Books for the very youngest readers can be deceptively simple. Often, although not always, printed on thick cardboard pages (board books) and with an elementary text and straightforward illustrations, these books can strike many adults as rather boring to read and easy to create.
Yet the truth is that books for babies and toddlers take a devilish amount of talent and an uncanny ability to synthesize information and illustrations while still making them entertaining and educational. In other words, creating a good book for the youngest readers is much more challenging than it seems because those who do it best make it look as simple as pie.
Unfortunately, there's also a lot of schlock out there for the youngest readers. For example, board books that are for ages 3 and up because they contain some choking hazards unsuitable for younger children. The problem? No self-respecting 3-year-old wants to be seen reading board books. They are for babies!
Then there are the wonderful picture books transformed into mediocre -- or worse -- board books. What makes a great picture book doesn't necessarily make a great board book. In board books, less -- or no -- text is best, so picture books with lots of text just don't work as board books, no matter how well-written they are.
It's a good thing, then, that there is a group in Pittsburgh that each year looks through hundreds of books and comes up with the "Best Books for Babies" list. The group comprises librarians and child-development experts, and the entire effort is sponsored by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Fred Rogers Company and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.
There's pretty much nothing else like the "Best Books for Babies" project, which has -- since 2000 -- tried to find the books that really work best for babies and toddlers. Before his death in 2003, the late Fred Rogers, aka "Mister Rogers," was an integral part of the effort.
Of course, there are many other awards for children's books, but they don't focus on the youngest readers. Even the Caldecott Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the best illustrated children's book, has a much wider age span, given that the Caldecott committee looks at books appropriate for children ages birth through 14 years.
But those looking for the latest books that work best for babies and toddlers are in luck, as the "Best Books for Babies 2013" has just been released. The winners all were published in 2012, and all should be readily available.
Margaret Kimmel, chair of the Best Books for Babies project, notes that the list of winning books is just the beginning, and that it's also vital for parents to take time to read aloud.
"We know that it's more than just words on the page," Ms. Kimmel said. "The music of a loving voice makes a lasting connection with the process of reading."
Here's a look at the list; all of the annotations were written by "Best Books for Babies" committee members. Some of the winners are board books; others are picture books. All are just right for the youngest readers. Note: Lists from previous years can be accessed at the group's website: www.bestbooksforbabies.org.
• "A Kiss Means I Love You" (Albert Whitman, $15.99), written by Kathryn Allen; photographs by Eric Futran. "Appealing close-up photos of children's faces clearly show a variety of actions and expressions that reflect familiar emotions and experiences."
• "Clare Beaton's Bedtime Rhymes" and "Clare Beaton's Farmyard Rhymes" (Barefoot Books, $6.99 each), traditional rhymes illustrated by Ms. Beaton. "Thematic collections of nursery rhymes are illustrated with charming needlework in these sturdy board books perfect for the very youngest readers."
• "Peepsqueak!" (HarperCollins, $12.99), written and illustrated by Leslie Ann Clark. "Energetic and highly motivated, Peepsqueak is a chick that's going places, and young listeners will be pleased to follow along."
• "Trains Go" (Chronicle Books, $8.99), written and illustrated by Steve Light. "Colorful watercolor illustrations race across this board book's extra-wide pages, emphasizing the kinetic appeal of various types of trains from old-fashioned steam engines to super-fast, streamlined bullet trains."
• Look Look Outside!" (Dial, $6.99), written and illustrated by Peter Linenthal. "Limited text and bold black-and-white illustrations make this board book perfect for the very youngest listeners."
• "Sweet Baby Feet" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $14.99), written by Margaret O'Hair and illustrated by Tracy Dockray. "Rhyming verses follow a smiling baby from morning to night while bright, beguiling pictures illuminate the havoc -- and humor -- that follows."
• "Little Tug" (Roaring Brook Press, $12.99), written and illustrated by Stephen Savage. "Simple, striking illustrations mix realism with whimsy to tell the story of a small tugboat and his fleet of friends."
• "Babies, Babies" (Star Bright Books, $5.95), photographs by Debby Slier. "A wonderful assortment of African-American babies, smiling, crying, peeking and pouting, are featured in this small board book that babies will love to look at over and over again."
• "Cradle Me" (Star Bright Books, $6.95), photographs by Debby Slier. "This shaped board book features appealing photographs of Native American babies from a wide variety of tribes."
• "Animal 1-2-3" and "Animal Spots and Stripes" (Chronicle Books, $12.99 each), written and illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. "There's a lot to look at in these two books; whether counting to 10 or comparing spotted dogs with striped cats, young listeners will enjoy the fun flaps and attractive illustrations."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.