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16. Interacting with nonfiction picturebooks in art museums

Betül Gaye Dinç (1994) is a graduate student at Erasmus Mundus International Master in Children’s Literature, Media and Culture. She has published in Studies in Comics and Drawing: Research, Practice and Theory, and worked in Women’s Museum Istanbul and Pera Museum.

Ilgım Veryeri Alaca (1975) is Associate Professor at Koç University, Media and Visual Arts Department. She contributed to The Routledge companion to picturebooks and The Routledge international handbook of early literacy education, Leonardo and Bookbird Journals.

This chapter analyses nonfiction picturebooks that ease children’s interactions in art museums as they practice meaning-making of the artworks. First, it examines relations between museums and picturebooks to explain art. Second, it gives examples of books offering sensorial, spatial, hands-on and bodily engagements that educate children on art history via guided play. Thus, it presents how nonfiction picturebooks support understanding of art and museums through guided and embodied experience.

Keywords: nonfiction picturebooks, museums, interaction, guided play


This chapter examines nonfiction picturebooks that support children’s engagements with artworks in museums. These fabricated spaces foster museum literacy by assessing the artworks on display. Children practice abstract thinking, cultural or geographic mapping, and aesthetic appreciation to fully value the object’s site-specific affordances and significance in relation to its period. Nonfiction picturebooks can ease the task of looking beyond the surface of art objects by providing background details and initiating guided play scenarios that facilitate meaning-making on the path to museum literacy.

Lord (2007) defines education in a museum as “a transformative experience” where art appreciation and change of values may take place (p. 17). The multisensory involvement and physical activities transform a child from a passive receiver of knowledge to “an embodied experiencer” (Birch, 2018, p. 518) and can affect how the artworks are processed and what is retained. Johnson (2017) identifies knowledge and knowing as “embodied, fallible, and perspectival… situated, value laden and action oriented” (p. 222). As such, is the museum experience sufficient to leave a lasting impression on young minds? Can nonfiction picturebooks reinforce children’s engagement with artworks to make it more memorable?

Reynolds (2012) discusses the spectator’s kinesthetic perception process, citing Grosz’s (2008, p. 72) premise that “Sensation is neither in the world nor in the subject but is the relation of unfolding of the one for the other through a body created at their interface”. Considering the body’s formidable capacity for perception, physical methods of inquiry that instructs children’s playful actions with a certain level of autonomy initiates guided play in museum learning (Weiseberg et al., 2016, p. 178). Picturebooks related to the museums further children’s art-based, experiential and active engagements by offering options to personalize the narration. Recognizing the benefits, museums publish picturebooks to help children navigate the space while suggesting hands-on, kinesthetic involvement to inform and evoke interest in art. The picturebook selections for this study prioritize the transmission of museum content that facilitates gathering information through the sense of the body’s movement and then provides activities as a physical outlet to react to the given content.

This chapter investigates the complementary relationship of learning about and experiencing art to demonstrate this relationship between museums and nonfiction picturebooks. In doing so, an examination is conducted of a selection of nonfiction picturebooks that incorporate sensorial materials or guidance, orient children in space, trigger creative decisions via hands-on activities and heighten museum presence through bodily engagement. Finally, we demonstrate the capacity of these picturebooks to convey information about the museum and trigger children’s deeper involvement with artworks and meaning-making of artistic and curatorial practices while providing an active experience via sensory engagement, performative action, and physical manipulation.

