The tactile books of the “A spasso con le dite” project
The title is that of a children’s book, Giorgetto l’animale che cambia aspetto (Giorgetto the animal that changes its appearance), but for Anna Maria, it wasn’t just any book. “It’s our favourite, it was the first, where it all began,” explains Anna’s mother Ana Culafic.
Anna Maria is 12 and comes from Perugia. She has been blind since birth but has Giorgetto to thank for helping her discover the joys of reading. “She was four and a half when a friend gave her this tactile book as a present. Since then, reading has become her favourite pastime.” Braille arrived soon after at primary school and today Anna Maria is a voracious reader. Now she’s a bit old for tactile books but she still remembers those first books that she explored with her fingers. Many of them were published by the Federazione Nazionale delle Istituzioni pro Ciechi (National Federation of Institutions for the Blind), which, alongside Enel Cuore, developed A spasso con le dita (Strolling with fingers). This is a national project that has facilitated the creation and distribution of six tactile books, each with a print run of 1,000, and available free of charge to public libraries, paediatric wards and cultural institutions. This is quite a feat, considering that the illustrations are entirely hand-made.
"The tactile book is a handcrafted book. It requires a particular type of binding and it needs to be able to be open to 180°: industrial mass production would be impossible."
Paola Terranova, librarian at Turchetti library, Regional Institute for the Blind, Emilia Romagna
The choice of materials for a tactile book is particularly sensitive: for example, to represent winter, dry twigs could be used or a very smooth surface to depict water. “But sighted children must be respected too as they often read the books together with a non-sighted child,” explains Ana.
“Children’s hands are entitled to respect for reality,” adds Francesca Piccardi, a “typhlologist” (someone who studies blindness) and manager of the “typhlological” consultancy centre in Assisi, where she assists dozens of children and young people all across the Umbria region that are either blind or partially sighted. Any type of materials can be used as long as they aren’t dangerous, “but what’s important is the perceptive consistency and the respect for proportions: a tree can be represented by a piece of bark, a lawn by a blade of grass. For example, for the book Soffio di vento (A gust of wind), the main character, Vento (Wind), was represented by a thread of wool that never keeps still.”
In Italy tactile books have been around for little more than 10 years. “When I started, 20 years ago, there weren’t any and the non-sighted kids couldn’t manage to draw certain objects. This goes to show that tactile books also develop children’s graphic capabilities,” adds Piccardi.
"Once a blind girl said to me: ‘Thank you! Finally I can see the characters."
Paola Terranova, librarian at the Turchetti Library, Regional Institute for the blind, Reggio Emilia
“It’s an extremely important tool because it stimulates curiosity, it helps children to get to know the world and to overcome their fears: it’s not a given that a blind child will be ready to touch just anything,” explains Ana, who seems to be able to remember every one of the tactile books she has read together with her daughter. “Ho un po’ paura (I’m a bit scared), for example, helped me to deal with Ana’s fears. For a blind child reading could be a frustrating experience, but this way it’s fun.”
Tactile books aren’t only for blind or partially sighted children. Piccardi explains that “They’re not just a precursor to Braille. The real innovation is that they represent an educational tool to acquire many other skills, for example, that of perceptive exploration. I advise the teachers to make them and use them with all of the children. Teachers too need to get involved, and not only the support teachers. I always cite the example of a middle school in Umbertide, in the Province of Perugia, where the teachers managed to involve all of the students: they created tactile books as a learning methodology.”
“The touchable book is also intended for sighted children,” confirms Terranova, who for many years at the library has been organising workshops open to everyone on the theme of tactile perception. “For example, by using this approach, we have found that someone with motor impairment or with attention deficit disorder can focus far more on the story and is more stimulated and captivated.” Terranova has often experimented with the way in which tactile books can bring sighted and non-sighted people together, for example, a blind parent who wants to read a story to his or her child, or twins who want to read together.
Unfortunately, in Italy, in marked contrast to France, the private publishing sector linked to tactile books is barely developed. Hence, the project by the Federazione and Enel Cuore, which in 2013 became a touring exhibition with title, Le parole della solidarietà (The words of solidarity), with tactile artworks and educational workshops open to schools. Anna Maria’s dream, for example, is for there to be a tactile version of The Little Prince, the famous story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which she read in Braille and really loved. “She’s in love with books,” explains her mum. “One day she came home from school and asked me what ‘swot’ means. Why? ‘Because in class I said that my books were my favourite hobby’.”