2021 Board Books: Some Delights Thus Far
Who’s ready to get crazy about some board books?!?
As you may know, each year in December I do this series called 31 Days, 31 Lists. For each day of that month I post a list of my favorite children’s books in one category or another. But those lists don’t appear out of nowhere. I collect them continually and sometimes there are so many lovely titles that halfway through the year I break down and show them off early. Today is that very day.
Board books have always been near and dear to my heart. They’re the underdogs of the publishing industry. They sell like hotcakes, but can’t really win any awards. And, like other children’s books, they have to compete against the most famous titles, though honestly how many board book copies of Goodnight Moon does one little baby need, anyway?
Now I should say that so far this year I have not seen almost any board books featuring BIPOC kids. If you know of any, please tell me stat. I’d like to include better titles on this list, whenever possible .
If there’s a baby shower in your future, or a gift giving occasion of any sort that involves a very small child, consider this plethora of delights:
ABC Cats by Lesléa Newman, ill. Isabella Kung
A playful encapsulation of a wide variety of kittens. I’m a cat owner, so naturally there’s going to be some overlap here between my own kits and the ones on the page, but I was astounded by the sheer number of coincidences. When I was growing up I had a six-toed cat that drooled. In this book there is a six-toed cat and there is a drooling cat. They’re not the same cat, but close enough. Later for “U” you meet the “Unusual cat” that swims in the tub. I owned that cat once as well. Artist Isabelle Kung offers a plethora of different breeds, and her watercolors do that amazing thing where the feathery nature of the paint suggests fur. I could have done without the inclusion of the “Hefty cat” (a bit too fatphobic for my liking, and the licking of the chops is no help) but beyond that it’s a truly pleasant title.
Animal World: My First Colors (I Can Learn) by Lauren Crisp, ill. Thomas Elliott
This “I Can Learn” series from Tiger Tales is one of the cleverer ideas I’ve come across. You can spin little wooden circles to match their images to the colors or shapes in the books. It’s fun! One does wonder how well the images on the spinning wooden circles will stand up to repeated bites and copious amounts of saliva, but honestly it looks like they’ll be here for a while. I mean, if you pull on them away from the front cover the whole kerschmozzle will come off, yes, but the wooden circles won’t leave the bar that they’re attached to. So that’s something.
Baby Montessori, illustrated by Agnese Baruzzi, edited by Chiara Piroddi
I keep threatening to do it and by gum one of these days, folks, one of these days I’m just going to start my own publishing company. You know what we’ll make our first year? The only thing we’ll make? High contrast board books, that’s what! Look, everyone knows that they’re the best thing you can show your new baby’s eyes (babies can’t see soft pastel colors, but they can make out high contrasts like black and white). So why is it that finding new black and white board books every year is like pulling teeth? Enter Agnese Baruzzi. In this little bundle of joy you’ll find four board books: Big or Small?, The Garden, Animals, and Follow Me! Each is wordless and contains brilliant images in black, white, and the occasional splash of red. Part of what I enjoy about these illustrations isn’t just the fact that they’re b&w, but look at how Baruzzi uses negative space. I’m no neurologist, but it seems to me that if books and images are already good for baby brains then negative space must be like a baby AP course or something. An amazing box set. Not quite sure how Montessori figures into all of these (the box that these come in is tight-lipped) but I am grateful this exists.
Caution! Road Signs Ahead by Toni Buzzeo, ill. Chi Birmingham
Caution: Sharp corners below. While this is undeniably one of the best street sign board books I’ve ever seen in my life, I’d advise you to keep a close lookout for the bottommost page corners that accompany each sign. Preternaturally sharp, I wouldn’t call them an impossible impediment to child safety, but consider handing this to an older toddler, or even preschooler, rather than a soft, easily bruised and blemished, baby. That’s a design flaw. The book itself, however, fulfills your every sign-related fantasy. Clocking in at an impressive height of 8.25”, it’s heavy and comprehensive. A coffee table board book, if ever I saw one. Toss it in the back of the car next time you’re due for a long road trip. It won’t alleviate your troubles every step of the way, but for a while there the kids will be enthralled (and so will you).
Comparrotives by Janik Coat
See, here’s what I don’t get. These books are French imports, right? So how is it that their titles are always pitch perfect for the American market? Perhaps Janik Coat writes them just for us. Previous books in this series have included Hippopposites, Rymoceros, and Llamaphones but you may find you love Comparrotives (a book of adjectives used to compare one noun to another) the best. Coat has this sly sense of humor that serves her well with these books. In this case, the parrot has only one expression, but that hardly matters. Which section is your favorite? I think mine might be either “Close” and “Closer” (you could have so much fun bringing the book super close to kids when you get to that part) or “Silly” and “Sillier” (because tying a red clown nose on a parrot’s beak is always going to be high humor, no matter who you might be). Beautiful and fun, we have ourselves a winner.
