When I was preparing for Flora’s arrival, there was very little shopping that needed to be done. We had five years worth of girls’ clothes and all the baby essentials. Our car seat was about to expire and we decided to upgrade to a video monitor (singing its praises), but other than that, it was pretty much diapers and baby shampoo.
Oh, and did I forget to mention? A little bit of book shopping, too, of course.
It was just so plainly obvious that our board book collection was lacking, and I’ll use any excuse.
As attractive as their near-indestructible format is, I have always been a reluctant consumer of board books. Primarily because too many great picture books have been inappropriately repackaged into board book format.
Take “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type,” for example. It was one of the founding editions of my children’s book collection, purchased long before any of my girls were even conceived. This incredibly witty, amazingly illustrated story is intended for children ages 3 to 7, and appropriately so.
Would I have ever considered this book in board book format? No!
Why not? For several good reasons:
1: Its sharp humor, creative plot and detailed illustrations would go completely over the head of a baby or toddler.
2: The complexity of the text would likely test the patience and interest of these young readers.
3: All of the aforementioned elements that make this an exceptional picture book would be diminished in the board book’s small-scale format.
But most importantly, by the time your baby is 7 years old and capable of fully appreciating this story, how enthusiastic do you think she’ll be about pulling out a board book at story time? Not very.
The best board books are written and constructed with babies and toddlers in mind —hence the thick sturdy pages, with wipeable, glossy surfaces designed to withstand little ones’ not-so-gentle hands. School Library Journal offers a good summary of what constitutes a truly successful board book:
“The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Ideally, illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page, offering plenty of contrast between the background and the pictures. Occasionally, a picture book makes the successful transition to a board format, but be warned that not all picture books are equally engaging as board books. Too much text on the page is distracting and crowded, and the smaller trim size can make illustrations appear crammed on the page, losing detail and focus. The absolute best board books are the ones that withstand the test of time: not only in being indestructible, but also in holding young children’s interest as they explore and point to pictures, exclaiming, ‘again, again!’ when reaching the last page.”
Stumped by the ill-suited board book release of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” Horn Book contributing editor Cynthia Ritter suggested that publishers are catering to “parents who want smaller, sturdier, and cheaper versions of picture books.” She suggests that money-smart parents seek out paperback editions of books before succumbing to the allure of board books. They’re “lighter and, while less durable, similar in cost to the board book and in size to the original,” she writes.
Here’s how I see it, if a book is available as a picture book, I choose that format almost without exception. Even if I incur double the cost of a board book, I gain three times the life. Inevitably, all children consider themselves “too big” for board books, usually by the time they’re two. If a picture book can survive those first two years, it will be read many more times in the years that follow, both to your first child and as well as any that may follow.
Conversely, if I’m going to buy a board book, it’s going to be specifically suited for children under two and it had better be pretty outstanding. Keeping my prejudices in mind, I’ve sought new baby-friendly titles to complement tried-and-true board book favorites like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” “Moo, Baa, La, La, La,” and “Goodnight Moon.”
In the process, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my preferences: I now have a significantly larger collection of books derived from folk songs. It’s a trend that isn’t completely surprising. Many nursery rhymes and folk songs are so engrained in our memory that they’re easy to fall back on as you rock your baby to sleep in the middle of the night or attempt to distract a toddler causing a raucous at a restaurant. “This Little Piggy” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” never grow old and rarely cease to elicit a baby’s adorable chuckles. The lyrical verses are just what you need to hold an on-the-go toddler’s attention.
HUSH. LITTLE BABY
One of my favorite board book discoveries in this genre has been Marla Frazee’s “Hush, Little Baby.” As a child, this was the song my parents would sing to us at bedtime, and it was the first thing that popped into my head when I was a new mom attempting to console a colicky infant.
Frazee’s rich watercolor illustrations make her one of my all-time favorites. I adored her work in “The Seven Silly Eaters” and “Everywhere Babies.” Her humor is wonderfully evident in “Boss Baby,” which she authored and illustrated. She’s also responsible for bringing “Clementine” to life in Sara Pennypacker’s popular chapter book series.
In “Hush, Little Baby,” Frazee’s beautifully detailed images lend a clever backstory to this traditional American folk-song. The opening pages of the book depict a frontier family returning home at sunset, the eldest daughter envious of the attention the new baby gets as her parents tuck the baby into bed. Turn the page and the reader spies big sister shoving her baby sister’s cradle, waking the baby and setting the song in motion.
While Mama attempts to console the baby, Papa and Big Sister visit a peddler on the road to see if they can find something to “hush the baby.” We all know how the story goes, though, and despite their many desperate attempts, Baby howls all night long. Just as the sunrise is tingeing the sky pink, the family tumbles out of a horse drawn cart and the baby finally decides she’s tired out.
I love how Frazee has captured the siblings’ reconciliation and the parents’ utter exhaustion. Best yet, I love the sweet and innocent look on the baby’s face, in sharp contrast with earlier images of a seemingly possessed child. Isn’t that just how babies are? Utterly exhausting and maddeningly frustrating during sometimes endless fussy periods, but angelically loveable the very moment it passes.
