The Evolution of Board Books
Babies’ eyes light up when they touch a board book. Tiny little fingers carefully explore stiff cardboard pages and then bang the pages with their flat hands, joyfully celebrating the noises that they can make. Babies teethe and drool on the rounded corners of these sturdy books to soothe swollen soar gums. Toddlers study images on the cardboard pages absorbing colors, shapes, and storylines. Little ones squeal with delight recognizing familiar animals and favorite characters. Meanwhile parents and loved ones marvel at the magical discovery taking place. Board books are such a normal part of today’s baby, toddler, and childhood years that some people may take these little gems for granted. They may not realize that these sturdy books have a long history behind them that shaped them into what they are today.
In celebration of board books and the brilliant people who created them, Mommy Moo Moo® presents a history of their existence, from the alphabet tablets and hornbooks that inspired them to the new stories of today. We do not propose that this list is complete. In fact, we are hoping that you will help us fill in the blanks and the missing pieces. Consider us the BoardBookapedia for board book research. Let the journey begin!
- As far back as the 13th century, wooden tablets were used to teach children the alphabet in Europe.i
- In 1529, Dutch Renaissance humanist and social critic Erasmus noted the power of using visual imagery to teach young children. He specifically refers to painted pictures that introduced animals and objects in the study of Latin and Greek: “The litle chyld laugheth at the syght of thys straunge paintynge, what shall the master do then? He shall shewe him that ther is a greate beaste called in Greeke an Elephante, and in Latine lykewyse.”ii
- Starting in the 16th century, hornbooks—wooden tablets covered in a thin sheet of animal horn—were commonly used in England for children’s lessons ranging from the alphabet to the Lord’s Prayer. Each had a small wooden handle, commonly with a drilled hole where a string could attach the hornbook to a child’s belt or be strung around a neck.iii
- In 1746, a man by the name of Benjamin Collins developed the battledore, which was an early primer with both text and illustrations. Widely used in England and in the American colonies, battledores were printed on stiff paper board that was able to be folded up in a pocket when not in use.ivEarly examples had covers with floral or marbled designs. Later versions were printed on both sides without a defined cover.v
- In the mid-1700s, John Newbery (after whom the Newbery award is named) changed the tone of children’s literature as his press published titles for children’s entertainment, rather than strictly for educational, religious, or morality purposes.vi
- The early-1800s brought the appearance of “metamorphosis” books, in which readers could lift flaps or pull tabs to change the illustrations.vii
- In the mid-1800s, “untearable” books first appeared in the English and American marketplaces. Some were mounted on linen, and others had thick paper pages (though not yet the thickness of today’s traditional board books). Other toy and pop-up books became common at this time.viii
- Also in the mid-1800s, the appearance of books began to shift from black and white or two-color to multi-colored and richly illustrated texts. This was the era of illustrators Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott (after whom the Caldecott Award is named).ix
- Cloth books became common from roughly 1900 to 1940 because they were “washable, indestructible, and hygienic”; however, their production ended with cloth rationing during the World War II era.x
- This cloth shortage brought the emergence of board books as we know them today: heavy paper or sturdy cardboard.
- The 1940s and 1950s saw the emergence of board books of many forms, some uniquely shaped, some interactive with tactile elements.xi
- Many early board books were published as new additions of existing children’s books; however, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, author-illustrators like Helen Oxenbury embraced the board book as a unique genre of its own.xii Two of Oxenbury’s most popular series—First Picture Books and Pippo—are bestselling classics that transformed the genre by focusing on the youngest of readers.xiii
- American author Sandra Boynton was another early pioneer, transitioning her illustrations and whimsical text from their origins in greeting cards to board books embraced by generations. Several of her titles include Moo, Ba, La La La! (Simon & Schuster, 1982), The Going to Bed Book (Simon & Schuster, 1982), and Blue Hat, Green Hat (Simon & Schuster, 1984).xiv
- In 1991, the bedtime standard Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd—originally published in 1947—was first released as a board book (Harper Festival).
- Mommy Moo Moo gave birth to her first child in 2002, thus beginning her journey into motherhood and her discovery of board books.
- In 2016, Mommy Moo Moo Board Books were born with the publication of Loblolly, Loblolly, You’re So Tall (Damara® Publishing ©2016) and Vegetable Chatter (Damara® Publishing ©2016).
- Today people all over the world are recognizing the benefits of reading to young children beginning in vitro or at birth. They read books together and live happily ever after. The end…..and the beginning.