On The Same Page

Being able to criss-cross the globe on the strength of the Internet has made it possible to engage with creative ideas, conversations, and experiences which otherwise would be beyond our reach—and at times, even beyond our imagination.  On The Same Page will bring to the reader of Torchlight, a combination of textual-audio-visual curated content, about and around libraries and bookish love.

Picturing the journey: Print to digital

Long before research was undertaken to establish the significant role pictorial representations play in developing literacy, language, and a host of cognitive skills in young children, picture books occupied a distinct place in the world of children’s publishing.

Photo: Randolph Caldecott Society UK

So much so that since 1937 picture books became award-worthy starting with the Caldecott Medal, which even today is acknowledged worldwide as the most prestigious award, notwithstanding that it is reserved only for the best American picture book. Amongst the criteria for awarding the medal, perhaps the one that is most telling for the way picture books have evolved is, “the book must be a self-contained identity, not dependent on other media (i.e. sound, film or computer program) for its enjoyment.”

The medal is named for artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott who was credited by iconic illustrator Maurice Sendak, as the creator of the modern picture book. Caldecott imaginatively juxtaposed picture and word, either one or the other, so that illustrations shared an equal place with text and were no longer considered mere embellishments to it. The arrival of wordless picture books was the ultimate tribute to the power inherent in pictures to tell a story.

Photo: Amazon

Starting in the 1950s, the line between illustrator and author began to blur and a vivid transformation was seen in picture books. The domain of picture books came to be inhabited by graphic designers and titles such as Sparkle and Spin (1957), Little 1 (1962), and Listen! Listen! (1970) demonstrated “a relationship between words and picture, shapes, sounds, and thoughts”, evoking a sense of play and dynamism.

This perhaps hinted at what was in the offing.

By the end of the twentieth century, amidst the sweep of the digital revolution, picture books infused with elements such as multimedia content, types of interactivity, games, and navigation options, acquired a new avatar. Illustrator Mary A. Livingston in reviewing digital children’s books put the Goldilocks principle to use to describe three types: the fixed e-book (digital version of a printed picture book) devoid of trappings as underwhelming; the book app (interactive, animated and loaded with games) as overwhelming; and the enhanced digital book (interactive multimedia content) as being somewhere in between.  One of the marks of a discerning reader of digital picture books is being able to assess whether good narrative and original art are being eclipsed or enhanced by digital features.

With picture books going digital, some wonder what the fuss is about. Isn’t this an instance of old wine in new bottles? After all, it is still stories (sometimes the “same old ones”) with a changed appearance on account of the “bells and whistles” embedded in the book.  To me, what the fuss is about is the less obvious but more significant changes effected by the digital medium that Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic phrase of the 60’s – “the medium is the message” – speaks to. The digital character of picture books is changing patterns and institutions of reading and publishing. The ease with which picture book content can be shaped digitally and distributed/downloaded – often free of cost – has led to the exponential growth of digital picture books. Shared book reading between parent-child which is widely acknowledged as a gold practice risks being dented by independent reading of interactive books on the computer. Classroom teachers are being required to learn pedagogical approaches that support reading across the digital platform. Librarians will have to contend with a game-playing mentality that readers of book apps are developing. Whether these changes are for better or worse and how so, has become the subject of contemporary educational research.

As it is with their traditional counterparts, digital picture books are receiving recognition as a distinctive category in the world of children’s publishing. Since 2012, two international book fairs invite entries for the best digital children’s book; the Digital Ehon (“picture book” in Japanese) Award instituted by the Digital Children’s Book Fair held annually in Japan and the Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award by the Bologna Children’s Book Fair held annually in Italy.

In today’s plugged world, digital picture books too have found a place on the award shelf.

A clip from a 2014 Children’s Digital Book Award winner

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