31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Board Books
Ahhh. Nothing like the first list of the year. And what makes 2021 different from any other? Well, in terms of board books this was the year we saw the inaugural Margaret Wise Brown Board Book Award. Given out by The Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education, the first prize will be awarded in spring 2023 for board books published or picture books adapted to board book format in 2021 and 2022. After that, the award will be given every two years. Those of us fully in the thrall of board books have much to celebrate.
Unfortunately, 2021 did not see a marked increase in board books featuring a wide range of skin tones. Other areas of children’s literature have stepped up and improved significantly over the last few years. Not board books. Indeed, I’d say that board books as a whole are lagging. For today’s list I found what I could but if you can think of anything you saw this year that isn’t just starring white kids, I’d appreciate you mentioning it in the comments of this post.
This year I will be trying something new. At the end of this list I’ll link to the previous years’ board book lists, just in case you’d like more of the same. I’ll try to do that with each list I release this month.
And now? Feast your eyes on these! As per usual, I’m splitting the list into one for Babies and one for Toddlers/Preschoolers.
2021 Board Books for Babies
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 spin little wooden circles to match their images to the colors or shapes in the book. 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.
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 just 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.
Count to Love by Andrea Davis Pinkney, ill. Brian Pinkney
I’m sort of stacking my deck here with Pinkneys, but can you blame me? Later this month you’ll see that in the poetry section I’ve also included Bright Brown Baby: A Treasury which is also by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. Basically, I’m going for maximum Pinkneyage. The more the merrier. Besides, do you think I’m made of stone or something? How can I resist Brian’s curvy, circular, almost spherical babies? Bouncy and bright, it always strikes me as a bit odd that we don’t see more of our big time Black illustrators doing more truly gorgeous board books. If I hope for anything in the future, it’s that Brian and Andrea inspire other folks to follow in their footsteps. I mean, can you imagine a Derrick Barnes/Gordon C. James board book? A Vanessa Brantley-Newton board book? A Sean Qualls? A Christian Robinson? An Ekua Holmes? I wish…
Global Baby Playtime by Maya Ajmera
No. Seriously. Why are the Global Babies books so often the ONLY books in a given year to give babies what they actually want? Which is to say, faces faces faces! If you’ve seen any of the other Global Babies books then you’ll already be familiar with their fantastic format. These little babies come from a wide range of places (the first two you meet are “Portugal” and “Burkina Faso”, respectively) but the text ties many of them together. I’ve always admired the economical writing that shows rather than tells. Once again, we’ve got a big time hit on our hands.
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 the item 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 and 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!
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 aloud? 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 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.
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 shadows 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.
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 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.
2021 Board Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers
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 ABC by Nikolas Ilic
Can I tell you my favorite board book trend of 2021? It’s not huge. It won’t move mountains. It’s just that I feel like publishers are getting much smarter about how they integrate nonfiction information into their board books these days. Some do a crummy job of it, stuffing loads of boring text into the margins around the colorful pictures. Then you get something like Ilic’s Animal ABC. In this book there are funny pictures and a short sentence that tells precisely one fact about that animal. “A. An APE’S arms are longer than its legs!” See? Short. Sweet. Simple. Fun facts. Plus I love the sentence, “SHARKS are older than trees and have been around for 400 million years.” Older than trees is a great line.
Animal Colors by Nikolas Ilic
It’s always nice to be surprised. Though I had read Ilic’s Animal ABC I was in no way certain that lightning would strike twice and that I’d like this book about colors just as much. Yet to my infinite surprise I found that this title sports a mighty clever hook. You see, the problem with some of the cooler animals out there is that they don’t make much in the way of sounds (unless you think the song “Baby Shark” is scientifically accurate). So what Ilic does here is pair two animals of the same color together. The former is always cool, like a fox or a crocodile, or an octopus. The animal on the latter side is the same color, and is named, AND gets to make fun sounds. “Glug! Glug!” “Hee-Haw! Hee-Haw!” “Hoot! Hoot!” So kids not only get animals and colors, they get some audible components as well. And for board books, that may as well be the golden trifecta.
