I have two toddlers at home. And the littler, at 18 months, is finally eager to sit through a book, or seven, if they engage her. She climbs up next to me on the couch while I drink my morning coffee, pointing and shouting, “Book, book, book!” Or, if I’m already holding one and haven’t started quickly enough, she’ll shout: “Read! Read!” My 3-year-old is captivated by surprising or funny-sounding words, and already appreciates some of my favorite books from childhood (I have, naturally, read him nearly all of William Steig, to me the undisputed master of children’s literature), as well as many newer picture books with good stories.
But when both kids are on my lap, the chunkier board books, with fewer words and a smaller format, are best. I’ve learned to perform, as the added theatricality both pleases my son’s desire for wordplay and sonic delight and helps keep my daughter’s attention. These new board books find ways to break down the barriers between little listeners and the books themselves, helping parents like me put on a successful story time show.
“You can read this book in the bath,” begins HUG THIS BOOK! (Phaidon, 30 pp., $9.95; ages 0 to 4), written by Barney Saltzberg and illustrated by Fred Benaglia. This one started out as a bigger picture book, but the new board book version is a clear winner, inviting touch and placing the youngest readers right in the middle of the action, in a familiar location. Later, they are told, “If you read this book being tickled, I dare you not to laugh.” Stimulated from awareness to empathic interest, my kids were enraptured, aware the book was talking about itself, directly to them. “You can kiss and hug and smell this book” elicited tiny smooching sounds from my daughter, while my son leaned in close and sniffed it. The sketchy, energetic illustrations in a limited but bright palette charmed us all. As if more proof was needed that the kids and this book were on the same wavelength, my son asked me to read it again even before we got to the last page: “Even though this book is over, it isn’t really the end. You can start at the beginning and read it to a friend.”