Fusing Art Exhibits and Nonfiction Picturebooks

Scale aside, picturebooks and artworks in museums stage their visual, textual and material affordances similarly, though as pages and individual pieces respectively. The handling of content that connects them (Nodelman, 2018, p. 19) and strengthens children’s aesthetic understanding is the same handling of content in the selected books that blend fiction and nonfiction to bring children’s world closer to the artistic realm. What differentiates picturebooks from artworks is their varying proximities to the observer (Spector, 1995, p. 17; Moebius, 2017, p. 30) and the difference between how we view the content. Our interaction with the artworks is confined to the museum usually restricted to a safe distance with the occasional installations that invite touch. However, the nonfiction picturebooks that resemble portable art galleries permit children to experience the art on their own wherever they are (Lechner, 1993, p. 34) and without restrictions. During a visit to the museum, perusing art history picturebooks benefits children’s learning that continues even afterward. Yohlin (2012) asserts, “as visual art objects that are already relevant to a child’s prior knowledge and experience, picturebooks can be used as natural extensions into museum learning, facilitating the creation of new knowledge through existing knowledge” (p. 261). Kiefer and Wilson (2011) assert that picturebooks (both fiction and nonfiction) should not only inform and develop a better understanding of ourselves and others but also delight (p. 291). As such, many of the museum picturebooks include narratives to explain the presence and behaviors of the characters appearing in the artworks to help children form a connection between the books and the artworks (Yohlin, 2012, p. 261). And since the fictional narrative and nonfiction picturebooks together transmit a symbolic but innocuous space for the viewer to critically reflect upon and physically interact with artworks, they demystify art and make it accessible to children.

The nature of the artwork itself proposes a system of inquiry changing from era to era, artist to artist. Since art is “prefigured in the very processes of living” (Dewey, 2005, p. 24), art as a way of knowing based on experience is flexible and contextual. To understand an artwork, people connect different experiences, think through symbols and metaphors, make meaning from ambiguity, respond through their feelings and bodily involvement (Bruner, 1979, pp. 59–74). Art triggers critical thinking, emotional engagement, and a physical state of perception as revealed in the selected nonfiction picturebooks where information is attained through interaction, contemplation, and sensation. Thus, these nonfiction picturebooks are not so much a replication of the exhibition in narrative form as a repository of inquiry. Thus, recommended activities pique children’s interest in the exhibition and ease their meaning-making process before the visit as well as during and after the exhibition.

Interactions with Museum-Related Nonfiction Picturebooks

In the 17th and 18th centuries, visitors to museums were able to touch and hold the art objects (Classen, 2017; Howes, 2014), granting adults multisensory and kinesthetic interactions with the artworks. It was only once concern for preserving the art object’s integrity that artworks became strictly an ocularcentric experience and a museum turned into “a site of pure spectatorship” (Howes, 2014, p. 260). Nowadays, museums are again becoming “sensory playgrounds” (Classen, 2017, p. 17), and curatorial decisions now include how to incorporate touch, smell and taste as well as movement into the outreach programs that are accompanied by picturebooks.

Nodelman (2018) views interactions with picturebooks and museums as quite similar in that both benefit from a playful approach to the object and related information. Art and play are frequently linked since aesthetic activity is often regarded as “an extension and universalization of play, performing durably for whole societies those benefits which play bestows temporarily upon the individual participants” (Hein, 1968, p. 69). Any playful interactions nonfiction picturebooks facilitate not only support the art experience, but also provide the rudimentary terminology needed to acquire museum and artistic literacy. Roskos and Christie (2013) explain that to optimize the literacy experience in a play environment one must offer animated literacy activities that should be done with adults (p. 92). Nonfiction picturebooks are examples of the type of literacy objects that provide directed playful activities. Zosh et al. (2018) instigated a range of free play to guided activities to observe the effects of play on learning and discovered that children benefit from guided play the most (p. 8). Weisberg et al. (2016) describe guided play as, “learning experiences that combine the child-directed nature of free play with a focus on learning outcomes and adult mentorship” (p. 177). Nonfiction picturebooks for museums in particular utilize guided play. The activities therein direct children to observe the artworks and repeat the information through activities and interactions designed to initiate embodied learning. The embodiment, “the enactment of knowledge and concepts through the activity of our bodies” (Lindgren & Johnson-Glenberg, 2013, p. 445), offered in these books is based on “child autonomy and adult guidance” (Weisberg et al., 2016, p. 177) merging into the guided play.

