Main Body

7. Influence of the Digital Age on Children’s Literature and Its Use in the Classroom

Joanna M. Robertson


This chapter focuses on historical, social, and political influences on children’s literature, including contemporary influences related to digital and technological advances. One key aspect of contemporary children’s literature is the inclusion of multiple modes, or ways of communicating. This chapter discusses how teachers can utilize multimodal children’s literature by inviting students to engage in arts-based responses that draw from visual and performing arts that are essential in teaching language arts skills and standards in elementary classrooms.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. think critically about children’s literature, from the 17th century up to the digital age;
  2. analyze ways children’s books are culturally produced and how they influence readers;
  3. explain the importance of incorporating literature and literature responses that allow for multiple ways of understanding and communicating, including through audio (sound and music), gesture and space (drama and dance), and visual messages (visual art);
  4. discuss and plan arts-based responses to children’s literature.


This chapter explores historical, social, and political influences on children’s literature, including recent trends related to digital and technological influences, such as incorporating multiple ways of communicating in response to multimedia messages prevalent in digital formats. Children’s literature offers insight into the cultural, social, and political history of the place and time at which it was written. The beliefs, norms, and values of the specific historical time and place it was written are reflected in the content of the writing, the style, and genre of the writing, and the audience or market for which the text was written. Placing children’s literature within these contexts allows readers to recognize and critique the cultural messages carried within children’s books and consider the potential effect of those messages on readers. While differences in the children’s literature from the past may be readily apparent, contemporary books also reflect cultural, social, and political worlds of today, making it equally important for educators to analyze the cultural messages contained within them as well.

After developing an understanding of contemporary children’s literature, this chapter focuses on how teachers can take full advantage of children’s books in the classroom. In particular, children’s literature incorporating multiple forms of communication, such as audio or movement, can create broader opportunities for students to respond. These texts lend themselves especially well to arts-based responses, which use visual art, music, drama, or dance activities to enhance understanding of texts. Giving students opportunities to read books that communicate in multiple ways, and then giving students opportunities to respond to those books using multiple ways of communicating, prepares them to communicate effectively in an ever-changing world.

History of Children’s Literature

There have been many changes related to the publishing of literature for children since the beginning of the 17th century when the only books published for children were school books to teach them the alphabet and spelling, as well as morals, manners, and religion. At that time, the content of school books was influenced by Puritan beliefs that children were inclined to evil and needed to be taught morals. However, during this time, cheaply published books called chapbooks containing popular stories and tales also began to be produced and sold. Since these books did not contain strictly moral stories, they were often criticized for departing from Puritan beliefs (Gangi, 2004). Puritanical thinking eventually gave way to the Enlightenment ideals characterized by the philosophy of John Locke, which marked a shift in the view of children to that of a “blank slate” that could be written upon. During this time, moral tales and fables were still published, but more light-hearted books featuring word play, riddles, rhymes, and games began to appear in children’s books as well. Children’s books also borrowed stories originally written for adults, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Ivanhoe, and Robinson Crusoe.

Before the 17th century, children were seen as small adults; however, during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, childhood was viewed as a time of innocence that was distinct from adolescence (young adulthood) and adulthood (Avery & Kinnell, 1995). These changes in viewpoints created a new market for the writing and publishing of books specifically for children, who were seen as innocent and playful beings rather than mini-adults. During the 18th century, John Newbery, a writer of children’s books, greatly influenced children’s literature by starting the first publishing house dedicated to children’s stories. He published his own stories, as well as the works of other children’s book authors (Gangi, 2004). The idea of a publishing house just for children’s stories reflected a shift in how society thought of children. During the 19th century, greater numbers of books were written for children’s play and enjoyment, including the first picture book, which was written by Randolph Caldecott.1

This early history of children’s literature illustrates how societal changes influenced writers and book publishers to create and produce books specifically for children. As a market for children’s literature had become firmly established in the 18th and 19th centuries, changes in children’s literature in the 20th century were related to the content of books. For example, the period between World War I and World War II showed a proliferation of books depicting idealism and a pioneering spirit, such as the showcasing of small town life in the Little House on the Prairie series published between 1932 and 1943 by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1971). However, stories from this time period still included some serious and realistic writing, such as the simplicity and down-to-earth style of Margaret Wise Brown’s work for young children, or the realities and hardships of life depicted in stories like Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (1945) that shared the struggles of a poor, working farm girl (Hunt, 1995).2

The emergence of more realistic stories preceded the onset of a major shift toward realism that accompanied the social and political revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Between the 1930s and 1950s, writers became more willing to address topics related to societal issues and hardships, such as struggles associated with poverty; however, in the 1960s and 1970s, a flood of children’s books emerged centering on realism. Authors such as Beverly Clearly, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel wrote about growing up, death, obesity, and other issues, which marked a shift in the boundaries of what was acceptable, and arguably, even necessary for children to understand. These earlier authors paved the way for the writing of M. E. Kerr, Cynthia Voigt, and Robert Cormier, who wrote about homelessness, race, and sexuality. The realism of children’s literature in the 1960s and 1970s represented a radical shift at that time, similar to many of the other shifts throughout history related to historical, political, and societal influences.

