Most blind children do not like to have their hands pulled over to touch something. Grabbing a child’s hand and forcing him to touch something is a terribly rude and invasive thing to do to a blind child. Instead, tempt the child to touch by using inviting language – “Would you look at this little puppy, he is so soft, I can’t believe it” – and by holding the book in a place where it is easy for the child to touch what you are talking about. Some children like to touch illustrations, others only “glance” at them with a brief flick of the fingertips, a “sneaky peek”. Some children love lifting a flap to see what is underneath, others won’t touch the flap and need the teacher to lift and hold it open before they venture forth. Some children will choose one book over another, yet still refuse to touch any part of it, just enjoying the story.
We do not force sighted children to look at things, we never hold their heads in a specific angle, or push things into their field of view. We invite visual interest. Do not force a blind child to touch things. Tactile interest must also be invited and is based on trust. Offer the blind child whatever you have. Some children may need a little persuasion – “Check this out. If you don’t like it, just give it right back to me, all right? My hands are ready to take it back. But you first – one, two three – here it is.” However, this is not the same as holding their hands tightly and pushing things into their little fingers. It is always an invitation.
If you know that your child does not like things that are furry, then try to not use this kind of material in his books. Use other materials instead – for instance textured fabrics or papers. If he can’t stand the feel of rubber balloons, don’t make him touch them, offer him alternative toys instead. It is all too easy to put a child who is blind off touching things; once they refuse to handle objects, it can take years before they are willing to start again. Be gentle with the hands.
For a story to be meaningful to a child, the child must have had some previous and relevant experiences with what the story is about. The story must be engaging, the characters recognizable, and the plot appealing to your particular child if you want your child to be interested in a book.
Children’s interests varies greatly. Some children love everything to do with cars and trucks, others prefer animal stories. Yet other children are passionate about stories told in rhyme, or lift-the-flap books. It is up to you to find the books that suit your child’s interest best.
For the blind child, Braille is their reading medium. A book without Braille is like a book without print – to the blind child, if there are no tactile words, the page is utterly blank. While it is true that some books need no words, if there is a story to be told, at least part of the story should be available in Braille so your child acquires some experiences with Braille.
For the blind child, a book without tactile illustrations is like a print book without pictures. How can we expect a young child to be interested in a book with no pictures? The tactile illustrations are the link between your child’s concrete, tactile experiences in the world – what he can hold and explore using his hands and feet – and a symbolic representation of that experience. The closer the illustration resembles the experience, the better it is understood by the child.
We give very young children concept books – books about colors and shapes, about finding and identifying common objects, about numbers and counting. We give them short stories with simple words, phrases that repeat or rhyme, that illustrate situations they recognize from their own lives: bedtime, bath time, stories about pets and toys and family routines. These are excellent books to start building your child’s tactile literacy.
With the exception of color concepts, most of these books are easy to adapt to a tactile format. I am not a fan of teaching color to a young child who cannot see the colors. It is incomprehensible, confusing, and very visually motivated. A child who is blind does not care whether the banana is yellow or purple, they are interested in the shape, feel and taste of the banana. I prefer to focus on the texture of things – like the fact that a banana is long, smooth and slightly rubbery; an orange is very round with puckered skin; an apple is smooth and firm with a clear indent at the top.
Once the child who is blind or severely visually impaired has some experiences with books, they may be ready for specific themes. Many preschools have themes they work with that follow the seasonal calendar – Fall: apples, pumpkins, Halloween, and Thanksgiving; Winter: holidays, snowmen, and gingerbread men; Spring: flowers and trees, chickens and eggs; Summer: sun and warm weather, ice cream and trips to the park. In between, there are school buses, fire engines and trains, farm animals and family routines.
Having explored a number of themes, you and your child may have identified one or more themes that are particularly fascinating. Your job becomes a question of how to provide a steady supply of varied and interesting tactile books within this theme to keep your child interested in books, and interested in reading. Some you can buy, most you will have to make yourself.
