Too many board books result from publishers seeking to exploit a successful product: slapping popular picture books on to stiff card pages to be sold for babies and toddlers. Many such books don't work for this age group: they may be sturdy, but the text is too long and the concepts too difficult.
Another option is to produce simplified versions of favourite children's books, although this can and does result in some dull titles. (Why, for example, read a child stories about Winnie-the- Pooh reduced to a few bland words, rather than waiting until he or she is ready for the richness and humour of A A Milne's prose?
But there is a middle ground: age-appropriate editions that retain the best qualities of the original. Colin McNaughton's Preston Pig toddler books (Andersen Press pound;3.99 each) are excellent board-book reworkings of his highly successful series about Preston Pig and Mister Wolf. These four vigorous mini-narratives (Little Boo!, Little Suddenly!, Little Oops! and Little Goal!) are new works rather than adaptations. For example, in the original Suddenly! picture book, Preston repeatedly escapes the jaws of Mister Wolf, who bumps his head or breaks a limb with each failure. Knowledge of fairytale and cartoon conventions (think Road Runner and the Coyote) adds context and meaning for young readers, but is too much to ask of most under-threes. The seven double-page spreads of Little Suddenly!, on the other hand, show a single, not-so-scary chase, one bump, and a tucked-in-bed Preston at the end. Highly appealing, and a good introduction to the notion that bad wolves chase good pigs. (This may still require explanation: to the two-year-old whose lips tremble when stars circle Mr Wolf's aching head, for example.) Who Lives Here? (Brilliant BooksTesco pound;2.50) looks like a toddler-friendly board book but isn't, although the concept is simple. The right-hand page asks (for example) "Who lives in a farmhouse?" Overleaf is the answer: "A farmer". Christopher Corr's illustrations are great, with Sixties-style funkiness, adventurous lines, startling use of colour and a delightful inal double-page spread that requires turning the book through 90 degrees. But the information is sometimes dubious (a lorry driver lives in a lorry? a caravan is full of clowns?) or inappropriate for the implied age group. Every mother I showed this book to grimaced at the "very spooky house" inhabited by a ghost, while their toddlers stared blankly at the space station and astronaut. Why publish this book on boards? Keep it for the over-threes, and be prepared to provide context.
Eminently suitable for the youngest of readers are Nina Laden's energetically drawn Peek-a-Who? and Ready, Set, Go! (Chronicle pound;4.99 each). Each is a simple rhyming game, with a surprise waiting behind the die-cut window on every second page. The adult reads Peek-a . . . while the child inspects a white page with black splodges, and looks through a window at more splodgy black and white. Turn the page, and suddenly those splodges are spots on a cheerful cow's back, and the accompanying word is (of course), Moo!. Onwards through Peek-a zoo, Peek-a choo-choo and so on, until the final mirrored page reveals Peek-a you!
These books teeter at the novelty end of the market. Don't turn up your nose: excitement, surprise and involvement are great for babies and toddlers. Of course, some of the finest examples succeed without flaps, windows or baubles - witness Helen Oxenbury's I can, I hear, I see and I touch (Walker pound;2.99) and the Shirley Hughes Nursery Collection (Walker pound;4.99), all first published in the mid-1980s and still reissued regularly. But novelty is only "bad" when the novelty is all the book has going for it.
Lynn Chang's Look at Me! Animals and Look at Me! Vehicles (ChronicleRagged Bears pound;4.99 each) are a case in point. Slip your toddler's photo into a slot in the back jacket, and his or her face will appear in the head of a cartoon bear, lion, train driver, or sailor. Cute? Perhaps, if you like the Anne Geddes style of greetings card. But the illustrations are so-so and the text extremely poor: "Look at me! I'm a bear. Honey and hugs I share." Yuck. Toddlers deserve better.