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Board Book Roundup: Board Books Build Brains

They rarely win awards. Few make it to the annual “best of” lists. They get stepped on, chewed, drooled on, and thrown. Their core audiences may not remember a word of them in a few scant years. Their pages are frequently viewed out of order. But board books are some of the most important books any of us will ever read, whether as infants being read to or as adults reading to the little ones in our lives. Between those thick, sturdy pages and on the laps of loving caregivers, brains are being built, bonds are being formed, and language is blooming.

So, what makes a developmentally appropriate board book? The Horn Book has addressed this question before (see Kathleen T. Horning’s “Board Books Go Boom!” [March/April 1997 issue] and Viki Ash’s “What Makes a Good Board Book?” [March/April 2010]); here are my own thoughts on the subject.

Good board books, like any good children’s book, meet children where they are. A good board book, one that is truly for babies (such as Sandra Boynton’s classic Moo, Baa, La La La!), satisfies a language-learning baby’s need for rhythm and rhyme. A good board book also exposes children to the familiar and the new, often simultaneously, to scaffold new learning. Board books such as the Global Babies series by the Global Fund for Children allow babies to gaze upon their fellow babies, all the while giving them an international viewpoint. And a good board book, like any good story, shows without telling or preaching. Didactic potty-training books have nothing on Leslie Patricelli’s Potty, which shows all the ups and downs of learning to use the bathroom in a few short lines of text and a handful of deft cartoons.

Good board books are deceptively simple. Since none of us remembers what it was like to be a baby, writing and creating for that audience is especially challenging. Writers and artists with a careful, observant eye — such as Lucy Cousins, Helen Oxenbury, Rosemary Wells, Karen Katz, Jabari Asim, and Peter Linenthal — make it look so easy. Some creators make the common mistake of taking content for older children and even adults, watering it down, and adding cute pictures until it looks like a baby book. Recently, I have seen board book versions of classic adult works of literature, books that present abstract STEM concepts that even grownups have a difficult time grasping, and activist how-to manuals. While these are well meaning, are they truly for babies? Will babies really have any understanding of what a black hole is, when they don’t have the object permanence to understand the hole in their onesie?

One of my favorite developmentally appropriate picture books for the very young has been around since 1988, but it was just made into a board book this year, to the cheers of many: John Steptoe’s Baby Says (reissued in board book form by HarperCollins). It’s a highly relatable tale of a baby and his older brother as their parallel play goes from tolerant to angry to, finally, loving. Steptoe’s yellow-suited tyke acts like a real baby as he attempts to get his big brother’s attention, repeating words and actions that he has seen and heard — and allowing young viewers to do the same. The book presents realistically positive sibling interaction without preaching or lecturing. And with its ingenious use of a total of only seven words and uncluttered yet dynamic illustrations, this book is a perfect example of what I mean by “deceptively simple.” (For an in-depth look at Baby Says, see Kathleen T. Horning’s September/October 2003 Horn Book article.)

As I looked at board books published in the U.S. in 2019, I was pleased to see more and more creators getting this important work right. While board-book versions of picture books like Baby Says are a welcome addition, it is equally encouraging to see original titles being produced for the format.

Food [TouchWords]
by Rilla Alexander (Handprint/Chronicle)

The books in this beautifully designed series (other titles include Animals, Clothes, and My Day) feature raised and recessed shapes and letters for little fingers to explore. Food is my favorite, with graphically clean and easily identifiable images of common edibles. What distinguishes this offering are the associated nouns, verbs, and adjectives listed near each food. The apple spread, for instance, is accompanied by such juicy words as red, crunchy, sweet, tart, picking, and peeling. This allows grownups to have vocabulary-rich conversations with babies and toddlers using the words provided as a jumping-off point. The perfect brain food for growing minds.

You Are Light
by Aaron Becker (Candlewick Studio)

Almost all babies are fascinated by light. From the moon to floor lamps, they stare at and point to light sources of all kinds. Becker’s You Are Light taps directly into this obsession. Viewers are encouraged to hold the book up to a light source. A circle of die-cut holes centers each page; each hole is embedded with transparent plastic gels that allow light in a variety of colors to shine through. A gentle, poetic text speaks to the qualities of each color in the spectrum, and page-turns allow the hues to move from verso to recto. And although this title works beautifully for babies, its innovative format presenting complex ideas will draw older readers in, too. (See review in September/October 2019 Horn Book.)

Who Is Sleeping?
by Petr Horáček (Candlewick)

I have been a fan of Horáček’s books for years. He gets how to present a topic simply and how to create books that allow young children to play as they read (using flaps, shaped pages, holes, etc). This quiet lift-the-flap title allows children to find critters under shaped flaps in soothing mixed-media illustrations, perfect for bedtime. An owl bunks in the tree, a frog snoozes under a leaf, and a small child sleeps in a bed. Horáček’s work, endearing without being cloying, allows little ones to begin to name their world. Other interactive board-book titles by Horáček include Honk, Honk! Baa, Baa!; A Surprise for Tiny Mouse; and Who Is the Biggest?

