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Mama, I Broke the Book

beach-bugs-9781416950554.in01_400(bookmom)For most of my career I’ve worked on what we call novelty books. It’s a funny term for anyone outside the industry, but it means loosely anything other than a straight book. So a novelty book might be a pop-up book, or one with pull tabs or lift-the-flaps. It might have touch and feel elements inside it. While they are fun and let us (and, uh, the readers) be wildly creative and engaged, the books take a beating. For a while I was considered a “tester” because I broke every prototype our production team gave me. So if I broke it, chances were a 3-year-old could really clock it (and, yes, our books are rigorously tested for safety and, no, I am not the real tester, a professional certified organization gets to do the manhandling).

I hear a lot from parents that they are afraid/leery/not willing to give their child a book that they might “break.” As in pull the flaps off, tear off the pop-up from the page or, in one case, eat it (one parent told me her child ate almost a whole board book, which was impressive due to the fact that the child had very few teeth and board books are very hard). I understand this, especially as some of these books are pretty pricey. I’d rather not have a child tear apart a book I just paid good money for.

But for anyone hesitating I would point out that these books are really delightful ways to engage children. They offer parents another way to tell a story and draw a child into it. By, say, lifting a flap you are really playing a guessing/peek-a-boo game. It becomes less about the parent reading to a child in a passive mode and more about the child becoming an active participant in the storytelling, which, at a minimum can be a lot of fun. (It can also interest a child who may not be an eager reader.) I love lift-the-flap books, especially with large sturdy flaps for toddlers. When they can manipulate the flap (they have the dexterity to lift it themselves) they are actually surprised there is something under there (the age group can go older if you don’t have an especially jaded 3-year-old). It’s a joy to see that wonder.

Novelty elements also make the story more dimensional. They invite the child to try out newfound dexterity by pulling a tab, turning a wheel, go on a hunt and lift multiple flaps on a page, or even turn what we call a gate fold (where the entire page folds out). You’re fostering some hand-eye coordination to boot. What I especially love is letting kids explore these books and watching them discover that books aren’t just a flat thing; they are dimensional. And that, I think, is a really wonderful way to help them learn that stories themselves are dimensional. We don’t “just” read a story. We enter a world, immerse ourselves in an environment, crawl into the heads of characters and go along for an adventure. Novelty elements are a very natural way to introduce children to that concept.

I brought all of my great lift-the-flap books home when my first child was born. I had been reading them to him and manipulating them when he started trying to do it himself. And he gleefully ripped every one of them right off the page. Which he thought was hilarious. I am in a unique position. I have heard one of my children say, “That’s OK, Mama can just bring home another book.” But that doesn’t mean I love it when the books break, especially if they are books that I helped create. I will say this: Even under supervision, even with help, invariably one of these books is going to break, rip, tear, and go kabloeey.

For parents who ask, “Well, what do I do if it breaks?” my answer is: tape. Tape is your friend. It may not look great, but it usually does the trick, and a bandaged book to me is the sign of a well-loved book. I also felt better about it when I asked a well-regarded paper engineer what to do. He taped his books for his kids too.

I do think it’s important to teach children to be gentle with books and, as in anything else, to not destroy the living crap out of them, especially just for the joy of destroying the living crap out of anything. But when a gleeful toddler yells, “I see it!” and accidentally pulls the flap off the book it’s pretty hard to get angry. “Gentle, gentle!” I’ll say as small fingers tug and pull.

We were showing such restraint when we were reading Beach Bugs the other night. It was killing him not to grab the flying pieces. And so I wasn’t surprised when finally he reached out and yanked a piece right off. “Uh oh,” I said. “Mama fix?” he said hopefully. “Mama fix,” I said, and grabbed the tape.

A few things you might want to look at to see if something is sturdy, with apologies to booksellers who will not be thrilled to have customers performing torque and tension studies in their aisles:

  • Lift up a flap; is it sturdy? Is the paper heavy? How is it attached to the page?
  • Are the pull tabs or other elements easy to manipulate? Does the pull tab glide or get stuck? If the engineering isn’t perfect a child may get frustrated, meaning he will yank it and there’s a higher chance of hearing a rrrriiip.
  • The secret of pop-ups isn’t in having them pop up; it’s having them fold back down, that’s the hard part. Close the book; is the pop-up lying flat, without getting stuck or snagged anywhere? You are good to go.

A few of our favorite novelty books that are tougher than they look, have to-date survived my rough crew and are well worth whipping out your repair kits for: