A Year Without Page Turns

Those of you who read Calling Caldecott may have seen some think pieces this year about what it has been like to read and review books during 2020. Because of the pandemic, publishers (generally speaking) have been distributing digital copies of books to review publications and their reviewers.

Vicky Smith of Kirkus wrote about this here (“In Praise of the Physical Picture Book”), noting that picture books are “designed to be read physically, not with an eye to optimization for screen reading” and closing her piece with the fervent hope that “as we look past this time to the 'new normal,’ physical picture books are part of it.” And in a piece from May of this year, one whose very title made reviewers' hearts collectively skip a beat from distress, Betsy Bird asked: “Could COVID-19 Mark the End of the Physical Galley?” 

While I myself, as a reviewer and blogger, have received some physical copies of picture books this year, many of the ones I’ve reviewed in 2020 have been digital. And, yes, it’s challenging, because in picture books, the page-turn is everything. In defining picture books in American Picturebooks From Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within, Barbara Bader writes: “As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning of the page.” And in a wonderful essay on picture books called “Stores of Transferable Energy”—written by Calling Caldecott’s own Martha Parravano and included in A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature (which Martha co-wrote with Roger Sutton), we read: “Picture books resemble theater or film more than any other literary format: they rely on the page turn to pace the experience, to unfold the story or build the mood; between one page turn and the next, there must be some tension, or the picture book doesn’t function.”

So, yeah. That physical page-turn is a special thing—and unique to picture books. Instead of a year of dramatic page-turns, this has been a year with lots of scrolling and many instances of reading picture books via PDFs on a screen. This is not at all how picture books are meant to be read. Fortunately, I’ve been able to secure physical hard copies for nearly all of our guest posters of the books they are covering this year at Calling Caldecott. You can rest assured that our guest posters are holding in their hands a physical copy, with pages they can turn, of the book they are writing about. (Thank you, publishers.)

I understand the reason for an increase of digital review copies during a pandemic. I want everyone in publishing—people who work in warehouses, editors, publicists, all the humans and all their loved ones—to stay safe. But as for the future? I certainly hope publishing houses don’t decide that, post-pandemic, they will continue to distribute digital copies of picture books. Reading a digital copy of a novel is one thing. Reading a digital copy of a picture book destroys the poetry of the tactile experience. David Wiesner once said that the turn of the page is the very essence of the picture book. (There are those page-turns again. Did I mention they are everything? Design elements are also vital—such as, the book's trim size and dust jacket art and cover art and endpapers and many more elements—but that could be the subject of an entirely separate post.)

If you’re not a reviewer like those of us at Calling Caldecott, you may have also seen your reading habits change this year. In her piece, Vicky Smith notes that, because many libraries closed during the pandemic (as they should, to secure everyone’s safety), the borrowing of digital books from libraries has increased.

We’d love to hear from you, our readers, about your reading year thus far. Have you seen a lot of picture books—and held them in your hands? Have you checked out digital versions of picture books and, if so, how has that been?

Tell us what your Year of Reading and Sharing Picture Books has looked like. 


Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also reviews for The Horn Book, Kirkus, and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Julie Danielson

Thanks for this perspective, Michele. A school librarian friend (who also regularly contibutes to Calling Caldecott) was telling me recently, since she has also been teaching virtually, that she will download Kindle software and then check out Kindle picture books from the Nashville Public Library. She also loves holding books but says it's been a good option for virtual read-alouds (since everything's on Zoom!), because at least the children can still hear her voice and the pictures fill their screen. ... "This year there is no easy answer." Amen. That sums it up well.

Posted : Oct 11, 2020 07:17

Michele Telerski-Rees

I miss holding physical books in my hands. In many exceptional picture books, end papers, trim size, and art crossing the gutter help tell the story. Much of this is lost in digital formats. However, I am also teaching in physically distanced spaces. Ebooks, at least save me the awkward lighting or page cut-offs that are my daily challenge using a document camera to read to young children, sometimes as many as 60 at a time spread through out a school cafeteria. This year there is no easy answer.

Posted : Oct 11, 2020 05:15

Allison Grover Khoury

I also have been buying WAY more books than usual, especially picture books. But I admit that a few times I have gotten ebooks so that I could see a book right away. I agree that it just isn't the same savoring the art, the feel, and yes as Martha says, the smell of the books I get to hold and love.

Posted : Oct 09, 2020 06:35

Mary Graf

I had the exquisite pleasure of spending a month with 2 grandchildren, ages 3 and almost 1, and boy did we love holding picture books and turning the pages. If these stories had been on my iPad, the 1 year old’s little fingers would have been interrupting the story constantly, and the 3 year old would have been begging for videos. There is nothing like the intimate, physical and emotional experience of reading a picture book with a beloved child in my lap. Treasured memories!

Posted : Oct 09, 2020 02:00

Laura Harrison

Even if the author/illustrator of a picture book is a personal favorite-I find the digital experience flat and fairly joyless. It is impossible to determine the beauty and vibrancy of the illustrations digitally. The anticipation and excitement of physical page turning is gone. Booksellers, reviewers etc. truly depend on being sent f&g’s or physical copies. It helps us tremendously in our buying/reviewing choices.

Posted : Oct 09, 2020 01:21

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