Print Page   |   Sign In   |   Register
TL v57 n1 Children's Literature in a Digital Age
Share |


Tennessee Libraries

Volume 57 Number 1



Children's Literature in a Digital Age

Kathy Campbell
Instruction Librarian

Amy Arnold
Interim Extended Campus Services Librarian

East Tennessee State University

Conference Abstract: Net generation children expect literature to keep pace with the digital age. Influenced by Eliza Dresang’s Radical Change, this presentation will discuss books and selection methods based on what librarians should know about children growing up in a digitally-saturated age and the way that they think, learn, and act.


In 1999 Eliza T. Dresang, a professor at the College of Information at Florida State University, wrote a book called Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age. She was inspired to write this book because in the early 1990s she began to notice that many newer children’s books seemed to be influenced by digital age characteristics. We have been inspired by her book to reconsider how we select books for young people and would like to share some of our ideas with you. To supplement the text, Appendix A provides an annotated bibliography of books with digital age characteristics.

First, an overview of philosophies and formats of older children's books provides background for how the digital age has influenced children's literature. Traditionally, children’s books reflected one of two philosophies. The older philosophy states that children are intrinsically bad (1999, p.56). Books based on this philosophy teach morality. While didactic books are still published, they are no longer based on the assumption that children are intrinsically bad. The other philosophy is based on the assumption that children are innocents and need to be protected from the harsher realities of life; therefore, certain subjects are taboo (1999, p. 55). While this viewpoint is still found in children’s books (especially those written for younger children), Dresang noticed that some authors did not reflect either philosophy but expected readers to draw their own conclusions about a book (1999, p. 57).

Dresang also noted that radical change books can have a different format than traditional children’s books. Most older books for children have a linear and sequential progression. Linear progression means that the book has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, while a sequential progression means that each event is based logically on the events that preceded it. A number of newer books have a nonlinear and nonsequential format. What caused these changes in children’s books? To put it simply, the answer is a new generation.

New Books for a New Generation

Each generation is identified by events and influences that are unique to it. Children and young adults born between 1977 and 1997 belong to a group described by Don Tapscott and Eliza T. Dresang as the "Net Generation." This generation has been influenced by the proliferation of home computers and the development of the Internet. Children are learning how to use computers at a very young age, and according to Don Tapscott, “For the first time in history, children are more comfortable, knowledgeable, and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society” (1998, p. 1-2). This has changed the way they find and assimilate information. Computers allow young people to become active learners. Websites have opened up a whole new world of subjects that have traditionally not been available to young people. Perhaps this is part of the reason why young people have a low tolerance for books that are unrealistically sugarcoated. Hypertext allows computer users to decide the order in which they will access information. Since popular sites like Wikipedia allow for frequent editing of their articles, Net Gens are more comfortable with open-endedness and ambiguity than older generations. Chat sites and Facebook accounts allow young people to openly communicate with other young people regardless of their physical location, thus creating a group that is not only used to speaking up for themselves, but is also more accepting of diversity. Some authors of books for young people have responded to these changes by creating books that have a digital feel or expose their readers to subjects or people who are not usually represented in literature for young people.

Radical Change identifies two other traits of Net Generation youth that could have a bearing on book design. Dresang notes that although the members of this generation tend to have shorter attention spans, they seem to have a broader attention range with the ability to process visual information very quickly (1999, p. 59). This could help to explain the popularity of television shows that frequently switch between multiple story lines. Another characteristic is that fluid intelligence, which involves the use rather than the acquisition of information, is growing (1999, p. 64).

The design and subject matter of radical change books are influenced by the digital age. Dresang mentions three digital age concepts that underpin radical change: connectivity, interactivity, and access (1999, p. 12). Connectivity refers to books such as A Day at Damp Camp that display computer-like qualities. While reading has always been an interactive experience, books that show Dresang’s radical change characteristics require a higher level of interactivity on the reader’s part. For example, in books such as those in Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus series the reader has to decide what to read first—the story, dialogue bubbles, or the reports and posters that Ms. Frizzle’s students create. The reader can also decide what not to read. This actually creates a reading experience that is similar to the way people think. Access refers to the breaking down of barriers regarding certain topics, types of characters, and language (12-13). More picture books are being published that portray gritty subjects that historically were taboo, such as Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki or Tom Feelings' Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. Dresang argues that these three concepts have influenced authors and illustrators to experiment with new forms and formats, new visual and verbal perspectives, and changing boundaries.

