App discovery and evaluation is a perfect example of 21st Century Skills in action. The search for an app, the critical assessment of an app, the practical integration of an app into instruction and hopefully, the sharing out of that process through social media to pay it forward for the common good. To impede that process by trying to control it seems very 19th century to me.
There’s something strange, though, about positioning a book somewhere on the continuum that starts with ‘easy’ and ends with ‘difficult’, because a book’s difficulty, aside from the most basic of measures such as frequency of lesser-used vocabulary, rests not upon the work itself, but in how it is taught.
This issue is close to my heart because I happen to think that even the ‘easiest’ picturebooks can be used as a jump-off point to explore a wide range of difficult themes and ideas. Non-fiction reading of adult difficulty can very naturally accompany the study of the easiest of fiction readers when reading is guided by a good classroom teacher.
I feel very uneasy when discussions on ‘difficulty’ begin and end with grade levels and lexile ratings.
A fairy’s life is filled with danger. Broccoli is often poisoned by the wicked Duchess and should never be eaten.
— ALICE THE FAIRY BY DAVID SHANNON
POOKIE BY IVY WALLACE (1946)
Never underestimate what kids learn from picturebooks. Trouble is, it’s not always what you want them to learn. Would kids even know the concept of monsters if they weren’t exposed to monsters in picturebooks; in picturebooks which are designed, no less, to teach kids not to be afraid of monsters? I have no idea.
Another thing I see cropping up time and time again in picturebooks are green vegetables as a stock example of ‘yucky stuff’. TV Tropes calls this ‘stock yuck’: Broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage. It’s not limited to food, but when it’s already a challenge getting kids to eat their greens, I groan when I come across brassicas as stock yuck in books for kids.
As TV tropes points out, there’s an evolutionary reason for a childhood aversion to green vegetables:
They actually taste different to children, and generally, they taste worse. Children are more receptive to bitter compounds in foods than adults (likely an evolutionary measure to prevent us from dying of plant poisoning while young), and tend to be put off by the bitter taste.
How did broccoli become the poster child of the good-for-you yet ostensibly bad-tasting vegetable? Why didn’t Jeffrey seize on spinach, or Brussels sprouts, or peas as an example of produce that liberty-loving Americans would hate to be forced to buy?
Thing is, I’m not convinced that picturebooks can fight this particular battle with overt healthy eating messages. (Picturebooks with overt anything messages aren’t generally very pleasant to read, IMO.) Here are my pretty simple criteria when choosing picturebooks for our own daughter:
Avoids glorification of highly processed junk food
Avoids demonising the vegetables I want her to be eating
Bear in mind that stock yuck is culture dependent.
GETTING KIDS TO EAT VEGETABLES
When the three year old announced, ‘I don’t like green food’, it was as if she’d been reading some research about the taste preferences of toddlers. I tried to get more good food into her, struggled, struggled. Here are some interesting links I came across in my travels.
2. Kids Choose to Eat Vegetables If Their Plates Have Pictures of Vegetables Printed on Them, from Bon Appetit. The best place to find these, by the way, are in those cheap stores in malls which import a whole bunch of cheap crockery from Asia. I suspect Asian parents don’t have quite as much trouble getting their kids to eat their vegetables. I have a set of soup spoons with eggplants and celery people on them. They’re very cute. Everything I find in a typically Western store has cupcakes.
Now that our kid is five, she’ll eat vegetables. This was a n=1 experiment, sure, but this worked.
1. We got rid of added sugar in the home, including cereals at breakfast time. Breakfast sets you up for the rest of the day. Eggs, banana, cheese, berries, nuts: that’s what ours has for breakfast. Once you get rid of sugar in the house, vegetables taste a hell of a lot more appealing because the brain changes in response to taste. You’ll have no trouble getting kids to eat the sweet veges like sweet potatoes and carrots and pumpkin. Even the green vegetables taste sweeter once you kick sugar. (By the way, kicking sugar isn’t easy. I recommend reading a book on how to do it first. There are quite a few of them now.)
2. Put butter on them. Grass fed, organic butter — the kind that’s bright yellow by nature. Here in Australia and New Zealand we’re lucky with our excellent dairy products. (Apparently Americans need to keep their eye out for something called Kerrygold.) Kids need saturated fat for their brain development and there’s a reason why butter tastes good. We also sprinkle pine nuts on the vegetables but I don’t know if this actually helps because the kid picks the pine nuts off and eats them separately.
4. Make sure the father figure eats veges too. I read somewhere that kids look to their dads when deciding what to eat. Completely unfair, since it’s often the mother doing the cooking. I was skeptical of this nugget of research at first, but I’ve since observed it’s probably true. Make the man do the ‘nom nom’ sound while chowing down on a green floret. That’ll make it worth it.
Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is a theme in our house, so I hastily add a line in which McGonagall gives Harry a paper to write on the importance of following instructions. Then I underscore the responsibility of being on a team, so that getting to be seeker doesn’t seem entirely like a reward for bad behavior.
I do this sort of on-the-fly editing all the time when reading to my 5-year-old. I call it “pinkwashing” after the scene in “Pinkalicious” in which the poor, discolored child must stomach horrible green vegetables as a cure for her unfortunate pinkness. She chokes down artichokes, gags on grapes and burps up brussels sprouts. The passage serves important narrative and stylistic functions, of course, but Emmett loves artichokes, grapes and brussels sprouts. He never complains about eating them, so rather than hint at a generation-long struggle against the tyranny of green veggies, I replace the negative verbs with positive ones. Pinkwashing.
…the ad team visited an elementary school in Boulder, Colo., to get a better sense of what children thought about broccoli. This was a progressive school, certainly as far as food was concerned. The school district’s director of food services, Ann Cooper, was imported from Berkeley, Calif., where she once worked with Alice Waters; on the school’s grounds there was a garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown, to inspire the students to be connected to the source of their food. The team was encouraged when it heard that the students had generally positive feelings — until Cooper reminded them that children were only one part of the challenge and that the parents who actually bought the groceries were, by and large, part of a generation that viewed broccoli as “brown, squishy and smelly.”
First things first: Does this story require an active and alert reader, and do the interactions reward interactivity and alertness?
1. Should interactions be user-initiated or autoplay? A mixture?
I prefer narration to autoplay, with the option of turning it off completely from the main menu. When I have to press a button to start the narration on each page it takes me out of the story. As for the rest of the page, a mixture of autoplaying actions and user-initiated interactions works well in many cases, as long as any auto-play noises are not too irritating. Irritating = loud, unpleasant tones or even a pleasant sound that’s on too short of a loop.
2. How much animation, if any?
Too much animation and the storyapp runs the risk of emulating a film, losing its true interactivity. For small development teams, too much animation is costly and therefore not an option. When simple animations are utilised, which ones help to tell the story?
3. Should interactivity be allowed before the narration is over, or must the reader wait?
I still get frustrated when I can’t start the interactivity when I want to, regardless of whether the sound that accompanies the interaction drowns out the narration. It’s about user control. Also, I prefer gentle sound effects, which don’t drown out the narration even if played simultaneously.
4. After an interactivity has played out, should the user be able to cycle through again, or will the page fall inactive, waiting for the reader to turn the page and move on with the story?
The advantage of looping is that readers can linger on a page for as long as they like, which makes the reader feel more in control. The disadvantage is that younger readers in particular may lose the thread of the story, derailed by the interactivity. We used both finite and infinite loops of interactions for The Artifacts on a case-by-case basis. I’ve grown to slightly prefer finite looping, because if readers really want a specific page they can jump to it via the navigation pages, or simply turn onto the page again from the previous, losing no control — only a small bit of convenience.
5. Should the developer offer hints with flashing/arrows, or should the reader have to find all the interactivity themselves?
We believe young readers are more than capable of uncovering any interaction we think we’re hiding in an app. We hear quite a bit from parents that children find Easter eggs in apps that they never suspected were there. We don’t believe everything needs to be handed to a child on a plate, and goes with our general philosophy of ‘try it and see’ — an important attitude when using any type of technology.
The best children’s apps are successful because of a pair of more traditional qualities. Great storytelling. Strong characters. It seems apps aren’t so revolutionary after all, but that’s a good thing.
Dan’s a bit of a stats nerd. He loves to look at graphs. The other day he was looking at a graph attached to the YouTube promotional video we made for The Artifacts. The interesting thing about YouTube, compared to many other websites, is that we can see the basic demographic profile of people looking at our content.
“Hmmm,” he said, sounding slightly surprised. “Guess who are the main kind of person looking at our promo vid.”
“Female,” I said. “Between the ages of 50 and 60.”
“How did you know that?”
It’s not because I’d looked at the stats. (I can never remember that password.) It’s because I’ve worked in schools myself, and I know the sort of person who I’d go to for help in literacy. She’s probably a (smart, academic, research-oriented) woman, and likely approaching the average retirement age.
This makes me worried. I’m not sure if I should be worried. Maybe most of the literacy experts I respect are in their fifties precisely because it takes a lifetime of teaching to become an expert in the first place. I hope this is the case, because the alternative is dire: that there are too few literacy specialists coming through the current educational system.