Sensory engagements

As mentioned earlier, art museum visitors were once encouraged to engage in tactile and kinesthetic sensations (Classen, 2017) despite art historians defining the illusion of the senses as a painting’s principle objective (p. 123). Passionate art patrons not only desire to touch the artwork but embody the experience depicted in the artwork attaining closeness to the immersion of the artist into the creative experience. Nodelman (2018) explains “there is something magical about the fact that any one particular combination of canvas and paint that hangs in a museum was once touched by its artist, actually brought into existence by its creator’s hands” (pp. 9–10). And since “touch demands exchange both between bodies and within the self” (Mileaf, 2010, p. 10), tactility provides a significant personal interaction with the picturebook and indirectly with the artwork. Picturebooks can provide background for the artist’s sensorial experience relating it to the scene in the artworks. More than meets the eye (2003) by Bob Raczka introduces the sensory involvement in the paintings initiating the readers to the artist’s sensation. It suggests the smell of the shoes in Van Gogh’s Three Pairs of Shoes, the sound of the water’s voice in Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, the taste of milk in Vermeer’s The Kitchen Maid furthering sensorial engagement than just looking at art.

Touch the art: Make Van Gogh’s bed (2006) by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo as well evokes the senses thus to create a tactile experience. The book reproduces famous Impressionist paintings to appear as if framed and mounted on a wall with information labels giving details of the work like in a museum. The difference, however, is that children may touch these artworks enriched with materials and textures such as the fabric blanket on Van Gogh’s bed, the tulle curtain on Morisot’s cradle or the sand on Cassatt’s beach. Since sensation of touch perception differs dramatically from surface to surface (Hollins & Risner, 2000, p. 702), children benefit from exploring painted textures in real by smoothing the blanket or feeling the sand to gain material awareness and learn to distinguish between smoothness and roughness. Exploring textures while reading is beneficial to consolidating memory as “haptic exploration is consistently more sequential and more time-consuming than visual exploration” (Heller & Gentaz, 2013, p. 41). Hence, the text’s direction to touch the art itself expands the experience from the fingertips to the whole body especially when the narrator directs the children to extend their arms and take a peach in Cezanne’s Still Life. As children touch the imitation skin of the peaches whose real skin can be unpleasant for some, this creates intimacy between the figures and the child reader in a form of guided play that supports memory and learning because children are expected to complete an action related to these textures. Moreover, the story takes children on a circadian circuit from morning to night. As children spend more time reading and feeling this picturebook than looking at the images, they become aware of paintings representing a day cycling through to night-time. The story starts with Van Gogh’s bedroom and the concept of starting the day by making the bed, it continues by recommending outdoor activities (e.g. visiting Water Lilies) and ends with Starry Night as the closing scene and an indication that it is time for bed. The story tells tales of daily life and mundane activities that children can relate to so as to create a connection to art and evoke the emotions encapsulated while reading and touching the book.

Spatial engagements

Museums of necessity put restrictions on their visitors, and therefore being in a museum space requires a certain careful control over our bodies and a heightened sense of proprioception, “the awareness of one’s body in space” (Mileaf, 2010, p.10). Just walking through a museum, regulating the pace and distance from the artworks becomes a bodily performance of the art spectator (Leahy, 2012, p. 75). Adults are accustomed to moderating their behavior based on their surroundings, but children need to be taught. The picturebook The terrible Captain Jack visits the museum or a guide to museum manners for incorrigible pirates and the like (2007) by Diane Matyas is essentially a manual for proper behavior in a museum that uses humorous examples to advise children on what not to do in this setting. Space in museums’ nonfiction picturebooks applies to any exhibition place as well as the space around an artwork. By educating children on museum etiquette beforehand creates a familiarity with that space and the concept of behaving according to a certain manner (Falk & Dierking, 2018, p. 123). Hackett et al. (2018) divide interactions in space into the four categories of abstract, physical, social and embodied (pp. 489–502) from which they create a grid that combines these as abstract physical, abstract social, embodied physical, and embodied social. Nonfiction picturebooks employ all four incarnations of these interactions and the combinations. The maps in these picturebooks are abstract physical representations of museum space, the narratives an abstract social commentary on the space, open-ended questions and activities embodied physical usage of the space, and dialogic reading with peers embodied social activity in the space. Thus, nonfiction picturebooks allow children to explore space metaphorically, physically and socially in abstract and embodied ways without strict restrictions.

