I really, truly did not set out to be a children’s book reviewer when I launched this blog, but children’s books found me, and no less than 20% of the reviews on this blog are of picture books and early middle-grade readers and chapter books. I’m a mother and the daughter & sister of elementary school teachers, so familiarity with children’s literature comes naturally, and when I started building up my reputation with publishers on NetGalley the easiest thing to do to build my stats quickly was to knock out 3-5 children’s books in a single evening a couple of times a week. So when I started reviewing for blog tour companies and children’s books came up, accepting those opportunities was perfectly natural. At this point, there are some tour companies I host for where I almost exclusively review children’s titles and only spotlight or guest host the older audience titles. I say all of this to impress upon you, my readers, just how many children’s book interiors I have set my eyes on in the last couple of years.
I’ve noticed a trend in self-published and small/indie publisher children’s titles that just isn’t there in more traditionally published children’s titles, and that’s font choices that have clearly been made with aesthetics in mind. There’s one indie press that loves to use photoshop’s “outer glow” filter to add a white haze around lettering to make it pop on top of an otherwise fully illustrated page. It would be fine if the pages contained only a couple of lines of large-print text, but this is usually paragraphs of 10-12 point black text on top of multi-colourful or darkly saturated images, and it’s tiring on the eyes to read it. Books in my daughter’s collection from bigger publishers that have attempted a similar text overlayed on illustrations put the text in a box that is as opaque as it needs to be to make the text easily legible.
Designers: Consider that parents are frequently reading these books to their kids at bedtime, relying on bedside lamps in a darkened room because the kids need to settle and there’s no natural light left coming in through the windows. Consider that teachers are reading from awkward angles or even upside down as they attempt to show their students the illustrations while they read. Consider that slightly older children who are learning to read along, rather than just listen and enjoy the story, are learning to recognize letters and words for the first time. Design choices that make text easier to read at the expense of covering a little more of the illustration are worth it. I am both a parent and an illustrator and I would rather see 60% opacity white boxes over the corner of the illustration and be able to read the text.
A more important issue, though, is font choice.
I’ve seen many, many children’s books published with fonts that are meant to look like a child’s printing or like cursive handwriting or even like those magnetic bubble letters from the fridge complete with glossy spots where they catch the light. These are cute for the cover. For the actual book contents? Please seriously consider revisiting a more traditional font.
For the average child, the issue is that they’re learning to recognize letters, as mentioned above, and many creative fonts present unique letterforms or squish them until they’re really only four different shapes that vary ever so slightly so that an experienced reader sees 26 shapes but an inexperienced (or tired) reader struggles. For a minority of readers, both children and adults, learning disabilities will conflict with these fonts and make the text unreadable. I’ve met dyslexic readers whose brains refuse to acknowledge the existence of bold or italic variations in standard fonts and quite literally just skip over any portion of a line of text that is bold or italic. (Imagine how difficult this makes following printed instructions when vital words are in bold for emphasis.) Now imagine these readers trying to read a font that is designed to look like a cursive writing learner made an honest attempt. It might very well be impossible.
I make these comments in my reviews every time I see these issues come up and sometimes I get an author who responds to thank me for pointing out something they hadn’t considered, and in those cases I’m flustered on their behalf that the professionals they worked with to get their book published didn’t know or care about this issue. Children’s book authors, be aware of this. Push your designers and editors to make sure your book is accessible to new and struggling readers. Designers and editors, please do whatever research or take whatever classes you need to make sure you understand how aesthetics can hinder accessibility, and don’t be afraid to oppose authors or illustrators who come in with an unsuitable font wish because they don’t realize it’s a problem.
We’re all in this because we love to see children reading and learning to love literature. Let’s do what we can to make that an accessible experience.
If you want to go above and beyond, look into fonts that are specifically designed for dyslexic readers in mind. I promise, they won’t annoy or alienate your non-dyslexic readers, and they may help more than just your dyslexic audience. The example to the left is the font “Open Dyslexic” and this is incorporated into all Kindle reading platforms. I’m not dyslexic myself (as far as I know) but I find I can read this font faster, so this is my own personal default setting.
Thanks for coming to my TedTalk! Kidding, kidding. It’s rare that I have a whole weekend without any tour stops these days, but this weekend has featured original articles on both days rather than a book spotlight or a review for the first time in many months. It’s been fun! In case you missed it, yesterday I responded to a Book Riot article on deleting your Goodreads TBR shelf.