Mr. McGregor drives Peter Rabbit away from his crops. The Gruffalo’s curved claws and bright orange eyes. The Very Hungry Caterpillar runs through a colorful meal. Picture books have given many of us our most evocative childhood memories, but for the estimated 37,000 blind and low vision children in England and Wales, the chance to jump into different worlds in brightly colored pages is nearly out of reach.
Picture books are not published in an accessible format for visually impaired children. Although there are books written in Braille, there is no way for children to enjoy pictures unless they are grown and created in 3D, a process rarely seen in the publishing industry. That’s why award-winning illustrator Dapo Adeola campaigned for eight months to have his books adapted.
Millions of children read books this year. We’ll Find a MonsterWritten by Malorie Blackman and illustrated by Adeola. The story was selected as BookTrust Time to Read in November, and every child of acceptance age in the UK was given a free copy.
However, aware of the lasting impact of storybooks, Adeola is pushing for even greater access to her books so that as many children as possible, including the visually impaired, can enjoy her drawings.
After launching the campaign in March, Adeola was named Illustrator of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2022. – he eventually met his fundraising goal, raising enough money to turn several of his books into tactile audio-visual experiences.
Adeola knew little about the experiences of visually impaired children before reaching out to the charity Living Pictures to adapt her books. “I thought the books were in braille, and that was enough, I had no knowledge or training on the visual impairment spectrum. I didn’t know anything about it,” she says.
But now the illustrator doesn’t understand why more was not done to fix the problem. “How is this not the norm? Why do we need to raise money for this?” he asks.
Studying picture books and delving into a story gives children their first glimpse into different worlds and a better understanding of our own world; illustrations and words work together to tell the story. This hybrid experience of literature and art helps develop children’s literacy skills and vocabulary.
This is something visually impaired children who rely on touch and sound to interact with the world around them are currently missing out.
Living Pictures, a charity that makes picture books accessible by transforming them with art and sound, is working to solve the problem. They take each illustration from a book and turn it into an elevated tactile element so kids can experience the story and drawing. themselves instead of having them read to them.
The process starts with volunteers who track down each illustration. These are then carved from wood by another volunteer to create masterful works of art. After that, a thermal press is used to create the raised images from the plastic before being hand painted.
Braille was added, and an audio guide was recorded to accompany each book, both telling the story and telling children how they felt on each page. Stars like Imelda Staunton and Ethan Hawke have given their voices to this cause.
Together, all of these elements are vital in creating an engaging reading experience for visually impaired children and their family members.
“[We] give them the experience of reading books and togetherness. It’s an advantage for the family, too,” explains Nick Ford, head of marketing at Living Paintings. “I think every parent has the idea in their mind to sit together during story time and explore picture books. That allows them to do that.”
Around 200 of these accessible books are each available for free from the charity’s online library. Titles include: My Beast and Me, My Pants, Tiddler, and classics like Find The Dog, Snowman, and elmer.
A boy named Teddy has been borrowing books from Living Paintings since he was a baby. Now, at the age of six, she can read braille, thanks to skills she learned from interacting with tactile picture books.
Ford remembers the first time the people at Living Paintings saw him read it alone: ”It was a really proud moment for us because we’ve been supplying him books since he was little.”
He develops a love of books that many blind children miss. “There may be a misunderstanding that picture books are not for them,” says Ford.
Adds Adeola: “Many of us who didn’t have access when we were growing up, not even blind, have had an impact on how we grow up. So I can only imagine what it’s like for kids who have an extra handicap to overcome. As much access as possible is very important.
“As adults, we’ve been doing things like children’s books, ‘what a big deal is this for kids?’ “We are conditioned to belittle things like that.”
“This is a big deal. It’s very important to kids, so it’s important.”