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Board Book Roundup: Treasure Hunting in the Public Library

The parents, caregivers, and babies who visit the main branch of my public library love board books. They eat them up — sometimes literally. We keep the books jumbled in a long wooden bin that sits low to the floor on a cozy rug. Pre-walkers use the bin’s edge to pull themselves up to a standing position. They peek in or grab at the sturdy books that are just right for their tiny hands. A board book can absorb a lot more hard use than a hardcover picture book can, which is a draw for new parents nervous about borrowing library books. A board book can be stomped on, spilled on, thrown across the room, tasted, and then returned to the library pretty much in the same shape it left in.

We start the morning with all the board books in the bin and try to corral them back periodically throughout the day, but mostly these books reside all over the children’s room floor. This is where I prefer them myself. Crawling babies can see, touch, smell, listen to, and taste them best there. It is a mess, yes — but also, if you squint, you get a vision of a new generation of readers.

We buy twenty to thirty new or replacement board books every week in our book order, and we own about fourteen hundred of them at any given time, yet some days the board-book bin is empty. The books circulate more than eight times a year on average, going out for up to four weeks at a time. While those cardboard pages are tough, their target audience ultimately proves tougher. Many copies hardly survive a year, yet the board books garner enough in-library attention and out-of-library circulation during their brief lifespans to justify their purchase.

We are not precious about our board-book collection at the library (as a public library, we serve all our patrons, including those looking for board books meant to teach babies coding, or yoga) and tend to have some of everything:

  • original board books

  • board books that are based on or are new editions of picture book versions

  • board books that tell simple stories

  • board books that show concepts

  • board books full of inside jokes for adults

  • board books with manipulatives — flaps to open, textures to feel, sounds to hear

  • board books based on media characters

  • even board books that are so enormous, their heft actually poses a hazard to the smallest people

For public use, we draw the line at those plastic board books meant for the bath, though we find that some of our regular board books find their way into the bath all the same.

So yes, much of what is published as board books is ephemeral, or meant to attract the adult rather than the child, or cynically commercial. But within the vast array of offerings appears the occasional board-book wonder: a title created completely with the needs of the very youngest people in mind. There are no complicated plots or visuals to untangle. The sturdy pages have a clean design. Good rhythm and vocabulary in the text help foster language and literacy skills. The objects and their actions are recognizable, and often they include every baby’s favorite thing to look at — other babies!

Viki Ash’s article “What Makes a Good Board Book?” (March/April 2010 Horn Book) and Kathleen T. Horning’s “Board Books Go Boom” (March/April 1997) provide seminal advice on evaluating board books (see also hbook.com/tag/board-books). With those tenets in mind, I took a look inside my library’s board-book bin to see what some of the newest titles published originally for this format have to offer. These are the books I snag to use in baby programming at the library and the ones I show to families when I talk about how talking, singing, playing, and reading aloud help those critical little synapses connect in a baby’s developing brain.

Little Truck and Little Boat
both by Taro Gomi (Chronicle, 2018)

Little Truck is going on an adventure. Sometimes he goes too fast, and sometimes he needs a push up the hill, but Little Truck soldiers on (with a larger, parent truck the perfect distance behind). Equally independent and not alone, Little Boat navigates the waters through large boats and big waves while the text alternately cautions and cheers (“Uh, oh. Little Boat is rocking.” “Little Boat is fine!”) until Little Boat is ready to go home with his own parent. In these titles, the chunky lines and shapes are just right for babies experiencing their own independent forays into crawling, standing, falling, and walking. For adults, they provide a smart model in following a child’s lead and encouraging safe exploration.

Who?: A Celebration of Babies
by Robie H. Harris, illus. by Natascha Rosenberg (Abrams Appleseed, 2018)

A call-and-response look at a variety of illustrated babies (including twins, and with a variety of skin tones represented throughout) and some of the relationships they may be forming with parents, grandparents, other babies, animals, and security objects: “Who’s that? Baby and Lovey! That’s who!” With repeat readings, the soothing rhythm of the text paired with the many recognizable visuals in the pictures can help babies begin to make first language associations.

Go Baby! Go Dog!
by Anne Vittur Kennedy (Whitman, 2018)

Baby pursues dog in a bright and playful chase that ends in a cuddly, sleeping pileup. The high energy of the text and the suspense of a well-crafted page-turn should capture a very young child’s interest. With only eight unique words and plenty of humor and repetition, this is a book that babies who are starting to talk will easily be able to follow along with and even join in.

Black Bird Yellow Sun
by Steve Light (Candlewick, 2018)

Spread by spread, a black bird and a small orange worm drift through eight different colors (“Black Bird Purple Grapes / Black Bird Green Grass”). Featuring rich pattern and texture while providing strong visual color contrasts for babies to notice and absorb, this book provides great opportunities for engaging the senses without being too busy or overwhelming.

I Thought I Saw a Lion!
by Lydia Nichols (Templar, 2018)

A sturdy and simple manipulative device allows small fingers to uncover the lion hidden on every spread. “I thought I saw a lion. Is it in the library?” Warm colors and smiling faces in the retro-style art keep the plot friendly even when the lion’s teeth are exposed. Babies and toddlers practice and learn how to turn pages through the board book format, and well-designed tactile features bring added surprises and rewards to this experience.

Rhyme Flies
by Antonia Pesenti (Phaidon, 2018)

Language, rhymes, and fold-out flaps play with sound and the visual experience, as conventional words or phrases and corresponding images subtly morph into fantastical words and visuals. “Fingernails” become “Fingersnails.” “Cheese on Toast” becomes “Sneeze on Toast.” Though still directed toward babies and toddlers, books like this display a high level of artistry that suggests a growing respect and consideration for the board-book format.

What Is Light?
by Markette Sheppard; illus. by Cathy Ann Johnson (Agate/Bolden/Millner, 2018)

Young African American children joyously explore the world around them, finding light wherever they are and celebrating it. Rich, swirly illustrations pair well with a rhythmic text that provides calm while also considering the variety of things light can be — the sun, a firefly, a smile, a mother’s love, and something special inside of a person. This title brings to the board-book bin warmth, comfort, and deep connections between ourselves and the world around us.

So Far Up
by Susanne Strasser (Charlesbridge, 2018)

Bear and his friends stack up, “Bremen Town Musicians”–style, to reach a cake in a top-floor window. Cumulative text and onomatopoeia (“BOINGA-BOING!”) bring out all the well-executed silliness of the pictures. The animals’ plan fails, of course, but the last spread provides a happy conclusion. The book creates supportive structure for those new to following a simple plot, and the repetition throughout offers wonderful opportunities for adults and very young children to practice making predictions together.

* * *

Sharing a board book bonds grownup and very young child together through reading. And, if repeated regularly, that bond can strengthen and be a touchpoint for the child to return to, creating a lifelong association between warmth and security and books. A child can lean on this whenever reading becomes frustrating, challenging, or a chore. We can build this reading safety net for our children bit by bit from the very start with board books. They are strong enough to help small book lovers cut their proverbial reading teeth and their baby teeth at the same time.

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Julie Roach

Julie Roach

Julie Roach, chair of the 2020 Caldecott Committee, is the collection development manager for the Boston Public Library.  

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