I’m fortunate to live very near my precious, perfect first grandchild, Olympia, who was born in February. But because of the heinous pandemic, I had to stay away from her during her first few months. Now, after quarantining, negative tests, and lower community case count, I’m finally able to see Olympia all the time.
Olympia has turned me into a walking cliché of the besotted grandmother. Banging on about her incessantly, texting the latest photos, behaving as if she’s the only baby on the planet. Pretty standard stuff. During our daily visits, Olympia and I have all kinds of fun, strolling past Elizabeth Warren’s house, singing Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” before naptime, gazing at the ever-changing sky from her parents’ deck, but, especially and repeatedly, reading board books. In my previous life as a children’s book publisher, I proudly published hundreds of board books, and wished every single one of them well. But reading to Olympia and seeing her reactions has been not only a joy, but an eye-opener, even for a seasoned children’s book professional like me.
It’s been especially gratifying, and even a bit surprising, to see how much Olympia enjoys reading books. Of course I hoped she’d like it, but it turns out be one of her favorite activities. In addition to seeing her pay careful attention to every page, it’s been fun to watch her master turning the page. I’m reminded of a brilliant essay called “Magic Between the Pages: The Power of the Page Turn” by my esteemed former colleague, Dinah Stevenson, about the significance of page turns in picture books. But this is something else entirely. This is the skill of literally turning a page with extremely tiny fingers. After reading every spread, I announce, “Olympia turns the page!” and, by golly, she does (most of the time). Of course we have to stop each time and kvell over what a good job she’s just done. It’s a ritual by now.
In our many hours of reading board books together, I’ve discovered a few key things that don’t matter a whit to her: narrative thrust or plot (who’s got the attention span?), wordiness (again, who’s got the time?), subtle or complicated artwork (yawn), pastel colors (really?), puns or clever wordplay (really?). Books that express an adult enthusiasm (Olympia is years away from admiring RBG) or send a message (as we used to say, “Use Western Union”) don’t work well, either. Nor does she need help choosing a career, joining a cause, making friends, learning about current events, science, engineering, yoga, or anything, really.
So educational books are out—including the old standbys, alphabet and counting—as are books with any fancy kind of texture or lift-the-flap, touch-and-feel or other paper engineering (note to publishers: save your money on bells and whistles on books for very young babies). She doesn’t care about the relationships between the people in a book (friends, siblings, pet, new baby, whatever) and she especially doesn’t care if you’re a celebrity who just had a baby of your own. Believe me, I do understand the reasons to publish board books with adult-friendly concepts that will appeal to adult book buyers. Just don’t assume that the baby will enjoy or “get” it.
Things that do work for Olympia: bright colorful artwork, preferably in primary colors, a minimal number of words, preferably repeated over and over, and words that can be expressed in a fun sound (Beep! Beep! Beep! for example). She also fancies photographs of animals or, even better, babies.
And, despite their cost (sorry), she loves mirrors. They’re the one special effect that, at this point in her life, stops the show every time. As for cloth books, any kind of noisy squeaker inside the pages hits the spot. But mostly, for this age group: simple, simple, simple.
I’m afraid I must give two thumbs down to most board books that have been reformatted or abridged after having been very successful picture books. As a former publisher, I completely understand the impulse but board books have a very specific developmental purpose and audience, and it’s vastly different from the purpose and readership of picture books. With some very notable exceptions—Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry and Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann come to mind—more often than not, the transition to board book doesn’t work. Picture books are, in general, too wordy, too complicated, too plot-heavy, with artwork that is too elaborate and sophisticated for very very young children. Reading to Olympia brings home this point every single day.
Board books that are at the top of our list right now include anything featuring Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey, Brown Bear (and friends) by Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr., Gossie (and friends) by Olivier Dunrea, My Big Animal Book by Roger Priddy, Global Babies, and The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss. Bright primary colors or photos, simple language, and easy-to-read stories make these books just right for my six-month-old.
I look forward to the privilege and pleasure of reading with Olympia and forging a connection with her around books for many years to come. No doubt her taste and preferences will change and develop, even in the next few months, to include more sophisticated and concept-driven board books. But capturing which books work best for her at six months has been both professionally informative and personally meaningful. Not to mention tons of fun. Stay tuned for more….
Becoming a grandmother is Betsy Groban’s latest accomplishment. She has also worked for decades in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.