Recent Trends in Children’s Literature

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.

Multimodal Texts in Children’s Literature

It is easy to envision a classroom that relies on the use of a print textbook and resources that primarily use printed words and visual images to represent meaning. However, print resources are changing in ways that are reflective of the multiple ways, or modes, that are used to communicate within digital contexts. Recall from Chapter 1 that modes of communication encompass all forms of expression, including “Visual Meanings (images, page layouts, screen formats); Audio Meanings (music, sound effects); Gestural Meanings (body language, sensuality); Spatial Meanings (the meanings of environmental spaces, architectural spaces); and Multimodal Meanings” (New London Group, 1996, p. 80). Though children’s literature, especially picture books, rely mainly on print and visual modes (i.e., words combined with pictures), there are growing numbers of children’s books that creatively incorporate audio, gestural, and spatial modes as well. Multimodal texts are capable of drawing on students’ strengths and preparing them for a multimodal society where individuals communicate through audio, gestural, visual, spatial, and print resources, as well as various combinations of these modes.

Each mode has its own capacity to communicate, or potential to make meaning, which is called an affordance (Kress & Jewitt, 2003; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001). Basically, this means that each mode communicates the same idea in a different way than any other mode. For example, an individual may communicate a story about a cat by telling the story in words, moving around the room, using sounds, or acting out the story with no words or sounds. Each version might communicate a particular part of the story especially well, while another part may not be communicated as well using that mode. The idea that modes have different affordances, or potential to make meaning, suggests that some modes of communication are better suited for some tasks than others. When modes are integrated, their combination also contributes to an overall meaning that could not be achieved by the use of any one mode on its own. Even within a mode, the materials used or the format of the communicated message can contribute differently to the understanding of the message. For example, a written message carries different meaning if it is written in sand versus carved in stone (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001).

The meaning-making potential of a mode also depends on how a society or group of individuals values that particular mode or how that mode is used within that society in different situations and contexts (Kress & Jewitt, 2003). As individuals understand the potential usefulness of a mode of communication within the context of their culture, they can choose the modes that most appropriately express their message. Thinking back to the example of the cat story, not only does a particular mode communicate the story differently, the choice of a mode may be appropriate in some circumstances but not in others. For example, it would be more appropriate for a small child to act out the story while moving around the room and meowing than a college professor teaching an English class!

Discussions such as this related to how humans communicate and value various modes is grounded in a larger field known as social semiotics. Social semiotics essentially explains how humans make sense of the world and communicate with each other through all ways that are socially meaningful, such as by drawing, creating visuals, talking, making gestures, engaging in dance and movement, creating architecture, and singing and making music (Lemke, 1990). Additionally, as societies or cultural groups adapt over time, they place different value on various modes people use to make meaning. Schools are important in shaping the value placed on different modes in a society; their overemphasis on reading and written language systems marginalizes other valuable forms of expression and, likewise, students who have talents and abilities in these other forms (Eisner, 1991). Eisner explained that being able to understand messages communicated through multiple modes is central to three important educational aims, including increasing the variety and depth of meaning people make in their lives, developing cognitive potential, and providing educational equity in our schools.

When teachers and students begin to understand the potential of each mode, more options become available to understand and create meaning. Students make choices on a daily basis as far as the mode used to communicate, as well as the medium or format of a message. For example, students choose a medium when they decide to send an email or a text message, share a tweet, a picture, or a song, or create a video. The medium chosen often dictates the format of the message—a text might use shorthand or emoticons while an email would use full words. If they understand the potential of each of the modes, they can make choices to create and understand messages more fully. Authors and publishers of children’s literature are also aware of these choices, and the literature they produce is certainly influenced by the knowledge that students’ communication preferences are both flexible and dynamic.

