Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Category: Design (page 1 of 3)

A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers from earlier in 2015 can be found here at The Wheeler Center’s website.

As was noted by someone on the panel, “It starts with children’s books.”


Making a Fixed Layout Children’s Picture Book With iBooks Author

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks

Lotta: Red Riding Hood available for free on the iBooks store for iPad

I noticed when searching for tips on how to make a picture book (of the sort most often produced for children), the term ‘picture book’ most often refers to a book of photos as far as iBooks go.

But I didn’t want to create a ‘photo book’. Nor did I want to use any of the fancy features of iBooks Author (IBA). After making 3 picture book apps, with all the bells and whistles, I didn’t want any music/narration/video/hyperlinks — I just wanted a plain old linear picture book that readers could download for free. I didn’t want to spend 18 months on it, or spend weeks learning how to use new software.


I considered making my picture book with the Book Creator app, used by lots of schools when students are creating projects. Book Creator is certainly simple, and very good for use with students, but I’m not a fan of its page turns, and I want my pages to fill the entire screen.


As it turns out, iBooks Author is amazing for what it can do as well as for what it can’t. For example, you can’t hyperlink to an image.  [Now you can.]

IBA is not set up for ‘creating’ a picture book — it’s the equivalent of Adobe InDesign in that you come to IBA after you’ve created all the story and artwork and now want to lay it all out so that it looks nice.

(My favourite ‘creating software’ is Scrivener, by Literature and Latte. Others are using Pages.)

How do I set up an iBooks Author file to create a children’s picturebook? 


Download my very basic IBA picturebook template.

A children’s picturebook has no chapters and only one section. So do this first:

When creating a new document, don’t choose one of the templates — pick the plain one.

Delete its first chapter. You can’t get rid of the ‘section’ below it. Start your page one in the section, then add all the rest of the pages behind it.

Step-by-step instructions are here.

Although all pages after page 01 will be indented inside IBA, as if they’re children of the ‘mother page’ 01, the reader won’t see this incorrect hierarchy, and it doesn’t really matter for us as authors either, since the pages are all numbered correctly. Consider it an unfortunate limitation of iBooks Author, which is optimised for making textbooks, not picturebooks.

Picturebook Template in iBooks Author

Word of warning:  Don’t do what I did and at a late stage decide that actually you’d like to insert a page before page one. If you do that you’ll have to shift a whole heap of assets manually. At least, I never figured out a way to insert a page before the first one.


Disable Portrait Setting

It’s necessary when creating a Fixed-Layout Picture Book (FXL) that you don’t want the orientation to change when a reader rotates their device. To avoid this all you need to do is click the “Disable Portrait Orientation” check-box in the iBooks Author Document Inspector.

There are a lot of Internet lamentations about how people are still making FXL books in this day and age, when flowable text exists so use that instead! But no, unfortunately 2015 is not the year in which it’s suddenly easy to create beautiful, bug-free reflowable picturebooks for iBooks. Maybe next year, Apple?

The main problem with creating a FXL book is that it won’t be available to users of iPhones and iPod touches. There are many more iPhones in the world than there are iPads. This will affect the number of downloads you get.


What size should I create my iBooks canvases in my art software? 

2048 x 1496px. (That’s landscape)

When you place your image onto the page in iBooks Author, type 1024 into the metrics panel of the inspector. Position it at 0,0:

iBooks Inspector Canvas Size in Pixels

What size do I make the cover?

The cover is always portrait orientation on the iBooks Store.

768 x 1004 pixels

You may have noticed that IBA works with points. I don’t know why. But if you’re interested in more information on pixels vs points, dimensions etc. etc., I found this website the most helpful.


What do I do about the text? Do I add the text inside my art software, or within iBooks?

This seems obvious to me now, but was a question I started with. There is a huge advantage to adding the words in iBooks Author — the end user can make use of iOS features such as dictionary, highlighting passages, or I believe there’s a setting where they can have the words read aloud to them. Also, the font will look really crisp on the screen if you’ve added the words within iBooks Author rather than embedded them into the page in your art software.

The problem is, how do I know where the words are going to go, as I make my art in a separate program? I hacked around a bit and ended up pasting all the words into iBooks Author (before doing any art at all), deciding which size font fit best (for this book size 20 looked best for the number of words per page).

Next, I took an approximate (but close enough) screen shot of each page (Cmd+Shift+4), saved the screenshot as page1, page2 etc, then used this as a semi-transparent layer in my art software as a guide to where I’d put the words. That way, I was able to create the illustration to fit around the words.

