Slap Happy Larry is a two person development team of Dan Hare (coder) and Lynley Stace (art and story). Dan and Lynley live near Canberra, Australia, though Dan is originally from the central NSW coast, and Lynley is from Christchurch, New Zealand. They have one daughter, Hannah, who comes in useful for user testing, and a Border collie who happily helps out with sound FX (at least when it involves munching noisily on kettle fried chips.)
Modern young adult literature bears many similarities to what has previously been called ‘the psychological novel’.
A psychological novel is a work of prose-fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterisation, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action.
Dostoevsky was the great analyst — in a sense, almost the inventor — of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love.
James Wood, How Fiction Works
(Ressentiment is the French word for resentment.)
Ways In Which Modern Children’s Literature Resembles The Psychological Novel
1. Abandonment of overt and controlling narrative voices in favour of single and multiple focalisations
In other words, the didactic unseen omniscient voice died.
2. Changes of perspective
The ‘camera’ of the narrator zooms in and out, sometimes right inside the head of a character, oftentimes further away, commenting on an entire scene. Chapters can alternate first person narrators, or switch between first and third. We see characters from both the inside and from the outside. This is known as free indirect style.
3. Montage effects
Montage novels are a type of modernist novel which is ‘cinematic’, but we shouldn’t conclude that cinema was influencing the novel. It’s just as likely the other way around — the word ‘montage’ was not invented for cinema.
In the 1920s and 30s a lot of development was going on in the arts. The word ‘montage’ started to be applied to other kinds of art.
Montage ‘involves juxtaposing two fragments and combining them into a new representation whose sense is equal neither to the sense of each fragment nor to their sum.’ (Ėjzenštejn)
contrasting ways of expression (collage)
different points of view or hyper-fragmentation of the text (cubist montage)
joining elements from heterogeneous cultures, citations, various subtexts or sources
While montage in the cinema is the basic means of connecting fragments, montage in literature serves to show dissociation. (Unless we’re talking about dialectical montage, a film editing technique that emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one shot and another.)
Critics have always had trouble defining the montage novel and you could argue the term is basically meaningless now.
However, the modernist novel — which includes the montage novel — is different from the pre-WW 1 era in that it emphasises the irrationality of life and lost faith in traditional values. (Katherine Mansfieldwas a modernist short story writer.)
4. Internal/interior monologues
We are shown what the characters are thinking. The opposite of this is what we see on a Shakespearian stage, for example, in which the only way we can possibly tell what a character is thinking is via a monologue or a murmur to the side.
Here are some stories you might like to read/study if you are interested in themes touched upon in The Artifacts.
These next three books are similar to The Artifacts in that they share a counterpoint in genre: The words are realistic while the pictures are fantasy. This creates tension between the “objective” and the “subjective”. (See ‘How Picturebooks Work’, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott.)
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE BY MAURICE SENDAK
Both stories are about a boy who experiences a rift between himself and his parents, and who then retreats to his own bedroom only to retreat further into his imagination. In both cases, what happens in the boys’ imagination reflects what happens — or what they wish would happen — in their real lives.
Like Asaf in The Artifacts, Max starts from the security of his bedroom, explores the wider world in his mind, then returns to the safety of his bedroom. See Room With A View: Bedroom Scenes In Picturebooks by William Moebius, Children’s Literature,Volume 19, 1991.
THE COAT-HANGER HORSE BY KYM LARDNER
This is another story in which a boy is confined to his bedroom — not because he is in trouble or because he is sulking but because he is ill. I suppose his imagination could be interpreted as delirium, but he may simply be biding his time by using his imagination to amuse himself. His quilt becomes a landscape for instance, and his bed becomes a sea in the ocean. I think most of us have imagined that our bed is floating in an ocean (no?) and the patchwork quilt analogy must be fairly common too. I’m reminded of a Gonsalves painting.
