Fifty Years of Literacy: Continuity and Change

UKLA International Conference,University of Sussex, Brighton

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be able to attend and present at the UKLA’s 50tukla_white_on_blueh Anniversary International Conference at the University of Sussex near Brighton. With up to twelve parallel sessions it was very tricky trying to decide which one to go to but I made my choice and here is a taste of the kind of things I heard and saw and thought of…

Teaching Grammar

David Crystal gave the first keynote and took the opportunity to look back at a paper he gave at the 11th Annual UKRA Conference in 1975; “Neglected Linguistic Principles”. He used this to examine four linguistic principles that were, and still are, largely overlooked in policy and practice. These are:

1. Intonation is essential – English is not a tonal language in the same way as Mandarin or Thai but the meaning of a phrase changes depending on the way you say it. For example, “That’s nice” can mean wildly different things depending on the intonation you give it. Children struggle to pick up on these nuances and yet speaking and listening are increasingly marginalised in the National Curriculum.

2. Spelling has a history – everyone knows that English spelling conventions are either bizarre, messy or non-existent. What lots of people don’t know is that the OED provides each word’s history of usage that can help us understand why it is spelt the way it is. Having some of these tucked up your sleeve for those words that children struggle over could lead to some fascinating conversations AND, hopefully, get the spelling to stick!

3. Punctuation is social – which means that there is no simple answer for how and when to use a comma; different people and groups of people use it in different ways. Therefore it is simply ridiculous to deduct marks for using the Oxford Comma (see Gove’s SPAG test)!

4. Grammar is pragmatic – to understand grammar you need to be able to identify what linguistic choices have been made and then explain why. If you’re simply labelling the terms you’re only doing half the job.

In the light of current curriculum changes it is crucial to keep reminding each other of these four principles and finding ways to integrate them into our teaching.

In her presentation Debra Myhill shared some provisional results from a current research project on the teaching grammar. She started by pointing out that many student misconceptions are inadvertently taught by teachers. This isn’t surprising when you stop to examine the convoluted and opaque language of the National Curriculum or pause to reflect on the difficulty of trying to teach to the test when there are many possible answers but only one that is deemed correct. Debra also raised the point that students need to have an understanding of the reader-writer relationship before they can begin using their grammatical knowledge to craft their text and that they are often able to use linguistic feature accurately in their writing before they are able to label them correctly. Finally, she suggested that it might be more useful to avoid using definitions and build grammatical knowledge cumulatively or to find sharper definitions that begin simply and can be added to as the children progress through their schooling.

Significantly Debra was also keen to stress the importance of using classroom talk, listening to children’s responses and letting them see how grammar functions in context by using authentic texts. Her use of examples from Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur High King of Britain (1994) demonstrated that complex sentences are not necessarily longer than simple sentences and that the difference between complex and compound sentences may be very much up to interpretation. As a teacher I remember looking closely at the beginning of David Almond’s Skellig (1998) with my class and having a long discussion about the way in which short sentences are used to create a realistic, almost factual, narrative. The children were surprised that he hadn’t used more adjectives, adverbs and ‘wow’ words. Myra Barrs picked up on this disconnect between teachers and students understanding of what makes ‘good’ writing in her thought-provoking keynote. She referred to a piece of research on educational blogs ( and talked about the positive effect that it had had on students writing. However, Myra also noted that the teachers and the students had come away from the project with very different perspectives on why it was so successful; the teachers felt that the children’s writing gained momentum because they were writing for a real audience, while the students talked of how much they had enjoyed the teachers responding to their writing with questions and interested comments rather than corrections and ‘room for improvement’ notes.

Building Communities of Readers and Writers

All five keynotes picked up on this idea of literacy being an activity that is shared and shaped by a community of readers, writers, listeners and talkers. In his keynote Michael Rosen drew entertainingly on his own reading development to evidence the ways in which reading, writing and “saying out loud” are social endeavours that feed off one another; each child inhabits a different social sphere and therefore each child will approach and tackle their literacy development in a different way. The social context in which they find themselves drives their engagement with literacy as they learn to read, write and speak what they need to create friendships and allegiances. Ken Goodman reminded us that from the moment they are born children are finding ways to communicate their needs to those around them. He referenced research on the brain to argue that making sense of spoken and written languages both require the recipient to be active and motivated. “You don’t learn for the future, you learn for the present.” he said and we need to remember this when we plan our literacy curriculums.