Drive the Fire Truck by Dave Mottram
Drive the Race Car by Dave Mottram
Oh, man. This is one of those board books that you look at and when you realize what it’s doing you wonder why no one else thought of it first. Look at the covers here for a second. See how oddly they’re cut? That strange bean-shaped die-cut on the side? The crescent-shaped covers? Are you beginning to get it now? That’s right! When you open these books up you’re not reading a story anymore. Nuh-uh, you are IN the driver’s seat and there is somewhere that you have to BE! In Fire Truck the goal is to get to the fire as quickly as possible. That means pressing on the horn, poking the button that turns on the alarm, and selecting the button that extends the ladder. Race Car? Same thing except now you have turns to take and fellow drivers to pass. Can you imagine how much fun it must be to be a parent with these books? You can make all the car driving noises! You can make the fire engine sounds! Man, somebody find me a baby I can read these books with! I’m getting exciting just thinking about it. SUCH fun titles!
Five Little Ducks by Yu-hsuan Huang
Look, I’ll level with ya. You could probably take a cardboard box, rip off two flaps, scrawl the words “Row Row Row Your Boat” on one of the cardboard chunks, glue it to the other piece, and I’ll declare it one of the finest board books of the year. Long story short, I adore board books based on storytime songs. This book does commit a single cardinal sin for which I forgive it, but only barely. As we all know, the song “Five Little Ducks” starts with “Five little ducks went off one day / Over the hills and far away.” But in this book the rhyme is written as “Five little ducks went swimming one day / Over the hills and far away.” Putting aside the fact that “swimming” throws off the scansion entirely, why would you make that change? Clearly the art shows the duckies swimming. Whatever the case, the interactive elements, like the moveable tabs, bring this song to life. You may have some difficulty doing the hand rhymes and singing this at the same time, but don’t worry! Grab a fellow storytime employee and accompany the hand movements with the book. You’ll bring down the house every time, I guarantee it.
Flip Flap Snap! Dinosaurs by Carmen Saldaña
Was this book made on a dare? Because it sure as heck feels that way. It’s like someone sat down, put their thinking cap on, and then leapt into the air crying, “Eureka! It’s brilliant! Flip books AND pop-up books together! It could work!” I mean, I won’t lie. I would have told that person it was impossible. Fortunately, I was nowhere near this brilliance and now we have the fruits of the matter. This book allows you to mix the top half of a dino’s head with someone else’s bottom. It also will combine the first part of the dino on the top’s name with the second part of the dino’s name on the bottom. Though, if kids are anything like me, they’ll just keep the bottom half of the Tyrannosaurus’s jaw in hand and keep flipping through different craniums on top. Be prepared for rips to the paper (comes with the territory) and plenty of fun.
Hide-and-Seek by Shasha Lv
Board books are tricksy. On the surface they seem like such easy objects to produce. Yet the best board books are the ones that appeal to their target audience (not a given), have simple words that convey the story efficiently and well, and are illustrated with art that doesn’t make the adult reader want to gouge out their own eyes Gloucester-style after a fortieth read. Shasha Lv uses only three colors in this book: yellow, blue, and white. Occasionally you’ll get a slightly lighter blue but that’s the extent of the excitement in the color department. Yet as the bear searches for its hiding friends, children reading this book (once they’ve caught on) can try to find the animals as well. When you read it to kids, I highly recommend that you do the thing where you say, “Now wait. Where’s the snail at the end?” and the kid shows you. “Right right right, I’ve got it. I’ve got it . . . . wait. Where’s the snail again?” I bet you could keep that patter up for a long time, making this a highly sought out book. Just a thought.
Jungle Night by Sandra Boynton
Doggone it. This happens every time there’s a new Boynton board book. I pick it up (reluctantly) and page through it (reluctantly) and read it cover to cover (reluctantly) and realize that it’s brilliant (less reluctantly). How does she keep doing it? I don’t even care that she’s friends with half the music world (this book comes with a soundtrack by Yo-Yo Ma . . . of course it does). I just can’t help but notice that her jokes land and her books read aloud beautifully. I mean, tell me. Can YOU resist a crocodile that snores “Snorkle-ooo”? Only if you’re made of stone. A fantastic book, for bedtime or (considering the funny bit at the end) ANY other time.