Big Bear, Little Bear by Marine Schneider
This little Belgian import packs a big punch in a small package. The name of the game here is comparisons of things that are big and are little. Part of the fun is in the simplicity of the art, but there’s also some humor to be found in Little Bear’s version of the big things. For example, Big Bear’s car is a sturdy, white vehicle. Little Bear’s car is the pack in which he rides on Big Bear’s back. Big Bear’s coffee is coffee. Little Bear’s coffee looks like milk. You’ll get some sticklers that point out that Little Bear’s “coffee” or “car” aren’t actually accurate smaller version of the larger objects and ideas. No question. However, I’m all for instilling a sense of humor early on in your kid. There may come a time when they get some of the jokes in this book and feel particularly proud of themselves for getting them at all. Until then, parents will find a great sense of peace from this unassuming little number. A bite-sized delight.
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).
Colors by Matthew Reinhart, ill. Ekaterina Trukhan
Oo. Been a while since I’ve seen a Reinhart pop-up come in. What could be a fairly rote encapsulation of colors takes on a whole new life thanks to a series of clever little pop-up features. Tapping into a clear cut It’s a Small World vibe (minus the blatant stereotypes) this book is probably better suited to toddler rather than baby hands. Even so, I cannot see that killer opening strawberry section lasting all THAT long. There are a load of fun peek-a-boo elements. My favorite is the frog that pops out of the log like he’s Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Expect repeat requests. Just don’t expect it to live too long.
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, Rhymoceros, 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 it) or “Silly” and “Sillier” (because tying a red clown nose on a parrot’s beak is always going to be high humor). Beautiful and fun, we have ourselves a winner.
Dishwasher’s Big Job by Steven Weinberg
I do not know why no one else ever figured out that if you simply add googly eyes to a book, it becomes 100% more interesting. And how delightful to find that this is Steven Weinberg once more. You may know him from his Astronuts series with Jon Scieszka or from his picture books. This year he put out three board books that could be best described as perfect for those kids entranced by machinery. And while I see the charms of Washer and Dryer’s Big Job and Fridge and Oven’s Big Job, the succinctness of Dishwasher is what makes this particular book stand out for me. It makes for a marvelous readaloud with all the sound effects, and I could see a clever parent tying this into a kid’s bathtime as well. Of the three books, this one also seems the easiest to read aloud to small fry. Go, dishwasher, go!
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 toddler I can read these books with! I’m getting exciting just thinking about them. SUCH fun titles!
Feelings by Xavier Deneux
Love these little Deneux board books. They just don’t get old for me. In this book a single word is described by a plethora of related terms. For example, when you open the cover you see a yellow bird singing next to the word “joy”. Up top are sixteen other words that help to define that word. “Happiness, delight, cheer, beaming”, etc. You might not always agree with the choices but the terms are fun. My sole objection to the book comes near the end when, for the first time, a term is not defined. On the left-hand page two squirrels frolic under the term “playful”. They get all kinds of descriptive additional terms. But on the right-hand page sits a single squirrel, a little white tear falling from its eye. The page says “left out”. Don’t expect closure (or further explanations) on that one, kids. A fun book, with the occasional loony decision.
Fish by Fish by Giuliano Ferri
We talk a lot about French board books and how they so slyly cornered the market. Much less talk is given over to the Italian board books of the world. Giuliano was born in Pesaro, Italy and when he’s not creating books he’s working with young people with disabilities, using animation and comic theater as therapy. This may account for the animated and unquestionably comic (if dark) nature of good old Fish by Fish here. No doubt you are familiar with the image of a line of fish, each one about to eat the fish in front of it. Ferri takes the idea but divides the page. The tiniest fish is in the center of the book and with each page turn a larger fish comes to eat it. Each time they are scared away by an even larger fish. The little clown fish never moves (the die-cut is directly overhead so it couldn’t if it wanted to) and yet somehow manages to get the last laugh in the end. I was so taken with the truly beautiful soft watercolors, that make it look as though you’re seeing the action through the blur of water. The ways in which the book comes up with synonyms for “big” is also a lot of fun. An liquid winner.
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 presenter and accompany the hand movements with the book. You’ll bring down the house every time, I guarantee it.
5 Wild Animals by Rhiannon Findlay, ill. Margaux Carpentier
5 Wild Homes by Rhiannon Findlay, ill. Natasha Durley
*happy sigh* See, this is what makes me content: innovative new ways of doing board books. It’s amazing what a person can do with pressed board these days, isn’t it? Essentially, you have an image and on its page a little rut and groove has been carved out. Inside that groove is some small circle. The child is able to move that circle in different shapes around the subject matter. So, in the case of 5 Wild Animals (my favorite of these two books) you move a little circle down the back of a twisty snake. Next page you move a ball around the mane of a growling lion. It’s not just the tactile elements that I like, though, but the eye popping art. No shade on Durley but Carpentier really goes out of her way to fill these pages with high contrast colors and enticing images. The kinds of books you’ll be able to use over and over again (it’ll take a LOT of effort for tiny hands to prise out these flat squares, I think). Can’t miss books.
