Vitamins 2.0: How Children’s Books Can Change the World in the Digital Age

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Bologna Book Fair logo

By Sharon Glassman

What type of illustrated kids’ books are most valuable –- esthetically and practically -– in a multimedia age? According to Antonio Faeti, President of the Jury for the book prizes of Bologna Children’s Book Fair -– which opens today and runs through Friday — those of most importance are the books done with manual, as opposed to digital artistry.

The prizes seek to identify and acknowledge “the best publishing projects considering their technical elements, artistic merit and the achieved delicate balance between text and images.” Having reviewed some 1,250 books submitted for the competition, Faeti, who has taught the history of children’s literature at the Department of Educational Sciences at the University of Bologna, notes a new, global level of refinement in children’s books.

This trend for beautiful books is exemplified by the winners of this year’s prizes, which includes The Riverbank, an illustrated children’s book of Charles Darwin’s writing, published by Minnesota’s Creative Company and illustrated by Fabian Negrin. It won the fair’s non-fiction prize.

Visual artists are embracing the art of their craft by using block printing, surrealist and impressionist imagery to illustrate books that are less baby-ish, textually, Faeti says.

Antonio Faeti

Antonio Faeti

The beautiful kids’ book trend is global, as is demonstrated by another of this year’s prizewinners, Do! published by Tara Books of Chennai, India, which won the Fair’s 2010 New Horizons prize. The book, “a set of action pictures, rendered in the Warli style of tribal art,” according to its publisher, offers a series of white line drawings on rich ochre and brown pages so lovely and lyrical they seem to sing on the page.

This year’s selection of prize-winning books is the most impressive ever, in Faeti’s opinion. (You can read the complete list of Bologna prize winners here).

“The whole world is coming to Bologna with a high level of quality now,” he says.

Books as Vitamins

But the beautification of children’s books is more than skin deep. Instead, it’s a harbinger of a cultural trend that potentially portends great things for young readers, provided booksellers can communicate their benefits to young parents, Faeti believes. He adds that today’s beautiful book boom is a kind of visual reaction formation born from, and in response to, the supremacy of movies’ cool graphics.

Cool is fun. And kids of all ages love fun stuff. But books interact with their readers and impact their lives in a different, potentially richer way than movie or computer games. And it is here that Faeti sees great hope -– and urgency -– in the resurgence of the deep, beautiful kids’ book as a kind of Vitamin 2.0 for infants being born into a digital world.

He cites a study at the University of London that prescribes exposing infants to picture books starting at five months of age as a way of helping them “manage a high-stimulus society.”

A brain formed on multi-layered images will be more prepared to tackle the mental double-espresso of multi-tasking in years to come, this argument says.

The recipe for feeding a child’s brain through picture books through age three sounds simple. But it’s not what Italians call “un-optional.” It’s a requirement for parents who want their kids to navigate the world around them.

“Those who are excluded from this dimension” of learning “will be permanent outsiders,” says Faeti.

The ability of beautiful books to prepare infants and children for a high-tech life adds a new dimension to bookselling. A powerful, reciprocal market of products (quality books) and consumers (kids who will love and benefit from these books) is potentially on the way.

Educating parents

The challenge is that publishing houses and booksellers will have to educate young parents about the value of these books.

Generation Y and Z parents were born into a different book universe than their offspring, Faeti explains. Their relationship to books was also formed in infancy. And that relationship does not necessarily include books that dig deep, or challenge the eye.

This lack of familiarity isn’t fatal, but it can create a culture gap between today’s infants and today’s books, if left unattended.

You could think of it as the literary equivalent of the 1960s slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

The answer, Faeti says, is education, starting with courses for booksellers, who in turn can offer courses for parents.

Germany offers a three-year course for booksellers, he says. In Italy, the Feltrinelli book chain is offering courses of this kind. He believes the model has international relevance, with ramifications that extend from the world of books to the world at large, into politics and other areas of our public lives lives.

Faeti points to the American Tea Party phenomenon as an example of something that could be taken at face value, but requires analytical ability — not to mention historical knowledge and context — to properly assess.

A brain formed on sound bites and headline news doesn’t have the skills to dig deep and ask, “How does these events compare with the original ones? How much of this news is hype and how much is reality?”

“Generations are growing up who can’t distinguish,” warns Faeti.

Re-discovering Lost Authors and Readers

As part of Fair’s effort to create deeper, more organic ties with the city of Bologna, Faeti notes that the Fair is hosting a number of celebrations of Italian author, many of whose work fits in with the aforementioned trends towards beauty and complexity in children’s literature. The 30th anniversary of the death of Italian children’s book author Gianni Rodari and the 100th anniversary of the death of Emilio Salgari (“Even though it happened in 1911,” says Faeti). Salgari’s tales, set in a variety of locales with a wide-array of heroes, are widely-read in Italy, but largely unknown outside it.

Faeti too has a pair of new books coming out this year which explore his passion for reading and the power of books in children’s lives:

Gli amici ritrovati. Tra le righe dei grandi romanzi per ragazzi (Rediscovered Friends. Between the lines of great kids’ novels), published by Rizzoli, is a 15-year project that covers “old and new authors.”

La prateria degli asfodeli or The Asphodel Meadows, to be published by Bononia University Press. The title is an allusion to Greek mythology, where the asphodel plant covered the ground of those who were neither good (those in the Elysian Fields) nor evil (residents of Hades) while alive. Faeti’s book covers 30 years of children’s books that have been languishing in an “asphodelic” awareness gap.

“This year should be the year of the change,” Faeti says, of children’s books in general. “We can’t just leave them there,” he says of readers who have been separated from the positive power of childhood reading. “It is,” he says, “a global urgency,”

VISIT: The Web site of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

DISCUSS: Can books help kids better cope with multitasking?

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.