2021 Gift Guide: The Board Books

December 7, 2021 § 1 Comment

I’m a huge fan of board books that are better than they need to be. Books that not only respect the attention and intelligence of our littlest minds, but appeal just as strongly to the parent or caregiver looking to break up those long, long days with a little joy and a little connection. This year, lots of authors and illustrators have indulged my very high standards, and the result is a rich assortment of board books that sing of science and shapes, sweetness and silliness. Some are cleverly interactive; some are downright revolutionary; and some are just storytelling at its finest.

One more thing: board books aren’t just for babies! Some of my selections below even extend past the toddler years to preschoolers, imparting concepts and subjects in novel, thought-provoking ways. (Amazon affiliate links while we restock at Old Town Books!)

A Cub Story
by Kristen Tracy; illus. Alison Farrell
Ages 0-4

If you add one new board book to your collection this holiday season, make it this one. You know those books that ground us? That strip away all the chatter in our head and return us to the moment at hand, to the intimate experience of a toddler curled up in our lap? I have endless love for Richard Scarry’s classic board book, I am a Bunny—not only did I grow up on it, but my own children begged for it constantly—and A Cub Story draws many comparisons. Both are about young animals discovering the natural world across the seasons. Both strike the perfect balance between beauty and whimsy, activity and stillness. And both have a simple narrative arc that feels inherently comforting, as if the meaning of life could be distilled into 22 pages.

As a bonus, A Cub Story sneaks an impressive amount of science into its sweet story, as our young bear tells us about the things that set him apart—“Compared to a hedgehog, I eat a lot. Compared to a moose, I eat a little”—as well as the ways his particular anatomy allows him to experience the world (“I am an expert at smelling.”) And when winter comes, pressed against his family in their warm underground den is exactly where he “want[s] to be.”

Where is Everyone? A Lift-the-Flap Book
by Tom Schamp
Ages 1-3

What would a Gift Guide be without a lift-the-flap inclusion? Belgian creator Tom Schamp’s Where is Everyone? is quite possibly the cutest lift-the-flap book ever. Plus, its extra-large trim size makes it extra gifty! Everyday things, from cars to couches, toilets to toasters, meet unexpected guests, as beret-sporting tortoises, sweater-wearing polar bears, long-necked ducks, and barrette-adorned hamsters are revealed to be hiding inside or behind them. Between the brightly colored art and the visual humor, it’s hard not to smile or giggle on every page.

by Janik Coat
Ages 2-5

Since the “Grammar Zoo” series launched back in 2012 with Hippopposites, it has remained one of the most visually enticing ways to introduce concepts like opposites, rhyming, and—now—comparative adjectives. Boasting an extra-large trim size and filled with tactile features, Comparrotives pits the same parrot against itself on every page to illustrate “noisy” versus “noisier,” “angry” versus “angrier,” “bouncy” versus “bouncier,” and so on. For instance, the parrot stands under the sun in his natural state for “sunny,” then dons a floppy hat and oversized sunglasses under a larger sun for “sunnier.” Many of Janik Coat’s pictures are abuzz with movement or metallic details, and little fingers will love petting the “softer” page, where the parrot curls up on a minky blanket, or the “sillier” page, where he sports a scratchy rainbow wig.

Washer and Dryer’s Big Job; Fridge and Oven’s Big Job; Dishwasher’s Big Job
by Steven Weinberg
Ages 1-3

This fabulously fun new series makes my Montessori heart sing. The board book industry is awash with titles about sweet little animals, but what about the things toddlers are really fascinated by, starting with the things that steal their parents’ attention away all day long? With an abundance of onomatopoeia and no shortage of exclamation points, Steven Weinberg brings to life different sets of household appliances. Watch what happens when smelly socks go into the washer, then into the dryer! (Washer and Dryer’s Big Job) Peek inside the sudsy dishwasher as your sippy cup and cereal bowl get a bath! (Dishwasher’s Big Job) Let’s count down and watch the cookies get bigger and bigger until they’re ready to come out of the oven! (Fridge and Oven’s Big Job) As if the insides alone weren’t entertaining enough, how ’bout those googly eyes on the covers?

Woodland Dance
by Sandra Boynton
Ages 0-3

Did you know there’s a new Sandra Boynton book? Does the Queen of Board Books need an introduction? Probably not. Most of us will never be able to untangle the early parenting years from the rhyming refrains of barking dogs or going-to-bed shenanigans, brought to us by Boynton’s books. Woodland Dance is every bit as delightful as her others, and its evergreen cover begs to be placed under the tree (though, unlike her 2020 gem, it’s not about the December holiday). One fox, atop a hill in the moonlight, sounds his bugle to summon the forest animals. “Come out from your burrow,/ or hideout, or nest—/ Tonight is the night!/ This is no time to rest!” Do the hedgehogs, raccoons, and others answer the call? I think you know the answer. Can anyone say dance party?!

