Concept books are critical, as most teachers and librarians will tell you. They present the building blocks of learning in the context of various subjects, designed to appeal to all the interests young children can dream up. But let's be honest here: most concept books are mind-numbingly boring for the adult, and sometimes even for the child. I mean, how many ways can you present the ABCs or colors or opposites and still make them engaging? Most of us grit our teeth and suffer through even the most dull concept book, because we know the subjects are important for our emerging readers.
But every once in a while you find an author who's taken a familiar concept and reimagined it in a whole new way. These are the concept books librarians dream of, due to the likelihood that they are going to stick in a young child's brain and reinforce the message more strongly than their more mundane counterparts. Think of Eric Carle's 1,2,3 to the Zoo, for example - if you read this one as a child, I'll bet the images of animals and the zoo train are etched in your memory. For my money, a book like that beats a simple count-the-flowers book any day.
And such is the new book by designer and artist Nicholas Blechman, Night Light. The premise is familiar -- seeing vehicles performing their jobs -- but here it's united with the concepts of counting and opposites to add a layer of learning to the reading experience. Overlaying each object with a completely black spread interrupted only by a few diecut holes allows the author to conduct a guessing game with kids, each answer being another vehicle. For the first spread, readers are asked, "1 light, shining bright?", and given a glimpse of the answer through one strategically placed peek-a-boo hole. The answer comes on the following page - train, which is illustrated through bold colors and the use of stylized graphics that are both vintage and fresh. Each new number gives a new opportunity to guess, and kids will love not only trying to deduce the answer, but also seeing how the peek holes are put to use in the reverse (for that first spread, the hole becomes the train tunnel - clever, no?).
Like the best concept books, Night Light is deceptively simple, and that's why I think it's effective. Kids who love things that go will be especially charmed by Blechman's work, so don't limit this one to just the youngest readers. Sprout's obviously beyond the need for counting books, but he was still quite taken by the conceit here, and loved figuring out the answers, most of which were a total surprise. And, in a nice touch, the book comes full circle at the very end, where we see that the boy reading the book is picturing himself in the driver's seat of each vehicle. Very meta!
Add this one to your library list, or pick up a copy for a baby shower or birthday gift. Because -- trust me on this -- here's a concept book even adults will enjoy looking at again and again.
Night Light by Nicholas Blechman, published by Orchard Books
(For more fresh and retro concept books, check out authors like Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Michael Hall and Lois Ehlert.)