Go back to the very first picture book you recall reading. Was it an illustrated nursery rhyme? Was it a children’s comic? Was it bit fancier with real photos? Whatever it was, probably the most vivid part of that memory was the discovery, reading and sharing of a magical world that somehow made you feel warm, safe and also transported. It probably was the beginning of your reading habit. And even as your reading has evolved and your filter, lens and sensibilities have gotten much more sophisticated, there probably are still one or two such cherished children’s books that you will read again in a heartbeat.
Whether read to you or helped to read word by word or described and augmented by a parent or grandparent, the reading experience is a mainstay of many a childhood. Is it not astonishing then that while the world of technology grows in amazing leaps and bounds, the reading experience itself has not changed all that much? When our kids are headed into an increasing technological and interactive world, there seems to be both a paucity and even reluctance to let the reading experience go there.
Historically: Prior to the birth of printing, most stories including those for children were narrated and followed the “oral tradition”. The first known children’s book is “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book”. Written and published in 1744 by John Newbery, it is widely considered the first modern children’s book. The landmark book aimed contained a mixture of rhymes, picture-stories and games.
For a detailed history and list influencers of children’s literature, here is the Wiki page. The English philosopher John Locke who developed the tabula rasa is credited with setting direction on easy and pleasant learning for kids. Picture books appropriate for early and pre-readers was one of the many genres that emerged. Here are the all time best selling children’s books. Notice that most of these are picture books.
Illustrated picture books: Possibly the first evolutionary jump was picture books. 140 years ago, artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886) first began to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle rather than mere decoration for text. The odd illustration in a jumble of text changed to the illustration being the main draw and the text taking second stage to the experience of the picture. Ironically, this is the same evolution that is currently taking place in corporate powerpoint presentations as executives become story tellers with a picture illustration of the point and a scant word or two on each slide. With the illustration dominating, the reading experience became so much richer for the reader and allowed both clarity in what was being conveyed as well as far greater augmentation and imagination. Gifted parents and story tellers make the most of adding to the illustrations with their own imagination during reading time. The Dr. Seuss books have been the epitome of both entertainment and education. Here are seven reasons why Dr. Seuss has had quite such impact.
However, the predominance of illustrated picture books is a bit perplexing. For one, the need for illustration usually requires hand drawing by artists. Also, while sometimes very entertaining and imaginative they depart markedly from reality and sometimes outright ignore it. One of the most interesting artifices of children’s books has always been the use of animals to tell stories. Children are naturally drawn to animals and this can be very adroitly used to introduce kids to all manner of ideas. The limitation here has always been that animals do not particularly play along in the story telling. This is also a reason illustrations come in handy. While cinema resorted to animation or even CGI, book writers must resort to illustrators to make the pictures of animals conform to and illustrate the idea on the page.There was a time when picture books contained photographs. Illustrated picture books lent themselves to story telling and the need to make children’s books easy and cute, much better than carefully curated photographs. Parents and story tellers predominantly seem to prefer a departure from reality. However, we really must ask if we are doing right by our children by sparing them all reality?
Digital: Perhaps the next evolutionary jump in picture books is the digital format. All sorts of opinions and discussions object to digital formats. The most strident of them being that a physical book has a tactile aspect and that family gathering around a digital experience does not work. While these opinions must be considered, they do discount the entire space of cinema … which underwent a similar evolution with a markedly different end result.
Digital books can provide a very unique opportunity if we are willing to set aside a few dogmatic beliefs. A digital book experience can include text, photographs, audio snippets and video snippets to augment the telling of the story. Some current commercial digital formats have limitations — e.g. Amazon still does not allow inclusions of audio and video. Some other formats are less limited but then not provide for distribution. If some of these limitations are removed … and they will be in time … the reading experience will be much more interactive and engaging than a set of printed illustrations ever can. With the advent of digital photography … and a lot of patience … the issue of animal scenarios can also be solved. Imagine the appeal and realism of actual pictures of animals instead of illustrations. As a technologist and photographer, the need, ease of creation and appeal, is very clear to me. Children can relate to live animals, nature and the need for conservation much better. Here are two examples I created and published to illustrate exactly these points:
The evolution of children’s books has gone from the objective being merely depicting a moral, to being entertaining, to being edutainment, to finally a clarification of learning goals. Possibly, the most interesting evolution is the full roster of teaching objectives for children: morals, STEM, internationalism and geo-political considerations, eco and wildlife conservation, social and emotional learning.
With these objectives in mind and using the interactive capabilities of digital technology books can combine faithful representations of world around us through lush and vivid photographs with audio and video snippets of unique and often rare animals to tell simple stories about empathy, friendship, and good social behavior. Digital formats are still evolving and not feature complete. However, even the most limited ones provide a much richer and linked experience utilizing the power of the internet to elevate and enrich text and visual content. And they do this at a lower price point and with less impact on the environment. Here are best selling ebooks for children:
This is the beginning of new reading experience that allows children to independently learn and self regulate with much more interactive and real representations of life. The difference to children between watching or reading a cartoon vs going to a petting zoo or seeing a real animal is immeasurable. The clarification of learning objectives and the availability of interactive digital platforms to facilitate the reading experience makes children’s journey into the coming tech world much more effective. Can our young ones grow up with an internationalist, eco-friendly, wildlife conservation mindset? With this new genre of books — YES they can!