Recent decades have brought additional changes in the publishing of children’s literature. The market for children’s literature has been influenced by demand from parents, children with increased buying power, and a proliferation of serial writing to boost sales. In addition, there have been changes in the content of children’s books related to gender, diversity, and social class (Ching, 2005; Englehardt, 1991; Gangi, 2004; Hunt, 1995; Larrick, 1965; Taxel, 1997; Zipes, 2001). While each of these areas is a worthwhile topic of study on its own, this chapter does not focus on them beyond recognizing their influence overall.
While the impact on children’s literature due to cultural influences has been apparent throughout the decades, current trends center mostly on digital and technological advances in our society. Technological advances have exerted huge effects on printing and publishing capabilities. Beyond printing capabilities, authors and illustrators are writing to maintain the attention of children accustomed to the fast-paced sensory input of digital resources, such as computer and video games, smartphones, and tablet apps. Publishing companies have attempted to produce print texts that mimic or resemble digital texts in wording, style, type of images, or format. Some print texts even borrow concepts about page design from digital texts.
Exposure to digital and technological resources and global access to information have changed the boundaries, topics, and perspectives represented in books for children (Dresang, 1999, 2003). These changes in print texts include the use of non-linear plots that are organized not by a typical beginning, middle, and end, but tell the story out of order and/or lead readers in multiple directions through the text (e.g., The End, by David LaRochelle, 2007). Another change is the use of more interactive formats that invite readers to act or speak back to the book (e.g., Press Here, by Herve Tullet, 2011). Changes also include shifts in the perspective from which stories are told, such as authors highlighting normally “unheard” voices by sharing perspectives of groups or individuals not previously represented in children’s literature or pushing boundaries by focusing on content or topics not previously represented.
As Anstey and Bull (2006) explained, contemporary books are products of changing times that require new understandings about text and are well suited for teaching and preparing students to be multiliterate individuals. Multiliterate individuals are socially responsible, informed citizens who are flexible and strategic as they engage in literacy practices with a variety of text types in a diverse world (Anstey & Bull, 2006). Some of the new understandings required by contemporary books include recognizing that texts represent messages through a variety of ways of communicating. Readers must not only understand written language but must also learn to understand visual language and other signs and symbols.
Technological resources have changed the way information is communicated, and teachers must prepare students to understand information from all types of texts, including digital texts. While this can be facilitated using digital technology, some schools, classrooms, or homes have limited access to technology. Fortunately, many flexible literacy skills can be developed through the use of print books that have the characteristics described above, such as mimicking digital texts in style and formatting, changing organizational patterns, exploring interactive formats, and representing messages in a variety of ways. The availability of print books that can teach students necessary digital skills may narrow a gap that could be perpetuated by the disparity between environments rich with technology and those that are lacking in technology.
Changes in contemporary children’s books are not only related to digital and technological influences but also the influence of a cultural movement of the late 20th century known as postmodernism. A useful working definition of postmodernism by Wertheim (n.d.) presented below helps to highlight important cultural shifts during this period, including the importance of one’s own personal reality in interpreting the world.
Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. (para. 1)
Postmodernism has resulted in changes in all areas of the arts, including architecture, visual art, literature, and music. Children’s literature scholars have highlighted important characteristics of children’s books connected to postmodernism (Anstey & Bull, 2006; Pantaleo, 2004; Serafini, 2005). One of the most notable connections is when the illustrations in a picture book tell a completely different story than the words or show a different perspective or viewpoint. Postmodern influences are also seen in terms of how stories are told, including the portrayal of multiple versions of a story within the same book, telling the story through multiple narrators and perspectives, telling stories within stories, or blending genres, such as mixing fiction and nonfiction elements, or mixing science fiction and history. Authors also may refer to another text within a story or rely on the reader’s understanding of another specific text for full comprehension. The visibility of the author and illustrator within the story is another common postmodern feature, such as when authors refer to themselves within a text, speak directly to readers, or when authors and illustrators share the processes used to create the book within the text itself (Anstey & Bull, 2006; Pantaleo, 2004; Serafini, 2005).
Noting the changes in children’s literature related to digital and postmodern influences, teachers are tasked with determining how and when texts should be used in today’s classrooms. In recent studies, when teachers used texts with postmodern characteristics, it was discovered that the students developed their ability to interpret visual images, their digital literacy skills, and their ability to think critically (Pantaleo, 2004). Each of these skills is important to prepare students for future encounters with both print and digital texts. Students may be interested in digital texts and other varieties of text types, but they may not have a full range of abilities to interpret all the messages contained in these texts. By including contemporary books in the curriculum, teachers can better prepare students for a wide range of experiences in the world.