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. She writes the “First Steps” column for School Library Journal and has also written for The Horn Book Magazine, Library Trends, and Kirkus and was a contributor to Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos (2013) and Library Services from Birth to Five: Delivering the Best Start (2015). Rachel served as chair of the 2016 Caldecott committee and as a member of the 2009 committee. She will serve as a founding member of the Margaret Wise Brown Board Book Award committee.

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