Let’s Find Momo Outdoors! A Hide-and-Seek Adventure with Momo and Boo by Andrew Knapp
Photography is the name of the game with this uniquely clever board book. Stand aside, Seymour Simon! You haven’t seen the machinations of Momo and Boo at work. Heck, stand aside William Wegman. These pups have one job: To hide in each scene. Fortunately their little black and white heads have a tendency to give them away, but the book doesn’t make it easy for young children. Personally, I had a lot of difficulty with one of the objects you’re supposed to find as well. In the second two-page spread you’re asked to find a collar. And for whatever reason I had a devil of a time locating it. I seriously found myself wondering if it was hiding beneath the fur of one of the dogs at one point. And I suspect that had you matched me against a toddler and asked us both to find it in the picture, the toddler would have blown me out of the water. Beautiful photography and a darn good encapsulation of what it’s like to camp. Give it all the things.
Little Bug on the Move by Stéphanie Babin, ill. Olivia Cosneau
I like a board book that helps the parent figure out the best way to use it with their baby. In the case of this little lovely, I found it to be a delightful peek-a-boo title. Little Bug starts out in any number of hidden situations which you can reveal with just the push of a tab. The tabs themselves are a bit flimsier than I’m entirely comfortable dealing with. I wonder how many repeat reads this book could stand up to. But the sheer inventiveness of looking for Little Bug (enormously fun when two leaves are presented under two mushrooms and you have to figure out which one she’s hiding under) make up for it. There’s even a pop-up butterfly at the end for a bit of flair. Manifique!
Miki Gets Dressed by Stéphanie Babin, ill. Julie Mercier
Apparently I’m just all about the Babin. Now as any parent would be quick to point out, getting dressed is not a quick prospect when you have a small child. Sometimes the dawdling can get a bit out of hand. Toddler dawdlers (which would be a good name for a picture book, by the way) will find a soulmate in Miki. This is a rather clever pull-the-flap board book. The flaps are thin, so I worry about its longevity, but I can’t off the top of my head come up with another book that replicates the process of getting dressed as well as this book does. Plus you get this cool 3-D effect at the end when Miki gets to leap in the puddles (thereby soaking the nice dry clothes that were just put on, but them’s the breaks). Bright colors pop and the book is just a delight for kids. Keep this one in the mix!
Moimoi Look at Me! by Jun Ichihara, edited by Dr. Kazuo Hiraki
Because who doesn’t like the idea of handing a baby a book from a company called (cue the lightning) The Experiment? And boy, when it comes to experimental board books, this is the one to beat. First off, if you’re like me and you grew up watching Miss Piggy and then took high school French, you’re probably not pronouncing this “Moi” as in “Koi”. Try saying “moimoi” like “koikoi” and suddenly it is a lot more fun. Filled with what look to be benign, psychedelic tadpoles, this book promises, right there on the cover itself, that its “shapes, colors, and sounds… will soothe your crying baby.” Tall order, but I do think it’s fair to say that babies will find the images and sounds this book engenders, fascinating. You know how B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures makes the adult reader read a series of ridiculous sounds? This book does that too but the sounds are far more controlled. My favorite part is when they devolve into “mai mai” and “mui mui”. Now I just need to get my hands on a baby so I can try it out in the real world!
My Art Book of Friendship by Shana Gozansky
I will never, not ever, feel ashamed for loving this series. Phaidon’s art board books put the competitors to shame time and time again. And every year I put one of these books on my lists and every year I feel a little twinge of guilt. But why should I? When you’re good at what you do you should celebrate that fact! And Gozansky is good at locating this incredible collection of great artists that is so far removed from the dead white guys we’re used to that it feels like a palette cleanser more than anything else. I LOVE with all my heart the art selections in this book. I like the text that accompanies these choices. I like the amount of pages, the amount of art, and the fact that this book never gets old. You have a parent that wants to show their tykes classic art? Hand them the books in this series first. Pretty much just the best there is.
My Book of Feelings: Explore a World of Emotions by Nicola Edwards, ill. Thomas Elliott
Oooo! I can already see so many possible applications with this book. If you can’t quite make it out, this title has a little spinner installed inside it with three wooden faces. Each face shows a different emotion on each side (happy, sad, angry, surprised, calm, and confused). As you go through the book it asks you what emotions you, the reader, feel when you see certain animals or situations or foods. The last spread shows a variety of emotions on kids’ faces and you have to pair the emotion to the wooden face. I know that a fair amount of work done with children on the autism spectrum uses similar facial images, and this book could potentially be a useful tool. Of course the book ends with the obligatory board book mirror at the end, but here it actually makes a lot of sense. A very cool idea and a beautiful book.