Teresa Cremin delivered the Harold Rosen lecture at the end of the conference, masterfully reflecting on aspects of his thinking through a discussion of three recent projects. “We need to confer full story rights on the pupils,” Rosen writes in 1985 because narrative stimulates thinking. To which Teresa added narrative thinking has the potential of creating two different types of worlds through play: the world of ‘what is’ and the world of ‘what might be’. The first project of which she spoke on “Possibility Thinking” examined the conditions necessary for students to be able to participate in playful posing and exploring the questions ‘what is?’ and ‘what if?’ What Teresa found was that as children progressed up the school there were fewer possibilities for spontaneous pupil-initiated narrative. However, in the second project she discussed, “Creative Little Scientist”, it was fascinating to see the unofficial spaces children found in maths and science activities to engage in off-task playfulness. The third project analysed the ‘Helicopter Technique’ (a way of collecting and acting out stories in class) and showed how it might be possible to draw on child-initiated storytelling and play within the classroom to foster a spirit of togetherness and build a community of sustained, focused and playful storytellers.

I was really interested in this last project and the implications that findings from it could have on our teaching practices throughout primary, secondary and further education. Some of the most exciting learning experiences I’ve had have been through The Capital Centre at The University of Warwick and I’ll never forget the way in which Shakespeare was opened up to me through collaborations, playful engagements and shared research projects in the archives. The presentation given by the head of Victoria Junior School (UKLA’s Literacy School of the Year), Pauline Robertson demonstrated the transformative potential of building a community of readers. Pauline spoke of the way in which the school invested in the library and used technology to make the books instantly accessible to the children; she spoke of promoting and valuing reading by making it visible by displaying photos of the school’s adults and children reading; she spoke of ensuring that every member of staff was able to contribute meaningfully to the children’s reading progress; and she talked of how personal iPads could be used as tools to enable creative and collaborative. It was a real pleasure to hear about the kinds of steps being taken in schools to ensure that children develop an interest and enthusiasm for reading.

The Importance of Communication

In her keynote Myra Barrs spoke of similarly inspiring and proactive schools, reminding us of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge and experience that practitioners have. She asked, “Whose knowledge counts in government literacy policy?” (also the title of a recent publication by Ken Goodman, Robert Calfee & Yetta Goodman). To which Colin Mills replied in his presentation, a small selection of companies who are involved in developing policies and then selling materials and skills needed to implement them. Colin’s discussion of the kinds of knowledge economies and political landscapes that are encouraging the number of consultancy companies to flourish was nuanced and evidence-based. I find this silent revolution that is rapidly transforming education at all levels into a neo-liberal economy measurable by monetary value worrying.

However, I’d like to finish by thinking briefly about some of the excellent and insightful research that was shared over the weekend. Jackie Marsh, Julia Gillen, Cathy Burnett, Clare Dowdall, Guy Merchant, Becky Parry and Victoria Carrington delivered a fascinating symposium on digital literacies of the past, present and future, asking us all to take a longer view on current technological developments and look carefully and closely at the kinds of spaces for learning and literacy created by Edwardian postcards, computer games, social networking sites, iPads, films, and iPhones. They all spoke persuasively of the ways in which children are able to engage creatively within these domains, using the semiotic resources of each to build friendships and perform their own developing subjectivities. Victoria’s call for new ways of thinking about place and space was echoed in other presentations that sought to investigate the ways in which young readers engage with different texts and text-types; Erin Spring (winner of the UKLA prize for student research) talked sensitively about how two groups of children from a city and small-town community in Canada construed place in both their primary world and in two texts they were asked to read; Su Li Chong described the ways in which undergraduate students conceived of themselves as readers of digital and print texts; Fiona Maine told us of the ways in which teachers can enable children to create and manage their own discussion by providing them with strategies to participate in film talk; and Debbie Pullinger, David Whitely and Julie Blake explored some of the possible benefits of learning poetry by heart in a thought-provoking presentation that reflected on the kinds of engagements with poetry memorisation and recitation encouraged.