Teachers can facilitate learning in the classroom that allows all of the above to be possible, such as students having knowledge of modes to make the best choices to express their messages, students with talents and abilities in areas beyond print and linguistic forms to have a valued mode to express themselves in the classroom, and students having the ability to fully understand the messages that are communicated through various modes and their combinations throughout society. An understanding of how modes work together in texts is thus necessary for those preparing to enter the teaching profession. Children’s book authors and illustrators are able to offer more multimodal experiences for readers that extend beyond the combination of print and visual modes to include audio, gestural, and spatial modes. As multimodal texts are viewed, readers make meaning by experiencing integrated and cohesive texts that draw on the potential of multiple modes of meaning. Teachers must therefore understand how modes work together within texts in order to prepare students to understand and make meaning with a wider variety of texts and communicate through a wider variety of modes.

Audio Mode in Children’s Literature Texts

Print and visual modes are obvious aspects of children’s literature texts and areas that teachers and students have traditionally spent time studying; however, children’s literature is beginning to utilize other modes of meaning, as well, such as audio, gesture, and spatial modes. In order to understand how these less “obvious” modes work in children’s literature texts, a closer look at the audio mode is presented as an example. The audio mode, which includes both sound and music, is present in many aspects of daily life, including use in film and television, as well as content accessed on iPods, tablets, smartphones, and at popular websites, such as YouTube. This proliferation of sound and music in daily life heightens the importance of teaching students how to use the audio mode to understand and communicate messages.

There are different ways in which picture books might invite the possibility of the reader to make meaning using the audio mode. For the purposes of this discussion, the audio mode is not referring to books that talk about music or sound, as these do not necessarily make meaning using the audio mode. Nor is it referring to audio books (e.g. a CD or audio file in which someone is reading the book out loud) which consist of spoken text or words that are primarily a linguistic meaning. Rather, this discussion focuses on the ways that books can represent meaning through the audio mode using visual and linguistic information, or using other symbolic representations that allow for the possibility of the reader to use the audio mode to make meaning and comprehend the message. For example, if, based on the information represented in a piece of text, a reader makes a sound or sings a song to make meaning of that information, the audio mode is being used to communicate. Kress (2000) explained that to determine which mode is being used to communicate a message, one can think about the sense that is used to make meaning of represented information. Figure 1 provides an example of how a linguistic (print) message, a visual message, and an audio message might appear in a children’s book.

Figure 1. Representation of how the linguistic, visual, and audio modes convey a similar idea in three distinct ways.

Children’s picture books represent audio meaning in different ways. The following examples show how particular authors have not only represented audio meanings but also how picture books can invite communication through multiple modes, even when seemingly only linguistic and visual modes are presented. This same approach can then be used when interpreting any piece of children’s literature to understand if readers are invited to make meaning though multiple modes of representation. One way authors may include audio meanings is by incorporating song lyrics into the story. The song lyrics can be read as a strictly print text; however, if the words are sung as the book is read, this is an example of an audio representation. Other texts incorporate sound words, also known as onomatopoeia (e.g., pow), into texts, with their meaning dependent on the print text surrounding the sound word. In Max Found Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney (1994), the sounds Max hears and plays are represented through sound words within the text. For example, “Max responded by patting the bucket, Tap-tap-tap. Tippy-tip…tat-tat. He created the rhythm of the light rain falling against the front windows” (Pinkney, 1994). The sound words are integrated within the text and add a layer of meaning to the story that would not be present if these sound words were absent.

In other texts, sound words extend the meaning of the text beyond what the print text accomplishes on its own, such as in This Jazz Man by Karen Erhardt (2006) and What Charlie Heard by Mordicai Gerstein (2002). In What Charlie Heard, sound words are used as an integral aspect of the illustrations to show the myriad sounds that Charlie hears. In this story, sound words are written in different fonts and sizes as part of the illustrations showing the sound made by each object, animal, or person represented in the illustration. The sound words in this text become part of the illustration and represent the sounds themselves.

Other children’s picture books use the audio mode by including musical notation. For example, The Wolf Who Loved Music, by Christopher Gallaz and Marshall Arisman (2003), adds a staff (i.e., the set of five lines on which musical notes are printed) starting on the second page of the text as a light gray heading. On each successive page, additional musical symbols and then notes are added to this staff. The printed music, if decoded, plays the main theme to Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Using the musical text along with the printed text provides an additional way to make meaning, offering information which is not included in any other way in the print or visual information of the text.

Some texts use a more abstract notation rather than real musical notation. An example of abstract notation appears in Mysterious Thelonius by Chris Raschka (1997). This book represents the notes of a song through the placement of words on the page. On the book jacket, a color scale shows that each color represents a different note in the musical scale. Throughout the text, the words are written in different colors and heights related to that scale, thus effectively creating a melody through the placement of the words on the page.

