Academic journal article Language Arts

Revisiting the Multimodal Nature of Children's Literature

Academic journal article Language Arts

Revisiting the Multimodal Nature of Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Attempting to document (let alone make sense of) the plethora of changes that have occurred in children's literature in recent years would present an insurmountable challenge to any literacy or literary scholar. In this column, we have chosen to focus on 1) the proliferation of picturebooks that incorporate metafictive elements, in particular multiple story levels, 2) the expansion of visual images and visual design features in traditionally text-based novels, and 3) the theoretical and pedagogical positioning of comics across the literacy curriculum. The changes in the nature of the texts children encounter in today's society challenge young readers to navigate and comprehend the multimodal aspects of these texts.

The three formats we have selected to examine are all multimodal texts or ensembles that incorporate combinations of visual images, written language, and design features, blurring simple distinctions among them (Op de Beeck, 2012; Serafini, 2014). A multimodal ensemble is a "complex entity that occurs in both print and digital environments [and] utilizes a variety of cultural and semiotic resources to articulate, render, represent, and communicate an array of narratives, concepts, or information" (Serafini, 2014, pp. 12-13). In contemporary children's literature, multimodal ensembles are created across print-based and digital platforms and utilize more than one mode for the purpose of communication and representation. A mode is defined as a socioculturally shaped resource for meaning making (Kress, 2010). Photography, sound effects, music, painting, oral and written language, and moving images are examples of different semiotic modes.

As Nel (2012) suggested in a discussion on various types of visual children's literature, picturebooks and comics can be conceptualized as "adjacent branches of the same literary-artistic family tree" (p. 445). To this family tree we would also suggest adding the multimodal novel, a form of literature that incorporates visual images and design elements in expansive and unique ways. Although distinctions among comics, multimodal novels, and picturebooks tend to focus on differing structural and compositional choices, designs and formats, and intended audiences, the primary defining characteristic of all three literary formats may be more straightforward: the inclusion of visual images and design features along with written language to render the narrative. Though the distinctions among these texts may seem trivial, these texts employ different components and require readers to navigate and interpret them in different ways.

The publication of Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) and Tan's The Arrival (2007) forever complicated simple distinctions among novels, picturebooks, and comics. These texts pushed the boundaries of what was traditionally considered a picturebook and a wordless picturebook. Additional children's and YA texts also integrate visual, linguistic, hypertextual, and design features in new and unusual ways. For example, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Alexie, 2007), A Monster Calls (Ness, 2013), and digital picturebooks or picturebook apps (Yokota & Teale, 2014), including David Wiesner's Spot (2015) and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (Joyce, 2012), draw upon a wide variety of modalities to render narratives in both visual and verbal dimensions across print and digital platforms. Some of these texts, including series such as Dork Diaries (Russell, 2009-2017) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Kinney, 2007-2017), have become very popular and require readers to take up modalities other than written language to make sense of the texts.

Understanding the distinctions, similarities, and pedagogical potentials of different multimodal ensembles and how they impact the world of children's literature is a worthwhile endeavor. Research on these complex texts and their pedagogical contributions is anything but monolithic, as recent research studies have aligned with different fields of inquiry, including the humanities, literacy education, multimodal and visual analysis, media studies, and art criticism. …

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