It’s an evolution on all those titles from a few years ago which emphasise a woman’s relationship to a man. The [X’s] Daughter/Wife and so on.
Book titles are like book covers — not decided by authors but by marketing departments.
This ‘girl’ trend probably started with the phenomenal success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and marketing departments are hoping to replicate that success.
There may be something about ‘girl’ that promises a character arc (with the ‘girl’ becoming a ‘woman’, regardless of the fact she’s already a woman in years at the beginning of the story.)
I am slightly disturbed by the stat that when men write books with girl in the title the girl is significantly more likely to be dead by the end of the story than when the book is written by a woman. This leads to the question: Are male authors more likely to kill characters of any gender than female authors, or do best-selling male authors take a particular pleasure in killing off girls?
Those are my takeaway points but the entire article is well worth a read.
Basically, books with girl in the title tell the reader that this is a ‘psychological thriller about middle class white women with jobs’.
Contrast with the ‘boy version’ of the book, reinforcing for everyone that when girls have power it’s ‘girl power’, but boy power is the unmarked version.
It may be 2016, but be very suspicious about books for young readers which emphasise gender on the cover.
YA titles are a slightly different matter.
Girl Titles In YA
The basic criticism of all those adult novels with girl in the title is about the infantalisation of women. This isn’t an argument when it comes to YA characters who are, indeed, minors.
While Mandel’s article looks only at books marketed at an adult audience, I wondered if those bestselling adult thrillers were influencing marketing decisions in the YA department.
On the Barnes and Noble list of bestselling YA 2016 (so far) we have a standout collection of titles about kings and queens, with a not-insignificant number of covers which are quite obviously hoping to attract Stieg Larsson crossover audiences. When a YA book has ‘girl’ in the title in 2016, it’ll probably be a gritty crime thriller.
The word ‘gone’ in the Heidi Heilig cover will also appeal to the Gone Girl audience. (About fifty percent of YA readers are adult women.)
This book doesn’t have ‘girl’ in the title but the cover design is very reminiscent of ‘Gone Girl’. Same font, perhaps?
Moth Girls is a YA thriller. The book tells the story of Mandy, and her friends Petra and Tina. Petra and Tina had gone into an old local house years before and never been seen again. Mandy is only around because she refused to go in with them.
In case the American Girl series with the expensive dolls springs immediately to mind, this new publication is a YA crime thriller focusing on a 15-year-old who runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. The sisters are based on the Manson sisters, who the author researched heavily.
This book is marketed across the pond as My Favourite Manson Girl. So, same book, different English speaking cultures, both with girl in the title.
If I Was Your Girl breaks the mould. This isn’t a crime/thriller but a realistic coming-of-age novel about a transgender girl by a transgender woman.
This Goodreads question gave me a chuckle:
What will 2017 look like for YA?
I predict more books about transgender because there is a need there, and those books are highly likely to indicate gender in the title or title graphic somehow.
Mandel is hoping adult titles will evolve to include woman in place of girl, and offers an example of that starting to happen. But we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.
There is a rule that moons in picture books must be bigger than the look in real life, from anywhere on Earth. I didn’t fully realise this was a rule until a beta reader for Midnight Feast asked me why my moon was so small. In fact, the moon was the ‘correct’ size, but then I realised why he had asked the question: Every single picture book I looked at had an oversize moon.
Why is this? I believe it’s because picturebooks don’t happen in the real world. They happen inside this other reality, in which size is all out of whack. Children can behave autonomously as adults; adults can behave as children.
For the record, the moon at the end of Midnight Feast is now oversized. I did change it. And yeah, it does look better.
There is also an oversized moon in The Artifacts, but because it’s in a picture book, it doesn’t look big, does it?
Why is the moon so important in literature?
A (large) moon can infuse your story with magical powers, even when the story is not of the fantasy genre per se.
The moon is a physical manifestation of fate.
A moon can be seen from everybody, anywhere on Earth and therefore makes a story feel universal, much like a myth.
The moon can lend a feminine feel to a story, since it is connected to the menstrual cycle.
The moon is comforting, since it waxes and wanes predictably.
In picturebooks, for practical purposes, the moon provides a great source of light, making night scenes glow.
The Moon ‘Incorporated’
Sometimes illustrators emphasise the importance of the moon by incorporating the celestial object into the design in a way that makes the moon seem part of the earthly landscape.
On the cover of Slinky Malinki it’s done subtly, with the glow from the moon providing an illuminating frame for the title.
Which Witch’s Wand Works? by Poly Bernatene
Kay Nielson’s illustrations incorporate the moon more fully into the story, as the story requires:
This is a crystal ball, but we’re lead to associate the crystal ball with the moon.
In her illustrations of Beauty and the Beast, Schroder creates a fantastical moon which is actually smaller than a real moon.