Illustrations take on a new level of importance in books that exhibit radical change characteristics. Dresang notes that words and pictures reach a new level of synergy in radical change books (1999, p. 19). This new level of synergy is achieved by authors’ use of words as an integral part of the illustration, their use of different size fonts and colors, and the use of illustrations to tell parallel stories. Peter Sís effectively uses quotes from Galileo’s book to create visually unusual illustrations in Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei while Jan Brett is a master at using side illustrations to tell parallel stories. The books listed in Appendix A use graphics to create stories with digital age characteristics.


A good children’s collection should contain a balance of books designed to appeal to a variety of readers. Classics should share space with ephemera; older books with newer books, some of which should display digital age characteristics. While some librarians will be turned off by the look or subject matter of digital age books, selecting them can be made easier when the librarian asks two questions:

  1. How well have the authors and/or illustrators done their work?
  2. What is good about this literary experience?

Of course, radical change books should also be evaluated using the traditional literary method of examining plot, setting, characterization, point of view, theme, and style/tone. Including these new styles of books in our collections should appeal to Net Generation young people and help create a new generation of library users.

And for those of us who might not like some of these new style books, it is helpful to remember the words of General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff U. S. Army, “If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.”

Appendix A

Radical Change Annotated Bibliography

I. Changing Forms and Formats

A. Graphics in New Forms and Format

*Brett, Jan. Armadillo Rodeo. Minneapolis : Tandem Library, 1995. 32 p. ISBN 1-417- 63688-2. Ma armadillo herds her three children through the Texas hill country while a girl from the ranch wades the creek in order to scuff up her new boots. Two side illustrations frame the main story while representing a separate, simultaneously occurring scene. (baby –preschool)

_________. The Wild Christmas Reindeer. Minneapolis : Tandem Library, 1990. 32 p. ISBN 0-613-10541-9. Framing each double-page spread with towers allows the author/illustrator to tell two stories simultaneously. Teeka must help Santa corral the reindeer and begin training them for their annual trek in the main panel while the end panels show the elves in the workshop creating gifts. (ages 4-8)

Burton , Virginia Lee. The Little House. Hempstead, TX: Sagebrush, 1942 (rebound 2001). 44 p. ISBN 0-613-29803-9. A classic environmental tale written from the house’s perspective that tells the story through the text’s placement on the page as well as the chosen words. Caldecott Medal Winner. (ages 3-6)

Henkes, Kevin. Chyrsanthemum. New York: Greenwillow, 1991. 32 p. ISBN 0-688-09700-6. Through the illustrative layout of brightly colored pictures, Henkes reiterates the plot of Chrysanthemum who is considered perfect at home but teased at school. On page 9, there are a series of drawings resembling class photos in which every student whose name is being called fits into the box except for Chrysanthemum’s. (ages 4-8)

____________. Owen. New York: Greenwillow, 1993. 22 p. ISBN 0-688-11450-4. Henkes tackles the well known issue of the security blanket with Owen. Despite being a toddler, he speaks for himself and exhibits some power over his parents. Illustrations take the form of encircling the text or providing a grid. Bright colors fill the background while human-like expressions voice the feelings of Owen and his mouse family. Caldecott Honor Book. (baby-preschool)

Johnson, Crockett. Harold and the Purple Crayon. New York: HarperCollins, 1955. ISBN 0-060-22936-5. Although written in 1955, futuristic by going outside the lines and status quo. Harold draws across the book’s gutter while telling his story, his way. (ages 4-8)

Lyon, George Ella. A Day at Damp Camp. New York: Orchard Books, 1996. ISBN 0-531-08854-5. Nesting images portray two girls’ experiences at camp through the use of a visual puzzle. (ages 6-8)

