When it comes to Serious Books for Grown-Ups, I’ve never read so little as I have in the past year and a half or so. That number hasn’t dropped to zero and I do still read more than the average American (though yes, that’s a low bar to clear), but it’s certainly not what I’d like. However, the total amount of time I’ve spent reading is as high as it’s ever been thanks to my children and their library of board books – which, for those who don’t know, are short books for babies and toddlers printed on stiff cardboard pages, so they’re much sturdier than regular books. This isn’t a genre I’ve ever given much thought to before, naturally, but since they’ve been my primary reading material lately I figured I’d share a few thoughts and observations on them.
The first thing to keep in mind about board books if you want to enjoy them is that they’re not about the story. That sounds obvious, given that the target audience can’t read and possibly can’t even speak either, but adults are so used to judging books by their writing that it’s hard not to apply the same criteria to board books. They’re not really about the artwork, either, which is often simple. Not that the story and art shouldn’t be good, but what makes them good is that they contribute to the primary purpose of board books, which is that they’re a social activity. An excellent example is the classic Goodnight Moon, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. In this book, a child bunny rabbit catalogues and says good night to nearly everything in his room: the clocks, socks, kittens, mittens, comb, brush, bowl full of mush, and so on for several pages. By the standard of any other genre this is extremely boring, yet it’s among the most popular board books in the United States. Why?
Because young children love routine. The predictable and repetitive “good nights” are calming, especially if you read this book every night as part of the child’s bedtime routine. Even I found Goodnight Moon relaxing once I understood why it’s so repetitive. Also, reading time is quality time with a child’s parents (or other relative) whose presence helps the child feel even more relaxed and secure.
Mostly, anyway – my daughter has figured out that when we read any book that frequently mentions bedtime or sleeping it means that her bedtime is near, so any time I pull out, say, Goodnight Moon or The Going to Bed Book she protests because playtime is almost over.