Somewhere around the thousandth time that I sat down with my baby and a book in my lap, it occurred to me that not only do most children’s books seem to feature animals instead of humans, but also, many of them end with someone falling asleep. Is there a conspiracy, I wondered, between children’s book authors, publishers, and parents everywhere to make babies and toddlers go the f**k to sleep?
I wanted to know, so I conducted a (rather unscientific) study of 100 popular board books to see how many feature animals and how many end in sleep. Along the way, I noticed that there’s a healthy number of trucks, trains, and other vehicles in these tiny tomes, so I counted those, too.
Here’s what I did: I started with the 90 English-language narrative board books in my home. To bring the total up to 100, I added the first 10 featured children’s board books on Amazon (excluding seasonal holiday books) that weren’t already on the list. I excluded a few books that simply count or name objects, and which lacked sentences, narratable images, or plots.
In tallying each book’s contents, I looked for animals and motorized vehicles that were either active characters or a focus of attention, whether visually or in the text. Imaginary animals (such as those from Sesame Street and Dr. Seuss) and animal-like objects (such as teddy bears) were counted as animals, as long as they were animate and active in the story. Animals and vehicles that appeared in an image’s background without being a focus of attention were not counted.
To count sleep, I looked for books that ended either explicitly or implicitly with sleep. For example, the last page of Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House shows a nighttime scene, twinkling stars, and the phrase “and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.” Sleep is not mentioned, but it’s implied, and I counted it.
What did I find? It turns out that 75% of the board books feature animals (whether or not accompanied by the other themes), 24% feature vehicles, and 24% end with someone–an animal, person, vehicle, or combination thereof–falling asleep. Only 14% included none of these things.
Looking at the overlaps, 18% of books had both animals and sleep, 16% had vehicles and animals, and 5% had vehicles and sleep. There are many animals in board books, and a good number of them fall asleep at the end.
Two books out of the 100 had the trifecta of animals, vehicles, and a snoozer of an ending. The first is Steam Train, Dream Train, a 2013 book authored by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. This book followed hot on the heels of the duo’s #1 New York Times bestseller Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, suggesting that this combination of elements was deliberate, if not calculated.
Steam Train, Dream Train not only uses, but thickly layers, these three elements. It features a train, of course, but it also stacks race cars on the train, and shows a yellow digger operated by a giraffe merrily scooping balls into the train’s hopper. The book ends with sleep upon sleep: after a series of vignettes in which various animals bed down to sleep on the train, the scene pans out to reveal that the train is, in fact, a toy on the floor of a young child’s darkened bedroom. The child, meanwhile, sleeps quietly in bed. It’s a sweet ending that playfully yet insistently suggests to children that everyone and everything goes to sleep at the end of the day.
The other book that includes animals, a vehicle, and sleep is The Going To Bed Book by Sandra Boynton. The vehicle here is much less pronounced; it’s a boat that the animals are living on, and it never shows any of the mechanical guts and parts that toddlers love. So it is not as obviously in the spirit of the trifecta, but it is a delightful short book for younger babies and toddlers alike about bedtime routines and sleepy time.
Of course, there are also excellent books that avoid these formulas entirely. Of the 14 books on the list that do not contain animals, vehicles, or a sleepy ending, many are stories that depict everyday lives and experiences. There is Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 The Snowy Day, with its spacious description of a child’s encounter with snow in an urban neighborhood in New York. And there is Amy Wilson Sanger’s unfolding of the rhythms and pleasures of a family dim sum outing, as told through collage and rhyme in her 2003 book Yum Yum Dim Sum.
Whether or not Steam Train, Dream Train is the ideal board book, its deft use of some of the most common baby and toddler book themes will rank it among the most familiar-feeling of volumes. And that should be comforting to children–and to their parents, who need them to go to sleep.
Here are all 100 books:
Animals, vehicles, and sleep
Animals and sleep
Vehicles and sleep
|Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site||2011|
|The Little House||1942|
|Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?||2012|
Animals and vehicles
Neither animals nor vehicles nor sleep
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