Another way picture books can represent the audio mode is by including an external audio CD or a link to an audio file. In The Yellow Umbrella by Jae Soo Liu (2002), the music for this text was composed solely for the purpose of accompanying the illustrations. The music can be listened to in two different ways. There is a one-track short version that has about 20 to 30 seconds of music for each page. There is also a long version which provides 1 to 2 minutes of music for each page, each on a different track. Without the music, a reader might only pause for a moment on the page to consider the small amount of action they see. With the musical accompaniment, the mood and spirit of each page changes. In a wordless picture book, the reader typically uses their own words to form a story related to what is happening in the pictures. The music adds more meaning than the pictures can convey alone to help the reader construct this story. All of the above examples demonstrate some of the ways authors and publishers work together to communicate a wider range of messages, using not just print and visual modes but the audio mode as well.

Connecting Learning Standards to Arts-Based Responses to Literature

Children’s literature can be used by teachers as instructional materials to meet a variety of educational goals and objectives. Using children’s literature that includes multiple modes of communication offers more opportunities to invite students to respond using arts-based forms, such as visual art, drama, music, and dance. Students may be more encouraged to respond to literature if teachers use more familiar terms, such as music, art or drawing, acting or drama, and dance or movement rather than discussing modes, like gestural, spatial, or audio, as terms. Arts-based responses allow students to use all their senses as they make meaning. As an example, an arts-based response might be one in which students act out what they think might happen in a story, create a rhythmic pattern or tune to symbolize each character in a book, or move the same way as they believe characters felt or acted in given situations to help analyze a character’s emotions and motivations. Multimodal books are not required tools for arts-based responses in that teachers can encourage or create arts-based response activities for any book, but when a text already utilizes audio, gesture, movement, or space in creative ways, it can offer students a model and set the stage for engaging in arts-based responses.

An argument can be made that incorporating arts-based responses is especially important for students who excel in other modes of communicating besides reading and writing. Nevertheless, in many of my discussions of arts-based responses with teachers, it often is revealed that they believe arts-based responses are fun extension activities but they may be pushed to the periphery in light of the increasing pressure of standards and testing. Yet, incorporating arts-based responses can help teach skills necessitated by the standards. To help ensure that teaching and learning are directed toward a meaningful outcome, teachers have purposes for using any strategy, practice, or lesson they teach, including the practice of incorporating arts-based responses. Teachers’ purposes are aligned with their state’s standards for student learning, including the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010), which have been adopted by most states across the United States.

I asked pre-service and practicing teachers about their purposes for having students respond to literature. Table 1 shows a list generated from their responses, including helping students comprehend or interpret a text, connect to characters or events, and consider new events or situations. The right column of Table 1 shows how these purposes aligned with standards, such as CCSS Reading Standards for Literature K-5, CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards and NYS P-12 Common Core Learning Standards (NYSED, 2011).3 This alignment shows that asking students to respond to literature in the classroom can help teachers and students accomplish important learning goals.

Teachers’ Purposes for Literature Response Activities  Standards
  • Gauge students’ comprehension of the literature
  • Give students a chance to ask questions, help students work out anything that is confusing, or advance students’ understanding of the literature
  • See if students are able to communicate their ideas to others
CCSS ELA-Literacy. RL. K.1.-5.1 Key Ideas and Details. Asking and answering questions in kindergarten which develops into using details to make inferences at 5th grade
  • Make sure students understand bigger ideas in the literature
CCSS ELA-Literacy. RL. K.25.2 Key Ideas and Details. Retelling in Kindergarten which leads to determining themes and summarizing
  • See if students can recognize plot details and events that affect the progression of the story
  • Help students see right/wrong, successful solutions to problems, different perspectives, consequences, or positive outcomes to actions
  • Help students become more empathic as they understand different characters’ emotions and actions
CCSS ELA-Literacy. RL. K.3.-5.3 Key Ideas and Details. Identifying, describing, and ultimately comparing and contrasting characters, settings and events
  • See how different students interpret the same story, and let them see and value those differences
CCSS ELA-Literacy. SL.K.15.1. Comprehension and Collaboration. Participate and engage in collaborative discussions about grade level texts and topics
  • Help students make connections to curriculum topics, their own lives, the world, other texts
  • See if students relate ideas in the story to other topics they have learned in class
  • Help students prepare for things that they have not experienced themselves
(NYS) Responding to Literature 11. Recognize and make connections from literature to other texts, ideas, and cultural perspectives
  • See if students enjoyed the stories
(NYS) Responding to Literature 11a. Self-selecting texts based on personal preferences
Table 1. Literature Response Activities Purposes and Standards
Teachers’ Purposes and Links to Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) and the NYS P-12 Common Core Learning Standards (NYS Department of Education, 2011).