Massive Moons On Book Covers
There’s a graphic design advantage to huge moons as covers — the moon provides a light-coloured circle upon which to showcase the title.
Oversized Moons In Books For Adults
This design feature isn’t limited to kidlit. Adults and teens are also drawn to oversized moons.
How do you go about the task of mocking up a picture book? Most picture book illustrators make a dummy of thumbnails, to check the story flows well. Many writers (who are not also illustrators) find this a helpful practice, too.
When composing a piece, decide first which part of the picture you would like the audience to see first.
To draw attention to something, make it bigger, and if it’s not actually bigger, position it closer to the camera.
We tend to look towards a vanishing point. So you can position important things there.
The audience tends to look in the same direction as the main character, assuming something relevant is going on in that direction.
For English-background readers, we are used to reading from left to right. If the action is going in that direction we’ll feel more at ease. If the action is going from right to left we’ll feel something’s not quite right: hard times and difficulty.
Decide on the emotion you want to evoke, and its intensity. (Sadness, happiness, action, suspense?)
The execution of the artwork — the style — must suitthe type of story being told.
In visual storytelling, looking great is not enough. Each work of art (frame) must help to propel the story along. Something which is simply beautiful may pull the viewer out of the story. [I think now of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which some scenes are not vital to the plot but exist only for world-building and atmosphere. This is important too.]
Is there anything that can be left out without changing what you want to say?
The first shots will establish the milieu and emotional landscape. This must remain consistent until the final frame.
To build atmosphere manipulate lighting, pacing and colour.
Give the audience the opportunity to create their own reality as much as possible, by creating a gap between the visuals and the text. When answering a question, raise another at the same time.
Simplicity, shadows and silences are sometimes more important than detail. Leave the reader wondering about something.
Where to position the ‘camera’? Looking up/straight on/from above/from some other weird angle?
Naturalistic perspective, flattened or exaggerated?
We look at things depending on what we’re focused on at the moment. [So if there was a hint of a gun in one frame, we’ll be expecting to see it, and therefore focused on it, in the following frame.]
Curved shapes = subtle/peaceful.
Diagonal lines = dynamic/aggressive.
Straight lines = assertiveness.
Avoid weird coincidences, like a tree growing out of a head just because someone happens to be standing in front of a tree.
When cutting in closer to a scene, there is a rule to be followed, to do with proportions. Keep the subject at the same position in both frames so the reader knows it’s the same subject and not a different one.
To make an image seem deeper, create an uneven balance of shapes — big to small.
To better convey the direction of action in action scenes, make the action follow the lines of perspective.
To establish intimacy between two characters, clear the space between them. To create antagonism, put obstacles between them. (Or make use of light and darkness/background shapes.)
High and low, right and left are all locations that can have significance. Figures positioned up high may be interpreted as in ecstatic or dream-like states, or may have high social status or a positive self-image.
On pages where pictures are mere vignettes or are only partially framed so that the words push in from the side, or where pictures are irregularly sequenced down or across the page in asymmetrical arrangements, then high and low, left and right have no significant value.
When studying picturebooks closely, positional codes are used relatively sparingly [when compared to comics and graphic novels].
More common in picturebooks: the convention that places figures in motion facing left to right. Any character attempting to move from right to left will be perceived as interfering with the natural course of events: they’ve returned from an adventure/blocking someone’s path/have sinister intentions etc.
Children are remarkably quick to take in a scene, even in cases where the illustration is not particularly ept, and interpreting that scene as intended, but there are certain features of visual images that are harder for children to understand: anything which has a meaning over and above what is represented. Children may or may not understand, for instance, that a red cross indicates medical assistance, depending on their age and cultural background.
Ah, composition. How things are arranged on the page… or on the screen. I have written before about how picture books have a lot in common with film, and that study of one equals study of the other.
Knowing how to manipulate an audience is far more important than knowing how to manipulate the technology of film.
— Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Here is a useful YouTube video from Channel Criswell which introduces the topic of Composition in Storytelling. While the examples in the video are all from film, as I watch I’m thinking of the page composition of my favourite picture books.
Lewis Bond explains that composition in good films achieves two things:
It draws your attention to the right thing.
There is a subtext. e.g. Which character has control of the scene? How are they feeling? How have they changed? What are they about to do?
Power And Control
Composition is really good at depicting the power dynamics between characters. In fact, that is probably what it is best at. You may know this already. (Low angle means strong, high angle means weak etc.)
But control can be broken down further into two separate meanings:
ARTIFICIAL CONTROL: The control of the aesthetics and where we should be looking. (What’s listed below: geometry, framing etc.)
PRIMAL CONTROL: What subject holds more weight in the narrative at that moment in time? This could show the power dynamic between characters or even between character and setting. Nothing shows this more than size and scale in an image.
