Board Book Roundup Plus Five Questions: Summer 2022

For over twenty years a team of librarians, educators, creators, and others who work with young children and families have been compiling a “Best Books for Babies” list in (where else?) the city that Fred Rogers called home: Pittsburgh, PA. In fact, Mr. Rogers was a consultant on the list in its early days. While many of the committee’s selections go out of print (as noted below) all too quickly, their current and past baby book lists are well-rounded, thoughtful, and developmentally appropriate picks for children up to eighteen months. Committee co-chairs Lisa Dennis, Coordinator of Children’s and Teen Collections, and Erin Zambataro, Coordinator of Children’s Services & Family Engagement at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (which now oversees the list making), very kindly responded to my out-of-the-blue five-question query about their selection process. 

1. How did the “Best Books for Babies” list get started? 

Lisa Dennis: The Best Books for Babies annual booklist began as a labor of love in 2000. Betty Segel and Joan Friedberg, co-directors of Beginning with Books, collaborated with Dr. Margaret Kimmel, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Library and Information Science, to found a committee to select quality materials to share with babies age birth to eighteen months. 

Pittsburgh-area librarians, educators, and children’s literature experts were invited to join in discussing, evaluating, and recommending titles published in the previous year. In alignment with Beginning with Books’ mission, diversity and inclusion have been core values since the start. When Beginning with Books closed in 2010, oversight of the booklist transitioned to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP). 

In 2016, CLP undertook a review of the committee’s purpose and structure. At that time, CLP launched a marketing campaign, an award seal for titles selected for the list, and a plan to spread the message that learning begins at birth. Today the list lives on. 

2. Who serves on the committee? 

Erin Zambataro: Each committee member selected has a strong interest in and/or professional responsibilities related to early literacy and child development. The committee currently includes librarians, a pediatrician, a positive racial identity development expert, a home visitor, a published children’s author/illustrator, a childcare professional, parents, and more. 

3. Do you “product test” any of the books with babies? 

LD: While we don’t do any official “product testing,” we do encourage committee members to share the books under consideration with the babies in their lives and bring their feedback to our deliberations. We’ve had a few committee members with babies in their families over the years, and it’s always helpful to know when little listeners seem to endorse (or reject) a title. 

4. Have you or other committee members noticed any interesting board book trends since you got started in 2000? 

EZ: Selecting inclusive and diverse titles was a goal from the beginning. The committee’s criteria include a specific directive to seek out “diverse and authentic representation[s] of race, gender, ability, culture, and family structure.” As publishers have recognized the need for representation in children’s literature, it has become somewhat easier to find quality books that showcase diverse identities. 

Each year fewer and fewer nursery rhyme books are published. We look out for these because they are helpful with early literacy development, but finding nursery rhyme books that are also relevant to new generations is also a goal. We were happy to find a couple of great collections for our 2021 list that even include instructions for parents. 

We haven’t noticed a change in one important aspect of publishing books for babies. Board books go out of print very quickly. This makes providing access to the titles after they receive lots of love from busy hands and drooling smiles a tricky feat. We have also noticed that more picture books for preschoolers have been published as board books. While this is a wonderful option for older children who may need the easier-to-manipulate format, it can make choosing board books for babies more challenging. 

5. What are a couple of your go-to recommendations for board book gifts to new parents? 

LD: A few of our favorites from the 2022 Best Books for Babies list [of titles published in 2021] are The Night Is Deep and Wide (Orca) by Gillian Sze, illustrated by Sue Todd, which is a poetic black-and-white book easiest for the very youngest babies to see; Goodnight Everyone (Candlewick) by Chris Haughton, a brightly colored bedtime book using graduated-sized pages; and City Baby (Orca) by Laurie Elmquist, illustrated by Ashley Barron, a charming board book that follows an Asian mother and child out for a stroll. 


So what will the “Best Books for Babies” team select next year from 2022 published titles? I hope you, like me, will be on the lookout for their fabulous selections. While we wait and they deliberate, here are some early 2022 board books that should be on your radar. 

The Pronoun Book by Chris Ayala-Kronos; illus. by Melita Tirado (Clarion/HarperCollins) 

“How do you know what someone wants to be called? Ask.” Each left-hand page presents one pronoun (she, he, and they along with their matching possessive forms). Across the spread we see a group of humans stating their preference via speech bubbles. The gender, racial, and ability diversity of the folks depicted in the vibrant cartoons in blues, pinks, and purples is wonderfully inviting. There are folks identifying as she with mustaches, folks who use he wearing dresses, and nonbinary people with pink hair, along with people using wheelchairs and cochlear implants. While the nuances of pronoun use may be lost on baby and toddler readers, here is an example of a board book that can (and should) skew up into the elementary years, and even into adulthood. 

On Baba’s Back by Marianne Dubuc (Princeton Architectural Press) 

As the title suggests, a koala joey does everything on the back of its caregiver. Koko, this toddler stand-in, comically eats ice cream, plays ball, and even wets themselves on long-suffering Baba. Although the book is about marsupials, Dubuc adroitly captures, in droll facial expressions, the delights and challenges of living with a human toddler. Toward the end, there is some gentle encouragement for little ones to face their separation anxiety and explore a world beyond their caregivers, safe in the knowledge that they can return to Baba’s back and their shared tree-branch home. A charmer. 

