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.
For example, Peek-a-Baby Ocean by Mike Orodan (Chronicle, 2019) uses wave-shaped pages to introduce marine creatures in their habitats and lift-the-flaps to reveal the matching babies.
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.
Sue, thank you so much for describing a creative format we can consider and explore for ideas that might be falling flat in the regular book format!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Melissa! Board books have come a long way from PAT THE BUNNY, haven't they! Hope this is a good fit for some ideas of yours.Delete
What fun! This looks like a great genre to explore. Thanks for the inspiration.ReplyDelete
You're welcome! Another recent NF favorite of mine is ODD BEASTS:MEET NATURE'S WEIRDEST ANIMALS by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Gareth Lucas, Abrams Appleseed 2021.Delete
I can just feel a child's joy at holding and looking at board books from Sue's post and it makes me eager to give this form a try...thank you!ReplyDelete
Have fun with it, Teresa! I love thinking of research being used in multiple ways.Delete
Thank you Sue-Delete
This really opened my eyes too on the board book market. I always think of board books to be "concept" books. Interesting that there is not the same page limit too! I have a nonfiction series I have been working on that may work well with this format. Wondering what is the typical word count for nonfiction board books? Thanks so much for sharing this post! Marianne
Board books are so fun - and shapes make them even more interesting.ReplyDelete
I think so, too! Here's another fantastic book shape that I wish I had thought of -- Dave Mottram is author/illustrator of DRIVE THE FIRE TRUCK and DRIVE THE RACE CAR from Chronicle/2021 -- and the books are shaped like steering wheels! Talk about kid appeal!Delete
Sue, you know I love OUR WORLD! Thank you for this great post and the books you highlighted. That BUG HOTEL is intriguing. Congrats OUR SEASONS! I can't wait to see what might come next.ReplyDelete
Thanks you! I can't wait to get my author copies of OUR SEASONS. Look up the BUG HOTEL online if you can't check out a copy to see some of the interiors, it's a great combination of illustration, novelty elements, and text.ReplyDelete
Thank you! I can't wait to see author copies of OUR SEASONS. If you can't check out a copy of BUG HOTEL from the library, check it out online to see some interior spreads. It's a terrific combination of illustration, text, and novelty elements. And I am a big Clover Robin fan, COUNTING BIRDS by Heidi Stemple which she illustrated is such a wonderful book.ReplyDelete
Thank you so much, Sue! With two small grandchildren I've been able to get my hands on several board books and take note of which are favorites (pretty much all of them!). I hope to give this genre a try and see where it goes.ReplyDelete
There's nothing like that on-the-lap research! Best of luck to you in this format, Rose!Delete
Board books are so much fun for kids. Thanks Sue!ReplyDelete
YOu're welcome, Pam! Hope the post is helpful.Delete
Thanks for all the info!ReplyDelete
You bet, Cheryl!Delete
Board books have come a long way from the square books I can vaguely remember as a child in the 40's. Thanks for the memories!ReplyDelete
They've come a long way in just the last 5 to 10 years, haven't they! They have been one of the fastest growing market segments for kids' books.Delete
Such an intriguing post! I was in awe of OUR WORLD and can't wait to grab the companion title--congrats.ReplyDelete
Thank you! Phaidon is a wonderful publisher, I'm amazed at their paper engineering and feel so lucky to work with them.Delete
You really opened my eyes to how fun NF board books can be - thank you!ReplyDelete
Enjoy your research and best wishes, Traci!Delete
Such a fabulous post!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Joyce. Hope it's helpful.Delete
Thank you, Sue, for this in-depth look into board books.ReplyDelete
This was a fun post to write. Thanks, Charlotte!Delete
I love your book, OUR WORLD, Sue! I hope I can come up with something great like it someday.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Robin! Have fun creating!Delete
Thank you Sue-ReplyDelete
This really opened my eyes too on the board book market. I always think of board books to be "concept" books. Interesting that there is not the same page limit too! I have a nonfiction series I have been working on that may work well with this format. Wondering what is the typical word count for nonfiction board books? Thanks so much for sharing this post! I'm looking forward to reading your books! Thank you!Marianne