Will Giraffe Laugh?
by Hilary Leung (Cartwheel/Scholastic)

Giraffe is having a bad day, and nothing his friends do to make him laugh is working. Sheep presents Giraffe with a balloon animal, but it deflates into his face; Ladybug offers him flowers, but he is allergic to them. Finally, Giraffe learns to laugh at himself when he falls into a muddy pond. Leung’s expressive faces and easy-to-follow scenes are perfect for youngsters who are learning to label their own feelings. The repetitive text (“Will Giraffe laugh with Bear? / No. / …Will Giraffe laugh with Sheep? / Ouch! No”) is predictable enough to support language development without being dull, the slapstick humor will appeal to babies and toddlers, and there is an arc to Giraffe’s story as he processes his feelings. Check out other related books about Giraffe’s friends Bear, Sheep, and Ladybug.

by Tatsuhide Matsuoka (Gecko)

In this Japanese import, which appro-priately opens vertically, a frog, a grasshopper, a cat, a pigtailed little girl, and others demonstrate their jumping prowess (or lack thereof, in the case of the snail). Each is introduced sitting quietly on its double-page spread but, when the page is turned, each springs into the air with over-the-top anima-tion and a loud “BOING!” Matsuoka’s creatures are both highly realistic and wonderfully kinetic. Two things in particular make this title work: the element of surprise and slapstick, key ingredients in toddler humor.

Picken: Mix and Match the Farm Animals!
by Mary Murphy (Candlewick)

Murphy (I Like It When…) truly gets what works for young children, and here she taps into their developmental need to play with their books. Each stiff page is split in half, allowing children to match the front and back of favorite animals or create a variety of creatures by mixing them up. Youngsters can make a “Lalf” (half calf and half lamb), a “Gooppy” (half goose and half puppy), and, my personal favorite, a “Kiglet” (half kitten and half piglet). Murphy’s smiling critters, set on plain white pages, are eye-catching and full of personality. A companion Mix and Match title, Crocopotamus, is also available.

Pride Colors
by Robin Stevenson (Orca)

Social justice books are on the rise. In the last few years, I have seen board books focused on feminism, ecology, activism, and even consent. While many of those books can get quite preachy, this photo-illustrated beauty simply and powerfully shows diverse kids, some in LGBTQ families, in everyday situations (with the addition of the occasional Pride Day outfit). The colors of the rainbow flag serve as a framing device; each color is accompanied by brief verse (“Soft green grass, / cool, shady tree / I’ll love the person / you grow to be”) and an eye-catching photo.

Goodnight, Rainbow Cats
by Bàrbara Castro Urío (Chronicle)

Dainty cats in all the colors of the rainbow each enter stage left: “Where are you going, Little Green Cat? / Where are you going, Little Light-Blue Cat?” Via a page-turn, they are each placed in one of the rooms of a “big white house.” As the book progresses, the cats’ colors fill the house’s die-cut windows, building to a playful conclusion. The cumulative storytelling, question-and-answer format, and hole-y pages all work together to hold the interest of restless youngsters. Urío’s cats are delightful smudges of color against stark white backgrounds.

May We Have Enough to Share
by Richard Van Camp; photos by Tea & Bannock (Orca)

While I love Van Camp’s (a member of the Tlicho Dene Nation) board books created in collaboration with Julie Flett (Little You, 2013; We Sang You Home, 2016), I am delighted that his work is now also beginning to be illustrated with photos. Here his words are paired with photography from the Tea & Bannock blog, created by Tenille Campbell “as a safe community for Indigenous women photographers from across the country to come together.” Van Camp’s tender verse is a deep expression of gratitude. Lines are meted out one by one and accom-panied by joyful photos of babies and toddlers, both with and without their grownups, celebrating life.

Merbaby’s Lullaby
by Jane Yolen; illus. by Elizabeth O. Dulemba (Little Simon)

In this bedtime book, a merbaby plays in the surf and with aquatic friends until the mermaid mama can maneuver the little one into a coral bed. Yolen’s soothing verse reads like a classic lullaby. “Waves will rock you. / Whales will sing you. / Sea stars a soft light will bring you.” Each double-page spread presents one or two lines paired with soft gossamer art by Dulemba in this underwater fantasia. These fluid and loose images are playful but calming.

Seek and Count
by Yusuke Yonezu (Minedition)

Concept books in board-book form are a dime a dozen, but this counting board book is simultaneously simple and surprising, with bold lines and bright colors on white backgrounds. One sole numeral and the corresponding word for the number is presented on the verso, while across the spread an inviting flap appears, coaxing little fingers to practice their fine-motor skills to discover what lies beneath. Babies and toddlers love this sort of reveal, and Yonezu doesn’t disappoint. Below a winter mitten are “five warm fingers”; underneath a plant grow “six fresh potatoes”; and behind a cloud shine “ten bright stars” — all beckoning toddlers to count them.


From the November/December 2019 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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