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 their dream in hand. This book allows you to mix the top half of a dino’s head with someone else’s bottom half. 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.
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes by Annie Kubler and Sarah Dellow
What questions should you ask when considering readaloud board books? If you’re doing a baby or toddler or even preschooler storytime, how easily can you incorporate the book into your regular song routine? This book is particularly tricky since it requires so much movement. Here’s an idea: Read/sing the book first, showing the kids the art. Then you stand up and do it without the book. Then, what the heck, maybe read/sing the book again. You’ve the musical notes on the back if you plan to take your singing to the next level. I also appreciate that this book doesn’t try to change what I consider to be the song in its most perfect form. It’s super short, but if you know how to use it, it’s a great inclusion.
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.
How Many Beads? by Nicola Edwards, ill. Thomas Elliott
First and foremost I have to warn you that this book is probably not library safe. It comes with ten rainbow colored wooden beads. These beads are connected on a string (thereby keeping them safe from little swallowers), which you can remove and, subsequently, lose. But for the time that you have them, the book does this marvelous job of allowing you to measure different things. As it says on the cover, there are six scenes to explore and in each one you get to measure, count, and compare. Obviously this isn’t a book for the youngest board book users, but for those just old enough to enjoy such concepts as “tallest” and “longest”, this book is one of the best that I have ever seen. Lots of fun photographs and questions. This is remarkably fun.
The Itsy Bitsy Dinosaur by Georgie Deutsch, ill. Valerie Sindelar
Anytime you adapt a nursery rhyme or hand rhyme to a board book format, you immediately run into a problem. Mainly, that nursery rhymes and hand rhymes are often too short to really constitute a proper book. The obvious solution is to simply add more verses, but if you’re singing this book to begin with, these verses can muck with your singing, no? This is probably why you’ll see a million different versions of The Wheels on the Bus (where extra verses aren’t an issue) but not of, say, Baa Baa Black Sheep. For this book, Deutsch created additional verses to the story, but I wouldn’t call it a dealbreaker. With a little rehearsal I found that if you take the tune where it says “Up came the sun and dried up all the rain” and apply it to the three situations Deutsch has written in here (the appearance of an elephant, tiger, and lion) it actually works pretty well. This is a pull-tab title, and one of the fascinating things about it is that the song actually starts on the cover. You pull the first tab and realize, with a shock, that you’re in the story already! I’ve never seen a book do this before, so I’m goint to assume it was an innovative workaround for the number of pages that had to be inside. In any case, consider this your new storytime friend for Baby Lapsit hours.
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. 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. I also 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.
Merriam-Webster’s 150 First Words by Claire Laties Davis, ill. Kasia Dudziuk
Look, just because a familiar name like “Merriam-Webster” puts out a board book, and just because the author has “MS, CCC-SLP” after their name, none of that means the book is going to be any good. That said, there were a couple elements to this title that caught my eye right from the start. First, there is the size. While it makes perfect sense that a book touting 150 words should be big, a lot of board books exchange “big” for “thick”. Not Merriam-Webster. Clocking in at an impressive 11” X 11”, this book leaves ample space, so as to avoid overcrowding. Next, it has the wherewithal to include both illustrations and photographs. Now this was an interesting idea. Basically, you show a scene on the top half of different families doing different activities. And then at the bottom you have photos of real objects. There’s even a real baby face at the bottom that corresponds to the baby in the illustration. I wasn’t certain that was intentional until I got a baby with a VERY distinct haircut in both places. The end result, of course, is that you can use this book to show a small child the real thing and then ask them to find the drawn one above. Brilliant! I’ve never seen anyone do this before and I am utterly charmed. A thorough winner from start to finish.
Miki Gets Dressed by Stéphanie Babin, ill. Julie Mercier
Apparently I’m a Babin fan (fun to say). Now as any parent would be quick to point out, getting dressed is not a fast 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 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!
Monster Clothes by Daisy Hirst
Monster Food by Daisy Hirst
Daisy Hirst is fast becoming my favorite author/illustrator for little ones. If you saw her picture book this year, I Like Trains, then you know that she’s capable of taking worn out but still incredibly popular toddler tropes, turning them into books that glitter and gleam. These “Monster” board books are no exception. I got a bit of a Monsters Go Night-Night vibe from Monster Food since it relies on a lot of misdirection. Still, let us not besmirch the antics at work in Monster Clothes. Something about these highly amiable monsters makes them ideal for board book formats. I hate to say it, but more monsters please!!
