Board Book Roundup: Young at Heart

The conventional wisdom is that board books are for birth to three years, and I’m a firm believer that board books need to be developmentally appropriate for their audience (see my November/December 2019 column “Board Books Build Brains”). Board books are, at their core, for babies and toddlers. But is there room for good board books outside the (baby) box? Before I get to my roundup of recommended new titles from 2021, I’d like to briefly call out two interesting developments.

First, board book creators are tackling subjects once thought too mature for little ones. Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli released two board books this year, Our Skin (illustrated by Isabel Roxas) and Being You (illustrated by Anne/Andy Passchier) in Rise x Penguin Workshop’s First Conversations series, tackling the topics of race and gender, respectively. The authors intentionally chose the board book format for these titles ­recommended for two- to six-year-olds. As Madison says, “Board books have the distinct feel that they are for young children — they’re not for grownups.” And Ralli points out that “having [Our Skin and Being You] in the board book section gives parents permission to have these discussions early. The format clearly sends that message.”

Another trend shows creators using board books’ stiff pages to play with structure, to explore and explode the format’s physical limits. Aaron Becker’s You Are Light (rev. 9/19) and My ­Favorite Color (rev. 9/20), both published by Candlewick Studio, feature colorful acetate panels in die-cut holes that allow light to beam through. “I didn’t set out to make a board book per se,” says Becker. “I just follow an idea until it tells me what it needs to be, and the board book [format] was a natural fit.” While many board books have tactile elements perfect for curious babies and toddlers, Becker’s inventive offerings have the distinction of also drawing in an older crowd.

But while we should celebrate creators who can stretch the standard board book age range, there are limits. Sophisticated ideas shouldn’t be forced into board books simply by putting “Baby” in the title or babifying illustrations (see Kathleen T. Horning’s “Board Books Go Boom,” March/April 1997 Horn Book). As Madison notes, “It’s fun to have board books about quantum mechanics and feminist biographies, books where the content is really for the grownups…but I also want us to hold onto books that honor the unique and important developmental stages of infancy and toddlerhood.” Ralli argues that it is not so much what is discussed, but how it’s presented, written in a way that respects how young children think and learn. And though Becker does not necessarily consider a reader’s age in the creation process, he gets that board books need to be young at heart, playful springboards for interaction and discovery.

I’m happy to see books that can skew to older children, whether by encouraging profound conversations about crucial topics or enticing us to play with our books, at any age. But these books shouldn’t displace titles that respect how the youngest grow and develop. We need books that babies and toddlers will want to open again and again and (literally) sink their teeth into.

On that note, here are some board books from 2021 that I hope you will share with your little ones — and maybe a big kid or two.

Listen Up! Train Song
by Victoria Allenby (Pajama)

How do you categorize a large-format book with a paper-over-board cover and thick card-stock pages, with rounded corners? Is it a board book or a picture book? Whatever the format name, I wish more publishers would use it, since these books are perfect for young children still developing motor skills. Of course, vehicle-loving toddlers won’t care which shelf they find this on. They will be totally onboard with a train book making all the requisite stops: large, clear images of a variety of types of trains, playful sound effects, and rhythm and rhyme. While the photos may be courtesy of Shutterstock, they’ve been chosen with care: we see close-ups and wide shots of engines, boxcars, commuter trains, and steam trains. For a more whimsical take on transportation, try The Cows on the Bus by George Deutsch and illustrated by Valerie Sindelar (Tiger Tales) and Hop Aboard: Baby’s First Vehicles by Elliot Kruszynski (Candlewick).

Jungle Night
by Sandra Boynton (Workman)

2021 can’t be a total disaster if there’s a new board book by Sandra Boynton! In this book set in a dark nighttime palette, she’s at the top of her game, with a bevy of sleeping critters making playfully creative snorts, grunts, and snuffles. If you need help getting the sound effects just right for a read-aloud, check out the narration by Keith Boynton (Sandra’s son), with cello provided by none other than Yo-Yo Ma, at While a portion of this book appeared in Snoozers (Little Simon, 1997), a bedtime anthology, the horizontal trim and additional pages give this version more room to breathe—and even snore.

Nom Nom Nom: A Yummy Book with Flaps
by Jeffrey Burton; illus. by Sarah Hwang (Little Simon)

Each of a series of animals is offered a wonderfully quirky buffet, and ­readers are encouraged to contemplate what they themselves might choose. “Little Kitty looks very hungry. What does she want to eat? A bowl of milk, waffles or pancakes, tiny mouse cookies, or catnip milkshakes? Which would you choose?” The only answer is a boisterous “NOM NOM NOM,” visible after a flap, in the shape of the critter’s mouth, is raised. Hwang’s imagery (in droll cartoons that look like they were created with painted and cut papers) plays with expectation and surprise as the treats look just inviting enough — until you spot the bones, worms, or fleas. This entertaining and fanciful title also feeds the need for books with flaps.

Caution! Road Signs Ahead
by Toni Buzzeo; illus. by Chi Birmingham (Rise/Penguin Workshop)

In 84 pages (yes, you read that right), this board book presents the front and even the back of almost every standard road sign. Birmingham’s minimal art lets the signs (created by unsung designers through the decades) shine as Buzzeo’s simple text provides clear explanations of their meaning. The book design is striking and useful, with sturdy, shaped pages and sections bundling like signs together (“Everyday Signs,” “Neighborhood Signs,” “Highway Signs,” and “Nature Signs”) for easy navigation. It’s perfect for ­transportation-obsessed toddlers, preschool and kindergarten teachers seeking examples of environmental print, and even teens studying for driving tests.