*Wiesner, David. Three Pigs. New York: Clarion, 2001. 40p. ISBN 0-618-00701-6. An alternative telling of the Three Little Pigs where they escape from the illustrations and go on a rampage freeing other endangered fairy tale characters. Caldecott Medal Winner. (ages 4-8)

*______________. Tuesday. New York: Clarion, 1991. 32 p. ISBN 0-395-55113-7. Miniscule text coupled with incredible artistic skill conveys frogs and toads embarking on a lily pad launch through a suburban neighborhood on a typical Tuesday evening. Caldecott Medal Winner. (ages 4 and up)

*_______________. Sector 7. New York: Clarion, 1999. 48 p. ISBN 0-395-74656-6. Amazingly illustrated, wordless picture book chronicling a boy’s field trip to the Empire State Building where he meets a cloud. Once distracted, he is led around the city and learns of their formation, types and flight patterns. Caldecott Honor Book. (ages 6 and up)

B. Words and Pictures Reaching New Levels of Synergy

Gág, Wanda. Millions of Cats. Hempstead, TX: Sagebrush, 1928, 1999. 29 p. ISBN 0-881-3560-2. The words wind around the illustrations while the black and white drawings travel around the page as the little old man hunts for the perfect cat. Newberry Honor Book. (ages 4-8)

Raschka, Chris. Yo! Yes? New York: Orchard Books, 1993. 32 p. ISBN 0-531-08619-4. Highlights how two very different boys approach forming a new friendship. The extrovert shouts “Yo!” while the introvert replies “yes?” The pictures speak words by consuming the entire page with the text superimposed. Caldecott Honor Book. (ages 4-8)

Scieska, Jon. The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales. New York : Viking, 1992, 2002. 32 p. ISBN 0-670-03569-6. Retells the Gingerbread Man, starring a wheel of brie whose awful smell follows him wherever he goes. Font varies within each tale. Illustrations often encompass or accentuate the text with many appearing collage-like. Caldecott Medal Winner. (ages 9-12)

Sís, Peter. Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei. New York: Frances Foster, 1996. 48 p. ISBN 0374470278. Through the use of handwriting, text formation, timelines and antiquarian maps, Sís presents a complex subject to young readers. Calecott Honor Book. (ages 6-up)

*________. Tibet through the Red Box. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 64 p. ISBN 0-374-37552-6. Uses illustrations interspersed with text to fill the pages with stories within the main story. No space is off limits with additional text wrapping around visual and literary components . Earth tones dominate. Caldecott Honor Book. (ages 8-up)

C. Nonlinear Organization and Format

Burningham, John. Come Away From the Water, Shirley. New York: Harper Collins, 1977. 25 p. ISBN 0-690-01361-2 . Visiting the beach with her stodgy parents on a cold day, young Shirley has an imaginative adventure of her own. Illustrations showing the parents are very still with lots of white space while Shirley’s story is in opposition with the use of color, movement and graphics. (ages 4-8)

Macaulay, David. Black and White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 32 p. ISBN 0-395-52151-3. Similar to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books but with an appearance mimicking a graphic novel. Macaulay simultaneously presents four different stories on each double page spread, Use of color and quadrants help the reader differentiate between the varying images and themes. Caldecott Medal Winner. (ages 9-12)

*Malam, John. You Wouldn’t Want to Be A Roman Gladiator: Gory Things You’d Rather Not Know . Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 2001. 32 p. ISBN 0-531-14598-0. Provides multiple points of view and information presented in similar fashion to the Magic School Bus with the reader being able to start on any page or with any aspect of the text. (ages 10-12)

D. Multiple Layers of Meaning

*Priceman, Marjorie. Emeline at the Circus. New York: Knopf, 1999. 36 p. ISBN: 0-679-87685-5. Emeline becomes part of the show while her teacher lectures on the various species presented. (ages 4-8)

Scieszka, Jon. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Minneapolis: Tandem Library, 1989, 1999. ISBN 0-785-77842-X. Scieszka writes from A. Wolf’s [sic] point of view, presenting it as a newspaper account. Illustrations include: individually clipped letters similar to a ransom note, a shred of a newspaper, and a brick-house pig whose appearance appears more evil than the wolf’s. (ages 3-8)

*Teague, Mark. Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School. New York: Scholastic, 2002. 30 p. ISBN 0-439-20663. Ike pleads his innocence in an effort to coerce his owner into springing him out of obedience school. He chronicles his plight with type-written letters that are juxtaposed against black and white illustrations which face colored pages. Christopher Award Winner. (ages 5-8)

*____________. Detective LaRue: Letters from the Investigation. New York: Scholastic, 2004. 30 p. ISBN 0-439-45868-4. Ike returns in the role of investigator who must clear his name after being charged in a case of feline foul play. Graphics included newspaper stories, handwritten notes and the grayscale versus color schemes. (ages 5-8)

E. Interactive Formats

*Cole, Joanna. The Magic School Bus In the Time of the Dinosaurs. Minneapolis : Tandem Library, 1999. 48 p. ISBN 0-785-76324-4. Engages readers through interactive learning by presenting information in a multi-cell format that allow many characters to contribute to the overall theme. Visuals include main plot text boxes, students’ individual captions, and reports on notebook paper, extra diagrams and pictures in the margins. (ages 6-9)

____________. The Magic School Bus Inside the Hurricane. Minneapolis :Tandem Library, 1999. 48 p. ISBN 0-613-12859-1. While explaining the science of such devastating storms, Cole uses Ms. Frizzle and her students to represent varying levels of facts. Presentation tools include: caption boxes, reports on notebook paper with illustrations covering the entire background. (ages 9-12)

II. Changing Perspectives

A. Multiple Perspectives, Visual and Verbal

*Aliki. William Shakespeare and the Globe. New York: Harper Collins, 2000. 48 p. ISBN 0-06-027821-8. Extensive background on Shakespeare, the Globe and Sam Wanamaker’s dream of rebuilding it. Divided into act and scenes, the book includes an act from each play within each spread. Illustrations enrich the experience by providing scenery and historical background information. (ages 7-10)

Williams, Vera B. More, More, More Said the Baby. New York: Greenwillow, 1990. 32 p. ISBN 0688091741. A multi-colored typeface documents different settings with varying types of families who all show how much they love their individual children. (preschool-3)

B. Previously Unheard Voices

Feelings, Tom. The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. New York: Dial, 1995. 80 p. ISBN 0-803-71965-5. Documents the African slave trade through charcoal-type drawings on wordless pages displaying the horrific conditions of the ship. A substantial introduction provides the historical background. National Book Award Winner. (ages 10-15)

C. Youth Who Speak for Themselves

*Bertrand Gonzales, Diane. My Pal, Victor/ Mi Amigo, Víctor. McHenry, IL: Raven Tree Press, (bilingual edition) 2004. 32 p. ISBN: 0-972-01929-4. A multilingual telling of two active boys’ friendship where one of the Hispanic boys is physically challenged. Winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award 2005. (ages 4-8)

*H. Byron Masterson Elementary Students. September 12 th. New York: Scholastic, 2002. 32 p. ISBN 0-439-4426-x. Written by first grade students for other children, this book tackles the complex subject of their feelings regarding the terrorist attacks. Illustrations are brightly colored, crayon drawings by the authors which personalize this story of hope. Kids Are Authors Award Recipient. (ages 4-8)

Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach. New York: Crown, 1991. 32 p. ISBN 0-517-58031-4. Brings a depression-era family to life through the perspective of an eight year-old girl who in her flying adventures claims places to which her family does not have access because of their African-American/Native-American heritage. Based on a story quilt created by the author, the pages employ patchwork type fabrics for a lower border with the top illustrations being brightly colored in oil pastel type fashion. Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Recipient. (ages 4-8)

III. Changing Boundaries

A. Subjects Previously Forbidden

Bunting, Eve. Smoky Night. Minneapolis : Tandem Library, 1999. 36p. ISBN 0-613-18279-0. Tackles the issue of the L.A. riots while using collages composed of denim, dry cleaning, cereal and handmade paper in the backdrop. The drawings are dark with important aspects of the story displayed in gold such as fire, loot, cats, and a fireman. As the violence lessens, the drawings include more light. Caldecott Medal Winner. (ages 4-8)