Montessori: Seed Work [Montessori] by Bobby and June George; illus. by Alyssa Nassner (Abrams Appleseed) 

STEM board books are a dime a dozen these days, but this one is perfectly grounded (pun intended) for a baby/toddler audience. Told with Montessori-education clarity through Nassner’s graphically clean art, we see the life cycle of a sunflower as it goes from flower to seed to sprout to flower again. My favorite spread includes a downward folding flap that illustrates the sunflower seed roots shooting down into rich dark earth. The text gently floats above the action like clouds, labeling the stages of sunflower growth and explaining pollination. A couple of tactile elements are added to select pages to engage busy fingers. 

Every Bunny Poops [Hello Genius] by Christianne Jones; illus. by Oriol Vidal (Capstone) 

With a definite focus on going number two, this offering doesn’t shy away from showing a trail of poop due to a potty-training mishap. The titular bunny, a toddler stand-in, gets encouragement and advice from a caregiver: “So close! Keep listening to your body, Bunny.” The fast-paced rhymes, with a clever use of the words hop and plop, make for a surprisingly entertaining read aloud. The hysterical facial expressions on the bunnies set against solid, bold backgrounds positively reflect the urgency and challenge of learning to go. 

Peek-a-You [Bright Brown Baby] by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. by Brian Pinkney (Cartwheel/Scholastic) 

Cartwheel smartly spun off four poems from the picture-book anthology Bright Brown Baby into their own board books as part of a series of the same name (see also Count to LOVE!). In the buoyant rhyming verse (“Peek-a-Who? / Baby it’s you!”), Black babyhood is joyfully celebrated. Close-ups of young faces are interspersed with a variety of child and caregiver duos, often engrossed in games of peek-a-boo. Brian Pinkney perfectly captures the spontaneity of baby and toddler play in his loose, gestural style, using circles and arcs in the background to echo the caregiver and baby embrace.  

I’m Up! by Antoinette Portis (Clarion/HarperCollins) 

While bedtime books are ubiquitous, where are the wake-up books? If most parents and caregivers are anything like those in Portis’s latest offering, the reason may be that it’s hard to crack open their eyes, let alone a book. This babe, drawn with emoji simplicity in warm colors, is “up!” — along with the birds, the sun, the family pup, and the diaper tossed from the crib. When the parents, an interracial couple, finally rouse, the family goes through their morning routine before taking the family dog for a walk. In the companion title, I’m Still Up!, this energetic tyke has a hard time getting to sleep in Portis’s take on bedtime. 

The Every Baby Book: Families of Every Name Share a Love That’s Just the Same by Frann Preston-Gannon (Magic Cat/Abrams) 

Gentle rhyming couplets walking us through idyllic family scenes provide delightful dissonance to the illustrations showing the realities of living with babies and toddlers. Preston-Gannon’s spot and full-page tableaux, drawn with Gyo Fujikawa–like warmth and specificity, include everything from a cherubic lap baby letting two moms enjoy a sit-down meal in a restaurant to a toddler conducting high-chair gravity experiments with full bowls of cereal. Refreshingly, there is no shying away from bear bosoms exposed during breast feeding and discolored onesies due to blown-out diapers. Many families will also see themselves represented in these pages: there are families with two moms, two dads, a single mom, at least two interracial couples, and one haggard couple with twins and an older child. While a few of the jokes are for the parents, many little ones will see themselves reflected here. 

My Nap, Mi Siesta: A Coco Rocho Book [¡World of Vamos!] by Raúl the Third; colors by Elaine Bay (Versify/HarperCollins) 

I’ve always thought we needed more books about napping, with babies and toddlers taking two or more of them a day. This whimsical siesta, set in a fantastical Mexico, stars Coco Rocho, a friendly, clothes-wearing cockroach who has the superpower, like most young children, to sleep anywhere. With their few words on a page, board books are perfect candidates for bilingual presentation, and this offering authentically gives audiences north of the border a window into perhaps another culture. The insect sleeps amongst toy lucha libre characters, maracas, and cacti, while dreaming of churros and conchas (Mexican sweet bread). Check out My Party, Mi Fiesta in the same series to see these characters with their eyes open. 

¡Eso es mío! / That’s Mine! by Sumana Seeboruth; illus. by Ashleigh Corrin (Barefoot) 

In this exploration of sharing, a brown-complexioned tot enjoys the lion’s share of toys in their preschool/childcare setting and decides the toys are “mine” when another couple of tykes want in on the action. Seeboruth nails the toddler voice in her deceptively simple, first-person rhyming verse. Corrin’s art uses blocky swaths of color deftly to capture this mini toddler drama. Simultaneously publishing in both Spanish and English is a boon to libraries serving diverse communities along with bilingual families. For more by Seeboruth and Corrin, pick up ¡Chones, por favor! / Undies, Please!, a toddler treatise on the transition from diapers to underwear. 

Grandma and Me by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. by Ashleigh Corrin (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks) 

From baking “tater pie” to actively chasing after a crawling baby, this love letter to Black grandmothers presents a different grandma-and-grandchild dyad on each double-page spread. In her cozy scenes drawn with sunny yellow, warm orange, and rich blue, Corrin takes care to show how diverse grandmothers can be. Some of the grandmas look young, some have gray hair and glasses, one wears a hijab, and another uses a wheelchair. Weatherford’s rhymes are playful and joyful without sugaring over, a pitfall of many a grandparent book. This author and illustrator also collaborated on Me and My Mama; let’s hope that odes to other family members are in the works. 

Find additional Board Book Roundup selections and more on board books, including "What Makes a Good Board Book?"

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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