Earlier in the chapter, purposes for asking students to respond to multimodal texts were established. These included giving students opportunities to make meaning of texts that draw on multiple modes of meaning and to understand the potential of each mode of communication in order to make choices that allow them to create and understand messages more fully. These two purposes align with the CCSS Reading Literature standard, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas regarding how illustrations, words, and, in later grades, multimedia elements in print, digital, and multimedia texts contribute to the overall effect of the text.

Siegel (2006) explained how translating information from one mode of communication into a different mode, called transmediation, generates new understandings of the information. Since each mode has a different potential to communicate, transmediation furthers students’ meaning making because it requires them to think about content in different ways and is a clear benefit of arts-based responses. In addition, when teachers generated their lists of the purposes for responding to literature, there were a small number they listed that did not match with the standards, including promoting creativity, allowing students to think out of the box and explore their own thinking, fostering empathy, and giving students a chance to be actively engaged and gain ownership of learning. These purposes for literature response were important to teachers with respect to maintaining a positive and productive learning environment. Arts-based responses offer rich opportunities to fulfill many purposes such as those included in Table 1, while enhancing understanding of literature and creating lifelong learners.

The design of arts-based responses goes beyond thinking of a final product such as a cute craft to send home, to instead, thinking about the activity as part of a process that will allow students to engage with the content and literature. Because arts-based responses to children’s literature are central to achieving teachers’ purposes and align with state standards, the final section of this chapter will feature well-designed arts-based activities that can help students transmediate between modes and think about making meaning in new ways.

Examples of Arts-Based Responses

The visual and performing arts responses to children’s literature featured in this section are offered as suggestions and to inspire new ideas. Each book and each class offer unique opportunities to create and innovate. As you consider the use of arts-based responses in your own classroom, envision each suggestion taking place with students and teachers exploring and experiencing the text and the activity together. Students are not professional actors, musicians, artists, or dancers, and yet they are fully capable of visual and performing arts responses. Likewise, teachers do not need to be professional artists or dancers either to effectively use arts-based responses with students. As pointed out by Berghoff (1998), these responses are not about teaching the disciplines of art or music in the language arts classroom but allowing learners to use their knowledge from these disciplines to learn in the language arts classroom. These ways of thinking and expression are familiar to young children, she explains. “From early childhood on, children make sense of the world through dramatic play, drawing, dancing, singing and other communicative forms” (p. 521). Teachers can foster an environment where these ways of thinking continue to be valued as students explore the world in ways that are familiar. Each example in the following section also includes a link to the standard(s) that the activity addresses as a reminder that offering arts-based responses accomplishes important curricular goals.


Music responses explore how all elements of music and audio, including individual sounds, pitch (high or low), dynamics (loud and soft), rhythm, and tempo (speed) communicate with listeners.

Sound translation

The text of This Jazz Man by Karen Erhardt (2006) follows the familiar tune of “This Old Man,” but the verse on each page introduces a different jazz performer. As part of the verse, there is a string of sound words that helps readers hear the sound of the instrument performed by that jazz player. There is also an extended sound word phrase incorporated into the illustration. For this lesson, read through the book as a class read aloud. Then reread the book and invite students to sing along with the reading using the tune to “This Old Man.” Finally, use materials available in the classroom to translate the string of sound words back into sound (hands and feet, pencils, water bottles, books, etc.). Encourage students to be creative as they find materials to make the sound. Once a sound has been chosen for each song verse, reread and sing the song one more time. Instead of speaking the sound words, replace them with the chosen sound to translate the sound words to actual sounds (Robertson, 2008). CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.4-5.4

Hear your life

What Charlie Heard by Mordicai Gerstein (2002) is a picture book biography of the life of composer Charles Ives, who is known as a composer whose music was often misunderstood or regarded as difficult to listen to (recall that this book was discussed previously in reference to audio modes). Charles Ives heard all the sounds in his life as music, and his compositions are meant to portray this, however dissonant or cacophonous (i.e., disagreeable; not harmonious) his compositions ended up being. For example, one of his more famous pieces is a representation of two different marching bands playing two different pieces in different keys, marching from opposite directions, crossing in front of the listener, and then moving away. In this picture book biography, sound words are used as part of the illustrations in different colors and fonts next to the object, person, or animal from which the sound originates. The pages are full of sounds and colors, showing the sounds that permeated Charles Ives’ life. First, share the book with students, guiding them as they interpret the messages communicated through multiple modes. Then, invite students to write and illustrate a scene from their life using the same style. Figure 2 shows how a class of students represented sounds in an illustration drawn from a personal memoir writing piece they were working on. In this classroom, when the teacher then asked students to go back and revise their memoir, the exploration into the sound and visual representation of their story allowed them to add much more robust sensory detail into their revisions (Robertson, 2008). CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7-5.7; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.K.3-5.3

figure 2
Figure 2. Student example of the illustration style in What Charlie Heard by Mordicai Gerstein.