New House by Dave Wheeler
All the curiosity, fun, chaos, and clutter that goes on when you move. The first thing that made me fall in love with this book was the angle of the front cover. Look at how beautifully the book places the child in the foreground and then lowers the angle so that you’re looking up at the house the way that he might. The illustrations of this book have a great deal of three-dimensionality and depth to them. And the child’s freakout at sleeping in a strange room at night is so heartfelt that when you go from an entire book of “new” this and “new” that to “Same mommy” and “Same daddy” when they come in to comfort and hug, you might find yourself tearing up a little. I mean, uh, hypothetically. Love the tone, the message, the art, and the perfectly written simplicity of the story. New book? New quality.
The Night Is Deep and Wide by Gillian Sze, ill. Sue Todd
I always figured that at some point some genius might start cranking out high contrast board books that have a bit of artistic content to their pages. Sue Todd’s woodcuts (or, at the very least, they look like woodcuts) contain black and white images with shots of color. The red of the tulips on the cover. Green leaves. An orange cat. The text, meanwhile, lilts hypnotically. Listen to this: “The tulips close, row by row, and shadow grow, against the light.” Look at how that long “o” sound gets repeated in the first three stanzas and then diverges at the very end. This is the kind of book that you can read to a very young child that needs high contrast picture books, as well as an older kid that might grasp some of these meanings. Which is to say, buy this book for the baby and keep reading it to them as they grow. And a book that grows with its readers is worth its weight in gold. Utterly lovely.
Noisy Tractor by Lauren Crisp, ill. Thomas Elliott
Okay okay okay, I admit that this looks like PRECISELY the kind of board book all children’s librarians loathe in equal measure. It’s a tractor that makes noise. See it on the cover there? It’s rubbery. That’s what makes it so shockingly satisfying when you poke and prod at its different parts. The storyline, such as it is, encourages you to make five different noises with the little tractor, depending on the situation at hand. There’s a novelty to it, but there was something about this particular tractor that really caught my eye. Look on the back. Is that an on/off switch I see? YES! Technology has finally advanced to the point where we can turn OFF those loud and noisy picture and board books if we want to!! And, as someone who once had to track down a misshelved and dying Very Hungry Cricket book in her children’s room (y’all know what I’m talking about) you’ll understand my enthusiasm.
Pet by Matthew Van Fleet, photography by Brian Stanton
When my children were very small we had a good solid run of Matthew Van Fleet books in our home. Not just these big, beautiful photography-centered books, but those small ones with the illustrations too. We were a Van Fleet household and we read those books until they were nothing but pulpy pieces of paper held together by frayed plant fibers and baby spit. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen another photo-based Van Fleet, but 2021 decided to give us a couple gifts this year, and this book is one of them. Once again, we have the gently rhyming text (that you’ll probably want to practice a time or two before you read it aloud). Once again there are touch-and-feel elements like a hedgehog’s spiny back or the sleek fur of a ferret. I loved the fact that all the animals inside are pets, and at the end each one gets to take its proverbial bow. Stanton’s photography wows, thought I’m half convinced that the grin of that full-grown pot-bellied pig must have a whisper of computer generated magic in its pixels. The pull tabs are big and strong and just waiting for small hands to pull ‘em. Welcome back, Matthew. It’s good to have you here where you belong.
Rainbowz by Michael Arndt
The rainbow gets an abecedarian upgrade in this eye-popper of a board book. And I take issue with the Kirkus reviewer that found the art uneven. To my mind, this is a hypnotic little number. The visual equivalent of a pack of pixie stix. Even if kids don’t learn what some of the things are in this book (A is for “Aura” after all) they’ll get a kick out of the incredibly bright colors and occasionally sparkly images. X, I am pleased to report, is our old friend “Xylophone”. I feel like some authors avoid the xylophone, finding it too common. I say, the more common the better. A real beauty of a book. Just make sure you don’t stare it too long or you may end up hypnotized.
Smile, Baby! by Nicola Slater
Doggone it, how can I resist? You know how much I adore board books with mirrors to begin with! Sometimes it gets hidden in the back, but in the case of this little number, the mirror never ever ever hides. This is an out and proud mirror. And what does one do with said mirror? Well, as you read the book it gives instructions. “Where are baby’s ears? There are baby’s ears! Can you find baby’s ears?” Do you see how they did that? The parent is gently guided in teaching their child. They mention the ears. Indicate the ears. Then instruct the little one to find their own ears using the mirror as a guide. It’s a surprisingly complex series of steps for children quite this young. I suppose that if I had any objections, it would just be that the book doesn’t have much of an ending. You do the mouth and blow a kiss, but it wouldn’t have been all that much harder to “blow baby a kiss bye-bye!” rather than just “blow baby a kiss”. Ah well. The rest of the title, with its colorful characters, makes up for this lapse.
