Board Books (for Babies)

“If it were a vehicle, the board book would be a tank or an armored personnel carrier.”

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Board books are intended for infants, babies, and toddlers. At that age, pretty much everything is a teething ring; at the same time, one of the most delightful sounds in the world is made by tearing paper. So, the board book is built for heavy duty use: it’s made of thick cardboard pages often with rounded corners (so a youngster can’t get cut), and it’s durably bound and the pages are often coated (so it can be cleaned). If it were a vehicle, the board book would be a tank or an armored personnel carrier.

Besides an “object,” the board book is also an “occasion.” It seems to require a baby in the lap. When that is taken care of, one can sometimes witness miracles: for example, how a toddler can compel a grown adult to make the sounds of a cow, a dog, a pig, a cat, and a horse when certain images appear.

In that regard, the board book has a distinct advantage over the cloth book, the other safe alternative available to the under-four set. Because of the firmness of its pages, the board book allows for dramatic **Page Turning**–an action that, all by itself, is positively delightful to the very young and bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating.

What is surprising is that the board book is a relatively new invention. It was only in the early 1980’s, with the pioneering work of Rosemary Wells and Helen Oxenbury, that this kind of book became widely available. Publishers noticed their success in bookstores and, since board books aren’t usually available in libraries, quickly expanded their offerings by converting popular picture books into this new format. Some worked and some didn’t.

Personally, I don’t care for any board-book editions of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and I don’t like those offerings where publishers have retained the title of an original picture book but left out sizeable parts of the story to make it fit into fewer pages. That seems like false advertising. The Story of Babar with pages missing is a truncated Babar. But there have been successes and among my favorites are three classic picture books that have been crossed over to the board-book format: Margaret Wise Brown’s bedtime favorite Goodnight Moon, Eric Carle’s cleverly designed The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Alexandra Day’s comic Good Dog, Carl. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting board books being made today. Two new favorites appeared this Spring: Garth Williams’ Baby Animals (which combines the two great interests of babies, namely, animals and other babies) and Betsy Snyder’s Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? (which invites an exploration of textures by means various materials affixed to its pages so that a youngster can tickle the “cottony” stomach of a penguin, touch the “bumpy” back of a hedgehog, stroke the “feathery” skin of an ostrich, and so forth). 

Indeed, when you think about it, the board book is a remarkable and magical thing. The basis for complex interactions between a baby and an adult, it is multimedia device that is at once colorful, pictorial, inexpensive, mobile, durable, and chewable. It beats the iPhone hands down.

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Goodnight MoonBy Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd. Harper Festival: $8.99

The Very Hungry CaterpillarBy Eric Carle. Philomel: $10.99

Good Dog, CarlBy Alexandra Day. Little Simon: $7.99

Baby AnimalsBy Garth Williams. Golden Books: $4.99

Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? By Betsy Snyder. Random House: $9.99

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A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (April 2009).


29. April 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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