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Liftoff: When Books Leave the Page

This article is adapted from a paper delivered at the annual conference of the Children’s Literature Association in Winnipeg, Canada, on June 9, 2005. Jean Gralley’s accompanying digital animation, “Books Unbound,” is available on her website.

It has been said that if Gutenberg came back today, there’s little he would recognize. Our mass transport, mass communications, and mass media have completely transformed the world. But he would recognize a book. It’s one of the few things that haven’t changed in five hundred years.

I’m a picture book writer and illustrator. I had the great good luck to study with Maurice Sendak at Parsons School of Design and to find a mentor in Trina Schart Hyman — two artists who are pillars of the tradition if there ever were any. Because of them, I love everything about the traditional picture book art form. But when I discovered a hidden world of picture book artists who are creating traditional books in radically nontraditional ways, I was fascinated and hooked. As I played with these new computer programs (and loved what I was creating), it dawned on me that my very thinking was being re-wired. Story ideas came that didn’t work well on paper. I know I’m not the only creative person in the children’s book community feeling this lift under the heels, this pull in a new direction, but I don’t hear much conversation about it. I’d like to start that conversation here.

I’ll begin by describing what’s changed in art-making. Artists who work digitally may begin with a sketch on paper, but with one swoosh of the scanner, it’s sent into our computers, where the monitor becomes our drawing board and canvas. Our art glows more warmly onscreen than it could ever do on paper. Sketches are e-mailed to art directors as JPEGs; finished art is burned to a CD and sent by FedEx. Because the software is so sophisticated now, illustrations that picture book readers might assume are watercolors, oils, or pastel drawings may well have been entirely created on the computer. For more and more children’s book illustrators, the first time our art hits paper may be when it’s printed and bound in a book.

Because the end result looks so familiar and traditional, this might seem like a small point. But beyond the amazing mimicry of traditional illustration is the more amazing possibility of going further.

After centuries of thinking of books and paper simultaneously, picture book artists who work digitally are beginning to uncouple books from print. More pointedly, we’re becoming able to uncouple the idea of the book from “paper thinking.” Paper thinking assumes that text and art are flat, books proceed in one direction, and illustrations are fixed. But the visual imaginations that work with digital tools are beginning to see in ways that are multidimensional, multidirectional, and in motion.

Animation is one natural form for this art-in-motion. But e-books offer very new, very exciting possibilities with a format and agenda distinct from animation. E-books, with their fantastic ability to cross-reference, layer, and update information with ease and speed, are already being embraced, especially in academia. But developing their unique promise as a visual medium could make us re-think what a book is, in truly revolutionary ways.

It makes sense that we children’s book illustrators would be the ones to take this step. We love to play with materials and forms. We’ve carved into pages with die-cuts and blossomed over pages with pop-ups. Now some of us are thinking of leaving the page altogether.

BEFORE I DESCRIBE some of the ways these new picture e-books could be different from traditional books, and the ways they might be the same, let me take the bull by the horns and address some of the prevalent objections to digital books.

First, why should we be hopeful about e-books for kids at all? Looking at most digital picture books today, we see scanned spreads on a monitor, “pages” that the young reader “turns” via a mouse or keyboard, sometimes even digitally enhanced with twitches and noises. These sorts of things are Exhibit A for the contention that digital books convolute what is simple and pure on paper.

We are all on the same page here, so to speak. It’s ridiculous to make a monitor do what paper does better. But the problem is not that things have gone too far but that they haven’t gone far enough. Let digital be digital. Let the digital medium create stories that can’t be told as well on paper — or told on paper at all. Imagine a story progressing not by page turns but by proceeding up, down, to the right, or even to the left. Imagine words and pictures appearing, receding, and gliding into place. Envision stories that might proceed by unfolding like a flower, or sinking as if into a black hole in space. As digital artists are leaving the linear flatness of “paper thinking,” our visual imaginations are moving into dimensional space.

Another objection: who wants to read a book while sitting in front of a monitor on a desk? Another easy answer: practically no one. Although progress has slowed over standardizing a format, handheld readers are coming. By the time these new e-books are ready to be read, new reading devices may make them convenient, comfortable, and portable.

What about the feel of paper? So many objections to e-books bemoan the loss of tactile connection. But on the horizon is a product called e-paper, or sometimes smart paper. The same technology now used in programmable wallpaper, with changing patterns, is being developed for use in e-books, creating the possibility that one day in the future e-books will be soft and pliable, even able to be rolled up or folded in a pocket. But the digital cat would still be out of the bag. Even with e-paper there’d be no need to return to the limitations of paper.

