If you had a chance to visit the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair last November, the first thing that might have caught your eye was a bright-coloured area stocked with glowing board books, inviting children’s furniture and playful decorative elements, all of them part of the "Toddlers First Books" exhibition.
This exhibition was the highlight of the CCBF Children Plus event stream, which took baby and toddlers’ books as focus of its 2020 edition. The exhibition was complemented by a seminar boasting a panel of top experts of the field, "First Books, First Looks—Entering the World through Toddlers' Books”.
Toddlers’ Books: A Flourishing Subcategory of Children’s Books
Toddlers’ books can make a wonderful exhibition thanks to their vibrant and playful looks. But there is evidently much more to toddlers’ books than their bold covers designed to catch the curiosity of babies of just a few months of age. In fact, in the past few years the world of books has started seeing babies and toddlers’ books with new eyes.
As highlighted by Suzanne Carnell, speaker at the "First Books, First Looks" seminar, boardbooks—the most common product for the 0–3 age range in the UK—have long been considered of lesser value and interest than picture books, regardless of their high production cost and the complex safety requirements they require in terms of materials and binding. This misconception towards toddlers’ books seems to have given way to a more sophisticated approach thanks to the work of artists who believe that toddlers too deserve high quality contents with a contemporary fling.
Seen less as disposable items than in the past, board books are becoming ‘real objects of art and design’ in words of Grazia Gotti, lead curator of the "Toddlers First Books" exhibition. ‘From four basic colours to more comprehensive colour palettes, from figurative illustration to more imaginative graphic languages, toddlers’ books have turned into richly interactive and visually inspiring publications… It shows the renewed respect book people have been giving to young children’, Gotti continued in her introduction to the seminar.
The strength of contemporary toddlers’ books relies on the assumption that children can use books in many forms and are able to play with pictures well before they learn to read. Publishers and authors are deploying great efforts to understand children’s psychology. ‘We are reaching a more accurate understanding of babies intellectual needs’, confirmed Beijing Poplar Culture Project editor Gao Yuan, ‘as it helps us create books that address those needs much better’.
At the same time, many are the artists who have found in toddlers’ books a field of amazing creative freedom, which mixes conceptual exploration with elaborate design and a strong aesthetic sense. Xavier Deneux ("First Books, First Looks" seminar speaker and author of Mes animaux tout doux du jardin, Bologna Ragazzi Mention in the toddlers’ book special category in 2019) insisted on the pleasure he finds in creating books that overcome the technical constraints proper to toddlers’ book (resistance, material safety…) while looking for the greatest level of interactivity. ‘I think that a book for little ones is a book to be smelt, bitten, touched, and that this book could be placed on the floor with a parent. It also allows the child, even if they don’t necessarily know how to write yet, to trace the shape with their finger and learn how to draw.’ Behind their seemingly simple aspect, they offer babies and toddlers an extraordinary wealth of discovery mechanisms through textures, flaps, and pop-ups elements.
Contemporary toddlers’ books are increasingly "multi-sensorial". Zuo Wei, one of the most prominent toddlers’ books authors in China, uses her extensive experience as a music teacher for young children to integrate a musical dimension to her books. ‘Rhymes and rhythm are key resources that I exploit in order to stimulate babies’ musical sensibility and linguistic developments’, explained Zuo to the "First Books, First Looks" audience, ‘I also encourage the parallel use of music with my texts’.
This revitalisation of the toddler’s book segment seems to have been picked up by the market. In many countries board books and other types of books targeting babies and toddlers are gaining a larger market share over other subcategories of children’s books. This is particularly true in China where, according to the data provided by OpenBook, toddlers’ book retail sales have soared from 5% in 2015 to 11.9% in 2020.
The "Toddlers First Books" Exhibition: An Ideal Library for the Little Ones
Produced by CCBF in collaboration with the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the "Toddlers First Books" exhibition intended to capture those changes through a selection of 142 books carefully curated by Cooperativa Gianni Stoppani.
Taking beauty and conceptual innovation as keys, the exhibition also emphasises on the diversity of horizons where those beautiful books are conceived. The books presented originated from 21 countries and territories, with France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland acting as pioneers in the renovation of the subcategory.
‘The exhibition has been created like a global library that could sit in a kindergarten library or school’, said Gotti. It boasts a compendium of interactive pieces of art to trigger the child’s sensorial curiosity, like a ‘very first art gallery or museum’.
The full list of selected titles is now available for download. It is meant to serve as a reference tool for all publishers, librarians, educators and parents looking for exceptional titles that will help the younger ones kick off towards an exciting journey of discovery.