The first book I got for my baby was a board book called My Animal Sounds. It was the size of my palm, a simple and generic book about farm animal sounds. I knew very little about the importance of reading to a baby or indeed how to choose a children’s book, but I was excited about that little book’s promise and what it could do for my child.
Board books are excellent first books because babies and toddlers can hold them and handle them on their own. Ever noticed how board books have thick and sturdy pages with glossy surfaces that can resist wear and tear? They need to be tough because babies want to pull, chew, or even hug them. Children need the tactile sensation of holding, turning, bending or shaking a book. Babies are welcome to hold and handle the book, and slowly, in a year or two, will move on to pointing and saying the words on the page.
New parents who shop for board books typically gravitate towards the all-time favorites like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, among many others.
The board book has come a long way from one-word books about shapes, colors or animal sounds. The board book format now includes interactive, bilingual, wordless and even touch-and-feel books. Board books develop the concept of print during early childhood and this has shot them into prominence due to the world’s renewed focus on early years education. The concept of print refers to a child’s understanding that the little wiggles and squiggles they see on the page are called letters and when they are put together, they make words.
Today, parents in India also find beautiful board books that are close to home, books about children who look and speak like their own. The importance of representation in books has been the source of many studies, especially a famous article by American writer and researcher Rudine Bishop titled 'Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors.” She uses the title to describe books that represent different perspectives and cultures. When children open books and see children who look or talk like them, it impacts them significantly and shapes what they make of the world and themselves.
Take for instance the board books published by Tulika Books. Haathi Bhai, Akkad Bakkad and Cheep Cheep are board books published in 2017. They are based on traditional Indian rhymes that we all grew up with and are adapted from an earlier book published in 2011 by Tulika, Oluguti Toluguti.
“It had struck us then that these would make wonderful individual books for toddlers – with the rhyme and rhythm and Indianness,” says Deeya Nayar, senior editor at Tulika Books. It would be like re-presenting them to their original audience in a new form!”
Another interesting board book from Tulika is Manjula Padmanabhan’s Pooni, Pooni, Where Are You? (2019). This is a fun and clever board book that takes the reader on a cat-hunt, looking for Pooni in every page. “Even tiny tots like to linger on a page to spot something,” says Nayar. “It increases their concentration and focus as well.” The catchy rhymes in the book add to the thrill of the chase.
Many high-quality board books in Indian languages are now available for parents to raise bilingual readers. T4Tales, a Singapore-based publishing house founded by Pridhee Kapoor Gupta, released Kahaani Puraani in 2019. This popular board book is available both in Hindi and in Gujarati.
Illustrated by Alicia Souza and retold by Pridhee Kapoor Gupta, Kahaani Puraani narrates a very simple story from the Ramayana. It is also an interactive board book, with tactile elements — readers can rotate the wheel of Ravana’s chariot or feel the texture of different pages, with both glossy and rough surfaces depending on what the ambience of the plot point calls for. This provision for more than one sensory experience is known to also be beneficial for a child’s brain from birth right up till age 6.
Some board books have die cuts in their pages that you can flap open to reveal a word or a surprise image. This stokes a desire to see what lies behind that flap, sometimes even for the parent!
Board books now also make learning a memorable, yet culturally educative experience. For example, Tulika’s board book, Akkad Bakkad is a wacky introduction to numbers and is based on the original rhyme in Punjabi. Das Din, retold by Pridhee Kapoor Gupta teaches the numbers 1 to 10 in Hindi in a fun and interactive manner, based on the famous rhyme, 'Ek Tha Raja Ka Beta.’ Monisha Monikantarajan’s Tamil board book, Vazhai Ilai Virundhu: A Montessori Numbers Book, introduces babies and toddlers to numbers and counting through a journey into food habits. Illustrated by Dejeshwini, the book is about the entire family working together to prepare a meal for guests, served on banana leaves. Many principles of Montessori education find their way into the book, including the isolation of quality, which is all about the child focusing on one individual element at a time.
One tip when choosing a board book for your kids is to look for the durable ones with safe, rounded edges. Children also love rhymes and minimal text. “The child's focus at that stage would be the pictures, so board books should be bold, clean and attractive rather than cluttered with too many details that might confuse little eyes,” says Nayar.
Indeed, board books are a child’s introduction to books, a glimpse of the world outside. They hold exciting possibilities for both the parent and the child —when we open a board book with its tough paperboard pages and bright big pictures, we see the world anew.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.