For young children, illustrations are the major attraction of any book. Lifting the flap to find Spot is a thrilling adventure of hide and seek. Watching Max wrestle with the fearsome Wild Things shows us all how very brave Max is. Seeing the expression on Ferdinand’s face when he sits on the bee is very funny.
Visual illustrations are all about color, shape, and size. Characters’ facial expressions and body language drive the story, as well as their relative size to others in the illustrations.
Tactile illustrations, on the other hand, rely on texture, size, and sequence to provide information about the story. The texture of the materials you use should reflect the qualities of what you are illustrating. A dog does not feel the same as a ball or a spoon. Using the same materials to illustrate vastly different objects is like using the same color for everything in a picture – imagine a picture where the sun, the trees, the playground, the little boy and his ball are all the same shade of yellow. It doesn’t make sense.
Just as different shades of color are used to indicate visual differences, so too should the textures vary. For instance, Spot and his mother are both dogs. Therefore, their illustrations should both be soft, furry materials that resemble what a dog feels like. However, Spot is a puppy, he is the little one. His fur should be shorter and feel softer than his mother’s fur. I use two different kinds of soft fur to illustrate Spot and his mother. And although Spot has other furry friends – the bear and the chimpanzee – the feeling of their fur is so different from dog fur that there is no confusion.
Size is a very powerful way of illustrating differences in tactile illustrations. In a visual picture, a snowman can be shown far away – a complete body shot of the snowman on the hill and the surrounding landscape is not uncommon. In the next illustration, we can see a close-up of the same snowman, the picture indicating only part of his head. Visually speaking, this shift in perspective is interesting and makes the reader feel close to the action. However, this shift of perspective often makes no sense to the tactile learner.
Touch is a sense of proximity, of nearness. When you touch something, you gain certain information about its texture, size, expanse, weight, density, and temperature. Every time you touch the same object, it “looks” the same to your fingers. You cannot touch something that is farther away than your reach, so it always keeps most of the same qualities every time you are in contact with it.
Vision is very different. Vision is a distance sense, it allows us to view things that are far away, things that are very large, too fragile to touch, too deep to reach. Visual experience informs us that even when something is portrayed as small, if it is far enough away, it may yet become large when viewed up close. Visually, it makes perfect sense that the small snowman at the top of the hill in the distance is the same snowman that you see up close on the next page.
When making tactile illustrations that are meaningful to a young blind child, size is not about distance or perspective. Rather it is about concepts such as big and little, and also about relative age and status – for instance, mother and child.
The thinnest paper I use is the buff colored Braille paper from APH. It was made for Braille and is sturdy enough for lightweight illustrations. I also use card stock. The heavier the illustrations, the heavier the paper needed to support them.
I often use colored card stock, for two main reasons. If a child has any residual vision, even if they cannot read printed text, colored tactile illustrations may make it easier for them to understand the illustration using all available senses. So I use background colors that contrast with foreground illustrations, as well as contrasting textures. There is no reason not to make the tiger orange or the pig pink as long as they are also tactile-ly furry and stripy or smooth with a curly tail at one end. Also, even if the child I am making a book for is blind, chances are that other children in his family or classroom are sighted, and will be more interested in sharing his books with him if they find them visually interesting.
However, even when I use colored card stock, the tactile illustrations are always tactile first, visual second.
Books can be made in any size you like. However, unlike print books, where the words inside can be either huge or itsy-bitsy, Braille is a standard size all the time. The size of the book should always accommodate the Braille text.
I prefer to make smaller books to fit small hands. I also prefer to minimize the amount of paper-cutting I do, so I generally try to make a single cut in a sheet of paper. Thus, most of my books are 8½ by 8½ inches – allowing me to cut a large number of pages quickly and efficiently with a single slice of the paper guillotine.
Interlined Braille Text:
I always complete the Braille of the page first. This allows me to actually feed the paper into the Brailler, and to work out the structure of the book. It gives me the number of pages in the book, the size of the pages, whether all or just part of the text will be Brailled, if there will be Braille on both pages or if I choose to keep the Braille on the left side and illustrations on the right side, where I will put page numbers, and how to plan my illustrations.
