It was an odd conversation to be having with my boss, who returned from maternity leave some months ago.
“So, I have these great board books,” I told her. “They are developmentally fabulous in every way, except that they have this choke-hazard warning on the back. Would you take it as a gesture of hostility if I sent them to you?”
I forged on. “You see, they have these die-cut pieces glued to the pages, and apparently the Consumer Product Safety Commission has decided that a baby equipped with a chisel could pry a piece off, try to eat it and choke. They seem pretty solid to me, and I hate not to have anyone use these books. But I can’t just give them to somebody without telling them there’s this problem with them.”
The books in question are Colors and Opposites, by Xavier Deneux, simple yet devilishly clever French imports, the first offerings in the TouchThinkLearn series. The bright yellow painter’s palette doesn’t just serve as the background for the little bear on the cover of Colors; the outline of the palette has actually been cut away, resulting in a palette-shaped indentation onto which is glued that adorable little bear, creating a tactile as well as visual encounter for infant readers.
The books are that clever throughout; on the “purple” page, a raised purple flower glued to the left-hand page nestles into a flower-shaped indentation on the opposite page; that cut-out shows a little green-and-purple butterfly about to alight on the stamens at the center of the flower. In Opposites, a little raised bunny with snow on the tips of its ears is glued to the “outside” page; opposite, two warm bunnies peer out from “inside” their rosy, die-cut burrow.
The books are altogether charming, offering adults a surprising wealth of details to enjoy and point out as their babies engage with art, text and page, offering multiple sensory avenues for appreciation.
And there’s the rub, since as anyone who’s ever read a board book with babies knows, it’s a full-body experience. They listen, they look—and they chew, and they drool, and they do their best to reduce each book to its constituent parts. It’s a critical and totally joyful way for our youngest readers to familiarize themselves with books and literacy. It’s why board-page books exist. They need to explore all parts of a book in order to understand how it works and to be ready for the more delicate, paper-paged books that will increasingly replace board books as they move through toddlerhood into the preschool years.
In the case of Colors and Opposites, it is possible that determined-enough babies might pry up some of the smaller pieces—the fish on the cover of Opposites, for instance—put one into their mouths and choke. (A very determined baby: I have spent quite a lot of time working on these elements, and I can’t get them to budge.) So it is thanks to those glued-on parts that the CPSC is regulating this sublime piece of literature as a toy, and a dangerous one at that: “WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD—Small parts. Not for children under 3 years.”
But the thing is, these books sure aren’t for the children they are “safe” for. Babies that have been lucky enough to have been exposed to books from birth will be developmentally way beyond what Colors and Opposites have to offer by the time they are 3.
This leaves the board-book reviewer in a pickle, since we can’t in good conscience recommend that parents and libraries buy a book that is potentially hazardous to their children or patrons, however developmentally spectacular it is. Colors and Opposites are hardly the only books that present us with this dilemma. Over and over, we find books that are thoughtfully composed, beautifully illustrated and cleverly designed—and that are unsafe for the audience that is best suited for them. Depressingly often, I receive a review with a note from the reviewer to this effect: “I really wish we could star this book, but it’s got a choke warning on the back.”
Publishers: Please take this into consideration as you’re contemplating the design of your next board book. Board books are for babies. Choke hazards are not. Please don’t make beautiful board books with choke hazards.
It’s not like we can say to the world what I told my boss: “I’d feel comfortable using it with my baby….”