Beyond Visual Literacy — Uma Krishnaswami

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.

Childreading

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.

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3 responses to “Beyond Visual Literacy — Uma Krishnaswami

  1. Louise Hawes

    Thank you SO much for this post, Uma! It’s right on the mark, and beautifully stated. The photo of that toddler “reading,” reminded me of board books, and how I’ve watched two generations (and counting) of youngest readers fondle, tear, and GNAW their books. There’s a body ownership and love, sometimes a literal ingestion, that takes place with “old fashioned” picture books. Try eating a digital one!

  2. Laura Kvasnosky

    Uma — do you realize that the board book in the photo is one of my very first books? Pink, Red, Blue, What Are You? is the title. The page he’s looking at is “We’re brown, we frown.” Is this your son reading it? So good to see it again!

  3. Uma Krishnaswami

    Laura, no kidding! No, not my son. The child in the photo is the daughter of a friend. What a lovely coincidence.

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