Monday, November 28, 2011

Beyond Visual Literacy

There's been a lot of talk about the demise of the picture book. Parent Tracy Grant summarized the heated debate in this piece in the Washington Post. Maurice Sendak chimed in to say that the picture book is blighted by misguided notions of childhood innocence, although he admits at the same time that he hasn't read very many lately. Some of us who watched the National Book Awards streaming from New York recently were a little perturbed by celebrity writer John Lithgow's attempts to be funny. In the process of self-deprecation he managed to dismiss the entire form of the picture book by suggesting it wasn't "real."

Is it, as Karen Lotz, Candlewick publisher suggests in the NYT article that started the brouhaha, a matter of the picture book being an analog artifact in a digital age? I'm not so sure. The codex book might be analog in structure but the picture book, if we pay attention to how young children "read" it, is far from analog in application.

Adults may read it from front to back and left to right but look at this child poised to turn a page.

Left? Right? Depends? If the book topples and ends up upside down in the process, a two-year-old might continue "reading" it that way. Nothing linear about that.

Toddlers react to the whole book as an object, without privileging the words on the page. They also react to the voice and the presence of an adult reading to them. They memorize text (another skill we tend not to privilege for some odd reason) and will often catch the lazy adult reader trying to flip two pages at once. Young children will want to visit a beloved book over and over, as they define it for themselves auditorily and visually, finding comfort in prediction. And of course they will imitate the reading behaviors (or lack thereof) of the adults in their lives. In all these ways, the picture book is meant to be a multi-sensory experience.

Its future is obviously tied up with the future of the book itself. But as with hybrid cars, we haven't quite found the right combination of green, cheap, tough, and accessible, not yet. Meanwhile, the codex book with pictures continues to allow children to acquire meaning in the often ambiguous spaces between text and image, and to do so with their entire bodies, which is what young children need to do. Speculating on causation in a narrative is a very different skill from touching a screen to create it. The two are not interchangeable, nor is one better than the other. But they are different.

If we let the picture book slip away while we dither around trying to decide if the form is dead, then the thing we may be endangering is the potential of the young child's brain to take in multiple stimuli, find meaning, react with all senses at once, and thereby create the active engagement with the world that we call literacy.

Note: This post appears simultaneously on Write at Your Own Risk, the VCFA faculty blog.


  1. Well said, Uma. I've been meaning to go back and listen, again, to what John Lithgow said at the NBA ceremony. It hit me pretty hard at the time and I thought, oh, no, this does not bode at all well.

    I thought, though, that what John Ashbery said applied to picture book writers. Poets, he said are not considered "real" writers--witness the magazine "Poets and Writers." This is the response the art of picture book writing often inspires and yet I've always thought picture book writing most akin to poetry--a higher calling in many ways. Like poetry, the form itself includes the package--the tactile experience of the book and the synergy between illustration and words.

    Reading a picture book is a performance art for parents. They should sponsor prenatal workshops on how to enjoy the shared experience of a picture book with a child. It's just not an experience that can be replicated digitally.

  2. Debby! Yes I liked what Ashbery had to say and I love-love-loved Nikky Finney's speech. And most of all I loved that you were there, with your wonderful book!

    Your point about the art of picture book reading is well made. Prenatal workshops should absolutely include a picture book appreciation unit. What a terrific idea.

  3. Oh, you should have heard Nikky's reading. I think they are going to go up online--it was phenomenal.