Children’s board books prey on the virtue of literacy by replacing literature with an empty symbolic product that guarantees sales.
Working in the children’s section of a book store can be a bit of a rude awakening. For those who remember children’s literature as a sacred right of intellectual passage, working in a book store can all too often feel like working in a gift shop full of trite tchotchkes. Specialty print products are nothing new, but where they were once the function of an expanding market, they now exist in an imploding one. It is an unfortunate truth that genuine interest in literature alone is no longer enough to sustain the print industry, so it has become an economic necessity to pump out volumes of junk that appeals to demographics of the not-so-literary type. And board books epitomize the market niche of published product devoid of literary merit.
What exactly is a book? Is it ‘any item with multiple ‘pages’ that bears some kind of symbol, words or pictures’? It would be easy to reduce books to that objective description. But the need for objects that contain information was not born of a need for the objects themselves, but of a need for the literary content that they could convey to find a format. So a less literal interpretation of what constitutes a book might be an ‘object that conveys literary content‘.
Do board books contain literary content? They often contain some semblance of it, but it is so reduced as to lose any merit as literature outside of its usefulness to the product itself. In other words, you would not buy a collection of stories created for board books in another format because those stories lose all value outside the context of the board book as a product.
An argument often given in favor of board books is that they introduce children to books, which must be a good thing, right? It is if you consider the mere collection of books to be valuable, regardless of their literary merit. As instruction in consumer materialism it actually eschews the critical thinking we regard literary endeavors as a path towards.
So what about as a teaching tool, that has to be a valid reason, right? Not really. Board books are marketed for children under the usual age and developmental abilities required to begin to learn to read. And there has been a growing amount of evidence that forcing literacy early is not necessarily the best practice.
Well, hey, they are appeasing to the tactile explorations of toddlers, so that must mean something? Yes, it means you are purchasing a toy, not a piece of literature. There are probably countless better things to chew on and toss around that will not leave your child semiotically confused about the purpose of books.
And yes, I know, little ones just loves turning the pages. However if you send them a signal that a book is about physical actions, and not mental and imaginative activity, then you may find they lose interest in the story after having gained control of page-turning. Dealing with that impulse while reading to them is a great way to teach the patience required to fall in love with reading.
When a customer walks in and asks me about board books, I will do my best to feel them out. If they could obviously care less about literary value, or the mixed messages board books send developing minds, then I will point them in the direction of whatever is popular, fits their subject criteria or has pretty pictures.
However if there is any indication that they care about literature, that they care about substance over symbol, then I will usually give them some version of the following speech.
A toddler is not learning how to read. They are learning to value literature. The best way for them to pick up that lesson is not to pander to them with simplicity, but to be read books that engage the reader enough that their excitement is passed onto the child(ren) being read to. Classic children’s literature and early reader chapter books, especially those enjoyed by the person who will be reading them, are good choices. In fact, any book will do for these purposes. You could be reading a two year old Hemingway or Hiaasen, and so long as the excitement of the story comes through, the child will learn a lifelong lesson about the value of literature.
This is not a popular opinion, and it is virtually heresy among booksellers. I would not endear myself to my boss if they read this, but perhaps by speaking honestly about it I can alleviate some of the guilt associated with selling board books to people never introduced to a reasonable criticism of them. At the same time I would like to point out that, regardless of what the line of products is, if you sell things for a living you probably have to suck it up and sell stuff you know is awful in order to keep your job; or in some cases, sell whatever it takes in order to keep an endangered independent business alive.
To punctuate my disdain for board books I would like to share with you the moment I was most disappointed by them, which is when I noticed that legendary black feminist bell hooks was ‘writing’ them. Not only was I disturbed to see the union of feminism and capitalist marketing schemes, but this also joined board books with the other greatest scam of the publishing industry, printed virtue signals. So many books are sold on the weight of political trends alone, with the purchaser buying a symbol of their identity and status under coercive social pressures, that to see the two opportunistic publishing schemes overlap with a legit author signals the desperation that belies every writer who doesn’t want to have to pander to profit models.
And don’t even get me started on picture books about construction equipment and dinosaurs!