Hi Marianne -- it is freeing not to be tied to the 8-page restriction with board books. The text does tend to be very spare -- typically 100 words or less. That's not including back matter, though, however it is presented. The secondary text in the globe books is more than a thousand words, but the books are a large format, also. As always in nonfiction, one of the hardest tasks is deciding what information to leave out! Best wishes with your series!Delete
Thank your for this wonderful post about board books. Congrats on OUR WORLD & OUR SEASONS. Can’t wait to check those out!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Krissy -- so much wonderful work is being done in this format!Delete
Thanks for this! I've never explored writing board books but you've made me want to bite right in! :) OUR WORLD looks so very cool.ReplyDelete
I'm happy to hear it, Danya! Just scrolling through online catalogs will get you super-charged!Delete
SUE: I LOVE how you show how board books "offer a tactile experience to young readers." The word "experience" says it all. Sitting with a child in your lap, sharing a board book, introducing new concepts and a WHOLE new world in books--there's NOTHING SWEETER! And I would add it's not just an experience for the child, but the adult as well. Studies have shown that when parents and children share books, strong bonds are formed. OH, THE POWER OF BOOKS! I also appreciate your suggestions to "consider the shape of the book and other physical elements as creative tools available to you." CREATIVE TOOLS. The book ITSELF offers the writer tools to craft their story--and a child's world. I LOVE THAT! THANK YOU for INSPIRING us to look at books in a whole new way!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much, Natalie -- I have a granddaughter about to turn 1, and there is nothing better than having her in my lap with a book! Aren't we lucky to be in this creative business?Delete
Appreciate this information so much!ReplyDelete
Glad to hear it!Delete
I have a new board book manuscript, but this made think about writing others. As an infant, I would take my grandson around the yard and have his hand swipe various plants, tree leaves and needles.ReplyDelete
Best of luck with your manuscript and here's to creating more!Delete
Thank you Sue..this is like a Valentine! I have been struggling with a better way to write my idea for a board book and I think you have given me the answer! I'll give it a try!ReplyDelete
Hooray! Have fun with it, Colleen!Delete
Sue, love all of your examples and wonderful suggestions. I feel like I could tackle learning how to write a board book. Thank you!ReplyDelete
I will be excited to hear what you come up with, Nicki!Delete
Just loving how NFFest is introducing me to new books like yours! My kids are just old enough to be done with board books but these look amazing! Such a creative idea!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Julia! Hope you and your kids enjoy them, and have fun seeing what you come up with in this arena!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Sue, for sharing this creative format of the children's book market.ReplyDelete
Several years ago, I enjoyed an in-person workshop with Ariel Richardson at Chronicle Books. Such fun to cut and create a concept/board book.
Thank you for so much great information about board books. Looking forward to exploring this fun and creative way of presenting nonfiction to young readers and to reading your books.ReplyDelete
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for all these helpful ideas!!! Looking forward to your upcoming books!ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing ideas for helping a board book 'take shape.'ReplyDelete
Thanks for helpful ideas to encourage us to try writing nonfiction board books.ReplyDelete
Intriguing post, Sue. Thank you for bringing the new world of board books to light. I'll be looking for all these books.ReplyDelete
the open look of Our World is amazing!ReplyDelete
Thanks for all the title suggestions to explore. Your focus on the shape of the book is a very good point.ReplyDelete
Great information on the amazing ways our stories can take shape. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Feeling inspired now. Love your book choices. Thank you!ReplyDelete
I forgot that I also attended that workshop with Ariel a few years ago...need to dig out my notes and get brainstorming. Thanks for the great ideas!ReplyDelete
I didn't realize board books came in different shapes. Such fun!ReplyDelete