All these presentations shared an ability and willingness to engage with the ways in which children are active and creative readers and creators of texts. They all demonstrated a nuanced approach to working with children in sensitive and child-centred studies that really listened to what young people were saying and were receptive to learning from what they were doing. My own research on the ways in which children read, discuss and creatively respond to novels with integrated visual elements has made me very aware of how important classroom talk, playful engagements and collaborative projects are. It has also made me very aware of the ways in which these things are made possible by teachers and schools who create spaces and places in which talk, play and collaboration can flourish. On the other hand, as I enter the final year of my PhD I continue to ask myself how can I help to get these understandings out into the public domain? How can I ensure that politicians, policy makers and educators are aware of that little bit of knowledge I might be able to shape?

The UKLA is a brilliant organisation and its growing numbers speak of a critical mass that I am sure is gathering of like-minded people who want children to become independent, creative and reflective makers and shapers of texts. Being part of it and contributing to its work is one way in which I think I can help raise awareness and effect change – bring on the next fifty years of the UKLA!

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Ernie Myers, Rubbish, Dust, Metempsychosis & a Blue Car

Unfortunately being that little bit older I never got to read My Name is Mina as a child. However, I did read Skellig (1998), Kit’s Wilderness (1999) and Heaven Eyes (2000) as a teenager and I remember being particular stunned by the way in which Almond mixed realism and the fantastic so that you were never completely sure what kind of story-world you found yourself within.

Of course as a diligent child-reader I was used to dealing with the existence of other worlds that could be accessed through wardrobes or up trees. I was also accustomed to revising my understanding of the ‘real’ world for the purposes of books like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) or Lucy M. Boston’s A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961). However, the only places in which I had felt compelled to deal with ontological uncertainty were Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time (1978) and The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971). Although having said that Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) was really quite disturbing…

Anyway, this ability to accommodate more than one ontological interpretation is something that I have always admired in many of Almond’s novels. As a young reader I always tended to favour the fantastical (I spent a lot of time exploring the backs of wardrobes) and probably still do lean in that direction. Reading My Name is Mina with the class has made me aware of the wealth of facts contained within it. Mina loves knowing things and Almond ensures that her narrative is scattered with interesting nuggets of scientific and sociological information. However, instead of the inserted facts closing down discussion they open it up and spill into questions and trains of hypothetical thought.

The class were quick to pick up on the way in which Mina is constantly wondering (and wandering over the page). On Friday we asked them to identify the questions that the text raises and then organise them into a grid like the one below:


  1. Look and see

Factual – the answer can be found in the text

  1. Use your imagination

Speculative – the reader has to use their imagination or read between the lines

  1. Ask an expert

Knowledge – the answer can be found by using appropriate real-world sources

  1. You have to really think

Enquiry – these are the questions without one answer that can spark a philosophical discussion


The questions they came up with were brilliant! And placing them in the grid raised more questions about the extent to which reader’s used their imagination to expand on what the writer gives them, as well as what kinds of questions deserved serious philosophical consideration. Once we had collected these questions we asked the children to have a go at answering some from the first three groups. Then at the end of the lesson the teacher gathered the enquiry questions and the class voted on which they would tackle in a P4C (Philosophy for Children) session after the weekend. The selection read:

  1. Are birds souls?
  2. What makes a good or a bad soul?
  3. Should the universe be full of weird and magical objects?
  4. Is there a God?
  5. Is there more than one universe?

The question that they chose was ‘Is there a God?’ and the discussion they ended up having was sensitive, sophisticated and inclusive.

Now, I know that you could complete this kind of activity with almost any text. However, there does seem to be something about My Name is Mina that invites these kinds of teaching sequences. One thing that I really enjoyed about the philosophy discussion that the class had was the mix of scientific and sociological facts that they drew on and fielded in their arguments. The space and time for enquiry that they constructed in their discussion shared many salient features with My Name is Mina, which leads me back to Mikhail Bakhtin:

We might put it as follows: before us are two events – the event that is narrated in the work and the event of the narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter as listeners and readers); these events take place in different times (which are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events (1981, p. 254).

