There is no better way for children to acquire literacy than through making books. We invited Paul Johnson, Director of the Book Art Project, to tell us about it.
For over a thousand years the evolving book has concretised our highest thoughts and feelings. Indeed it is the hidden structures of the book form, it could be argued, that provide the oxygen of ideas. Those who thought that electronic technology would replace the written book form were wrong. There are more new titles published today than ten years ago.
Life for most of us would be unthinkable without books. Those who read this magazine will know how important books are to children, not only as vehicles of disseminating knowledge – they want to find out so much – but as celebrations of their inherent mythology parcelled in storytelling. A close friend once described her books of poetry to me as ‘metaphors of love’. She takes one of those books with her almost everywhere she goes. If books hold us in their grasp in this intimate and symbolic way and provide so much that is essential to us, how surprising it is to us that their status in children’s development is so low.
Of course children use books all the time, but to take things out of, not to put things into. It is a very one-sided affair. The exercise book is a most curious object, belonging almost exclusively to education. Since its beginning, the book has developed through the ideas that have been given to its charge. Form and content harmonise into one. But the exercise book is not really a book at all, just a collection of pieces of paper arbitrarily fused together by staples. So why are they so widely used in schools? One of the reasons is that the book has never had that much status as an art object, at least, not since the Renaissance. ‘Writing’ has been classified as a concept independent of the form – the book – which gives it life. Illustration, so much part of the book concept that it is impossible to think of it without it, lies low in the theatre of ‘art’. This is because it has been identified as a servicing agent to text, not ‘real’ art.
In a strange and irrational way then, the book, while being one of our greatest institutions, has simultaneously a questionable status. This confusion has rubbed off onto the curriculum. Moreover, education has always distanced itself from the way you and I behave. Isn’t one of our biggest dreams to be published and to see our name on the cover of a book? Why should children be denied this pinnacle of fulfilment? In a good school they write and draw but so rarely is any interrelationship conceived between them, or to the form to which they organically belong. And all this is because the book is envisaged as elitist and irrelevant to children’s needs.
But things are changing. Picture book illustrations were once seen as techniques for relieving the tedium of reading, but now it is common to talk of children ‘reading’ pictures in books. Has the literacy movement finally acknowledged the place of ‘visual literacy’ in cognition? Increasingly, computer concepts e.g. DTP, require the operator to think in a graphic-orientated way. Children do not simply ‘type’ words on a keyboard, they select fonts and sizes and have an almost limitless choice of where to place them. Perhaps in time it will be the influence of the computer – once seen as the arch enemy of the book – which will provide its most dynamic disseminator in education.
Now, once these conceptual problems with children making books have been cleared away, what other objections are there? One is that the technological construction of the book (bookbinding) is too time-consuming. But scores of different books are possible just by folding, cutting and refolding a sheet of paper. The basic origami book illustrated here is one of the simplest books to make. Eight-year-old pupils I am currently teaching make these, and ones like them, in a matter of a minute or two. Like so many simple forms, it has a natural and organic beauty of its own. There is a universe of difference between the dead exercise book and this living origami book because the child has mothered and fathered it. Not only will the six-page contents be theirs, but the little paper miracle as well.
Teachers and parents who have experienced the book arts with children know just what a difference it makes to their motivation. On the face of it this restriction of space may seem counter-productive – what if a child wants to write more than six pages? But the essence of successful communication is the ability to condense information, refine ideas and select key points. All writing, to a lesser or greater degree, is rule driven. How much poets have to teach us about clarity through brevity. These pieces of folded paper architecture concentrate the mind wonderfully.
If children are now being taught to read pictures in books, then it follows that they will want to express themselves through pictures in their self-made books. It is an evolutionary process; and the curriculum will have moved up another rung of its exceedingly long ladder. Of course young children do this all the time. They write words and word-like symbols all over their pictures and vice versa. Sadly, this interrelationship of verbal and visual language falls from the curriculum planning as pupils develop. As teachers learn to understand the visual language waiting to be seen in picture book illustrations, they will feel greater confidence in translating that pedagogy to the act of creative picture making. It is not the esoteric territory they think it is.