Drama responses allow students to explore how elements such as body language, posture, gesture, voice, and inflection contribute to expressing and understanding meaning.

Color and emotions

The following activity allows students to explore the relationship between color and emotions and involves two children’s literature books: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss (1996), and The Way I Feel by Janan Cain (2000). Both of these books relate emotions and moods to different colors. Start the lesson by reading each of the books in a large group format. For the remainder of the lesson, ask students to work within small groups. Provide each group with plenty of different colored pieces of paper. To start, ask one person in the group to act out an emotion for the other members, charade style. Other members of the group will then choose a piece of paper in a color they think represents the acted-out emotion. The group members will then share the emotion they believed was being acted out, as well as why they chose that particular color to represent it, and the actor can share if the group members guessed the emotion they were portraying. Repeat the steps in this activity so that each person in the group has an opportunity to act out an emotion or mood. Younger children still exploring ways to name their emotions can use this activity to further develop their understanding of emotions. Older children working on incorporating more descriptive words and explaining and portraying emotions in their writing can use this activity to add further dimensions to how they and others think about emotions and moods. This activity can be especially enlightening, since students may realize that though they think they are showing one emotion, others may perceive it differently. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7-5.7

Sound and action story

The following activity invites students to think about the attributes of specific characters in a text. The idea was adapted from a suggestion by Gelineau (2012) to create “original sound stories” by determining sounds to match well-defined characters (p. 67). The following activity extends that idea by asking students to create a sound as well as an action for each character in a book. While this activity could be applied to many different texts, The boy who cried ninja by Alex Latimer (2011) is offered as a suggestion to learn how the process works. The book has a wide variety of diverse characters, including a Mom, Dad, Grampa, ninja, astronaut, giant squid, pirate, crocodile and monkey. First, read the book, The boy who cried ninja, aloud. Then, break the class into small groups and have the students decide on a sound and an accompanying action for each character. Each group will then practice reading through the book: every time a character is mentioned (or shown in a picture) they perform the action and make the sound for that character. After each group practices, they will perform their action and sound stories for the class while the teacher reads the story aloud. The process of selecting a sound and action that matches a character will deepen discussion of the characters, and performing the story for the class will extend that discussion to the larger group. For older students, this is a good book to introduce this activity, but then the process can be applied to books where the characters have more development. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.7

Dance and movement

Dance and movement responses explore how both dance or body movement can express messages and communicate with others.

Walk like a/an

Every time students need to move around the room, make the most of these transitions by turning them into a response activity focusing on dance and movement. For example, as students move to get in line or to shift activities in the room, connect to a character in a class read-aloud by asking students to move as if they are feeling one or more of the emotions that character had experienced. This will help students identify with and understand the actions of the characters. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.3-5.3

Find your style (dance and music response)

Often in children’s literature, common themes or storylines are repeated. Start this lesson by creating a story map (WETA Public Broadcasting, 2015)—a graphic organizer that outlines the elements of story, such as setting, characters, plots and events, problems and solutions—for the following three stories: 1) The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a classic fairy tale with many adaptations (though the illustrations in Marianna Mayer’s [1989] and Ruth Sanderson’s [1990] versions are particularly beautiful), 2) The Barn Dance by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault (1986), and 3) Brothers of the Knight by Debbie Allen (2001). Each book follows a similar story line but has its own style, tone, and setting. Ask students to explore the illustrations, the language use, and the design of the books as they compare and contrast the three stories. Add a further dimension to the stories by pairing them with musical samples representing the three styles displayed in the books (a classical piece, such as Bach’s “Minuet in G”; an American folk song, such as “Turkey in the Straw”; and a current, popular, hip hop selection.) With music selected, let students dance to the styles in the books. Discuss or find examples of costumes, props, or musical instruments to explore the elements of tone, style and setting in each story. The decision making process as students choose the music, instruments, or dance moves that connect with the different styles represented in the books actively engages students in the process of transmediation, described earlier as a process of translating information from one mode to another and thus creating new understandings. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.3-5.3; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7-5.7

Visual art

Visual arts responses explore how color, lines, shapes, drawing, painting, and all other elements of art communicate messages to the viewer.