How far does the work in the totality of all its events spread in the classroom? What needs to be included to do it justice?

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Dinosaurs, French Toast & a Journey in the Underworld

Right, I have some serious catching up to do and I have to refer to my notes to remember details, which is not good. Therefore this post will be a short one.

After we had stepped out the story of ‘Mina in the Underworld’ the children had an opportunity to record themselves re-telling the story in the third and the first person. This led to a brief discussion about the different affordances of each narrative voice. This proved useful on Thursday when they were asked to write their own version of the tale in the first person because they knew that in order for this to work they were going to need to use their imagination to add details and flesh out the character’s thoughts and feelings.

My Name is Mina is mainly written in the first person, although there are four stories (set out in a different font and with their own titles) that Mina includes in her diary where she experiments with writing about herself in the third person. The first of these is ‘Mina in the Underworld’ and we felt that rewriting it in the first person would give the children the opportunity to explore what they knew about the character and maybe come to know her a bit better by writing in role.

Thinking back on my teacher training and practice it’s incredible how much we ask children to retell the story from a different perspective. I’d say that I’ve done this activity for almost every book I’ve taught. In Myra Barrs and Valerie Cork’s The Reader in The Writer (2002) they suggest that:

Writing in role is powerful because it enables children to come at material they know well from a new viewpoint, and also to imagine an area of language appropriate to the character they are taking on (p. 132).

After reading texts aloud and exploring their meaning through talk, Barrs and Cork suggest that writer are able to take on the “whole feeling and rhythm of a text” (116). Writing in role or from a different perspective allows the child to try on this new outlook and think their ways into the responsibilities, cares and grief of text’s protagonists.

I agree that writing in role often enables children to extend the way they write and the way they think through writing. The stories that the children produced certainly demonstrated that they were able to adopt the relaxed, inquisitive and playful tone of narration from My Name is Mina; they included questions, addresses to the reader, typographical variation, reflexive comments (“isn’t that a weird phrase?”) and drew on their knowledge of what they had read so far to make sense of Mina’s behaviour in the Underworld. It is going to be fascinating to read through these stories more carefully, considering what they left in or took out (her dad is surprising absent in many of them). Already it is interesting to see that most of the children focused on the first section that is set in school (although a couple had great fun in turning the whole thing into some fantasy/adventure quest).

On the other hand, I feel that like all things writing in role or from a different perspective should be undertaken in moderation. In Textual Power (1985) Robert Scholes points out that if we want children to become confident and critical readers they need to be able to read, interpret and critique the texts they encounter. Writing in role asks children to read and interpret the story but it doesn’t provide much space to develop a critical angle. They can think through issues or consider problems but they need to stay within the limits of the story and perspective. I guess the only to create that space is through exaggeration or parody but this doesn’t go down too well with teachers or examiners (as I have come to realise from experience).

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Bananas, Weirdos, a Beautiful Tree & Boring Heaven

photo 2I took the lesson on Tuesday and we read the second chapter of My Name is Mina. I’d planned for it to take twenty minutes to read and needless to say, it took longer. The sheer volume and disparity of things that are covered in each chapter is incredible and there simply isn’t the time to touch on it all when you’re reading the book with a class. I kept feeling like I’d either skimped on something important or hadn’t given the children enough time to discuss what we were focussing on.

Over the next couple of days I frantically thought about ways to gather more information, but then I happened to glance at a child’s journal when it was open on his desk (we gave them unlined journals to keep throughout the project and assured them that they could fill them as they pleased but that they should keep in mind that we’d like to look at them). On the open page he was writing an account of his evening: having dinner and playing video games with a friend etc. but what was significant was that his account was shaped as a poem. And it was brilliant!

During our class discussions I had been giving the children plenty of time to talk to their partner or to share things as a group. These more intimate discussions have proved hard to document because when a class of twenty-four children speaks to their partner there is a considerable amount of noise going on and recorders struggle to pick up on just two of those voices. However, there are other ways in which children explore ideas, demonstrated their understanding and ask questions. My Name is Mina showcases a variety of these ways in the different fonts and text-types that it includes. When I asked the children to tell me about Mina they told me about what she wrote and how she thought. I had to push to get them to give me any biographical details. A couple of children suggested that Mina might be dyslexic because:

“She thinks that words have their own abilities, they do what they want, they don’t go in straight lines but all over the page.”

