Board Book Roundup: Mirrors and Holes and Flaps, Oh My!

Board books often include features that entice little fingers to pull, twist, and lift, sometimes blurring the line between book and toy. This is fine by me; little ones should play with their books! Although such board books are often called “novelty books” and derided as gimmicky, they don’t have to be. Tactile elements, flaps, holes, etc. — these all encourage novice page-turners, growing readers in the process.

Of course, these features should be safe for babies, particularly those still putting things in their mouths. They should be easy enough to manipulate for developing fingers and tough enough to stand up to robust usage.

Here are a dozen 2022 titles that are strong examples of some of the various formats and features available, from board books with no special features to innovative designs made possible by board books’ stiff pages, along with some of my observations about each category. ­Discover some new favorites and give yourself permission to play while you read!


Flap Happy

Flaps allow youngsters a peek-a-boo experience all while strengthening the pincer grasp, an important fine motor skill. In such books, the text typically encourages interaction, with, for instance, an adult reading a query and a little one revealing answers by opening flaps. Look for sturdy, easy-to-open flaps with rounded corners that won’t frustrate their audience or poke fingers. If flaps go missing, as they will, early literacy expert Susan Straub suggests using hands to cover up and reveal the surprise.

Where’s the Fire Truck?
illus. by Ingela P. Arrhenius (Nosy Crow/Candlewick)

Large flaps made of felt are attached to the pages, revealing toddler-friendly vehicles underneath. Each page includes a simple peek-a-boo query (“Where’s the…?”) for its corresponding vehicle (ambulance, helicopter, police car). The pattern is eventually broken with the question, “And where are you?” — with a mirrored swatch providing the answer. The felt flaps are a wonderful innovation; while they may wrinkle, they won’t tear.

Who Dug This Hole?
by Laura Gehl, illus. by Loris Lora (Abrams Appleseed)

This graphically appealing lift-the-flap entry, in rich colors, explores various holes made by critters. The Q&A text asks which animals have made the holes that are visible on the outside of the flaps. Underneath we see who’s inside, meeting ants, ­woodpeckers, fish, and gophers. The flaps, shaped to match each hole, are sturdy, with a ­fingernail-shaped indentation to aid opening.


Holier Than Thou

The stiff pages of board books lend themselves to many structural elements, but holes large and small are a natural choice. Holes in board books come in a variety of shapes and allow just enough of the following page to peek through to give a clue about what is coming, or allow visual elements to appear on multiple pages. Often youngsters like to stick their fingers through, a fact some creators use to their advantage by turning fingers into legs, arms, tentacles, or noses, or using them to manipulate embedded finger puppets.

Drip [Little Life Cycles]
by Maggie Li (Templar/Candlewick)

Drip (a raindrop) demonstrates the water cycle in this pleasurable introduction. The hole in these pages is, of course, ­raindrop-shaped, allowing for Drip to be seen on almost every page while making the journey from garden hose to sewer pipe to ocean. When the sun evaporates Drip, both the raindrop and the drop-shaped hole disappear to become a rain cloud. Li’s emoji-esque art is adorably simple, with just enough text to explain the science. A companion Little Life Cycles title is Seed. For more hole-y fun based in the natural world, try Sarah Dellow’s quartet of Now You See It! titles focused on different biomes: Meadow, Ocean, Rainforest, and River (Child’s Play).


Slide, Pull, and Twist

Many interactive board books employ paper-engineering technology usually confined to pop-up books. Dials can spin to reveal delights on either side of the page where they are embedded; panels can slide up and down to become doors, windows, or moving objects; pull-tabs can create peek-a-boo moments, all sturdy enough to withstand robust play.

Big Green Garage
by Jen Arena; illus. by Mike Dutton (Chronicle)

Young vehicle enthusiasts get to assist the friendly mechanics at a garage as they fix a few different vehicles. (The features are a bit delicate, so the back cover smartly recommends this offering for children 2–4 years.) Children can slide a car-shaped panel to raise and lower the hydraulic lift, spin a dial to clean a windshield, and pull tabs to change dashboard indicators. The text is quick-paced and the images friendly. For more sliding panels, check out the Ladybird Magic Windows series, including this year’s My Body, illustrated by Libby Burns (Ladybird/Penguin).


Accordions to Love

Accordion-fold board books are perfect for tummy time (daily sessions very young babies need to strengthen core muscles) since these zigzagging paper constructions can stand up in front of babies for easy viewing. They can also be fun — and surprising — for slightly older tots.

Tummy Time!
by Mama Makes Books (Little Comet/Red Comet)

Designed for the very, very young, this accordion-fold offering is truly the Swiss Army Knife of board books. One side features diverse baby-face photos, a mirrored page, and a simple, baby-friendly text. The other side is wordless, with simple graphic images in black, white, and bold primary colors. The whole project folds up neatly with a tabbed closure. For more accordion fun, skewing a bit older (toward toddlers), unfold In the Air by Natasha Durley (Cameron Kids/Abrams) and The Trainbow by Nina Laden (Chronicle).



Touch-and-feel board books typically have raised embossing or fabric, paper, or plastic swatches glued between layers of thick paperboard to create a variety of textures. Surfaces are tactile (rough, smooth, fuzzy, spongy, bumpy, or sticky), visual (sparkly), and even auditory (crinkly). These features should be well secured and large enough for children to find on the page.

