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Technology and the digital environment have influenced children’s literature in myriad ways in the last two decades, and the resulting changes have helped attract a new community of young readers.
The world has changed considerably in the last 20 years, and so has children’s literature. In 1999, library science professor Eliza Dresang coined the term radical change to describe how technology and the digital environment have influenced children’s literature, resulting in graphics in new forms and formats, nonlinear and nonsequential organization, multiple layers of meaning from a variety of perspectives, and unresolved story lines. Artistic media as well as printing techniques have also been affected and inspired by technology.
At the heart of this change are children’s book authors and illustrators, who construct stories in unique and sometimes unconventional ways. Stories have become innovative and integrative through experimental formats as their creators play with words and forms, inventive design, and intriguing narrative styles. These books have received Newbery and Caldecott Medals along with other children’s book awards, signaling that committees acknowledge when authors and illustrators extend the boundaries for telling a story. It would be impossible to share every new type of design element or storytelling device that readers have encountered over the past two decades, but here are a few that have impacted the field of children’s literature, as evidenced by past and current titles.
Through a series of school memos, conversations, diary entries, personal letters, newspaper articles, informal notes, and transcripts of speeches, Avi’s Nothing but the Truth, a 1992 Newbery Honor Book tells the story of ninth-grader Philip Malloy’s conflict with his English teacher, Miss Narwin, who gives him a failing grade, rendering Philip ineligible to participate on the school track team. Philip’s scheme to get transferred to another homeroom by humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” leads to disciplinary action that quickly escalates into a national scandal. Stories of a teacher’s disillusionment, parental pressure and hypocrisy, unprincipled administrators, and students who genuinely care about teachers and learning all emerge through various formats.
Avi’s unique novel presents a witty satire of high-school politics through multigenre text that features a nontraditional narrative, with multiple voices that pull readers into the story and help them identify, sympathize, and even empathize with the characters. The multigenre format has been used as a storytelling device in other books by Avi, as well as by such authors as Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, Deborah Wiles, Kate Klise, and most recently Clare Vanderpool, who received the 2011 Newbery Medal for Moon over Manifest (2010).
In 1991, David Macaulay was awarded the Caldecott Medal for Black and White, an interactive, nonlinear story that perplexes adults and delights children. Macaulay uses both form and format to engage readers by arousing their curiosity, encouraging them to think, and spurring them to observe the happenings occurring on the pages. Four seemingly unrelated stories—“Problem Parents,” “Seeing Things,” “A Waiting Game,” and “Udder Chaos”—appear in panels on double-page spreads, leaving it up to readers to decide how to navigate their reading. Is one story panel read all the way through without considering the other three, or are all panels to be attended to in order to create connections that may generate a fifth story? From the warning on the title page, which appears to depict a knotted sheet dangling from a jail cell window, to a visual reference to the joke “What is black and white and read all over?” it is evident that the story holds both amusement and confusion.
Now deemed an excellent example of a postmodern picture book, Black and White expanded the conventional boundaries of the picture-book format with its nonlinear structure, surrealistic imagery, and multiple story lines. Shaun Tan’s picture books—including Lost and Found (2011), which contains three stories—and David Wiesner’s wordless picture books also contain nonlinear postmodern storytelling devices.
Verse novels such as Karen Hesse’s 1998 Newbery Medal winner Out of the Dust are written in free-verse poetry that is both engaging and dramatic. Hesse’s lyrical historical novel portrays the harshness and desolation of the Dust Bowl era through the eyes of a 14-year-old protagonist named Billie Jo, a talented piano player who encounters and survives endless tragedies. Hesse masterfully describes the grittiness of the dust and the natural elements of rain, snow, and wind. She also depicts Billie Jo’s longing to escape the brutal environment: “I just want to go, / away, / out of the dust.” Each non-rhyming free verse is one to three pages in length with a title for each poem.
Verse novels can be effectively written, highly engrossing, and evocative, providing narratives describing personal experiences or glimpses into historical events. This genre presents poetry in a novel format and appeals to a variety of children, particularly reluctant readers, who are drawn to pages with limited text and expansive white space. Novels written in verse have grown in both publication and popularity and cover a variety of topics and themes, such as Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s Reaching for Sun (2007), which portrays a young girl with cerebral palsy. Many young adults enjoy the verse novels of Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, and Margarita Engle, while younger readers are captivated by stories in verse by Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Creech, and Jen Bryant.
Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, a 1993 Caldecott Honor Book illustrated by Lane Smith, is a fresh and irreverent parody of familiar fairy tales and plays with the conventions of the picture-book format, starting with the table of contents (which is found after the first story). The book even has a “Surgeon General’s Warning,” which reads, “It has been determined that these tales are fairly stupid and probably dangerous to your health.” Careful observers will uncover a notation revealing that “the illustrations are rendered in oil and vinegar.”
Like Black and White, The Stinky Cheese Man is viewed as a postmodern picture book, both visually and textually. The team of Scieszka and Smith has published other fractured fairy tales, including The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989). Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein (2010), which was named a 2011 Caldecott Honor Book, also utilizes changing fonts and dramatic page turns in the telling of familiar fairy tales that are significantly altered by the main character.
Even in these days of countless television channels, interactive video games, sophisticated DVDs, and electronic devices, pop-up books still hold the attention of readers both young and old. Sabuda’s eye-catching and marvelously engineered pop-up books, including A Christmas Alphabet, have captivated readers for almost two decades. Claiming that it is more difficult to make a book “pop shut” than it is to make it pop up, Sabuda has capitalized on improved techniques in printing and the hand assembly of books to increase the complexity of his pop-ups. In recent years, Sabuda has partnered with Matthew Reinhart to create a wide range of pop-ups, with subjects that include dinosaurs, mythology, and such classic stories and fairy tales as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Beauty and the Beast. Even though the delicate nature of pop-ups might pose challenges, Sabuda insists that his books provide the perfect opportunity for adult and child to share a story and to learn about how to respect a book and handle it with care. Other paper engineers worth investigating include David A. Carter, Robert Crowther, and Marion Bataille.
In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, the story of the title character, an orphan boy living a lonely and secretive life in a Paris train station, begins with 21 wordless double-page spreads that mesmerize readers and immediately draw them into the book. This 544-page “picture book” (of which 300 pages are black-and-white sketches) was the surprising winner of the 2008 Caldecott Medal—surprising in the sense that it did not fit the standard 32-page picture-book format and looks very different sitting on the shelf next to previous Caldecott Medal winners. Selznick tells the story of Hugo, who is determined to repair the automaton his father was working on before his untimely death, in a format that is part graphic novel, part picture book, and part silent movie. It isn’t enough for the reader to read only the text; the illustrations must also be “read” as narrative. This seamless alternation between text and art draws readers deeper into the pages while exhibiting fascinating storytelling. Designating Hugo Cabret as an “illustrated novel” isn’t entirely accurate, as the sketches don’t illustrate the text but rather replace it. While not formatted and designed in the same manner as Hugo Cabret, today’s graphic novels also require that illustration be read as narrative, since text is minimal and visual images are paramount to comprehending the story.
While Avi’s Nothing but the Truth was subtitled “a documentary novel,” no book fits this description better than Deborah Wiles’ 2010 novel Countdown. Set in 1962, this groundbreaking novel focuses on 11-year-old Franny Chapman, who is terrified that the Cuban missile crisis may lead to war. Newspaper clippings, cartoons, quotes, archival photographs, advertisements for bomb shelter materials, “Duck and Cover” posters, and snippets of songs and speeches are combined with a narrative story that is appealing and offers an enticing look at society during the height of the Cold War. While Countdown is considered multigenre, it extends beyond the definition by including elements of both fiction and nonfiction. Published in 2010, this book is the first in a trilogy planned by Wiles. In years to come, it will be interesting to look for other novels that utilize this same storytelling device.
Black and White. By David Macaulay. Illus. by the author. 1990. 32p. Houghton, $17 (9780395521519); paper, $7.99 (9780618636877). K–Gr. 6.
A Christmas Alphabet. By Robert Sabuda. Illus. by the author. 1994. 16p. Scholastic/Orchard, $22.95 (9780439672566). All ages.
Countdown. By Deborah Wiles. illus. 2010. 400p. Scholastic, $17.99 (9780545106054). Also available in an audio edition. Gr. 5–7.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Illus. by the author. 2007. 544p. Scholastic, $24.99 (9780439813785). Also available in an audio edition. Gr. 4–8.
Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel. By Avi. 1991. 208p. Scholastic/Orchard, paper, $6.99 (9780545174152). Gr. 6–10.
Out of the Dust. By Karen Hesse. 1997. 240p. Scholastic, $17.99 (9780590360807); paper, $6.99 (9780590371254). Also available in an audio edition. Gr. 6–9.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. By Jon Scieszka. Illus. by Lane Smith. 1992. 56p. Viking, $17.99 (9780670844876). Gr. 2–6.
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