“The key point for a good book is universality,” agrees E.J. Altbacker, author of the Shark Wars series for middle grades, and a writer for cartoons and kid’s shows. “Whatever magical land you’re in, there has to be something anchoring it that kids can relate to. Either the character is an outcast, or an orphan, or he’s different somehow.”
Altbacker notes that those who grew up listening to storytellers spin yarns around the fire might have experienced similar feelings about the transition to print. Initially, a story without a teller may have seemed stale, the page revealing nothing about the subtlety of tale. “Everyone knew the stories, but it was the skill of the performer who was giving nuance to the words,” Altbacker says.
While stories can be told in many different formats, picture books leave plenty of room for a child’s imagination. There’s even the “picture book proclamation,” a tenderly illustrated manifesto spearheaded by children’s book author Mac Barnett and signed by numerous prominent writers and illustrators. “We believe a picture book should be fresh, honest, piquant and beautiful,” it declares, insisting that printed children’s books are “a form, not a genre.”
Print and e-books each have their strengths, and aren’t mutually exclusive: readers young and old still cherish the tactile experience of reading a picture book. Knudsen suggests that while apps or games can supplement a book, letting young readers enjoy characters in an extended format, the story should still always come first.
“The words and the pictures draw the reader in, inviting her to meet the author and/or artist halfway, helping to bring the story fully to life in her mind,” said Knudsen. “If books become too much like games, if it becomes all about touching the screen to see what happens, I worry that sense of connection will be lost.”