Bubbles [Narwhal and Jelly Board Book]
by Ben Clanton (Tundra)

A narwhal and a jellyfish are a lively duo in this playful series by Clanton based on his popular books for older kids. As any toddler knows, bubbles are the best, and these friends enjoy scouring the ocean for big bubbles, small bubbles, and stinky green bubbles (hilariously from a crab passing gas). Clanton’s thickly outlined cartoons adorned with soft color washes are a perfect pairing for a story told purely in dialogue and sound effects. The companion Blankie demonstrates how much fun two friends can have with a piece of yellow cloth. And for another delightful animal duo, look for Bear and Mouse: Time for Bed and Bear and Mouse: Rise and Shine by Nicola Edwards and illustrated by Maria Neradova (Tiger Tales).

Comparrotives [Grammar Zoo]
by Janik Coat (Abrams Appleseed)

This is a perfect example of a board book series you shouldn’t relegate solely to the baby shelves. Here, the graphically clean and engaging animal star is a blue, red, and green parrot who illustrates the concept of comparative adjectives: “cold/colder,” “close/closer,” and “deep/deeper,” for example. My favorite is “silly/sillier,” where we first see a “silly” parrot in rabbit ears and then, on the facing page, the bird dressed in an even “sillier” clown outfit, with shock wig and oversized shoes. No spoilers, but the “happy/happier” ending is immensely satisfying. Little ones will delight in the mischievous examples and wordplay, even though a few jokes may go over their heads. Bring out the entire series to create superlative grammar
lessons at any age.

City Baby
by Laurie Elmquist; illus. by Ashley Barron (Orca)

In this slice-of-life tale, a mom and baby take a stroller-walk to enjoy playtime in the park and a break at the local coffee shop. Barron’s cut-paper collage is richly layered and three-dimensional, capturing the dynamic energy of the city perfectly. Elmquist’s short phrases gently narrate and punctuate the action. This is the rare (and welcome) board book starring a family of East Asian descent that isn’t centered on a cultural celebration. It’s also a prime example of a book that is created for babies, with deceptively simple, relatable situations, and clear and identifiable imagery.

by Ruth Forman; illus. by Geneva Bowers (Little Simon)

Few board books star big kids, but why not? Little ones are fascinated by these inspiring beings who can do so much more than they can. In this companion to 2020’s Curls, Forman’s luscious verse, constructed in short but packed phrases, takes us through an independent school-age boy’s return home after baseball and ice cream with a friend to a soothing bubble bath and a soft bed. Bowers’s sleek art veritably glows on the page through these magic-hour moments to show a boy who is happy in his own skin.

Beautiful Eggs
illus. by Alice Lindstrom (Scribble)

Here’s an example of a board book that is really for big kids. In this large-format board book Lindstrom introduces us to egg-decorating techniques from around the world, with stops in Ukraine, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Greece, and Japan, featuring her artistry of painted cut-paper collage. The pysanky, ­cascarones, and washi eggs are meticulously depicted, often amidst their ­cultural traditions and settings. The large egg stencil at the back for children to trace and create their own cut-paper eggs may have been the reason the board book format was chosen. Don’t limit this beauty to Eastertide (there’s nary a mention of religion), and crack it open with crafty school-age kids before they can dismiss it as a “baby book.”

Leo Loves Daddy
by Anna McQuinn; illus. by Ruth Hearson (Charlesbridge)

Many board books are love letters from babies to parents or parents to babies, and nobody does familial bonding better than McQuinn (author of the popular picture books about Leo and his big sister Lola). Father and son spend the day together making pancakes, dancing, and building with blocks, as Leo sings Dad’s praises. Hearson’s jewel-toned art captures this father/son love story with warmth and heart. Leo Loves Mommy gives his maternal caregiver equal time. And for another ode to Dad, try Daddy (Candlewick; rev. 3/21), starring author/illustrator Leslie Patricelli’s popular diaper-clad cherub, who should be packing for college by now but never grows up, much to our joy.

Smile, Baby! [Beginning Baby]
illus. by Nicola Slater (Chronicle)

Many a board book has a Mylar mirror tucked away at the back, but in Smile, Baby! it is visible through every page due to a large die-cut circle. Whimsically kooky critters, including a narwhal, an octopus, and a llama, cheerlead the baby viewer’s facial expressions. The simple text provides a script for caregiver readers, but it is made up of phrases they would likely say anyway: “Where is baby’s nose? There is baby’s nose! Can you touch baby’s nose?” Slater’s animals also make up the cast of the wonderful Hide-and-Seek Peekaboo and the clever Welcome to Shape School!

A Cub Story
by Kristen Tracy; illus. by Alison Farrell (Chronicle)

A bear cub shares a bit about itself, discusses favorite activities, and compares itself to other forest creatures. The text is a simple sensory exploration with a dash of lively lyricism. Farrell’s deft pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations in soothing tones are an enticing mix of spot art and double-page scenes. After these active explorations through a variety of seasons, the cub returns to the den with Mama (likely to hibernate for the winter), where it declares: “I am just right.” Check out Melville by Paul Schmid (Andrews McMeel), Little Duck and Little Fox both by Britta Teckentrup (Orca), and Baby Bug by Wednesday Kirwan (Little Simon) for more stories of little ones exploring their world and returning safely to a parental embrace.

From the November/December 2021 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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