I spy with Rembrandt’s eye (2004) by Robert Kana-Devilee and Petra Uterwijk also plays with abstract physical and social space as the narrator Rembrandt takes the reader on a room-by-room tour of the Rijksmuseum. For example, when Rembrandt enters the Dolls’ Houses room, the book first shows the painting of Petronella Oortman’s Doll’s House, which is a miniature of a canal house. The following pages show photos of the collection cabinet that houses the doll house furnished with objects made to scale from authentic materials. When the child opens the cabinet doors of the canal house in the book, she can see into the miniature doll house and play with it in the space of the page unlike the real doll house. As the story invites children to partake in Petronella’s daily activities changing every hour, they start to imagine living in that space in a miniature canal house. By leading children to picture themselves there, it arouses “embodied interpretation” (Steier, Pierroux, & Krange, 2015) through social gestures such as pretending to have afternoon tea with Petronella. Playacting creates a fictional space around the artwork and the nonfiction picturebooks, and it is here that children discover art through individual or group activities that allow them the autonomy to physically and socially embody that space.

Hands-on and bodily engagements

For children, touch is as crucial part of the reading process as seeing and hearing. Hands and touching enrich the reading experience and create intimacy between the book and the child (Mackey, 2017, p. 178) just as bodily engagements enhance the museum experience. Non-discursive activities such as mimicking the perceived events and actions as well as sounds in the artwork (Hubard, 2007) combined with the hands-on and kinesthetic activities in picturebooks promote embodied learning and artistic literacy. Recognizing that picturebooks offer engagements with artworks, the Sadberk Hanım Museum’s two activity books, Sadberk Hanım Museum archaeology activity book (see Fig. 16.2), Sadberk Hanım Museum art history activity book and iPad application, Along to the Museum!, all support developing children’s basic motor skills through activities that include cutting and drawing (Zanbak et al, 2015a; Zanbak et al, 2015b; Zanbak et al, 2015c).

It is through materialized activities, however, that the narratives based on the art in the museum recommend children role-play to re-create the undetermined performances as well as the culture (Holzman, 2008, p. 52) in acts of embodied learning. For example, this museum has Roman masks from Anatolia (see Fig. 16.1) in its collection, and as such the book provides a paper mask that children can cut out and wear as they attitudinize as a Roman actor might. Acting a part as an embodied activity can be regarded as loosely guided play in that though the nonfiction picturebooks propose it, once the acting begins the child asserts independence. Also, the iPad application of the picturebooks contains audio stories and games about artworks (e.g., coloring pages, jigsaw puzzles, labyrinths, riddles, matching games), extends the exhibition’s interactivity through digital affordances and induces transmedia reading during the visit due to the app’s valuable contribution to the whole experience of visiting and reading (Hamer, 2019, p. 391). Although interactivity in museums should not overshadow critical engagements (Hamer, 2019, p. 397), combining exhibition designs, print and digital picturebooks intensifies children’s embodiment of museum space through playful and critical activities that provides different movements.

Figure 16.1

A satyr mask from Roman period, Anatolia (2–3th century BC), Sadberk Hanım Museum Collection.

Reproduced with permission.
Figure 16.2

Sadberk Hanım Museum archaeology activity book (2015), by İdil Zanbak, Leyla Demirbağ Atay and Sadberk Hanım Museum, Vehbi Koç Foundation.

Reproduced with permission.

Other playful activities can arouse children’s agency such as choosing where to place the stickers in Stickyscapes at the museum (2018) by Laura Junger (see Fig. 16.3). This book finds merit in moving children through the museum space innovatively while taking a critical look at the restrictive museum rules that are often taught in books such as The terrible Captain Jack visits the museum and I spy with Rembrandt’s eye. The aim is not to disobey museum rules per se but to transform a contemporary museum experience from a didactic one to an interactive one and expand children’s thinking in order to free their imagination. To this end, the book portrays the museum during the day on one side, showing children swinging on Calder’s Mobile or holding hands in an imitation of Matisse’s Dance. But the flipside shows a night scene with a mummy escaping its sarcophagus and a ghost painting a ballerina’s portrait while children swim in an aquarium with a shark and other creatures. Thus, the picturebook provides a vivid representation of some plausible and some implausible interactions to embody the art experience.

Figure 16.3

Stickyscapes at the museum (2018), by Laura Junger, Laurence King Publishing.

Reproduced with permission.