Hello, Frog
by Isabel Otter; illus. by Sophie Ledesma (Tiger Tales)

This day-in-the-life tale is full of textural elements as a frog greets other pond residents. There’s a squishy lily pad and rough vegetation, along with leaf-shaped flaps and poke-through holes to explore. What is unique here is the way these elements combine: sometimes the tactile feature is on the outside of the flap, or the hole appears underneath, adding an element of surprise. The final double-page spread reviews all of the wildlife discoverable under flaps, including a centipede, a pond skater, a dragonfly, and even a piranha. A companion title is Hello, Bee. For more tactile fun, try Get Dressed and Hello, Mommy! (Ladybird/Penguin), both part of the Baby Touch series, with art by Lemon Ribbon Studio.


Something New!

Every so often, a board book comes along with a new and innovative feature; think Hervé Tullet’s spots to “press” or Aaron Becker’s translucent color inserts. Some titles may require instructions for use and even additional tools, such as lamps or flashlights, to make elements work.

Our Seasons: The World in Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn
by Sue Lowell Gallion; illus. by Lisk Feng (Phaidon)

When closed, this follow-up to 2020’s Our World: A First Book of Geography resembles a semicircle with an odd tail at the base. By bringing the front cover to the back and attaching the magnets embedded in the pages, readers create a globe-shaped structure. The imagery and text, composed of both verse and brief exposition, is an exploration of the seasons from winter to autumn. The soft, watery-toned art on the round canvases is gently effective, with children, flora, and fauna in bucolic landscapes, a highlight being a winter snow scene that actually resembles a snow globe.


Tyvek for Tots

Well, maybe not officially Tyvek, but these books, dubbed “Indestructibles,” are “printed on a unique 100% nontoxic, paperlike material.” Babies can teethe and chew as much as they like, and the books won’t tear, rip, or fall apart. You can even throw them in the wash. They are a perfect lightweight addition to any diaper bag or travel bag.

Touch Your Nose
by Amy Pixton; illus. by Lizzy Doyle (Indestructibles/Workman)

Two babies, one Black and one white, demonstrate a variety of physical movements narrated by simple, punchy sentences. The imagery, which is set against bold, high-contrast backgrounds, broadens the age range for this title; it is sure to grab the attention of both newborns, who may stare at the arresting pages, and older babies, who have begun to do many of the activities represented.


Straight-Up Board Books

As much as I enjoy books with playful features, not every book needs them. Some are just gimmicks and can make books cumbersome, quick to fall apart, and even dangerous to babies and toddlers. Holiday books are often the worst offenders. While books shaped like pumpkins, pine trees, and Easter baskets are cute, they can force awkward cropping of the inside art. And many of the surprises achieved through flaps could be accomplished through page-turns. Less is sometimes more.

Give Me a Snickle!
by Alisha Sevigny (Orca)

In this playful exploration of family bonding, Sevigny combines different types of cuddling words to create clever portmanteaus. Snuggle plus tickle becomes the titular snickle, and hug plus giggle creates a higgle. The large full-page photos show caregivers and older siblings engaging in joyous play with babies of different skin tones and abilities. A mood-lifting delight. For more wordplay, try Grumble, Yawn by Deborah Kerbel, illustrated by Jacqui Lee (Orca), featuring a toddler and dad navigating the bedtime routine.

Baby’s Here!
by Jessica Young; illus. by Geneviève Godbout (Clarion/HarperCollins)

This title is a prime example of a board book that promotes interaction without any bells or whistles, literal or otherwise. A variety of babies are depicted ­participating in an array of activities, from clapping to napping. The simple text encourages youngsters to engage with the babies on the pages, who often break the fourth wall with eye contact. Close-ups, page-turns, and a reorientation of the book allow youngsters to count toes, play peek-a-boo, and assist fledgling walkers, respectively. The bouncy verse matches all this perfectly, wrapping it up with a sweetly resonant ending. For another title with skillful verse, check out One Big Day by Anne Wynter, illustrated by Alea Marley (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), about a baby’s first birthday party.


Transitional Tales

I’m a big fan of board-book/picture-book hybrids, which often have larger trim sizes, thick pages with rounded corners, padded covers, and longer page counts. These picture books with training wheels, as it were, are perfect for toddlers still learning to turn pages but craving more substantial stories.

Rainy Days [Weather Days]
by Deborah Kerbel; illus. by Miki Sato (Pajama)

In this fine addition to the Weather Days series, a bevy of boot-wearing and umbrella-wielding toddlers plays in the spring rain by rescuing worms, sailing boats in puddles and rivulets, and making “rainy soup.” The tots’ effervescent joy is captured in the layered cut-paper-collage illustrations. The simple singsong text makes for a satisfying read-aloud.


Reborn as Board Books

More and more, it seems, board book is becoming the reprint format of choice rather than paperback, giving many picture books a second life. I will often see a picture book that skews young and wonder why it didn’t go straight to board book, although I am glad there is a larger format available for baby storytimes.

Baby’s Firsts
by Nancy Raines Day; illus. by Michael Emberley (Charlesbridge)

Published as a picture book in 2018, this charmer chronicling the milestones of babies during their first year is a natural fit for the board-book format. All the needed elements for a classic board book are here. Gently rhythmic and poetic language in short phrases by Day is paired with Emberley’s gestural, softly colored images of family life. Mothers and fathers are shown sharing the caregiving load. For other wonderful books that have been given a second life on board pages, try Yum! Yuck!: A Book of People Sounds by Linda Sue Park and Julia Durango, ­illustrated by Sue Ramá (Charlesbridge); How Kind! by Mary Murphy (­Candlewick); and I Just Want to Say Good Night by Rachel Isadora (Paulsen/Penguin).

From the November/December 2022 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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