Control can also be conveyed by placing the subject right in the centre of the frame, though it can also mean loneliness and difference, as below.
This is an aspect of composition which is perhaps talked about even more in picturebooks than it is in film. What is the purpose of negative space?
It is often used to show the vast expanse of the area.
On a psychological level, negative space creates apprehension, as we expect something to take place in the void we see.
In characterisation, negative space can be used to show that characters have no hope. Or perhaps it signifies the great distances characters must go before reaching their goals.
While ‘negative space’ is a word from art world, when talking about picturebooks we might say that a scene has been ‘decontextualised’. This is when we see, for example, a child putting on a jumper, but without the bedroom scene. There are a number of reasons for decontextualising a scene in a picture book:
This technique deliberately removes ‘ambience’
And draws attention to the action rather than inviting the reader to linger on the picture (manipulating the pace of the story)
Where words accompany the scenes the words feel more integrated with the illustration when the illustration is decontextualised, probably because there’s no clear demarcation between the edge of the picture and the start of the words.
When an illustration extends right to the edge of the page it is called an ‘unbound’ image.
This is an unnecessary term when it comes to film, since almost all frames in a film extend to the edge of the border. Many picture books are composed entirely of unbound images. In these stories the imaginative world becomes the focus of the story throughout. If the illustrator is creating an otherworld or a work of magical realism or something that is not entirely familiar to readers (as are bathrooms/kitchens/bedrooms etc.) then you’ll likely find mostly or entirely unbound images.
It’s also possible to have both unbound and decontextualised images i.e. unbound images can still have a heap of white space. I Went Walking is made entirely of this kind of image.
But in a large number of picture books you’ll find a mixture of bound and unbound images. When to make use of which?
Reasons to use unbound images:
The reader is invited into the story world at selected moments
The effect is greater when preceded by a sequence of bound images
The removal of edges brings the reader into a room/forest/scene
Bound images are those which are set within a page margin or border, demarcate the story world as more distinctly separated from the reader’s world than unbound ones and may also serve to ‘contain’ or confine the character. In general, bound images separate the reader from the semiotic world of the story. Where there is both a frame and a margin, there’s a more emphatic demarcation of the two. Frames contribute to the ambience of a layout. A defined frame marks out the image as a representation to be viewed from the outside but can also afford additional meaning. A frame can either influence the attitude of the reader, or confer a symbolic attribute upon the character(s).
How to bind an image:
Coloured ‘white space’. If the background image is anything other than white (the default) this binding colour is making some sort of statement. The ambience changes. (See Lucy’s Bay, Hyram and B, Wolves In The Walls.)
The frame doesn’t need to surround the entire picture — it might just be on one side. This binds the picture less.
A part of the illustration might extend out into the frame, for example a character might sit inside the framing block of colour thinking, to show that the main image on the page is part of a flashback.
The frame might be part of the picture itself, e.g. in Voices in the Park the playground the children swing from itself forms a frame. This is called ‘an experiential frame’, and the frame serves as a symbolic attribute. The playground as frame shows that the young characters are playful.
Illustrators might use an actual frame from the world of the story (e.g. a window frame, door frame or picture frame etc.)
Rule of thirds
Dividing the image into rectangles, or perhaps circles, arches and triangles
Human beings are prone to find order where there may be none, and frames in cinema work to help the elements to appear in a much more uniformed manner. They tend to dilute the external details in an image, and our eyes are drawn to them because within the frame lies order, and hopefully, our main subject. But through this technique emerges deeper implications. These frames are often used as a partition to separate. The subtext: Why not use the frame to separate the worlds on both sides of the frame. It can show a contrast as simple as freedom versus isolation, or by showing a character’s passing through a frame, we see their decision to pursue a lifestyle, contrasted to those lifestyles that other characters are denied entry to.
Not all frames look like frames. Doors and windows and mirrors are obviously ‘framed’. But we can also see a character through the barrel of a shot gun or a noose or two hands, through legs, books in a library, or any number of other objects.
In the image below, the symmetry suggested by the architecture and the centre position of the tutor is juxtaposed with the children, who are lively and cannot be tamed.
One thing that is specific to film (and not to static images of picture books is ‘reframing’ (as demonstrated in the video). However, book apps are able to make use of this technique. I haven’t seen it done nearly enough (yet) but, on a touch screen device, finger gestures are able to take readers off screen to reveal something that wasn’t there before. One example of this occurs in The Heart And The Bottle app by Oliver Jeffers.
Eye-line of Subjects
What are the characters looking at? Whatever they’re looking you’ll want to look, too.
Parallel lines and converging lines can intersect characters or trap them in corners.
In the illustration below, Jon Klassen emphasises the way the characters lean back by framing them with architecture in the background.