As an added bonus, the last page of the book offers the accompanying lines of music, which will be helpful for those readers who can’t exactly remember how the tune goes.
MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
I discovered Tomie de Paola’s petite gem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” at The Pumpkin Patch, our local, independent children’s book and toy store. It always astonishes me how poorly big box bookstores stock some of the children’s book greats like de Paola, Eric Carle and even some of Dr. Suess. I’ll never forget when our BAM bookstore failed to turn up either a copy of “The Cat in the Hat” or Mem Fox’s “Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes.” And they wonder why I have absolutely zero interest in their ridiculous membership program!
Conversely, it was a pleasant, but not completely unexpected treat to discover a de Paola with which I was previously unfamiliar while browsing about The Pumpkin Patch. The proprietor, like most indie sellers, knows her children’s book authors and is a particularly ardent de Paola fan.
Originally published as a picture book in 1984, de Paola’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a rare example of a book that’s been appropriately repackaged as a board book. The song’s succinct verses, paired with de Paola’s vibrant artwork make it perfectly suited for toddlers and babies. Of course, there are other board book incarnations of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but there’s none better than de Paola’s. His illustrations, in themselves, are masterpieces of contemporary American folk art and are ideal for bringing to life one of the best-known American folk songs. He’s also done a masterful job of interspersing wordless pages between verses of the song, creating a pacing that’s ideal for impatient readers eager to turn the page.
For example, the page spread following the verse “And every where that Mary went / The lamb was sure to go” illustrates the little lamb following Mary while she washes the dishes in the kitchen, reads a book in the attic and then nods off to sleep.
In addition, I appreciate the historical accuracy with which de Paola approached the project, incorporating the concluding verses of the song that few of us know and illustrating the pages with landscapes, buildings and dress that are true to the time and location in which the song was composed —1830, rural New Hampshire countryside.
De Paola also had an interest in the supposed controversy concerning the rhyme’s authorship, about which he writes in detail on his website. Traditionally, the writer Sarah Josepha Hale of Guild, New Hampshire, is credited with the creation of the original poem. However, a Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachussets, claimed she was THE Mary who took her pet lamb to the town’s one-room schoolhouse. She asserted that a visiting pastor-in-training witnessed the incident and composed the verses, which he gave to her.
De Paola read everything he could on the topic and concluded that he sided with Hale, especially in light of her deathbed oath that she was the sole author of the poem.
“I shared all of this information with Margery Cuyler, my editor at Holiday House. We agreed to produce a picture book of the poem and credit SJH (Sarah Josepha Hale) as the AUTHOR — what fun! I went to Newport and sketched actual buildings that would have been in Newport at the time of SJH. I even put a portrait of sorts on the title page of an 1850’s-1860’s lady writing at a desk with a toy lamb pull-toy near her. And guess what? I ADDED to the controversy. Letters poured in — well, OK, dribbled in — correcting me about the ‘TRUTH.’ I sent them to the Richards Free Library whose staff enjoyed answering them. I DON’T WANT ANY MORE LETTERS ABOUT WHO WROTE ‘MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB.’”
CHILD’S PLAY “BOOKS WITH HOLES”
Another treasure trove of song-based board books are those offered by Child’s Play, a British publishing company that’s employed nearly every nursery rhyme or folk song one could name, from “This Little Piggy” to “”If You’re Happy and You Know It” to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I’m particularly fond of their “Books with Holes” board book series. These books utilize unique die cuts in their pages to reveal images that enhance the story’s development. I’ll use our favorite, “The Farmer and Dell,” to illustrate the technique.
On the opening page spread, we meet “the farmer in the dell,” seen through the first hole holding a bunch of flowers. The accompanying second verse tells us “the farmer takes a wife,” and we’re shown a group of a dozen potential spouses — some scary, some frumpy, some quirky and some sweet. The reader gets the fun of guessing whom the farmer will choose.
The page spread that follows reveals the selected wife through a new hole. In addition, we’re shown a crowd of a dozen potential children, one of whom belongs to the couple. Will it be the girl in the flowered dress or the boy on the skateboard? Maybe the boy with the chickens? Turn the page to find out.
The bright, playful illustrations and lyrical, repetitive verses make this book enjoyable for our baby, but the guessing game has captured the interest of our 4- and 6-year-old girls. They almost always choose a “Book with Holes” when I encourage them to read to Flora; and because they know the songs so well, even our pre-reader Charlotte can “read” these books. They may have the most fun with “The Farmer and the Dell,” but they also love the inventive new verses in “Little Miss Muffet.”
Along came a parrot, who crunched on her carrot.
You’ll also meet a bear who gobbled her pear, mice who munched all her rice and a poodle who nibbled her noodles, among others.
Our collection also includes “One Elephant,” which brings back fond memories of Sharon, Lois and Braham, as well as “The Ants Go Marching.” We have “Old McDonald,” too, but this edition was a case in which Child’s Play’s traditional British verses didn’t quite match up with our familiar version of the song. For instance, their horses “whinny” rather than “neigh” and their pigs “grunt” rather than “oink.” Check out their full collection of books on their website.