Campaign group Inclusive Minds claims that some publishers are prioritising design over accessibility, putting books out of the reach of children with dyslexia or other reading difficulties.
Inclusive Minds campaigns for inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature and one of its founders, Alex Strickland, said the meaning of a book is sometimes lost in the desire to make the design “more quirky”.
“Dark print on dark, cluttered backgrounds; mid-sentence changes in size or typeface; text which undulates all over the page or shoots off at different angles—these all make it extremely hard for any child to follow, especially a child who is struggling with any kind of reading difficulty,” she said.
For children with additional needs “clear, legible text, uncluttered pages and good levels of contrast are key”, she added, pointing out that authors such as Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins) produce clever and witty children’s books without “masses of fussy design work”.
Other design features that can help children with reading problems include a font size of at least 16 point and age-appropriate subjects.
According to Strickland, there is also the problem of publishers’ over-use of age banding.
“Some books, such as touch and feel books, are generally created with only the youngest of audiences in mind, when actually a book with any form of sensory stimulation has wide benefits to children with reading difficulties,” she said.
Mike Littler, assessment manager of the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), said neither awareness nor accessible design were at the forefront of publishers’ thoughts, so there are “not enough books designed with the dyslexic reader in mind”.
The BDA would like publishers to produce books in an accessible format as standard, he said.
However, both Littler and Strickland were keen to stress that the situation has improved in recent years, with Strickland praising specialist publishers Ransom and Barrington Stoke. Andersen Press, Random House, Child’s Play, Templar and Frances Lincoln have also published books that are appealing and engaging but also accessible, she said.
In January, Bloomsbury released The Story Machine by Tom McLaughlin, an author and illustrator who has dyslexia himself. “When I wrote The Story Machine, I deliberately tried to use fewer words and minimal design, not only because it suited the story, but the subject too,” he said.
“Good design is about knowing when to keep things simple as much as it is about being over elaborate,” he added.
Camilla Reid, editorial director at Nosy Crow, pointed out that publishers release books for children of all abilities and that innovative design can entice or excite the reader.
“If a character is shouting, you might want to make the text big and stretched; if someone is shy, or whispering, the text might be small and shaky,” she said. “All these things make picture books look fresh and visually exciting and, if done well, enhance the telling of the story.”
Sally Gardner, author of the CILIP Carnegie Medal-winning Maggot Moon (Hot Key Books) and also someone with dyslexia, pointed out that there are other ways of helping dyslexic children read.
“Dyslexic children should be encouraged to have the audio version of the book, and follow the text. I also encourage them to doodle, doing something with their hands helps and a stress ball works in a similar way. It means they will absorb more,” she said.