Here’s the granddaddy of all objections: that an e-book depends on a device, a delivery system, and a paper book does not. Well, it’s interesting how new things help us see old things in new ways. Yes, an e-book depends on a delivery device. But a printed book itself is a delivery device — and one that requires cutting and processing trees, manufacturing, printing, trucking, and warehousing. All this — and one printed book delivers just one novel, anthology, reference work, or picture book. But one e-book device can deliver many thousands times more. Potentially, one device could deliver every bit of content of every book in the world ever written.

And with its backlit, glowing screen, a good e-book could be enjoyed in bed, under the covers, in the dark — and what kid wouldn’t love that!

AS ILLUSTRATORS ARE loosening our paper bonds, so, too, can picture books. We’re able to create digital books because we’re becoming technologically and psychologically ready to create them and because our imaginations are lifting off the page. And some book illustrators’ imaginations began this “liftoff” years ago.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the oddball picture book here and there. In retrospect, they didn’t just depart from the norm; they were pointing to something new. David Macaulay’s Black and White (Lorraine/Houghton), winner of the 1991 Caldecott Medal, is an ambitious, multi-linear scheme in which four stories are told simultaneously on divided double-page spreads. All four progress together and even exchange visual elements before resolving. Art Spiegelman’s Open Me . . . I’m a Dog! (Cotler/HarperCollins) claims not to be a book at all but rather a beagle enchanted by a wizard. The story practically sits up and begs to be understood: though it may look like a book, it’s really so much more, your very own pet, in fact. It even comes with a leash attached to its spine.

Then there’s David Wiesner’s stunning The Three Pigs (Clarion). We are never so aware of the medium of paper as we are in this picture book. In fact, the flatness of books is constantly played against the dimensionality of the pigs, who even cast shadows to emphasize their roundness. Wiesner’s pigs interact with picture-book pages: they disassemble them, cavort with them, crumple them, and, finally, fold them into a paper airplane on which they are then propelled into space, liberated from the surface of the page. Liftoff!

These three books share an interesting restlessness; something is alive and struggling under their skins. They wrestle with the conventional limitations of picture books as linear, constrained, and flat. I don’t know if Wiesner or Spiegelman or Macaulay intended, endorse, or even considered the possibility, but I believe these works point toward a new form of picture book — the digital picture book. Like the three pigs lifting off the page, we digitally aware artists feel we are lifting off the page, too.

WE NEEDN’T BE afraid of moving in a direction that seems to change everything about books, because everything would not have to change. Almost everything we value in picture books for children should and could be retained in digital picture books. Now is the time to articulate principles that foster the love of reading in young children, even when the medium is digital. I suggest the following as a start:

The reader should be the prime mover. Just as in a traditional picture book, no matter what the digital book is capable of, the reader should direct the experience, determining the pace, backtracking or even skipping ahead. The reader should read. Unlike watching a video, the child won’t passively watch pictures while a text is being “told” via an audio file. A digital book should be portable, convenient, and comfortable. It should be able to be shared with a grownup on a lap, a bed, or under a tree. (With the advent of e-paper, it could become flexible and soft as well.) Lastly, it’s my hope that the digital picture book would tell a story in ways paper books cannot.

Recognizing that our commitment is to the story and not to paper is powerful fuel for picture book creators; it’s all we need for liftoff.

FOR ME, THE CONCEPT of digital picture books is less about “embracing the future” and much more about our now. If we once framed the cosmos with a black-and-white sensibility, we are now swimming in a vivid Technicolor reality. If we once perceived the world as flat, it is now understood to be dimensional. Why shouldn’t our art and our stories reflect this? The printed book is a beautiful, ancient, enduring form that will continue to exist. But these new tech tools are exquisitely appropriate for our time. To resist them seems to me to be not quite present. Although different tools may produce different kinds of tales, we are simply furthering the narrative of our one long tale. We are still moving along the age-old thread of storytelling.

Meanwhile, our young readership is restless and waiting to be engaged. They are even more ready for the reading revolution than we are. We owe it to them to explore the fantastic potential of digital picture books.

About Jean Gralley

Jean Gralley is the author-illustrator of The Moon Came Down on Milk Street (Holt). For more on digital stories, visit her website:



  1. Jean, as ever, you are on my mind and always in my heart. I am sending a message out via FB. I hope you get it and are able to respond.. I desperately need to be in touch with you my laotong. Can we talk soon – Skype or otherwise.

    Love you, and with all y heart I wish you the cntinued abundane of enough,

  2. Minjie Chen says:

    I am truly amazed by how an essay written seven years ago could be so forward-thinking, and so relevant today, when children’s book apps have apparently become a hot business area.

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  1. […] you of this great piece illustrator Jean Gralley wrote for us six years ago (pre-iPad!) about the possibilities in/for digital picture books. Have a […]

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