For preschool books, I always use Grade 1 interlined Braille, writing out all words and using standard punctuation and formatting. This allows families and teachers who are not familiar with Braille code to read along, matching letter for letter in the text. I Braille on every other line, allowing a blank line between each line of Braille where I can write in the print words immediately above the Brailled words using a permanent marker. This gives a one-to-one correspondence between the Braille symbol and the print letter and allows a sighted adult to follow along the Braille text seamlessly.
I always add Braille and print page numbers at the lower right hand side of each page. By placing it consistently at the same place in every book, my hope is that a child looking through the book may notice it, explore it, and ask about it some day.
My current favorite right now is a simple spiral comb binding. I like this binding because it allows the book to open flat so two little hands can explore the pages at the same time. The spiral comb is also easy, inexpensive, durable, and comes in a variety of sizes and colors. If it wears out, it is easy to replace.
Some books can be a simple accordion fold of the paper, making 2 or 4 pages. This also folds out flat for easy exploration of the sequences in the book and is super easy to make.
If you plan to use real objects, or very heavy illustrations, you might want to consider a three ring binder and reinforce the holes in the paper.
For a very quick and inexpensive way to gather pages of a book together, you could use large binder rings. However, the pages tend to slip around more when the binding is less solid, making it harder to read the Braille and explore the illustrations.
Materials for the Illustrations:
This is the funnest and the trickiest part of making a tactile book. Just like in print books, the tactile illustrations can make or break the story, making it the child’s favorite book or the last one picked.
I use a variety of materials when making tactile illustrations. I have several boxes of different fabrics, and a big bag of different kinds of fake and real fur. I have boxes of textured papers, cardboard, and strange materials picked up at garage sales, at thrift shops, even off construction sites. I want the immediate feel of the illustration to evoke the experience a child has of the situation. So I have textured plastic which I use to illustrate frogs, sheets of thin cork for the log they sit on, super-soft floppy fur for a dog’s ear, and knobbly textured paper for fishy scales. I use anything I can that is safe, non-toxic, and strictly fastened to the page. I have been known to sew bedding onto cardboard to make the beds for Goldilocks and the Three Little Bears.
Build your own collection of textured materials to use for books and other tactile materials in class. The more variety, the better.
I always try to plan the materials I use beyond the scope of a single book. For instance, if I use one type of fur for a puppy, I try to use that same fur for all future puppies as well. This makes that specific texture familiar across different settings. Just as Maisie the mouse is visually similar from one book to another, so should the textures you use be similar to your child.
One little trick to making your tactile illustrations stand out:
I have a nice little collection of textured paper. If I cut a piece out and glue it straight onto the card stock of the book, it “disappears” on the page. It becomes a vague texture on the page rather than a noticeable illustration. So I glue the textured paper onto craft foam, then cut out the shape. This gives the correct texture, yet raises it off the paper, allowing the child to feel both the texture, the size, and the shape of the illustration.
There are a number of great adhesives available. I use glues and adhesives with a low moisture content, so they don’t warp the page. There is nothing worse than finding your beautifully Brailled book with buckled, uneven pages where the glue distorted the page during the night.
I use as lot of glue sticks, double-sided tape, occasionally some small dots of Elmer’s glue or wood glue, a hot glue gun, and even silicone caulk.
Sometimes I use Velcro so an illustration can be lifted off the page and shared with others, or used as a cue during circle time.
I have also used a sewing machine to sew fabric or other materials onto card stock; this works really well if the material has been placed on the page with some glue-stick first so it doesn’t skid all over the page!
Once you have all the elements in place, put your pages in order, then bind them together. I like to use a heavier cover on the book so it will stand up in a bookshelf and not slip down. This protects the Braille and the illustrations better. You can use heavy cardboard, tag board, or any other firm cover – just make sure it can be bound.
I like to add a title page in interlined Braille, and a Braille label to the cover, along with an illustration. This way a young child can feel which book he wants from a selection – he can just “look” at the picture on the front.