This comment didn’t have any specifically negative overtones and the rest of the class received it very matter-of-factly. Indeed the children’s journals and choices of reading books demonstrate an interest and enthusiasm for writing that doesn’t fit within the lines (there are a lot of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Tom Gates and Jacqueline Wilson’s floating around).

We spent some time on Wednesday drawing story plans and stepping out the tale of Mina in the Underworld. It was a beautiful day so we spilled out of the classroom and the children scattered over the lawn. Yet again I had a moment in which I thought, “How can I make sure that they’re concentrating, that they aren’t playing around, that I know what they are doing?” As both a researcher and a teacher I wanted to have complete control of the class, which on reflection is a completely unreasonable thing to desire. Yet, Ofsted tells us that we need to ensure and track every child’s progress in each lesson (and actually when they come in to observe you they’ll only stay for twenty minutes to see whether each child has made ‘good progress’).

For my MPhil project I looked at Shaun Tan’s The Rabbits and asked how four children dealt with the ambiguities and uncertainties Tan created in the story through surreal illustrations and sparse text. Maybe for this project the question should be, ‘How do I [the researcher/teacher] deal with the ambiguities of reading My Name is Mina with a class of Year Six children?’ I can’t know for certain what each child is thinking at every moment of the lesson but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe I need to learn to wait and see, to give them the space to talk, work and play independently and to find a way of reporting on my findings that asks the reader of my research to engage with the uncertainties and ambiguities of reading My Name is Mina with a class.

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Moonlight, Wonder, Flies and Nonsense

I’ve read the opening chapter of My Name is Mina photo 1many times and I love the way in which Almond establishes the peculiar timeframe of the story. It reminds me a little of Aidan Chambers’ Breaktime in which the narrative is interspersed with letters and extracts from Ditto’s account of what happens to him over half term. The main narrative and they do not explicitly introduce these sections and their formatting is in keeping with their form: letters are handwritten, documents are typed and Chambers’ plays with different ways of representing events that range from comics, scripts and lyrical verse.

My Name is Mina also includes extracts from Mina’s diary in the forms of poems, stories, extraordinary activities and scrawled notes that are differentiated from the rest of the text through their font and formatting. On the other hand, while Breaktime is written as a third-person narrative in the past tense, My Name is Mina is written as a first-person narrative in the present tense. This creates a peculiar sense of time and space (or chronotope if you read Bakhtin) because you’re almost being asked to imagine that the writing is happening “right here, right now” (10):

MynameisMina copy

I’ve always struggled with trying to describe this and I don’t think I’ve really come across it in many other novels. Although, it does appear in The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis among others diary-novel hybrids that have proved to be so popular after the success of Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (although in this you only ever get the written/drawn extracts from Greg’s diary).

In class there was also some difficulty about how to account for the words in bold or different font in My Name is Mina. This becomes particularly tricky as the story progresses because the original hypothesis that a number of children came up with that bold words are extracts from her diary and the fainter writing is her thoughts doesn’t hold. In the other novels I mentioned above you have quite a clear-cut and self-evident differentiation between what is written in a diary or journal and what is narrated in a novel. However, Almond blurs this line in My Name is Mina to create a chronotope that unsettles the traditional binary of internal thought and external writing.

When I started thinking about My Name is Mina a couple of years ago I made the mistake of trying to argue that Mina was the implied narrator of the text. Some colleagues pointed out that this doesn’t work because David Almond is emblazoned across the cover and his opinions about schooling and views on life are very much apparent within the text. A child suggested that:

“I think someone is writing a journal about her and her journal and they’re including bits of it.”

Which seems to indicate that they’re struggling with the same sort of questions as I am. They all seemed to have a very clear idea of what Mina’s journal would look like; some described it as ‘scruffy’ and ‘written really big’ with ‘mistakes crossed out’. Another child suggested that it would go everywhere like her mind.

