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Picturebook Lessons: The Art of Letting Readers Fill In the Blanks

The iPad can display almost anything an author imagines. But are we shortchanging readers by overstuffing our apps?

Isn’t it ironic how a device whose design embodies minimalism often gets used to show off overwhelming amounts of media?

Recently I’ve begun looking for what might be called minimalist apps—those whose contents match the iPad’s spare design. My search gained new impetus thanks to Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which studies an art form that, like the iPad, has attracted creators interested in mixing media. One of the points that struck me in this wonderful study is how some of the best artists exercise a design restraint, leaving out more than they include. Often this is done because of their audience—young kids not yet equipped to process lots of info at once. This condition—this input sensitivity—struck a chord: it reminded me of my own current battle with Info Overload and how frequently I feel mentally skittish, unable to focus, overwhelmed.

The benefits for app designers who exercise simliar restraint could be more than simply soothing mentally addled minds. There might be cognitive and pedagogical advantages—namely, by resisting the impulse to spoon feed viewers ready-made multimedia (tap here for alternate views of Harry’s march up the quidditch field), our apps might spur readers to construct their own memory-friendly mental models. Perhaps “show, don’t tell” needs updating for the iPad Age: Show less, learn more.

As the Children’s Picturebooks authors write: “all challenging picture books make readers work hard (though it’s enjoyable toil) at filling in the gaps between the words and pictures to construct meaning.”

Two examples in particular from the book are worth thinking about.

First, Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk (HarperCollins, 1968). About a young hen out for a walk, followed by a fox she doesn’t see, it’s:

“…one of the first picturebooks to fully subvert the relationship between the “seen” and the heard. The secret lies in what the words don’t say as the fox is never mentioned in the written text, which comprises a single sentence about Rosie…taking a walk “across the yard”, “around the pond,” etc. then coming safely home. The fun comes from the fact that the fox…has one misadventure after another as he chases after her. The book never fails to elicit squeals of “Behind you!” in young children as they try to alert the hen to the danger. The reader never knows whether Rosie is very cool, very stupid, or just plain lucky, but picturebooks like these provoke young readers to be actively involved in making meaning as they fill the gaps in for themselves.”

Rosie's Walk excerpt: fox following clueless hen

Next, consider John Burningham’s Granpa (Jonathan Cape, 1984), which leaves:

“…tantalizing gaps for the reader to fill in. In Granpa…the grandfather and granddaughter don’t have an actual dialog; instead the words are made up of those scraps of conversation that sometimes go nowhere—such as questions that have no answers…Most powerful of all is the final spread where the little girl, whose body posture is one of dejection, looks across at granpa’s empty chair. Burningnam leaves the reader to respond to the image and interpret whether granpa has died or not. Children often come up with alternative explanations for his disappearance as they don’t want to face the inevitability of death. Such picturebooks allow young readers that license.”

cover for "Granpa"

Two thought-provoking examples of the power of things left unsaid, of visuals not shown. The idea seems almost heretical, given a canvas as capable as the iPad. But it’s definitely worth a bit of chin stroking for book app designers: what if we didn’t show absolutely everything? What would viewers gain if, rather than being able to explore, they were forced to imagine what’s not there?