The Storybook App Paradox

Last week, after a summer hiatus, our local book club reconvened. I had promised to take along The Artifacts to show everyone the picture book app that I wrote and illustrated last year.

Do you remember the first time you used a touch device? An iPad, maybe? It’s quite something to see the look of wonder in the eyes of people who have never seen one before. This is why user testing on iPad virgins is of limited value; are they in awe of your app, or of the gadget?

There are a few things I should say about my book group. First, the average age would be about 70. Second, it’s a proper book group, where we do discuss books in a structured way. It is made up of women who have read heavily their entire adult lives. Some read 8 books a month. Many are former teachers. All buy books for grandchildren. It’s fair to say I’m the least well read. But one thing we all have in common: we care passionately about books and literature and story and education.

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when someone asked, with detectable dubious intonation, “So is this the future of books?

Who knows? Probably!

Next, “But doesn’t all this [interactivity/animation/sound effects] take away from the story? Isn’t it a distraction?”

This, too, is a common reaction, at least to those of us involved in storyapp creation.

Everyone who cares about literature and children has surely asked this question.

My feelings on this are clear, however. It depends if the app developer knows what they are doing. Sometimes I care so much about children and literature that I probably need help. I have been known to rant on and on about top 25 grossing apps, starring branded characters which are nothing more than bells and whistles. “Why can’t parents see what they’re buying for their kids?” I’ll ask, stomping about the house, slamming down pots and pans, mopping the floor (on a productive day). “Why do people buy this crap? It’s crap!” (Words sometimes fail me.)

I rant about those ‘story’ apps with unoriginal, clichéd plots, in which an unenthusiastic writer has been contracted to spin a story of sorts, to match flat, uninspiring artwork. I rant on about apps in which the creative team do not seem to have communicated adequately with the programming team. Sometimes it looks as if a programmer has been emailed a story and told, “Here, make an app thingo out of that.”

But there are plenty of knowledgeable people who care deeply about children’s literature, providing commentary on how app developers are shaping up to the new challenges of digital media. Many of these people are educators or literacy experts.

This morning I read an excellent article over at The Horn Book: What Makes A Good Picture Book App? by Katie Bircher, who I am not surprised to see has an MA in children’s literature.

I agree with everything in that article.

But one sentence pulls me up short:


Wow. Since we’re in the middle of making another picture book app ourselves, I often ruminate about best practice and usability (so far undocumented), so I do take my time to absorb expert expectations. And what a big ask! By ‘extra oomph’ might Katie Bircher be asking app developers to do something more than print books can do? What exactly is ‘oomph’?

Here are some basic truths about picture book app creation:

1. Picture book apps are expensive to create.

2. Picture book apps are just as expensive to market as print equivalents, and do not have the benefit of visibility in bricks and mortar book stores.

3. Picture book apps are much cheaper for the consumer to buy. The Artifacts is $1.99, for example. You can’t buy a new, physical picture book for $1.99.

Yet here we are, at this weird junction, where some people seem to expect more from a picturebook app than from a print book.

Do we expect more from the movie adaptation of a book? I don’t. I expect something different. Many people have learnt to expect less.


Because I’m hearing two distinct but conflicting messages from those of you who know children’s literature:

1. Apps should be simple. You’re encouraging us to think very hard and long about interaction and animation. This is good. I’m thinking. Hard.

2. Apps have to offer something more than a print book does. For less cost to the consumer, by the way.

But we didn’t go into this industry hoping to add something more than print books can achieve.

Printed picture books are an excellent medium. I can’t see a single way in which the print book fails. The best of them do a great job of sparking imagination, transporting children to other worlds, offering the gift of story and creating a love of reading.

Can a digital medium possibly offer more oomph than that? And should the savvy consumer expect it to?