*Maruki, Toshi. Hiroshima No Pika. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1980. 48 p. ISBN 0-688-01297-3. Autobiographical telling of the devastation caused by the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb. Complex subject matter presented to a young audience without misrepresenting the facts. (ages 6 and up)

B. Settings Previously Overlooked

Fleming, Denise. Where Once There Was a Wood. Minneapolis: Tandem Library, 1996. 32 p. ISBN 0-613-28698-7. Color and texture swallows each page as the complex subject of loss of habitat is covered. Rice paper provides a creamy backdrop for the charcoal-like lettering. Very natural colors make up the illustrations which appear to be comprised of oil pastels. (baby - preschool)

McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick L. McKissack. Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters . Minneapolis: Tandem Library, 1994. 80 p. ISBN 0-613-72896-3. Virginia Plantation’s inhabitants prepare for Christmas and the subsequent sale of slaves. The storyteller presents the dichotomy of the owner’s and slaves’ families as they celebrate and subsequently mourn. Text is interspersed with recipes, songs and decorating. (ages 9-12)

C. Characters Portrayed in New, Complex Ways

*Barasch, Lynee. Knockin’ On Wood: Starring Peg Leg Bates. New York: Lee and Low Books, 2004. 29 p. ISBN 1-58430-170-8. Clayton Bates, injured at a cotton mill at age 12, turns tragedy into artistic movement by adapting rhythm tap moves in order to incorporate his disability. Illustrations provide detail of his dance moves while the text does not glorify his humble origin as a sharecropper’s son. (ages 6-8)

Henkes, Kevin. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse. New York: Greenwillow, 1996. 32 p. ISBN 0-688-12897-1 Lilly demands the attention of her teacher regarding her newest acquisition, a plastic purse. When her actions disrupt class, her teacher confiscates her prized possession. Lilly gets revenge but not without the teacher discovering her misdeed. Illustrations are within and without the toolboxes with the text spiraling down the page at times. (ages 4 and up)

*Shannon, David. No, David! New York: Blue Sky Press, 1998. 32 p. ISBN 0-590-93002-8. Repetitive, full page images of a child misbehaving and his parent’s subsequent reprimands. Despite his wildness, he receives unconditional love in the end. (ages 2-6)

*Wisniewski, David. Tough Cookie. New York: Scholastic, 1999. 29 p. ISBN 0-688-15337-2 . Hard boiled detective, Tough Cookie, pursues a serial killer by the name of Fingers who has just killed his partner, Chips. Set inside a metropolis known as “The Jar,” the story shows how the pocked-faced investigator finds himself at the bottom of the heap amongst the crumbs despite his “upper jar” origins. (ages 4-8)

D. New Types of Communities

*De Haan, Linda and Stern Nijland. King and King. Berkley and Toronto: Tricycle Press, 2000. 32 p. ISBN 1-582-46061-2. When a demanding queen decides to retire, she forces her son to marry although he has “never cared much for princesses.” He falls for the brother of one of the princesses. Background includes hand-made paper, reds and pinks with wrapping texts. (6 and up)


* Indicates books chosen by the authors as having Radical Change traits.


Dresang, E. T. (1999). Radical change: Books for youth in a digital age. New
York, NY: H. W. Wilson Company.

Tapscott, D (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York,
NY: McGraw-Hill Professional.


Other Sources Consulted

Dresang, E. T. (1997). Influence of the digital environment on literature for
youth: Radical change in the handheld book. Library Trends. 45, 639-

Dresang, E. T. (2005). Information-seeking behavior of youth in the digital
environment. Library Trends. 54, 178-196.

Dresang, E. T., & McClelland, Kathryn (1999). Radical change: Digital age
literature and learning. Theory Into Practice. 38, 160-167.

Latham, D. (2000). Radical visions: Five picture books by Peter Sís. Children's
Literature in Education
. 31, 179-193.

Pantaleo, S. (2004). Young children and radical change characteristics in
picture books. Reading Teacher. 58, 178-187.


Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal