Today, global megacorp publishing does not encourage the quirky, the original, the risky, the inventive – the books that will become staples for the next generation because they have something new and relevant to say.
The following is from an article in the New York Times, and the ideas within are familiar to those of us listening to professional criticism of our products:
“There’s a lot of interaction when you’re reading a book with your child,” Dr. High said. “You’re turning pages, pointing at pictures, talking about the story. Those things are lost somewhat when you’re using an e-book.”
In a 2013 study, researchers found that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from an electronic book had lower reading comprehension than children whose parents used traditional books. Part of the reason, they said, was that parents and children using an electronic device spent more time focusing on the device itself than on the story (a conclusion shared by at least two other studies).
- Is e-reading to your toddler story time, or simply screen time?
The first of these studies is behind a paywall, and I’m interested to know if the researchers published the exact materials used in the study. I’m not reading to pay the 12 bucks to find out, because some other researchers I’ve seen are reluctant to let on which book apps, exactly, they used in the study. The second hyperlink in the NYT excerpt above, from a report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, is a case in point: We’re not told which book apps exactly were used, but we do know that they were appified versions of printed matter. It would be difficult to compare two completely separate products, so for research purposes, this makes some sense:
Note the wording ‘We selected the enhanced and basic e-books’. This suggests that a number of each media type were used in the study, but further on we learn that, actually, only two book apps were used:
Honestly, I’m not sure if the article refers to ‘book apps’ or ‘e-books’ which are two different things, though perhaps not in the consumer’s mind (except insofar as the consumer must retrieve them from different places on the App Store). I’m not sure if by ‘science themed’ they’re using non-fiction titles. But why not give us the titles?
The study isn’t just aimed at educators and consumers; apparently designers of apps are to take note:
This is all good advice, but it’s too general to be of much use. Unless publishers of studies are going to release which book apps they studied, it’s difficult for we developers to learn much from it. Ideally, we want to download and go through these apps ourselves. If this study is published in longer form elsewhere, and someone knows where to find it, please point us in the right direction.
Here are some other problems with reports/studies such as these:
Printed books which have been turned into apps/enhanced e-books are not the same as books which were created as apps from the ground up. It is indeed possible to turn a successful printed book into a wonderful appified version, but this is simply not happening very often. Instead, developers are using static, scanned versions of the printed matter, adding a few cheap enhancements such as wiggling assets and stock sound effects, then relying on the success of the printed matter to sell the apps, which in turn help to sell the printed books (and associated merchandise) by being visible in another place (the App Store).
The media selected for study was ‘produced by a recognized publisher of enhanced e-books’. What does ‘recognized’ mean? Does this mean the e-books/apps they considered worthy of study came from one of the big 5 publishing corporations, who are presumably the best funded and presumably putting out the best material? This is a big assumption indeed. Until publishing corporations start to see profit in book apps (and that may actually be never), they’re unlikely to pump thousands of dollars into their book apps. And by ‘book apps’, I’m not talking about cheap apps starring big-brand characters, of which there are plenty of ho-hum examples.
There’s another phrase which needs further clarification: ‘Just for fun’. The researchers themselves recognise the limitations of this phrase, putting it in speech-marks.
My question is this: What is the difference, exactly, between ‘fun’ and… actually I’m only guessing its corollary: ‘educational’? This is a false dichotomy. Fun does not equal ‘non-educational’, just as ‘serious’ does not equal ‘educational’. Enhanced e-books and apps are perhaps uniquely singled out for this form of literary criticism, or perhaps this question has been asked of pop-up and novelty books and I just never noticed it.
Another question: The study above focused on e-books/apps for 3-6 year olds. Most of the existing book apps on the App Store are indeed catering for this age-group, so it is indeed a sensible place to begin with the research. I’m keen to know whether older readers approach apps in the same way as the younger set, who tend to push buttons with abandon (in my own limited experience). When the iPad was first released, Steve Jobs said that he had designed it so that even two-year-olds could use it. Indeed, we had a two-year-old at the time, and Apple succeeded in its mission. As a result, the App Store became flooded with kids’ apps designed for the 3-6 age range, with far fewer apps available, even now, in the older categories. Something I’ve wondered all along, in the midst of criticism of book apps: Might book apps actually be better suited to older children who have already learnt how to progress through a printed book, despite the fact that even a 2-year-old can (technically) ‘use’ an iPad? We’d love to see age-specific research. Because are iPads really as easy to use as we think they are? Watching a little kid swiping and pinching at a touchscreen has a certain fascination for those of us who underestimated the digital dexterity of 2-year-olds — for me it’s a bit like watching a monkey deftly open a banana. But ducking between apps, pinching and swiping with grace, is not quite the same thing as ‘utilising a touchscreen to its best advantage’. We’d like to see broader research on how, exactly, toddlers and young children are making use of touchscreens.
Leading on from that, the first studies were naturally conducted on families who were new to touchscreens. We know from our own user testing that there is a huge difference between asking an owner of an iOS device to open your book app, and someone who has never seen a smart phone or an app in their life. What was the touchscreen experience of the families in the study? Had those 32 families used a touchscreen before? If not, the device would have indeed got in the way of the experience. When I first picked up the iPad one, I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to swiping to turn the page of certain apps without accidentally activating other functionality. The iOS itself requires a certain dexterity in this manner: touch with too many fingers and you’ll be taken out of the app; swipe too low or too high and you’ll bring up the universal task bars… These are things you quickly get used to if you use a touch screen daily, and if researchers are going to conclude that the device is ‘getting in the way’ of the reading experience, I’d like some reassurance that their test subjects are not touchscreen newbies.
Here in Australia, when daily screentime for children becomes a topic of conversation, it usually crops up alongside The Childhood Obesity Epidemic. While no one is blaming screens solely for this epidemic, there are some problems with focusing on the screens themselves. Rather, this is a conversation about ‘sedentary activity’.
I detect a definite class issue surrounding the hierarchy of bum-sitting; for adults it has always been thus (until recently maybe, when it suddenly became okay to admit to ‘binge-watching’ certain high-quality TV series). For adults and children alike, books (preferably hardback serious tomes, preferably not genre fiction and definitely not YA) equal good sedentary activity while TV equals bad/lazy/beer-gut inducing/mind-numbing/brain-draining/crumbs down the side of the squabs squalor-y baddy bad bad sedentary activity.
(Is ‘sedentary activity’ an oxymoron? For my purposes, no.)
I worry when I hear the term ‘screentime’ that our thoughts on childhood sendentary behaviour are too narrow in focus.
- We should be talking more about how much sugar is getting into the food system. I’m pro-regulation of this. There is no call for putting sugar into canned vegetables. Baked beans covered in sugary sauce should not be allowed to carry the Heart Foundation tick.
- We should be talking more about how neighbourhoods are set up for children. We need green spaces and footpaths and sports facilities. These need to be safe.
- Workplaces need to offer more flexible working hours so that more parents can take their children to these spaces after school, or coach local sports teams, or simply supervise on the sidelines as kids work out their own games.
- Our children should be given an hour of physical activity during class time each morning before recess. That’s how school was run when I was a kid in New Zealand in the eighties, but my daughter has one afternoon of sport per week due to an overcrowded curriculum, and she’s only in kindergarten. She and half of her classmates take the bus to and from school, which adds up to several more hours of sitting per day. This is Australia, distances are vast, and we have no local school despite adequate numbers of children, who are all riding in vehicles to neighbouring towns.
- We should be talking about eyesight. Our daughter has codliver oil each morning, 1950s style. (I mask the flavour in a smoothie.) Her parents both wear glasses. She may yet need glasses herself because genes are against her, but as a culture we seem to have lost some of our ancient wisdom when it comes to nutrition. Is a backlit screen worse for eyes than words on a printed page, or is it the sustained near-sighted focus which is the problem for children spending less and less time outdoors?
- How are backlit screens impacting sleep patterns? The research I’ve seen suggests avoidance of screens an hour before bedtime. Does that mean that we should also be dimming the lights? What kinds of family activities might we instead be engaging in during that last hour before bedtime? Family readalouds, from my observation, are best practised by church-going families, perhaps instigated by their wish to read the Bible together, but is this a lost practice that families should strive to bring back? Crafts while listening to audiobooks? Dishes and next-day’s-lunch-preparation with the lights turned low?
We’re right to be thinking about screentime, of course, but if childhood has lost some of its magic, the problem is so much wider than time spent on screens.
While much is being said about digital stories which supposedly get between the adult and the parent, I wonder what might be said about this little device: a ‘family robot’ which is shown not just reading a book to a little girl (and blowing down her tent, Nosy Crow Pig style) but then doing the bedtime routine by wishing her goodnight.
I find this a fascinating taxonomy:
When reading, the parent is better able to control the use of the book and pace of the story with a -book. Narration is the norm on apps – “When I use the iPad I don’t read with them, I let them use it on read-to-me mode.” This means the experience of reading a book is usually more shared with parents who spend time talking around the story more, doing all the silly voices, and getting involved in their children’s world.
Further to the general discussion of things that picturebooks apps can do that printed books can’t, here’s one for the vice versa. But it’s something developers can correct, because it’s not down to the inherent nature of the digital medium itself.
One thing picturebooks do wonderfully well is onomatopoeia. Especially in picturebooks designed for very young readers (which is most of them), it’s probably the onomatopoeia as much as anything which helps emergent speakers learn their native languages. Even in older, competent speakers, onomatopoeia in picturebooks fosters a love for word play, which presumably fosters a love for books… I could go on, but if you’re reading this article I’m probably preaching to the choir.
One thing I’m seeing in many picturebook apps for young readers is an unfortunate substitution: Rather than presenting the adult co-reader with an opportunity to revel in onomatopoeic language, produced by the mouth, a lot of real-world mimesis is conveyed via recordings of actual real world sounds. For instance, rather than encouraging readers to work their own mouth muscles with a sound which mimics a motorcycle, a picturebook app might simply provide a recording of a motorbike engine, which either autoplays after a page flip or is activated on touch.
This is not an argument against sound effects in picturebook apps. Instead, I’d like to see developers encourage use of the mouth. The digital medium would be better used, perhaps, to skip the stock SFX in favour of narrator-produced onomatopoeia.
Part of me thinks that a reader’s preference for a physical book isn’t just about how it smells or about the reassuring heft of it in the hands, but derives from more subconscious things. Picture books are more ornamental than other kinds of books. In picture books you’ll sometimes see that an imaginative illustrator has done something creative with the colophon, or included easter egg doodles in unexpected places (maybe a face sticking out from under a dust cover). I’ve not seen this much in novels for adults. When an adult picks up a book, they’ve probably done a bit of research about what it’s about, even if that’s just reading the back cover copy. In picture books for children, the peritext — everything in the book which is not the actual story — helps the reader to decode the story. A reader learns something about the story from the cover, the size of the book itself, the type of paper, any dust jacket and — often overlooked — the endpapers.
Lawrence Sipe explains how endpapers are like stage curtains:
What might this mean for those of us creating picture book apps rather than paper products? Picture book apps have their own analogues to the peritext of printed matter. For example:
- an icon on the app store
- screen shots on the app store
- promo videos/trailers
- splash page
- title page
- navigation page
Of this list, the young reader will not necessarily see screen shots on the app store nor watch any promo video, so I can probably cross those off the list as examples of peritext. (I guess it’s called ‘epitext’.) As for the other features, any of those can be left out when it comes to an app. There is no physical cardboard, for instance, requiring some sort of endpaper, and so it can be tempting (due to memory and other limitations) to leave out something like a title page between the splash page and the main menu. A splash page is most often used in apps to advertise the developer’s company and to create a brand across a stable of products, without necessarily tailoring its look to the story in hand.
There is also ‘peritext’ which is specific to book apps:
- rate this app button
- credits page
- links to social media
- other products from the same developers
Some of this ‘peritext’ isn’t welcomed by adults who purchase picture book apps for children, though I’m sure a great many feel neutral about it, so long as it’s not obtrusive and click-baiting from the main menu. This isn’t an exhaustive list of peritextual possibilities. In an app, would a finger-painting activity or a match-the-words page counted as peritext?
Some questions for picturebook app developers are:
- How can we introduce our stories with ‘stage curtains’ in this new digital environment, where readers expect some sort of introduction to the story before it ‘begins’?
- How can we help the reader by making sure our peritext extends the story on every non-story page, even if it’s just a little?
- What is it about physical books which is best transferred — in some form — to a digital medium? And what can happily be left out?
- Is there anything we can do digitally which would improve upon the peritextual limitations of printed books?
When we discuss front cover designs, the pinkness of this or the blueness of this, we’re discussing paratexts. And, to be frank. there doesn’t seem to be much research about the impact / affect / effect of them.
Paeony Lewis points out that when it comes to printed books, not all of them are as beautiful as they could be: “I think many hardback children’s picture books lack what I call ‘gorgeousness’.” This is worth mentioning in a climate where comparisons between digital and printed matter are inevitable.