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. 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.
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.
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.
Oakley the Squirrel: The Search for Z, A Nutty Alphabet Book by Nancy Rose
My friend Junko got a tiny picnic table during the pandemic and enjoyed watching the resident squirrels eat there. This book is sort of like that, only instead of a mere picnic table, Nancy Rose has constructed a kind of uber-dollhouse construction entirely for the purposes of enticing a baby squirrel to interact. An alphabet book at its core, the story is that Oakley is in search of the letter Z. To get to it he must look through a whole array of different objects, each of them squirrel-sized. The meticulousness of the sets is probably worth the price of admission alone (and the cute squirrel is a definite plus) but the true star of the show are the elements that are so accurate, you forget you’re looking at them in miniature. My personal favorite came on the “N” page where Oakley looks for the Z “Nestled in the Newspapers”. Those newspapers in question have teeny tiny articles about other squirrels on their pages with headlines like “Just chewing up the scenery”. It’s so perfect it kinda made my head hurt. High praise indeed. Plus, how LONG do you wait for a squirrel to wander into your shot? Ms. Rose must have hid peanuts everywhere. That’s my theory anyway.
1 Smile 10 Toes by Nelleke Verhoeff
Mix-and-Match books are nothing new, and indeed I’ll mention Verhoeff’s other book RED HAT, PINK BOOTS a little later. What impresses me about this title, though, is its capacity for hammering home counting in a fun way. The book isn’t presenting itself like that necessarily, but you’d be blind not to see the possibilities. With every turn of the bottom half of the book you get to count and recount a number of different toes, feet, scales, ankles, etc. The top is the same with different numbers of ears and wrinkles and so on and such. If a parent were to enjoy flipping through this with a kid, then the two could count together the new numbers as they present themselves then that’s a pretty great idea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen counting and mix-and-match books used together before. Brilliant!
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, though 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.
Pop a Little Pancake! by Annie Kubler & Sarah Dellow
What kind of storytime reader are you? Are you the kind of person who likes to try new things all the time or are you, like me, the kind of person who zeroes in on what works and never deviates from it? Generally I like to stick with what I know, but Pop a Little Pancake may be one of those rare cases where I don’t know the song, but the book charms me so much I’d be willing to try it in front of a crowd. Don’t worry. The music’s on the back if you need it (and, honestly, I bet you could find a YouTube video of someone singing it anyway). I love the repetition and rhythm of it. It’s got a “shake shake shake” part, a “squeeze squeeze squeeze” part (you could squeeze your baby with that!), and more. Consider me completely won over to the new. This book and song will spice up your routine, you bet.
Rainbows in Bloom: Discovering Colors with Flowers by Darroch and Michael Putnam
Photography for the good of the masses. Vibrant, clear, and fun, this is the kind of board book you wish you saw more often. And don’t go thinking it’s what I call a “coffee table board book” (a.k.a. A board book made to impress other adults rather than children). Though it’s beautiful, small children are clearly the intended audience. The first thing you see when you open it up is a rainbow of colors. Turn another page and a red flower is on the left-hand side and an orange flower on the right. Lift their respective pages and you are treated to a spectrum of other flowers, fruits, insects, and sometimes even small plastic toys that show how red can morph into orange. There are even little seek-and-find suggestions in the margins (“Can you find the two butterflies? Which one is more orange?”). Walter Wick, back up, baby. You’ve got some serious competition. At the end it’s like everyone takes a bow as you get the full rainbow of colors put together on the pages (you get a sense of that from the cover as well). Brilliant and beautiful. More of this, please!
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 hypnotic. 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.
Red Hat Pink Boots by Nelleke Verhoeff
Anyone else read this title and suddenly start humming Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”? No? Just me? Well, while I would have added extra points to this book if that combination had been possible, I’m still a big fan. In fact, since I seem to have a habit of reading too much into mix-and-match books (see: 1 Smile, 10 Toes up above) this book seems to have the capability of playing with gender roles. Surely SURELY that’s been tackled in a book for kids before, and it’s handled somewhat here. You get to mix together ideas of what is feminine and what is masculine, but not in a way that makes fun of those combinations. This is just a celebration of different kinds of clothing combinations. The possibilities, however, are there. By gum, I reiterate that one of these days I’ll own my own board book imprint and we’ll create a body positive mix-and-match book to beat them all. In the meantime, enjoy this lovely, colorful little delight.