Stanley’s Library by William Bee
What makes this book stand out? Please note that this ain’t your parents’ library info title. Read any other librarian-based text and you’d swear our entire jobs were storytime and finding books. Hardly! This board book gets it. In it, you see that being a librarian means wearing IDs, giving out free tickets, filling up the library van and doing site visits, setting up chairs for author talks, and more. And if you’re looking for that baked in quirk Bee always includes in his books, just check out what books they have in their horror section. It’s a treat.
Surprise! Slide and Play Shapes by Elsa Fouquier
I’m that weirdo at work that reads board books during her lunch break. No. Wait. It’s worse than that. I’m that weirdo at work that reads board books during her lunch break and occasionally gives little cries of surprise when she finds an unexpected one. Case in point, the aptly named Surprise. This little doodad of a title kept me guessing. It looks like a normal shape book. Indeed, I just assumed that kids would be encouraged to trace the three-dimensional shapes they find on these pages. And perhaps they are, but this book goes a bit farther than that. Your first indication that something is off is when you’re told to “Twist the green square.” Tentatively I took it in my hand and OH MY GOD! You really can twist it, and reveal a clever flap! More tricks follow, but you can’t get greedy and try to do them early. The book doesn’t work that way. Color me completely charmed by this new take on old shapes.
Welcome to Shape School! by Nicola Slater
Chronicle is calling this series the “Beginning Baby” series and it’s clear they put some work into these books. I’ve already mentioned how impressed I was with the aforementioned Smile, Baby. In this next book the back cover tells you that you’ll be encountering the subjects “Shapes”, “Storytelling”, and “Fine Motor Skills”. The cover, meanwhile, looks like no other board book I’ve seen before. Tabs abound, popping up not just at the top of the book (I’ve seen that before) but curving around the sides as well. That means that you can easily skip to your favorite shape if you want to. It also makes turning the pages with your chubby little baby hands a whole lot easier. On each page you are encouraged to count the number of shapes or maybe press them or tap them. Some of these shapes are easy and some are a bit more complicated. The page with the squares, for example, seemingly contains a massive number. Other pages, like the ovals, are a bit simpler. Characters here are colorful anthropomorphized animals and the whole venture has a jaunty feel. Shapes are math, and you’ll have no doubt of it after pointing and counting throughout this book.
Where’s Brian’s Bottom? by Rob Jones
If you find the idea of 6.5 feet of fold-out weiner dog to be a bit much, then perhaps this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, the idea of opening up a folding book with the ultimate goal of trying to locate a distant bottom strikes you as funny, then allow me to introduce you to Brian. He’s a good-natured dog in a good-natured book that gets a bit silly, but never overplays its hand. Extra points for the fact that on the opposite side of the pages you get the same scenes but at nighttime when almost everyone, including Brian, has conked out for the evening.
Whose Big Rig? by Toni Buzzeo, ill. Ramon Olivera
I think that at some point Toni Buzzeo decided to run a social experiment. Is it possible to do a board book series of construction equipment that subtly and substantially includes increasingly technical jargon with every new inclusion? It’s not that Whose Tools?, Whose Truck? and Whose Boat? were particularly simplistic to begin with, but in this newest addition we’re getting hardcore. Tunnel Borer. Tampering Machine. Tie Dragon. I mean, about the time I start learning that the aforementioned tamping machine lifts, shifts, and shakes ties and rails “to make tracks level” I begin to regret not having a toddler in the house anymore. This is the kind of book that you’ll learn from as much as your equipment obsessed tiny tot. A marvelous new addition to a superior series.
Words of the World: Bird by Motomitsu Maehara
Words of the World: Ocean Animals by Motomitsu Maehara
There are plenty of cut-paper board books out there. They always sort of class up a baby’s bookshelf, wouldn’t you say? Still, after a while they also all start to look a bit samey. But Maehara’s different, as is this series. Each book focuses on some kind of critter, and then each page displays that animal (or fish or bug or . . .) with its name spelled out in 7 different languages (English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Esperanto). It sounds like a gimmick but the end result is really both lovely and informative. This is due, in no small part, to the design which effectively foregrounds the featured creatures (and are just the loveliest most meticulous things) and the color codes the languages around them.
Didn’t see your favorite from this year on this list? Then I probably haven’t seen it! Throw it my way or send me a note. I love the darn things and can’t wait to see more.
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2021
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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