Case Study 5.3: An Accessible and Inclusive Book
The Ghost Story (El Cuento Fantasma)
Jaime Gamboa (text) Wen Hsu Chen (ills.)
Grupo Amanuense, 2012 Language: Spanish
The Ghost Story is the unusual story of a braille book that thinks it is a 'ghost' because its pages are blank and no one ever borrows it from the shelves of the library. Then it is 'discovered' by a blind girl who runs her fingers over its white pages to reveal the story within.
OIW came across The Ghost Story at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2013. We commissioned an English translation from award-winning translator Daniel Hahn and Access2Books provided the English braille and five mock-ups to use in focus groups of young visually impaired people.
The Ghost Story was written by Costa Rican author Jaime Gamboa, a writer, musician and journalist and illustrated by Hsu Wen Chen, Costa Rican artist born in Taiwan. The book is mentioned in the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava 2013.
The Ghost Story attracted widespread positive feedback across the VFG, individuals, schools and organisations.
Depiction of disability
Patricia Billings was struck by the book from the first page and its extraordinary metaphor for stories:
"The world is full of stories. Some are as long as lizards, others so short they never even make it as far as The End. There are stories as different from one another as the feathers of birds, as people’s faces, or the uncountable leaves on a great fig tree".
She described the book as.
"truly original and beautiful, and, for me, quite moving. The coloured paper cut-outs are exquisitely delicate; you want to reach into the book and touch these characters and shapes, yet to protect their fragile bodies at the same time. Being in this book makes me feel like I have travelled to a new country or visual realm".
Dr. Butler was also impressed by the book and felt that a unique feature of the book is the fact that the narrator is the book itself.
Other members of the VFG described The Ghost Story as:
"exceptional; both artistically and in the quality of the story and the way it is told", "stunning", "a real discovery" and "unforgettable".
The RNIB commented that the story was "clever – almost too clever".
OIW observed in the focus group with New College Worcester that the girls in the group seemed to engage with the book more than the boys. One student said "Aw, poor book!" as she read about it being lonely. She described it as "so sweet". Another described it as "brilliant".
Two boys (independently) commented on the fact that they thought from the title it would be about ghosts.
The teacher (Cathy Wright – Head of Key Stage Three) liked the way the story could be read on different levels, making it suitable for different needs. She commented that visually impaired children have often observed that they feel invisible so The Ghost Story presented a positive image of disability. Life for blind children can be something of a contradiction, a state of two extremes – either attracting attention (by standing out) or feeling marginalized or ignored.
The children and staff from Stepping Stones School clearly enjoyed the story being read to them, with the entire group listening intently. When asked afterwards, they all agreed that they liked the book. One of teachers noted that she thought it was a beautiful and intriguing story – "I didn’t guess where it was going".
When asked about the title, the children said they thought it was a good name for the book, although one or two, (when prompted), agreed with the children at New College Worcester who said that it could be seen as being a bit misleading, however the majority did not see this as a problem.
The Ghost Story was also well received as a group read at St. John's Infant School. The style and language were slightly advanced for the (5-year-old) audience, but it was still clearly enjoyed and the children were eager to feel the braille themselves and to discuss it. They enjoyed trying to work out which braille symbols represented which letters/words.
Quality and effectiveness
The book was felt to offer a very effective message. When asked what they thought the message was the students from New College Worcester said:
"It tells the public that there are braille books out there".
One boy (who has been blind since birth and learned braille when he was quite young) said of The Ghost Story "it’s an unusual style", but liked and understood it. He felt it could appeal to anyone and liked the idea of a secret waiting to be found.
Another boy was learning Spanish and did not describe himself a keen reader, but he liked the story and particularly enjoyed reading it in Spanish – stating that he preferred reading this version to reading the English one!
The teacher encouraged them to think about the book as a metaphor and they very clearly understood this concept.
Delegates from the Youth Library Group (YLG) Durham conference commented on the fact that The Ghost Story was both accessible AND inclusive. They also loved the way that it offered "something different".
Questions and concerns
Interestingly, both the VFG and some of the young people raised the issue about the 'accessibility' of the illustrations. There was a sense that in an ideal world the book could be improved still further by having some form of tactile content or at least improving the contrast of the artwork.