While the stickers in this book provide material to create a museum environment, the stickers in the hybrid book Le Petit Musée de Picasso (2015) by Beatrice Fontanel, which targets older children, are for curatorial purposes. The accordion pages of this book represent the walls of the museum and the stickers provide critical engagement with the museum concept through the hands-on activity of making curatorial choices. According to Sanders (2018), “Critical engagement is characterised by a sharing of authority between reader and text, allowing for a form of active dialogue between text and reader rather than the reader’s passive receipt of information from the authoritative text” (p. 13). Hence, as children contemplate this symbolic museum as a space for implementing creative ideas, their figurative co-curation of this nonfiction book helps them to understand the curator’s job. Eventually, these tie-in merchandises remediate the book, further the hands-on engagement with artworks (Hamer, 2019, p. 396) and act as souvenirs that are the tactile metonymies of experiences in specific contexts and a narration tool to curate memories afterwards (Stewart, 1993, pp.134–135).

In Boston Fine Arts Museum’s picturebook, A grand tour: Sharing stories from art (2006), children hang up their curator’s hat and embark on a tour of the Boston Fine Arts Museum as this nonfiction picturebook guides them from one artifact to the next. The inserted map suggests various activities that support performative actions for the children to try out and has tips for the adult reader to guide children through the space. The map even plots the steps an adult should take to narrate the tale of an artifact: 1) choose the objects, 2) find them on the map and create a route, 3) observe each object, 4) read the story aloud accompanied by exaggerated playful actions. The fact that adults are mischievously participating in the jesting narration of these stories gradually decreases children’s apprehension of the museum experience until they become accustomed to and less intimidated by the museum. Even as children are put at ease in the museum proper, it is still important that there be a room where they can discuss the artifacts presented in this book and engage in guided play such as pretending to be an archaeologist or posing like Durga. For instance, since one of the book’s fictive stories is based on Cernigliaro’s Carousel Figure of a Pig, children are asked to imagine a carousel in the museum space. The story is about a pig named Cornelius who is unsatisfied with his comfortable life in a barnyard and finds his calling as a carousel animal. Imagining the pig’s transformation, children jump up and kneel down while running in large circles mimicking the up-and-down motion and rotation of the carousel pig. Integrating performance in the informational context creates opportunities to embody the text (Branscombe, 2015) and the artwork. As movements that are oriented by museums through guidelines or design and initiated by children through their bodily capacities effect each other (Hackett et al., 2018, p. 12), these books transform the practices in museums by inviting children to experience the space with their autonomy, pace, and perception. Picturebooks which illustrate this embodiment include The museum (2013) by Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds; it depicts a child whirling “twinkly, sparkly, super swirly” (p. 4) in Starry Nights. Posing as The Thinker helps her question and mimicking as the figure in a Picasso internalizes the Blue Period’s sadness. Reynolds (2012) suggests, “motor imitation carries affective charge that intensifies emotional response” (p. 88), thus she ultimately reflects her feelings on a blank canvas. While asserting that the museum lives inside of us in the book (p. 28), activities in “The educator’s guide for the museum” (2013) by FableVision Learning et al. hint an ongoing learning by linking reading and the actual visit. Thus, once children are presented with the activities the books outline, they themselves initiate embodied interaction to extend their museum learning beyond those lines.


This chapter presented the possibilities for embodied reading experiences of nonfiction picturebooks that enable guided play to heighten understanding of art history and museums. Considering that artistic knowledge is fluid and filtered through personal encounters and perspectives as well as social, geographic, and historic information, preparing nonfiction picturebooks for a museum environment requires an integration of both fiction and nonfiction as well as building in guided play. To bring children closer to free artistic thinking, the selected books prompt children to employ their senses, hands or bodies to deepen their appreciation for and conceptualize complex artifacts, surface textures and their installation space. Using spatial, narrative, and material engagements to facilitate children’s processing of art, these books present opportunities to perform in relation to the art supported by multisensorial, spatial, hands-on, and bodily endeavors. The picturebooks where children may handle images of artworks, move according to the instructions as well as take on curatorial responsibilities via relocating artworks in books are examples of the type of embodied learning supported by guided play that facilitate children’s autonomy and team building with peers. The chapter demonstrated that vital transformative interplay between nonfiction picturebooks and art museums that makes use of interactions to further children’s creative choices and sensory involvement channel their meaning-making of artworks.


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