Looking Back: Diversity in Board Books

by We Need Diverse Books

By Joanna Marple

Board books are appropriate for children between ages zero and three at which point children start to move toward simple picture books. In addition to having subject matter, which is appropriate for younger ages, board books are also designed to stand up to heavier wear and tear than picture books (think teething!)

Debbie Barbuto who blogs at Mommy Moo Moo wrote a succinct and informative article about the history of board books. She points out that a child growing up during the early Middle Ages (from a wealthy family at least) amongst the marshes of Essex or budding urban center of Roma might have been exposed to wooden tablets to learn her his ABC’s. She traces the history of these early childhood books on materials such as thick card, animal horn and fabric through to the second half of the 20th century when board books start to be produced as new additions of existing, popular children’s books.

In the seventies and eighties, board books began to emerge in the format we know today, sturdy, with fewer pages than a standard picture book and aimed at the first two or three years of a child’s life. Sandra Boynton was one of the pioneers you will all recognize, but another author/illustrator on discovering the lack of books aimed specifically at this age group while nursing her first baby through nightly eczema itching, decided to do something about it. Married to author/illustrator John Burnham, Helen Oxenbury was emerging as an author/illustrator in her own right in the UK.

1987 was a prolific year for Helen Oxenbury. With Walker Books, she published: ALL FALL DOWN, CLAP HANDS, TICKLE TICKLE and SAY GOODNIGHT. Unlike her first three board books, I CAN, I HEAR and I SEE in 1985, all four books from 1987 contain a diverse cast of babies (see the original covers below).





These books are still in print and as popular today as they were thirty years ago. Simon and Schuster reissued them in 1999 with very little change to the original illustrations. To set the backdrop to Helen Oxenbury’s choice, it is worth noting that the UK saw a surge of racial tension and serious inner city rioting in the first half of the eighties, which I remember well. This level of racial diversity in children’s literature was welcome, important and pioneering at the time.

On a side note, SAY GOODNIGHT while it doesn’t have gay parents does included male caregivers!

While I believe most of us would agree that babies are not born racist, some would argue that they also do not see color differences, and therefor these portrayals in books for the very young are unimportant distinctions. Are kids color-blind? The researchers behind the book, NURTURE SHOCK by Pro Bronson and Ashley Merriman claim that children as young as six months judge other people based on the color of their skin. They found that while many families try to avoid discussing race in order to raise “color-blind” children, the kids are making their own, often incorrect, conclusions as to why they look different from their friends and neighbors. The authors claim that children as young as six months can judge others by the color of their skin. Even if a caregiver never mentions race, children may well use skin color on their own, along with other differences, to judge themselves and others. While some parents may feel it is too early to address race with their babies and toddlers, by introducing the subject visually through board books such as Helen Oxenbury’s (and many more recently published board books), I believe we can help avoid racial stereotyping, and nurture an inclusive attitude even in the very young. Books featuring children of color can not only help children of color fall in love with the written word, but also give white children an up close and personal view into the worlds of little people who don’t look like them—who, in many ways, are just like them. Maybe these young children don’t notice a character’s color. But maybe a little white girl reading these books with her dads might just decide to play with a little Asian American boy in the playground because he looks like a character in the book she liked. I think the benefits can be this simple and yet this profound.