Beth Cox thought the combination of text and braille delivered the message well but commented:
"it does give the impression that VI readers only see white. It would be good if the book featured bold colours and indicated the contrasts that some readers might see".
extract from English/braille version prepared for OIW by Access2Books
Audience and viability
Patricia Billings mentioned the need for accessible books in libraries and of displaying them prominently.
Dr. Gillian Lathey felt the book would be of great use in the classroom.
Patricia Billings believes that The Ghost Story:
"will interest British publishers - any that have a special interest in accessible books, but also artistically-minded publishers; it has museum store appeal; a kind of art book that introduces children and adults, to braille, and to the concept of language equality. I can't stop looking at this book; I love it and I hope others do too!"
Beth Cox thought the book was definitely commercially viable and would have:
"a wide appeal as an unusual and striking book, as well as appealing to braille users".
Joanna Sholem would like to see The Ghost Story developed into a mainstream book that is both tactile and has braille. She observed how revolutionary it would be to develop more books which featured paper engineering with braille.
The book was also discussed by publishers at our Publisher Focus Group. The meeting involved two separate groups of publishers. Their feedback included:
More specific comments were made concerning the inclusion of braille and the mock-up version provided by OIW:
Alison Long, RNIB – felt The Ghost Story was a good example of best practice. She explained that 16pt font is generally called 'large print' and will suit a good proportion of children. Such children will usually be able to find some books which are accessible in libraries and bookshops. 24pt and above is 'giant print'. Whilst this is best practice it is not generally practical. Books such as this are very expensive for individual families.
Claire Maxwell, RNIB – confirmed that the braille (Grade 1, so uncontracted) was appropriate and easy to read. However she noted that it was a shame to have the 'large blank areas' (the pages featuring illustrations, inaccessible to someone without sight).
New College Worcester – students and staff alike were very pleased to see both text and braille. They agreed that the use of Grade 1 (uncontracted) braille was very good and ideal for new learners. They felt it might be worth considering double-spacing the braille, to make it even easier for younger braille readers. They would like to see greater contrast on the illustrations, or even find a way to make them tactile.
All the students discussed how few books exist in braille. As younger children, they said that there were never books available featuring braille. They wanted tactile books with simple braille words and they want to see the blurbs available in braille too. They can access books in audio now, (they mentioned that they particularly use Audible, the Amazon service), so are able to read almost anything they want but not in braille. They used to feel excluded from bookshops and libraries. “I would love to be able to just walk into a library and say ‘where is your braille section please?” said one student 'C'.
The students kept asking what was going on in the pictures which presented a challenge because they are quite abstract.
One student in particular, 'F', commented on the absence of tactile pictures. He said he liked The Ghost Story, but found it irritating/frustrating not to be able to see the illustrations. He wondered if you could have descriptions of the pictures "or have objects" to feel.
Stepping Stones – One student 'T' (aged 11) – liked the actual story but said he felt that there should be "more colour and variety" in the pictures. He observed that it would be stronger to have lots of colourful elements and just the ghost 'book' itself pale and mysterious. 'T' said he didn’t like the way you couldn’t really see the child/people in the pictures. However, he liked the cover and the title. He enjoyed trying out the braille, something he had never come across before. He spent a lot of time looking at the braille alphabet at the end and commenting on it.
Another student 'O', (aged nearly 13) – said he "quite liked" the braille, but was not overly enthusiastic. He did like the story, however.
With the lyrical text, beautifully translated into English by Daniel Hahn, and the exquisite and unusual illustrations by Hsu Wen Chen whose technique combines watercolour and paper cutting, OIW felt that The Ghost Story was fresh, different and would bring something new to the UK market.
Working to create the mock-up with Access2Books was a very positive experience and offered valuable insight into best practice, whilst also ensuring our visually impaired focus group could access the story. The feedback from the various focus groups and from the RNIB suggested that the inclusion of braille represented a positive extra dimension for the book.
The comments on the accessibility of the artwork are important to note, and OIW would recommend exploring ways of strengthening the contrast.