BOARD books for babies are looking better than ever. British author/illustrator Helen Oxenbury has been turning out smiley, round-faced baby characters for years. In the past her small fry have gone about the somewhat serious business of learning their tops from bottoms and dressing themselves to go grocery shopping. This season, though, they're up to mischievous fun in four sturdy ``big board'' books that ought to be a lasting investment at $4.95 each.
``Tickle, Tickle,'' ``Clap Hands,'' ``Say Goodnight,'' and ``All Fall Down'' (Macmillan, New York, ages 1 to 4) follow the playful antics of four ethnically distinct toddlers as they go ``squelch, squelch in the mud,'' ``bumpity, bumpity'' on an obliging dad's back, and ``swing low, swing high'' in the air. They play with one another and bounce off parents at angles that their short peers will love to imitate.
Oxenbury has added some soft pastels to her usual bold palette and the result is a comfortable, at-home tone. Toddlers will of course want to bang the books around, but they also may sit quietly with them from time to time - with mom or dad, or on their own - to follow the simple stories and to enjoy the feeling of togetherness that beams out from each page.
On-the-run preschoolers will find plenty to puzzle over and point to in a breezy collection of durable semi-boards from Doubleday. British photographer Fiona Pragoff has captured some nifty images and colors in ``Alphabet,'' ``Growing,'' ``What Color?'' and ``How Many?'' (Doubleday, New York, $4.95 each, ages 2 to 5).
Granted, there are the standard yellow chicks and red ladybugs in ``What Color?'' and a few of her innovations miss the mark, like the ``gold'' and ``silver'' fishes that look like one and the same swimmer. But there's a turquoise butterfly that saves the day, a gray mouse that even a mom could love, and some slippery green frogs ready to leap off the page and into the reader's lap. ``Alphabet'' features similarly striking shots, including two pages full of ``L'' leaves and a bright yellow ``Y'' yolk. And ``How Many?'' pulls clever tricks with socks, bananas, wristwatches, crayons, and even painted eggs.
For quiet moments shared by growing families, Jan Ormerod's new series will fill a special need. ``Bend and Stretch,'' ``Making Friends,'' ``Mom's Home,'' and ``This Little Nose'' (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, New York, $5.95 each, 24 pages each, ages 2 to 4) shows how one expectant mom finds playful, purposeful ways to spend time with her toddler. They exercise together, make friends with the coming baby's new doll, explore shopping baskets, and - most important of all - share lots of cuddles. A nice addition to the growing field.