It might simply be me being short-sighted, but I’d never really thought about what Mina’s journal looked like; I’ve been so busy looking at the pages in the novel that maybe I haven’t look through them enough.

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Rereading My Name is Mina: The Plan

Over the next three weeks I have the pleasure of reading My Name is Mina by David AlmondMy Name is Mina by David Almond with a class of ten and eleven year olds. I shall be teaching some lessons and observing others; the class teacher and I have planned to cover a chapter or so a day and linked them to a range of activities that we hope will help the children explore and engage with the novel.

I’m a researcher in children’s literature and my PhD is focused on and around how a class reads a hybrid novel (a novel with integrated visual elements that are integral to the story). However, this blog is not about them – you’ll have to wait until I finish my thesis for that – this blog is concerned with trying to track whether my understanding of My Name is Mina changes and develops while reading it in the company of twenty-four children.

At this point I think I know the book quite well, having written my MPhil thesis on it and prepared an article for publication on it. On the other hand, I thought I knew The Savage (Almond & McKean) equally well before I observed a class of thirteen and fourteen year old boys reading it. These were boys whose educational needs meant that they attended a special school; they all struggled with reading and yet I learnt so much about The Savage from them. Their discussions focused my attention on the ways in which the visual elements were able to anchor and enable discussions regarding narrative techniques. Their creative multimodal responses made me aware of just how bewildering the Savage’s eating habits are and how closely linked he is to Blue, who finds it hard to deal with loneliness and rage but delights in breaking rules. It made me think back to all the winged figures in Almond’s other fiction and reconsider the Savage as some kind of green and earthy angel whose destructive freedom contains healing strength.

I’ll need to think about all this some more and spend time sorting through the stories and transcripts. However, after catching up with my self I endeavour to write a post a day on the chapter of My Name is Mina that we cover in class.

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Thinking Through Hybrid Novels

Before starting to post reviews about the hybrid novels that I am reading I thought that it would be wise to spend some time thinking through the term.

The term ‘hybrid novel’ is not one that is widely used despite there being libraries in the USA that are sharing lists of hybrid novels for their readers to refer to ( and seems to have caught onto the genre ( However, the term does not turn up consistently in academic papers and has been use to refer to novels that mixed different cultures or genres of writing. Dr Zoe Sadokierski (University of Technology, Sydney) seems to be the only scholar who used the term ‘hybrid novel’ to refer to novels with integrated visual or graphic elements like the ones shown below:


In her PhD thesis (available to read online: she defines hybrid novels as: “novels in which graphic devices like photographs, drawings, and experimental typography are integrated into the written text” so that within them, “word and image combine to create a text that is neither purely written nor purely visual”.

Sadokierski considers these kinds of texts from a visual design perspective and places them within the traditions of design and visual literacy. This means that there is not much time to think through the way in which books like Lawrence Stern’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1762) or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) engage with what it means to write and read a novel. However, the real difficulties start when you start thinking about this term in the context of young adult and children’s literature. In adult literature words and images have traditionally been kept well apart but children’s literature has provided writers and illustrators with rich and fertile soil to play and experiment with written and graphic content.

The traditional forms in which this has been done are: the picturebook, the illustrated novel and the comic. Therefore it is not surprising to find people referring to The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Selznick, 2007) as a picturebook or The Savage (2008, Almond & McKean) as a comic book or graphic novel. I do not dispute that these books borrow much from the abovementioned genres but in their paratext and opening they set themselves up to function within the tradition of the novel. In so doing they set up and make use of the forms conventions to create certain expectations in their readers that they then proceed to disrupt.

The pictures, photographs, comic strips and typographical effects used in hybrid novels and borrowed from other genres open up spaces within the linear logic of the text that function according to different rules and conventions. By integrating images into the novel the author can make evident the assumptions inherent in the written text and the visuals so that the reader is invited to go beyond what is immediately obvious and explore the constraints and affordances of both modes.

Over the coming months I will post reviews of the hybrid novels that I read in this thread with the aim of amassing evidence of how they do (or do not) offer the reader these opportunities. I would really welcome any feedback or questions that anyone has. Please feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree with my understanding of the text, this is all very much a work-in-progress and my thinking is very much in embryonic form!

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