By Sue Lowell Gallion
As nonfiction enthusiasts, we share a passion to introduce children to nature, starting with the very youngest. There is nothing like walking outdoors with a baby on your hip, giving her the opportunity to touch smooth leaves, rough bark, or the layers of a pinecone as you talk about the amazing world around us.
Books, particularly board books, offer a tactile experience to young readers as well. The size, shape, and other physical features of the book communicate along with the text and illustrations. Today’s board books offer many novelty elements that can enhance nonfiction subjects for the youngest child. In addition to the sturdy, chewable (and safety tested) cardboard pages of a board book, consider the shape of the book and other physical elements as creative tools available to you.
There’s one spread for each creature, with a line of nonfiction text for the parent and one for the baby. The combination of shape, design, illustrations, and text along with the peek-a-boo activity makes this a marvelous nonfiction concept board book. Peek-a-Baby Farm FARM is a companion title. Keep in mind that series potential is an important factor in selling board book ideas.
Nonfiction board books can appeal to a wide range of ages, with layers of information for younger and older readers. Bug Hotel by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin (Caterpillar/Little Tiger, 2018) is shaped like a house, with each spread dedicated to one insect.
The beetle spread features stag, wasp, and green dock beetles, with more facts about where to find beetles and the importance of old wood for wood-eaters under lift-the-flaps. The book concludes with directions on how to make a garden more bug-friendly by providing materials insects can use to make homes.
When my first grandchild arrived, I became more interested in (obsessed with?) board books. I knew many board books are created by author/illustrators or in-house. But I made a point of attending a workshop on novelty board books for authors and author-illustrators by Ariel Richardson, editor at Chronicle Books, at an SCBWI-Kansas/Missouri conference several years ago.
Ariel encouraged attendees to brainstorm how the physical shape of a book could enhance a story or a subject. The one requirement was that the book must have a spine, so it could be shelved. She suggested we also explore novelty elements, such as die cuts, different textures for surfaces such as scratchy or mirrored, and lift-the-flaps. These suggestions could be included as illustration options in a board book manuscript.
The final exercise was to take paper, stapler, and scissors and brainstorm with book dummies (See the Action Item below!) As I snipped, I wondered if a board book about the world might take the shape of a globe. And in 2020, Our World: A First Book of Geography, illustrated by Lisk Feng, was released by Phaidon Press.
This large board book opens to create a freestanding globe with magnetic closures on the front and back covers. A companion globe-shaped book, Our Seasons: The World in Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, also illustrated by Lisk Feng, releases April 20, 2022, and there may be more to come in the series!
The globe-shaped books combine poetry and prose, with a short rhyming text and secondary prose text, similar to the structure of many nonfiction picture books. This technique is also used effectively in many nonfiction board books, whether within the spreads or as back matter. Susannah Buhrman-Deaver’s post, “Tell a Science Story Two Ways: Prose and Verse”, in NF Fest 2020, explores this topic further.
In addition, many of these books will grow with a child, with extra details in layers of text, illustrations, and physical aspects of the book that will become meaningful to the child as he enters different stages of development.Finally, as a geography lover, I have to share Chihiro Takeuchi’s Paper Peek Animals (Candlewick Studio, 2020).
This square novelty board book introduces the continents, animals that are native to each continent, and the world map. It also includes counting and seek and find elements. Die cut windows in the shape of animals emphasize the seek and find activity. And there’s a companion board book, Paper Peek Colors.
Board books aren’t constrained to the typical 32-page format of a picture book, so they can have any number of spreads, including an odd number. They can range from as few as six spreads to 15 or more. The best way to study them is to go to your bookstore and library and browse. Look at how the shelves are organized and how the books are displayed. Then study individual titles that interest you. Search publishers’ online catalogs using a filter for board books. Consider how your ideas might add something new and different. Your suggestions for physical shape, design, or novelty elements along with your text just may intrigue an editor in this growing segment of the children’s book market.
Give it a Try
Go to a bookstore or library to research current nonfiction board books. Look for nonfiction board book series or stand-alone titles in different shapes or with novelty elements. How does the shape or the novelty elements add to the experience of the book? Now, list topics that fascinate you that might work as a board book. Later, do your own brainstorming of book shape and possible novelty elements. Make several blank dummies, then look at your list of possible topics. Start cutting and see where your scissors and your creativity lead you!
Meet the Author
Sue’s first nonfiction book, Our World, was a Parents Magazine Best of 2020 and included in The Washington Post 2020 holiday gift guide. She’s the author of the award-winning Pug and Pig series (Pug Meets Pig, Pug & Pig Trick-or-Treat, Pug & Pig and Friends) illustrated by Joyce Wan (Beach Lane Books/S&S), and others. Sue lives in the Kansas City area with her black lab mix, Tucker, and is lucky to have her grandchildren nearby for book research and other fun. She loves coffee and traveling. Visit her at suegallion.com, @SueLGallion on Twitter, or suelowellgallion on Instagram.