Using Screenshot as Tracing Object in Artrage

Using Screenshot as Tracing Object in Artrage


A note on page layout

For Lotta: Red Riding Hood I have decided to stick with a traditional verso-recto design, partly because this is based on a traditional tale, so I want a traditional feel. Bear this option in mind for more modern stories: Now that you’re working with a flat screen rather than on paper with a centrefold, your graphic design is not in fact limited by that pesky join in the middle. Here is an example of interesting, magazine-esque graphic design from a book called:

TRICKY VIC: THE IMPOSSIBLY TRUE STORY OF THE MAN WHO SOLD THE EIFFEL TOWER (Click through to find more about this book at Art of the Picture Book).


Here the double-spread has been broken into three distinct columns.

What should I put into the ‘Intro Media’ area?

I’ve bought children’s picturebook iBooks where the reader is subjected to a promo video of the picturebook as soon as we open it. I think this is the wrong way to use a promo video. After all, the user has already found your book, if not paid for it. Perhaps you can insert a video which provides a prologue of sorts to the story. I’m sure there are other creative ways to make use of this new digital medium. Let me know if you can think of any.

For now, I’ve decided to use this area for a landscape version of the title page. This works well. I feel an iBook picturebook needs a title page as well as a cover — after all, we’ve been conditioned as readers of picturebooks to expect end papers, a colophon and at least one title page before starting to read the story.

I designed the cover and title page pretty much simultaneously, since I wanted to use more or less the same assets to create both a portrait and landscape version of the same thing.

Here’s our front cover:

Lotta: Red Riding Hood cover for iBooks Store

Lotta: Red Riding Hood cover for iBooks Store

And the title page, which I dragged into the ‘intro media’ area in IBA:

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks


What do I put into the Table of Contents Area?

You’ll need to put an image in there, maybe the digital equivalent of endpapers? I created an image related to the story, and now it doubles as a colophon. iBooks Author will show you with semi-transparent squares exactly where the page thumbnails will go, so make sure you don’t put anything ornamental or fussy behind there.

Table of Contents Background Image

Table of Contents as seen from within iBooks Author

Here’s what the same page looks like when it’s on the iPad. (Artwork is in progress during this preview.)

Table of Contents as viewed on the iPad

Table of Contents as viewed on the iPad

As you can see, Apple reserves some space for their tool bar/status bars.

I made a PNG file which you are welcome to use as a reference overlay when creating your background image in your art software. Turn it on and off as necessary to check you’ve positioned your illustration where you want it.

How do you preview an iBook on your iPad?

You need to have the iPad plugged into the Mac, with the cord. Then it will show up as a preview option. (You’ll also be reminded that you need to open iBooks.)

Important Update: Mid 2015, Apple changed iBooks so that you can now read iBooks on an iPhone as well as on an iPad. This has important consequences for how big to make the writing — bigger — and means that you’ll need to decide beforehand which device you’re going to optimise for: Will the words look a little too large on the iPad, or a little too small on the iPhone?

Next job, getting your iBook onto the iBooks Store.

  • I called the American Tax Office via Skype and requested an EIN. Strangely enough, we’ve been selling apps on the App Store since 2011 and have never needed one of those. It took no time at all — at least, it wouldn’t have, if the connection had been better.
  • You’ll need to download an extra piece of (free) software called Producer.
  • It took about a day for LRRH to be approved (or, overnight, since I’m here in Australia).
  • No, you don’t need an ISBN — it’s no longer a required field. (If you’re Canadian you might want to grab one anyway. I heard over your way, they’re free.)

Some Limitations Of Studies On Book Apps

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:

Which book apps were used?

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:

For designers

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.

Just for fun

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.

Readers As Accomplices: The challenge for interactive book developers is this

Readers as accomplices

Onomatopoeia In Picturebook Apps

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.

Helen Dineen

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.


The Importance of Picturebook Endpapers and Other Peritext

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:

endpapers as 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?


 Somewhat related:

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.

Gendered Books In Children’s Literature

 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.

Colour Is Important But Can’t Fix Everything

First you have to catch them

2014 is looking radiantly orchid

This is the colour of 2013. Not everybody is over the moon about this.

When I see this colour I think of strong floral perfumes, prints of flowers on hospital walls and Pattison’s curse.



