I have learned to read picture books three times.
The first was the way many of us do, cuddled next to my mother as she read aloud. Decades later, I have vivid memories of the books we held together: Snowy Day (Viking, 1962), Where the Wild Things Are (Harper Row, 1963), Corduroy (Viking, 1968).
The second was under the tutelage of Caroline Barnett, an early mentor at my first professional librarian job at the Memphis–Shelby County, Tennessee, library system. If you hold the book open in front of your torso and read upside down, she told me, the children will stay engaged. It was magic. I remember those books, too: Go Away, Big Green Monster!, by Ed Emberley (Little, Brown, 1993); Freight Train, by Donald Crews (Greenwillow, 1978); Pretend You’re a Cat, by Jeanne Marzollo and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Dial, 1990).
The third time was with my own daughter, snuggling in our special reading chair. There are too many books to enumerate, but I remember Pat-a-Cake, by Tony Kenyon (Candlewick, 1998), a board book she gummed so energetically she wore little semicircles in the edges of all the pages; The Wheels on the Bus, by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton, 1990), a pop-up book whose moving parts, miraculously, lasted through countless trips “all through the town”; The Genie in the Jar, by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by Chris Raschka (Henry Holt, 1996), a book she pulled out of our bag night after night—she cried when we had to return it. Letting her take the lead and direct the experience allowed me to see the books through her eyes.
Each of these reading experiences was intensely physical, the object as important as the pictures and words. The librarian or teacher reading to a group chooses a book all the children in the room will be able to see, one with pages that turn easily and, crucially, type that’s big enough to be read upside down. The adult caregiver sharing a cozy one-on-one read gives the child the opportunity to touch the pages, leaf through to recall an important detail, run a marveling finger over a word set in a flashy display type.
But what happens when you can’t get the physical books? Unsurprisingly, digital borrowing from libraries is way up with buildings closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. I suspect that when the numbers are in, we will see surges in individual digital purchases of children’s books as well. Fundamentally, this is a win: Children are still getting books.
But it is also a tremendous loss, as picture books are designed to be read physically, not with an eye to optimization for screen reading. Leaving aside the fundamental difference in feel between a print book and an electronic device, the adjustments necessary to fit a book onto a screen—be it desktop, laptop, or tablet—result in a degraded aesthetic experience. My library’s digital version of the ebullient Bear Came Along, by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Little, Brown, 2019), splits the double-page spreads so that they are seen sequentially, in separate views, rather than all at once, as intended. Stop! Bot!, by James Yang (Viking 2019), has an unusual trim so that, when closed, it echoes the proportions of the skyscraper the titular bot slowly ascends over the course of the story. Its atypical proportions allow interior double-page spreads to appear in a single screen view, but the gutter has, unsettlingly, disappeared, and the simulated page turns hinge at the far left of the screen rather than the middle.
A picture book that captivates a child so much that they repeatedly cry, “Again!” is the result of profound care and intention on the part of author, illustrator, and publisher. Can a digital version do the same? I desperately hope that as we look past this time to the “new normal,” physical picture books are part of it.
Vicky Smith is a young readers editor.