Circle Under Berry
by Carter Higgins
Ages 2-4

Carter Higgins describes her brilliant new creation as “tangrams meets an animated short in a book format”—and, indeed, this board book-picture book hybrid, Circle Under Berry, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Through striking, repetitive visuals set against a white background, coupled with language alternately direct and sing-songy, young children are introduced to shapes, color, patterns, and relational concepts. “Circle under berry/ berry over square/ circle over berry under orange over square.” As the book goes on, familiar shapes converge to produce more complex animals and things, and readers are asked to draw playful connections. For graduates of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, this is a perfect blend of entertainment and education, delivered with an elegance all its own.

Love in the Wild
by Katy Tanis
Ages 0-3

There’s more going on in this board book than meets the eye. Love in the Wild celebrates different types of love in the animal kingdom. At its most basic level, it’s filled with gentle rhyming text alongside vibrant illustrations of nuzzling giraffes, baby crocodiles hitching rides on their mommy’s back, and flamingos “feeding hatchlings beak to beak.” But author Katy Tanis, currently earning a MA in Biology from Miami University of Ohio and partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society as part of her graduate work, has gone one step further: all of the depictions in the book are based on scientists’ observations of same-sex couples, adoption, non-binary gender expression, and more, affirming that “love is love wherever it’s found.”

Families Can and Families Grow
by Dan Saks; illus. Brooke Smart
Ages 0-4

I adore these two inclusive board books, which normalize different types of families for young children. In Families Can, single parents, same-sex parents, divorced parents, only children, large families, children with grandparents in the home, and blended families are all celebrated in pages of rhyming verse. (Just remember: “All homes are better/ With books under the covers.”) Then, in Families Grow, children are introduced to some of the ways that families can take shape, including surrogacy and adoption, without using the technical language. (“The belly might belong to Mom,/ But also it may not./ Sometimes another special belly/ Is the perfect spot.”) Whether the family comes about in the traditional way or not, the emphasis is always on the wish that takes root in a parent’s heart, and the love that paves the way for that wish to come true.

Bubbles and Blankie
by Ben Clanton
Ages 0-5

You probably know about the wildly popular early graphic novel series, Narwhal and Jelly, but have you seen the new BOARD books that came out early in 2021? Pared back but with all the charm we’ve come to expect from this Frog-and-Toad like duo, they’re equally terrific for pre-readers and early readers alike. Don’t let the scarcity of words in Bubbles and Blankie fool you: Ben Clanton has a gift for word play, weaving in rhymes and puns alongside pops of color to create stories that beg to be read aloud. In Bubbles, after Narwhal literally bursts Jelly’s bubble, the two set off to find different types of bubbles (“These bubbles are pink! Eew! These bubbles kind of stink!”). In Blankie, the two devise clever uses for Narwhal’s yellow blankie—It’s a tissue! It’s a cape! It’s a picnic blanket!—until they discover it’s big enough to fit around two friends.

Red House, Brown Mouse
by Jane Godwin; illus. Blanca Gómez
Ages 0-3

This favorite originally came out as a picture book in 2019 (and made my Gift Guide back then), but I get to feature it again because it’s now a board book! In fact, it works even better in this format. Reminiscent of Where is the Green Sheep?—one of my all-time favorite board books by Mem Fox—Red House, Brown Mouse, by fellow Aussie, Jane Godwin, and Spanish illustrator, Blanca Gómez, hits all the right notes. Its rhymes are a joy off the tongue, its art bold and vibrant, it imparts color vocabulary and asks questions of the reader, and it celebrates a range of skin colors. “White rabbit/ gray rabbit/ Black rabbit/ Brown./ Floppy rabbit ears/ going up and going down./ “Yellow fruit/ Pink fruit/ Orange fruit/ Green./ Do you know the color/ of the berries in between?”

B is for Baby
by Atinuke; illus. Angela Brooksbank
Ages 0-3

Here’s another older story that was released in board book form this year. If you’ve been hanging around here, you know I’m partial to alliteration in my own writing, and here’s an entire story born out of the letter B. Baby’s Big Brother is getting ready to take a Basket of Bananas by Bicycle to his Baba, and along the way there’s a Baobab, Butterflies, Birds, a Baboon, a Bridge, and more! Only guess who pops out of the basket when Baba opens it? B is for Baby is a read aloud with universal appeal and a colorful African setting, brimming with joy, adventure, and a little mischief.

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All opinions are my own. Please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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