As children delve deeper into the book-art way of thinking, they begin to see that designing a page of text and illustration is not just an aesthetically-rewarding experience but an aid to clarity and sharpness of meaning. We tend to forget that whenever a word or image is placed on a page it is conditioned by the hidden order of design. We are more likely to be aware of it in its absence, when, for example, a pupil is struggling with the arrangement of speech on the page and it is impossible to tell who is saying what. Clarity in page layout from margins to whether or not one should break a word at the end of the line – even where the page numbers should be placed – is a level of sophistication in communication that book art brings sharply into focus like no other medium.
So book art is, or rather should be, an educational institution. Whereas there is only one computer for every twenty pupils in our primary schools, every child can make a book, instantly if need be, with only one piece of paper and a pair of scissors. The finite number of pages enables the pupil to process information, ideas and feelings through interrelating words, artwork and diagrams in a cohesive, holistic way. The final task of designing front and back covers embraces skills of lettering, design and the arranging of publicity copy like synopsis, notes about the author, hypothetical bar codes, pricing, publisher’s logo, etc. This stage, as with all books, is when the author gift wraps the joyous celebration contained within.
It doesn’t end there for as ‘compulsive communicators’ authors want to share their creation with others. In school this means taking your book to show and/or read to individuals or groups. Taken one step further, pupils’ books can be published. This is easily done by opening out the origami book to its flat state; if it has been produced on A3 size paper, reducing it to an A4 master, and then running off as many copies as required on the school reprographics machine. In this way copies can be distributed to the school library or classroom collection of books, and individuals like parents, aunts and uncles can all have copies too. In schools all over Greater Manchester, and increasingly beyond, the book concept is changing the way teachers teach and children learn. The book, one of the most transportable necessities ever created by man, travels with ease in the pocket or school bag. Pupils become so committed to them that these thin sandwiches of paper are taken home to be worked on, shared with parents in the creating process, and then returned to school the next day to be continued.
What is more, the book art form seems to work for everyone. Children with learning difficulties or low motivation respond to it instantly. Whereas the exercise book or even blank sheet of A4 smacks of the unfriendly face of the unacceptable, the small intimate origami book looks friendly and alluring. The gifted child on the other hand is possessed by the professionalism demanded by the authentic book object. At whatever stage of development, children are urged on to their next level of attainment in the process of writing, picture making, paper technology and design through the book arts. Moreover the form serves the whole of the curriculum from historical studies to recording science experiments; from the making of poetry anthologies to recording a day spent visiting a farm. In time, the classroom, and indeed the whole school, makes its own ‘Special Collection’ of pupils’ books, a visual and tactile celebration of achievement which in turn stimulates and inspires the next generation of young book artists.
If in doubt about the suitability of the book arts for your pupils, or indeed your ability to organise a book art project, make a simple origami book yourself, structure a basic beginning/middle/end narrative in its three double pages and – dare I say it – have a go at making corresponding illustrations. Finally, ascribe a title to the front cover with a piece of art work and, of course, your name carefully on the page. I am aware that I am taking a risk here, but I think that you might well be in danger of wanting to sprint to school so you can get your pupils making one too!
Paul Johnson is Director of the Book Art Project and travels the country introducing the book arts to teachers in the form of presentations and practical INSET workshops. He is also a successful paper artist on the Crafts Council’s select index and has represented the UK in recent exhibitions organised by the Design Council (Tokyo) and the British Council (Brussels). His house is full of paper furniture he has made himself, including chairs and tables! He is author of A Book of One’s Own (Hodder), Pop-Up Paper Engineering (Falmer) and coming soon Literacy Through the Book Arts (Heinemann USA).
The Book Art Project
The Book Art Project was inaugurated by a Crafts Council grant in 1986 and is based at Manchester Polytechnic’s School of Education. Its main aim is the development of children’s literacy and visual communication skills through the book arts. In 1990 the Gulbenkian Foundation funded the project to enable its dissemination in the UK. For details of the Project, publications (including an INSET video Making Your Own Book) and courses, contact The Book Art Project, Manchester Polytechnic, Manchester M20 8RR; tel: 061 247 2386.
The Children’s Press
The Children’s Press was made possible by a setting-up grant from Manchester Polytechnic in 1992. Its aim is to encourage children to write, illustrate and design books by publishing a small boxed selection each year. For the 14-page booklet An Invitation to Children, full of useful information to help children produce their own books, send £l (cheques payable to Manchester Polytechnic, to cover p&p) to Paul Johnson at the address above.