The Personalisation Of Product

The Little Boy Who Lost His Name Screenshot

Lost My Name, a charming tale of a child on a quest to find their missing name, sold an astonishing 132,616 copies, knocking Julia Donaldson off the top spot for the first time in eight years.

The Guardian

Of all the things it’s possible to do with digital books, one of them is ‘Put Me In The Story’ functionality. Readers can:

  • Take pictures of themselves, then superimpose their own faces on a character’s body
  • Use their own names in place of a generic character name
  • Include their own family members in the story
  • Choose the make up of their family unit
  • Photographs of local setting as background
  • Personalised intratext, for example with the town’s name changed to that of the reader

The list goes on. Some of these personalisations are easier to implement than others, naturally.

Digital Book World asks whether the personalisation of digital stories is likely to become mainstream, or will it continue to be ‘niche’?

Also through my feed this morning is another article on dolls marketed at girls, a topic which has been interesting me ever since I gave birth to a daughter: Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought. I’m not American so I don’t have any sort of history with American Girl dolls, but the article tells me that whereas once these dolls were good role models, girls are now stuck with ‘the dolls they deserve’. Now you can buy a doll in your child’s own image:

Maybe we get the dolls we deserve. After all, the redirection [since Mattel took over the brand] has been to shape them in our own image. You can wear what Saige (yes, SAIGE) is wearing. Saige, in turn, will have no more adventure than is readily available to you. You can indulge in a spa day! A spa day, with Saige. No more trekking across the prairie or dealing with wartime rationing. … Sure, maybe you picked your first American Girl doll because she resembled you – actually a lot has been written on this – but the whole point was to give you an entry point to history. Felicity or Samantha or Addy reminded you that, during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and all the fascinating important times of history, there were Girls Almost But Not Quite Like You. You could see yourself in history! You could engage with the biggest moments of the past! … Now — actual stories are being replaced with bland, featureless faces. The My American Girls have spawned a series of books where you fill in the blanks of her adventures. For instance, in “Bound For Snow,” “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this interactive story, a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime.” Yes, what a stretch of the imagination it is to pretend to be a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime. “She’s teaching Honey the golden retriever how to pull a dog sled, but the pup just doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it.” How tough to put yourself in her shoes. A golden retriever? But you’ve got a chocolate Lab! What a great exercise.

Less has been written about the personalisation of digital books, but I feel the same sarcastic tone could equally be applied. Throughout the entire history of human storytelling haven’t children been able to empathise with characters in a story without needing to literally see their own faces in it? Is this really such a struggle? Are we applauding narcissism?

Personally, I am struggling with some cognitive dissonance when it comes to the personalisation of digital books. Because my thoughts are unformed, here they are in bullet point format:

  • Yes, children do need to ‘see themselves’ in picturebooks. This is exactly why I have a problem with the disproportionate number of white boys represented in literature.
  • The personalisation trend may be one response to accusations of symbolic annihilation of PoC and female characters.
  • Regarding picturebooks and illustrated texts, some kinds of art styles are already perfectly good at allowing readers to see themselves in the characters. I’m talking about the simplistic style of art in which faces, while very expressive, are reminiscent of a smiley emoticon, and can therefore represent almost any character. Other art styles (such as mine, in Midnight Feast) are more detailed, and the character looks like ‘a certain individual’ rather than the everygirl. It is harder for a reader to see themselves in such a character.
  • But how similar must a character look to a reader in order for the reader to empathise?
  • Might it not be a very good thing if white children were empathising with PoC characters, and boys were more frequently given the opportunity to put themselves in the place of girls, and not just ‘tomboy’ characters — I mean boys putting themselves in the minds of girls doing girl things?
  • Is an interactive personalised story inherently metafictive, in that the reader is constantly reminded that they are not in fact living inside the pages of a story, but looking in at a rather gimmicky storytelling technique? Might this instead have the opposite effect to that intended ie. a vicarious, immersive, empathetic experience?

I have no answers, only suspicions:

  • There’s a slight danger that the personalisation of stories might absolve publishers from offering genuine diversity in main characters.
  • Some stories suit personalisation better than other types of stories.
  • Personalisation may suit some ages better than others — culturally we have a lot more tolerance for egocentricity in preschoolers than in, say, teens.

Related Articles:

Things Possible With Digital Stories Which Are Not So Possible With Paper Stories

The little boy/girl who lost his/her name

How Not To Make An Infographic

In one handy infographic from Slate

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