Make a match

Illustrators are artists, and their work is based on traditions and styles in art. Share illustrations from a children’s picture book and compare them to a matching art style. For example, pair the illustrations in Marianna Mayer’s (1989) Twelve Dancing Princesses with Jean-Honore’ Fragonard’s The Swing (students may also be very excited to recognize this particular painting from Disney’s Frozen). Compare Picasso’s cubism artwork with the illustrations in D. B. Johnson’s (2002) Henry Builds a Cabin or the work of children’s book author David Wiesner with surrealism works of Salvador Dali or Vladimir Kush. Extend the activity by asking students go on an “art hunt” and make matches between picture book illustrations and pieces of artwork. For a challenge, ask students to create their own illustrations. Though some of the styles may seem detailed and difficult for children to replicate, they may still choose one of the harder styles to explore the process. Or suggest they work with an easier style, such as naïve artwork, characterized by a childlike nature and represented in picture books such as The Bookshop Dog by Cynthia Rylant (1996) or Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback (1999). Students can create illustrations to go with a story they are writing or related to an event in their life. After matching art and illustrations or illustrating using a certain style, have a discussion with students about why a style might be used with a certain book. Did the style help tell the story or set the mood? When they used the style themselves, how did it affect the overall message they were communicating? CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.7

Pinhole view

Illustrators are becoming much more innovative in the creation of wordless picture books. The wordless picture book Flashlight by Lizi Boyd (2014) offers many opportunities for discovery. The illustrations show the character exiting a tent in the woods at night. Most of the page is black with grey line drawings to show the dim background. The character is holding a flashlight and there is a bright spot of the illustration on each page in the path of the flashlight. Small holes are cut out of each page giving a glimpse of what is to come or perhaps something missed on the page before, further drawing visual attention to details in the book. Since exploring dark spaces may not be conducive to a classroom or school environment, teachers can extend the reading of this book by using the idea of the cut outs. Have students view the classroom, other areas in the school, or outdoor areas of the school grounds through a hole cut in a piece of paper. Have them sketch the new things to which this pinhole view of the world drew their attention. What do they see differently with different shaped holes? Do they see things they did not notice without the pinhole view? This artistic response helps students understand the effect and theme of the book and also helps give them a different perspective on their environment. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.K.5-5.5


This chapter began by establishing the historical, social, and political influences on children’s literature beginning in the 17th century and leading to contemporary influences, including digital and technological advances, postmodernism, and the prevalence of multiple modes of communicating. The discussion then turned to how teachers can utilize multimodal texts in classrooms to teach the skills outlined in state standards and aligned with teachers’ purposes. Arts-based responses using traditional and multimodal texts were described as a way for teachers to support all students to fulfill purposes for responding to literature, including those that may not have direct correlations to the standards but are still necessary for establishing a positive classroom learning environment. Examples of drama, music, dance and movement, and visual arts response activities were presented to specifically show how contemporary literature, including multimodal literature, can be used in classroom settings. Teachers are encouraged to explore multimodal children’s literature and design meaningful arts-based response activities that will enhance the learning of every child in their classroom.

Questions and Activities

  1. Find a book (maybe one you read as a child) that represents the time or place in history in which it was written. Find a contemporary book which represents the current time and place in history. Imagine you are looking at either book as an outsider to that time and place. What social, cultural, or political messages, either purposeful or inadvertent, are reflected in that piece of literature?
  2. Browse the children’s books at the local library and critically analyze the messages to find books that represent a new perspective or voice that is not usually heard, such as a story told from the perspective of a character from a diverse population or a unique representation of gender roles. What social, cultural, or political messages are reflected in that piece of literature?
  3. With a partner or in a small group, communicate something about a particular topic using only gestures or movement, then using only sounds (not words), then only pictures, and then only words. Then try to communicate using a combination of these modes. Ask your audience to share their interpretations of each message.
  4. Make a list of ways you communicate daily using different modes when you experience events such as hearing a siren, seeing traffic lights, seeing a friend, communicating with someone, and listening to Pandora. Based on this list, what are other modes that could be used to communicate in these events? Which seem most effective for you? Do you think that others would use all the same modes? Explain your thinking to others.
  5. As proposed by this chapter, consider the variety of ways that authors may invite multimodal interpretations and locate a children’s book that communicates using audio, gesture, or space in addition to print and visual modes. How might you use these books with students who have difficulty communicating through reading and writing?
  6. Select texts and create arts-based response activities in each area (drama, music, dance, and visual art) designed to enhance understanding of the texts. Share your idea with two other classmates and determine the state standards that connect to the arts-based response activities each person designed.