Cameras are able to pull focus to highlight the subject of a frame, in the way of an SLR camera. Picturebooks are more like point-and-shoots in that they typically tend to focus everything in the frame, by the very fact that there is no camera involved in the process. However, picture book illustrators can still mimic this technique. Illustrators have for a long time mimicked the human eye, if not the exaggerated pull-focus of cameras, by using the rules of aerial perspective. Closer objects are also more detailed, but what about when they are not? Some illustrators of picture books create work which is equally detailed no matter how far the object from the eye of the viewer. This may be because they are creating a folkart feeling, which goes hand-in-hand with light and bright stories.
Evelyn Goldsmith suggests there is evidence to support the idea that “the placing of a picture to left or right, above or below the text, can affect the amount of time spent reading the text itself.
When text appears under an illustration, we tend to read the words after we have seen the illustration, because we usually look at a page from the top down.
Also, we tend to look at pictures first, because of their inherently attractive nature.
‘The words’ or ‘the text’ when talking about picturebooks can also be described as ‘verbiage’.
It is most common for words to be placed to the left of a picture, when the verbiage is separate from the illustration.
It is equally common for a complementary layout to be organised with the visual and verbal components adjacent to one anotehr veritcally in descending ‘layers’, either with image above verbiage or verbiage above image.
Verbiage placed above the pictures place the reader in an ambivalent state: Should we read the words first, or look at the picture? This ambivalence can add tension for the reader at certain parts of the book.
Arnheim argues that the upper part of a composition always has greater weight than the lower part, an argument supported by Kress and van Leeuwen. The material in the upper portion of a vertically organised layout has the function of ‘ideal’ as opposed to the lower portion realising the ‘real’: “For something to be ideal means that it is presented as the idealized or generalized essence of the information, hence also as its ostensibly, most salient part. The real is then opposed to this in that it presents more specific information (e.g. details), more ‘down to earth’ information (e.g. photographs as documentary evidence, or maps or charts), or more practical information (e.g. practical consequences, directions for action).”
“If the upper part of the page is occupied by the text and the lower part by one or more pictures…the text plays, ideologically, the lead role, and the pictures a subservient role (which, however, is important in its own way, as specification, evidence, practical consequence, and so on.) If the roles are reversed, so that one or more pictures occupy the top section, then the Ideal, the ideologically foregrounded part of the message, is communicated visually, and the text serves to elaborate on it.”
The two most common arrangements of picture/text in picturebooks: the text on the left side of a two-page spread with the picture on the right, or the picture on the top and the text on the bottom.
“The more frequent choice for a complementary vertical layout in a picture book is for the verbiage to come below the picture, and it is undoubtedly the image that most strongly claims our attention in that case. By contrast, where the verbiage appears above the picture it seems less easy to ignore the words.” (from Reading Visual Narratives.) There aren’t enough of such texts to draw a strong enough conclusion though, so let’s just say the dominance of the text is most closely related to how much there is of it. If the pages are covered in text, obviously the text is not going to be ignored.
But more unusual arrangements are possible to create strong narrative effects.
So far I’ve been writing about ‘complementary’ layouts. What about when the verbiage is a part of the picture itself? ‘Intratext’ is the word used to describe words on signs, food package etc. But when the narrative is placed somewhere inside the picture rather than on a separate page, or somehow demarcated from it, we might say the text and picture are ‘integrated’.
Sometimes the text appears inside a speech bubble e.g. Don’t Forget The Bacon by Pat Hutchins. This technique seems to borrow from superhero comics.
Sometimes non-speech items are projected e.g. onomatopoeia, bang, crash etc. Japanese manga feature a lot of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is often retained (and not transliterated) when adapted for the English speaking market.
One way of giving text more integration with the picture is by ‘decontextualising’ the picture. Most often this is when the characters appear on a white background. While white is the most common choice, the scenes from Wolves in the Walls below are part of a dark story for older children and the white background, too, has been replaced with darker textures which look like pages from an ancient text.
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. I didn’t want to spend 18 months on it, or spend weeks learning how to use new software.
ONE OPTION: BOOK CREATOR APP
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.
ANOTHER OPTION FOR MAC USERS: IBOOKS AUTHOR
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?
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.
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. Now you can read one of these fixed layout picture books on the small screen which actually creates another issue: For which screen size should you optimise? our Lotta: Red Riding Hood was made for iPad, but now you can read it on an iPhone, the text is actually a little small.
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:
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.
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:
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:
And the title page, which I dragged into the ‘intro media’ area in IBA:
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.
Here’s what the same page looks like when it’s on the iPad. (Artwork is in progress during this preview.)
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 Skype connection had been better…. [Was it the connection, or my non-American accent?!]
You’ll need to download an extra piece of (free) software called Producer. (Whyyyy)
It took about a day for LRRH to be approved (or, overnight, since I’m here in Australia). A subsequent book seemed to appear on the iBooks store right away.
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.)
“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.