March 15

On Visual Learners by Aaron Becker

It’s perhaps a testament to just how incredibly disruptive the pandemic has been to our sense of time that when I was told I’d written a post for the Nerdy Book club, I actually had no memory of ever doing so. A quick search pulled it up (August 2016) and what a joy it was to discover that my previous self had something interesting to say! This delight was quickly followed by the more depressing realization that my ability to wrap my head around big ideas has since taken an abrupt nosedive. I’ll blame the pandemic again. Or maybe the stress of navigating post-2016 America. Or how about the low-frequency rumbling of climate change angst? Take your pick! Actually, my guess is that most of my inability to recognize my former self stems from the arrival of our second daughter in 2017. Her “lively” personality and “unpredictable” sleep patterns have only proved my wife’s side of the debate: have kids when you are young!

But here we are. And just as I did with our first daughter, I find myself splitting my days between making my own work  and facilitating that of someone else’s artistic career. As if to help prove my point that visual learners are just as capable as those who love the written word, our youngest has taken over my old studio as her own art space, ceaselessly creating artworks that amaze and astound. It’s become clear that I’m no longer in the business of making books but, instead, preparing someone else to make things that will far surpass my own output.

Of course, we all think our kids are geniuses but humor me anyway! Just look at this still life of a vase of flowers! Her sketch of a horse! Her doodle of an unhappy sun. I mean, come ON!

I share all this, of course, to brag about my kid. But also to make a point: visual learners are everywhere and their proclivities must be celebrated for what they are: a way of interfacing with the world that is just as valuable as those who get lost in the written word. As you prepare your next lesson, pick out your child’s next story, or stock your library’s stacks, keep in mind media that pull in students with their images just as much as their manuscripts. Let them get lost in graphic novels, wordless books, or (gasp) even film. The word literacy itself comes from the latin word literatus, meaning one who knows their letters. But visual literacy, I’d argue, is rapidly becoming an equally important skill. People absorb thousands of images a day from custom-fed advertisements to biased news coverage to the stream of doctored images on social media feeds. Not only is it vital that we educate humans how to scrutinize these influential memes but it’s equally important that we guide the next generation of image-makers to have formidable talents. They’re up against corporations and interests who seek to influence our spending habits and very beliefs through their creation of compelling, and often false, imagery. The advent of A.I. image-making algorithms only make this more pressing of a concern. We’ll need a veritable army of visual thinkers and makers out there just to find our ground. All of this beside the obvious that visually-based storytelling instills empathy in young minds as they relate to characters on the page or screen. It’s not always going to be a traditional book that grabs them. It wasn’t for me!

So as much as it pains me to lose a few brain cells with my six year olds’ sleepless nights, I take solace in the fact that her heist of my previous studio as her own might one day make a difference in this increasingly visual world. We’re going to need all the help we can get.


becker_headshot (1)Aaron Becker is the best-selling author of the award-winning Journey trilogy, along with several other books for children young and old. His love of travel led him to the city of Granada, Spain, where a rich history of layered civilizations inspired him to write The Tree and the River. To prepare for the story’s illustrations, he first constructed a scale model of the book’s rolling landscape, which he then slowly transformed with clay and wood over many months. When he’s not home with his wife and two daughters, Aaron Becker can be found creating something new in his studio in western Massachusetts.