Shark Block by Christopher Franceschelli, ill. Peskimo
I never thought I’d see the day when I put a Block Book on this list. Block Books, if you haven’t encountered them before, are these board books of near ludicrous proportions. Like little square bricks, they pack themselves full of information. Previous “Blocks” have touched on such topics as letters, numbers, dinos, farms, cities, buildings, and even love. Yet a lot of the time their size is their only selling point. They read too old for babies and toddlers, but older kids often won’t touch books like these with a ten-foot-pole. Shark Block may provide the exception. Prepared to reject it, I flipped through the pages, only to find myself engrossed and sucked in. All your usual favorites are here, as well as a slew of lesser known entities. It’s unafraid to appeal to older kids, and with a text like this one you may find your older kids reading this to the young ones and enjoying every last minute of it.
Snap! Chomp Your Jaws! by Bob Barner
Board book technology, will you ever cease to impress me? I tell you, I’ve seen a lot of different gimmicks in my day, but this one takes the cake. Each animal featured in this book has its jaw attached to its head through, what I can only assume is, elastic. As a result, you can pull on the jaw and have it SNAP back in place. I haven’t had the pleasure of trying this out on a toddler yet, so I’ve no idea how many pulls it will take to permanently damage such a jaw. Even so, until that unhappy day arrives, there is plenty of snapping to be done. Extra points for including a toddler/preschooler appropriate informational text about each animal. They’ll be learning facts without ever realizing it. Mwah-ha-ha!!
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 that 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.
Web Opposites by Rob Hodgson
I confess that after I finished this little concept board book I wondered if Rob Hodgson was secretly French. Why? Because sometimes it feels like all the best opposite books come from that part of the world! Whether it’s the aforementioned Hippoposites or Pomelo’s Opposites, there’s a very particular vibe that comes with a smart opposite title. Hodgson? He gets that. In this book, a cast of clever web weavers proceed to act out a wide variety of ideas. Most intriguingly, Hodgson gets more complex and more creative as the book goes on. My personal favorite in this title was “Simple” and “Complex”. As you might imagine, it focuses squarely on webs, but the “complex” one starts dealing with three-dimensional shapes. Physics for babies (but that’s actually appropriate for them). I could see myself reading this to a child over and over and over again. For them, sure, but also because it’s just a delight. One of my favorites of the year.
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 the 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.
What’s In the Box by Isabel Otter, ill. Joaquin Camp
I don’t ask for much in this world. A roof over my head. Food in my belly. And touch-and-feel board books by the boatload. The only thing I can figure is that they must be difficult to produce. How else to explain the dearth of them in the marketplace? With a definite hat tip to Dear Zoo, What’s in the Box has the unenviable job of being both creative and interesting to tiny hands. It manages both beautifully. The boxes change, so that you need to figure out how to open them in different ways, which I liked. It doesn’t end with a mirror, indicating that this is a slightly older touch-and-feel book than we usually see. Still, there’s enough variety to make it worth your while.
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.
Need more board book suggestions? Then check out my previous years’ lists!
And here’s an added bonus. I collect these books and reviews throughout the year. Along the way, I somehow ended up with a Bibliography of resources for people studying board books. So, if you need it, here are some articles that might help you if you’re looking to delve a little deeper into the psychology of this form:
- Bernstein, R. (2020). “You Do It!”: Going-to-Bed Books and the Scripts of Children’s Literature. *PMLA*, *135*(5), 877-894.
- Beveridge, L. (2017). Chewing on Baby Books as a Form of Infant Literacy:
- Books are for Biting. In *More Words about Pictures*, ed. P. Nodelman, M. Reimer & N. Hamer (pp. 18-29). Routledge.
- Kümmerling-Meibauer, B. (Ed.). (2011). *Emergent literacy: children’s books from 0 to 3* (Vol. 13). John Benjamins Publishing.
- Nodelman, P. (2010). The Mirror Staged: Images of Babies in Baby Books. *Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures*, *2*(2), 13-39.
- Pereira, D. (2019). Bedtime books, the bedtime story ritual, and goodnight moon. *Children’s Literature Association Quarterly*, *44*(2), 156-172.
- Sundmark, B. (2018). The Visual, the Verbal, and the Very Young: A Metacognitive Approach to Picturebooks. *Acta Didactica Norge*, *12*(2),Art. 12, 17 sider. https://doi.org/10.5617/adno.5642
And here’s what else is on the docket this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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