Why I Tend Not to Like Recommendation Lists for Board Books

Board books–books printed on thick paperboard for more durability–are some of the most innovative types of books out there! Often featuring flaps, textures, cut-outs, and pop-ups, these books can be beautiful works of art, as fun for grown-ups as they are for the little readers they are meant to serve. However, despite the array of wonderful board books available, I still find myself routinely disappointed by the board book recommendation lists available online–many of them actually created by professional booksellers. Why? Because these lists are written by adults and targeting adults–and thus they often recommend books that are appealing to the person with purchasing power, but not appropriate for the little readers they are supposed to be for.

Board books are, in fact, often baffling to adults who do not know much about early childhood development, or who are new to buying them. Some of the board books most appropriate for newborns and babies can seem boring and bizarre to the grown-ups reading them out loud. These are the board books that have no set storyline, minimal text, maybe even just black-and-white shapes that appear on the page. Many people may not really know how to read a book without a story, so they gravitate towards the types of books they remember loving growing up. Many of these picture books are also available in board book format, making them seem like a good choice for new readers.

The littlest readers, however, benefit from precisely the types of books that make no sense to many grown-ups. Young readers may not have a long attention span yet, and they tend not to read a book so much as flip through it at random, so books with no set storyline and minimal text are perfect for them. Likewise, because their eyesight is still developing, they may benefit from strong contrasting illustrations–those black-and-white images adults find confusing. In contrast, board books that contain the full text of picture books are too long and unlikely to hold a young child’s interest. Likewise, board books that appeal to an adult’s knowledge of pop culture, history, literature, or science will probably be incomprehensible to a baby or a toddler.

Even though we know quite a bit about what kinds of books are best for baby’s development, however, recommendation lists more appropriate for older readers still abound. This may be because the people curating these lists are, as adults, naturally drawn to titles that adults would enjoy more. Or maybe, from a cynical viewpoint, booksellers are aware that adults are more likely to buy something adults understand and find appealing, instead of a board book babies would enjoy, but that their caregivers find confusing.

So what types of board books should caregivers look for? In general, readers should look for board books that have very little text, though the amount will change as a young reader grows. For example, board books for newborns often contain a simple image paired with a word. However, a two-year-old will probably appreciate a board book with a simple, rhyming text or a short story that is silly. Repetition is good for all ages, allowing them to anticipate an upcoming phrase and say it with the reader. When selecting books for newborns in particular, caregivers should look for books in black-in-white or with high contrast images. Newborns’ eyesight is still developing, so books like this help them see the pictures better. Books that contain interactive elements, such as flaps, textures, and cut-outs are also highly recommended, so young readers can explore with multiple senses.

Fortunately, there are some wonderful recommendation lists out there, many of them written by librarians or people with background knowledge in early childhood development and literacy. Look for lists that seem curated with babies and toddlers in mind, rather than their adults.

8 thoughts on “Why I Tend Not to Like Recommendation Lists for Board Books

  1. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I was thinking about this topic again recently! It drives me nuts that I constantly see people on Twitter asking, “What book should I buy for a baby shower?” and the answers are all long picture books that 3 year old would enjoy. Newborns can barely see, and infants aren’t really looking for plot. I get that a book with pictures labelled “cat,” “dog,” “cow” aren’t interesting to adults, but babies love them!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      As a side note, I think it’s very interesting that when it comes to middle grade and teen books, there’s a very vocal contingent of people arguing we should give kids new books, and forget anything published over 10 years ago, never mind books much older than that. But when it comes to picture book suggestions, all I ever see is people going on about The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Goodnight, Moon. Never anything published recently.

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      • Krysta says:

        I think that’s because a lot of adults read YA and MG books, so they have a better idea of what’s out there, what they like, and what they would like to see changed. Their stake in it may also feel more personal because they are fans of those books. But I don’t think most adults read picture books for themselves, so they are probably just relying on their memory of what they liked growing up. And, honestly, I think some “Best of” lists do the same, instead of actively seeking for newer/more developmentally appropriate titles.

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      • Never Not Reading says:

        I also think that when we buy books for babies we remember OUR favorites, which were probably given to us because they were the gift-ers favorite, which is why books like The Cat in the Hat stay so popular but new books have a hard time breaking in. Same reason everyone wants to listen to Frank Sinatra sing Christmas songs, but not current artists.

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  2. Never Not Reading says:

    When I’m looking for a board book, I’m usually looking for fun, engaging illustrations with a lot of the same characters from page to page. Even if there’s a lot of text, I know I don’t have to read it all, and that my kid will turn the pages whenever *he* wants, which may be before or after I’m done reading it. There’s a lot of discussion that can take place when you’re looking at a board book. Asking what the kid sees, what sound that animal makes, how the character feels, what they think is going on. I think board books are great for ALL pre-readers, though they usually get targeted more at babies, my almost-4-year-old still loves them. 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, exactly! Really young kids aren’t reading in the same way adults do. It’s more like seemingly random page flipping. So in some ways it doesn’t make sense to have a fleshed out storyline because little ones aren’t looking for that. Plus, with a story, adults get confused or upset by the page flipping because they think they have to keep going back to read the story “in order” and then it’s like…you see the grown-up and the kid accidentally fighting for control over the book. XD

      And great point! Board books can age up with kids! That’s when those longer ones start to become more engaging.

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