Anstey, M., & Bull, G. (2006). Teaching and learning multiliteracies: Changing times, changing literacies. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc. and the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.

Avery, G., & Kinnell, M. (1995). Morality and levity (1780-1820). In P. Hunt (Ed.), Children’s literature: An illustrated history (pp. 46-76). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Berghoff, B. (1998). Inquiry about learning and learners: Multiple sign systems and reading. The Reading Teacher, 51, 520-523.

Ching, S. H. D. (2005). Multicultural children’s literature as an instrument of power. Language Arts, 83(2), 128-136.

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

Dresang, E. (2003). Controversial books and contemporary children. Journal of Children’s Literature, 29(1), 20-31.

Eisner, E. (1991). Rethinking literacy. Educational Horizons, 69, 120-128.

Engelhardt, T. (1991, June). Reading may be harmful to your kids: In the nadirland of today’s children’s books. Harper’s Magazine, 282, 55-62.

Gangi, J. M. (2004). Encountering children’s literature: An arts approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Gelineau, R. P. (2012). Integrating the arts across the elementary school curriculum. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Hunt, P. (Ed.). (1995). Children’s literature: An illustrated history. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kress, G. (2000). Multimodality. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp. 182-202). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kress, G., & Jewitt, C. (Eds.). (2003). Multimodal literacy. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Multimodal discourse: The modes and media of contemporary curriculum. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Larrick, N. (1965, September 11). The all-white world of children’s books. Saturday Review, 63-65, 84-85.

Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

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Pantaleo, S. (2004). The long, long way: Young children explore the fabula and syuzhet of Shortcut. Children’s Literature in Education, 35, 1-19. doi:10.1023/B:CLID.0000018897.74948.2a

Robertson, J. M. (2008) Fourth- and fifth-grade classroom case study of response to multimodal representations in children’s picture books. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

Serafini, F. (2005). Voices in the park, voices in the classroom: Readers responding to postmodern picture books. Reading Research and Instruction, 44(3), 47-64. doi:10.1080/19388070509558431

Siegel, M. (2006). Rereading the signs: Multimodal transformations in the field of literacy education. Language Arts, 84, 65-77.

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Zipes, J. (2001). Sticks and stones: The troublesome success of children’s literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York, NY: Routledge.

Children’s Literature References

Allen, D. (2001). Brothers of the knight. New York, NY: Puffin.

Boyd, L. (2014). Flashlight. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, LLC.

Brown, M. W. (2006). Goodnight moon. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Brown, M. W. (2006). Runaway bunny. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Brown, M.W. (1993). The little island. New York, NY: Dragonfly Books.

Cain, J. (2000). The way I feel. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press.

Dr. Seuss (1996). My many colored days. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Erhardt, K. (2006). This jazz man. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc.

Gallaz, C., & Arisman, M. (2003). The wolf who loved music. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.

Gerstein, M. (2002). What Charlie heard. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Johnson, D. B. (2002). Henry builds a cabin. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Latimer, A. (2011). The boy who cried ninja. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

LaRochelle, D. (2007). The end. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

Lenski, L. (1945). Strawberry girl. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co, Inc.

Liu, J. (2002). Yellow umbrella. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller Book Publishers.

Martin, B., Jr., & Archambault, J. (1986). Barn dance. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

Mayer, M. (1989). Twelve dancing princesses. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Pinkney, B. (1994). Max found two sticks. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Raschka, C. (1997). Mysterious Thelonious. New York, NY: Orchard Books.

Rylant, C. (1996). The bookshop dog. New York, NY: The Blue Sky Press.

Sanderson, R. (1990). Twelve dancing princesses. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Taback, S. (1999). Joseph had a little overcoat. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

Tullet, H. (2011). Press here. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Wilder, L. I. (1971). Little house on the prairie. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Photo Credit


1: John Newbery and Randolph Caldecott are recognized for their contributions to children’s literature through the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Medal, which are awarded to the most distinguished authors and illustrators in American children’s literature. Return

2: Margaret Wise Brown is most known for writing Goodnight Moon (2006) and has also written over one hundred books for children, including The Runaway Bunny (2006) and The Little Island (1993). These books artfully share big ideas, such as testing a mother’s unconditional love or discovering how all things on earth are connected. Return

3: NYS standards are used as an example of how an adaptation of the CCSS can show particular attention to responding to literature. NYS did adopt the CCSS but added the fifth area to the Reading Standards of “Responding to Literature.” Return