It’s possible there has never been a better time to be a toddler. True, you have to put up with grown-ups crashing playtime — today’s parents can often be spotted in sandboxes, solemnly instructing their offspring to scoop and dump sand — but on the plus side, the books currently being made for the preschool (and pre-preschool) crowd are setting a new standard for delightfulness, cleverness and flat-out fun.
Board books, those dependable little thick-paged bricks designed to withstand chewing or banging around, are increasingly not just durable, but well written and ingeniously designed. Many other books for toddlers, like those oversize compendiums that have always been perfect for unhurried, lap-sitting reading sessions, are now sensitively updated, keeping the traditional stories and charming old-school art, but losing the racist and sexist stereotypes of yore. Humor, great illustration, lively storytelling, interesting facts about their everyday world, a cheerful surprise at every turn of the page — all of that, and more, awaits toddlers in these thoughtfully made books.
POOR LITTLE RABBIT! (Gecko, 20 pp., $9.99; ages 0 to 4), written and illustrated by Jörg Mühle, is an “interactive” book with no bells and whistles, just an invitation to participate by “helping” Little Rabbit, who’s fallen down and scraped his arm. There’s a red mark on his arm and we’re invited to “try blowing on it.” Unfortunately, Little Rabbit wails on the next page, “There’s blood!” A Band-Aid (with bunnies on it, of course) appears. “Can you put it on?” comes next, but tears still stream down the distressed bunny’s face. Saying a magic rhyme, stroking his ears, wiping away his tears, helping him blow his nose with a tissue and brushing off the dirt all follow.
Besides being fun, this gem is also a way to show toddlers how to put empathy into action. “You’ve made him all better,” they’re told at the end, and you can picture a toddler’s sigh of altruistic satisfaction. The layout is simple and clean, with single-color pages in a palette of bright tones like turquoise and tangerine, allowing the focus to stay on Mühle’s adorable drawings of Little Rabbit as he cycles through sadness and healing.
It might sound strange to call a board book “long awaited,” but for those who have puzzled and perhaps even argued over the message of the great Sandra Boynton’s 1982 “But Not the Hippopotamus,” the arrival of a follow-up called BUT NOT THE ARMADILLO (Simon & Schuster, 14 pp., $5.99; ages 0 to 4) is exciting news. In the previous book, a solitary hippo politely refused to join other animals in various activities — dancing, shopping, drinking juice. Was she rejected and isolated, or just, you know, a bit of a loner? And when, on the last page, she finally agreed to hang out with everyone else, what to make of the armadillo who then appeared, with the line “But not the armadillo”? Some found it off-putting — a testament to the persistence of loneliness and alienation, a “Bartleby” for toddlers. Others applauded the self-determination exhibited by both the hippo and the armadillo.
I am here to tell you that Boynton has settled the question: The armadillo, “with his armadillo nose,” really likes to wander around by himself, following that sausage-shaped schnoz “where it goes.” He sniffs flowers, picks cranberries, stretches out languidly for a nap. He hears music from far away. A hippo (ahem) rushes busily by — “she wants to run and play.” But, you guessed it, “not the armadillo.” And that’s O.K., we’re helped to see: “He doesn’t like to hurry.” There’s one more beat, a moment of parting grace that shows why Boynton is the absolute master of board books. “Please scratch his armadillo nose and tell him not to worry.” To each creature his or her own.
The French graphic artist Jean Jullien has been giving Boynton a run for her money with the funny, graphically sophisticated board books “This Is Not a Book” and “Before & After.” Now comes WHY THE FACE? (Phaidon, 32 pp., $14.95; ages 0 to 4), another conceptual book that shows off his ability to delight all ages with a few strokes of his thick black paintbrush.
The pages on the left — each rendered in an electric shade like citron or coral — all ask the question of the title, with a drawing in the center of the right page showing a child’s face making an outsize expression. You have to guess what’s causing it, and the answer comes when you lift a foldout to see the culprit. An unpleasantly scrunched-up face covers an array of smelly stuff like cheese, a trash can and an elephant’s rear end (“Whoa, that stinks!”); a face with crossed eyes and a sticking-out tongue conceals a crying baby (“Cheer up!”); a girl with spirals for eyes reveals a montage of computers and other screens (“Five more minutes!”). As with all the best board books, its brilliance lies in its deceptive simplicity.
FRANKIE’S MAGICAL DAY: A FIRST BOOK OF WHIMSICAL WORDS (Abrams Appleseed, 20 pp., $16.99; ages 0 to 4), written and illustrated by Michelle Romo, is much more than just a catalog of words and corresponding images. It’s really an heir to Richard Scarry’s Busytown books, updated with groovy, neon-bright digital art — somewhere between Hello Kitty and the Jetsons — and a biracial girl named Frankie at the center. Its generous pages are laid out to show toddlers the teeming life and staggering variety of objects inside a house or a store or a garden, with small stories told through the details. There are aerial views of Frankie’s town and a look inside her closet, and — in a final bit of whimsy — a last page that offers a peek inside Frankie’s phantasmagorical dream. This is a book certain little ones will spend hours poring over and “playing” with.
Sylvia Long is the illustrator of a popular Mother Goose collection and other books for the smallest children, and her new one, SYLVIA LONG’S BIG BOOK FOR SMALL CHILDREN (Chronicle, 104 pp., $22.99; ages 0 to 4), offers a savvy variety of short bits, just the thing for a toddler who tends to want the same book every night. So much classic toddler fodder is packed in here: nursery rhymes, opposites, vehicles, an “I can” page showing achievements like saying goodbye and getting dressed, lullabies.
The art is old-fashioned and painterly, with cozy, saturated watercolor images of animals wearing clothes. They somehow give the suggestion of tolerance and diversity, with the “families” page showing animals holding babies of other species, and what looks like two married grandmas, a goat and a bear.
Like so many books that pitch their material perfectly to toddlers, this one exudes comfort and love without being syrupy.
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