THE DANGEROUS JOURNEY BY TOVE JANSSON
CLANCY & MILLIE AND THE VERY FINE HOUSE BY LIBBY GLEESON ILLUSTRATED BY FREYA BLACKWOOD (2009)
This story is similar to The Artifacts in that a pre-adolescent boy is forced to move house, from a small, cosy house in the suburbs to a large apartment in an urban area. Clancy (who like Asaf appears to be an only child) is not happy about this move, and cannot identify with either of his parents, who think the new abode is marvellous.
Some close reading questions for this picture book might go something like this:
How has the illustrator made Clancy’s old house seem much more cosy than the new one? (Colour, perspective)
On the first page, and again towards the end, the clouds look like three pigs. If we assume that Clancy sees the clouds like this, what does it say about Clancy’s personality? What else in the pictures supports your interpretation of Clancy’s personality?
Where has the illustrator made Clancy’s parents seem united, with Clancy emotionally ‘on his own’?
Talk about the role of cardboard boxes in this story, from their most literal part in the plot to the most metaphorical interpretation you can think of.
What does the fat snail symbolise? (Hiding from the world. Almost agoraphobia. The fat snail also marks a turning point, from realism to magic realism. Now, the illustrations will be a little over the top. For example, the boxes will now tower above in a way that defies real-world gravity.)
Is Millie real? Give evidence for or against. (Her clothes are very similar to Clancy’s — similar in an unlikely way — so she may not be. In fact, she looks like the girl version of Clancy, even down to the two-syllable name. The background of these illustrations is a kind of textured cloud, in which case Millie could have appeared from ‘nowhere’. But Millie does talk to him, and on the final page the stuffed dog has been discarded, suggesting that a real-world friend has displaced an inanimate stand-in. The reader never knows for sure.)
Why does this story rely on allusions to the classic fairy tale The Three Little Pigs? ()In which housing is a part of the plot. Apart from the plot point of moving houses, there exists anxiety in both stories. Perhaps The Three Little Pigs is really about the anxiety of moving house, in which we worry that our new abode will not protect us adequately. The Big Bad Wolf would in that case stand in for all the worries associated with intrusion but also loneliness and other fears. At a more literal level, Clancy builds a stronger and stronger cardboard house, using his imagination to reassure himself that he is living ‘in a house of bricks’ and is thereby fortified and confident in his new environs.)
THE WILD BABY GOES TO SEA BY BARBRO LINDGREN AND EVA ERIKSSON
SEASON OF DISBELIEF BY RAY BRADBURY
You’ll find this story in Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 2.
Once time has passed, it has passed. We only have the present. That’s the message I took away from this lovely short story by a master of the form.
Mrs Bentley was a saver. She saved tickets, old theater programs, bits of lace, scarves, rail transfers; all the tags and tokens of existence.
Her collecting tendencies are magnified by the fact that she has lost her husband, John. She wants to save everything that reminds her of him. One summer’s day Helen Bentley sees three ten-year-old children (Jane, Tom and Alice) sitting on her lawn. At that moment the ice-cream van comes past, so she buys them an ice-cream. The children are not very polite, and when Mrs Bentley tells them she’s 72 years old, they hardly believe it. They certainly don’t believe that Mrs Bentley was once a child too. This is too horrific to imagine. Perhaps they’ve never considered before that one day, if they’re lucky, they’ll be old too. The girls leave after a distasteful exchange. Tom follows slowly behind and is the only one of the three children to thank Mrs Bentley for the ice-cream. (I suspect the girls are more terrified of looking like Mrs Bentley because of the shared gender.)
Mrs Bentley can’t get the children out of her mind, so in the evening she stands on her porch for half an hour. When they come past again she invites them inside and shows them some of her special possessions, hoping to prove that she was young once too. Among the trinkets is a photograph of herself when she was a girl, but the two girls still won’t believe that it’s her. They accuse her of falsifying information, of taking off with a picture of another little girl. As the girls leave, they steal a comb, a ring and the photo.
Lying awake in bed, later that night, Mrs Bentley imagines what her husband would have to say about it:
They stole nothing from you, my dear. These things don’t belong to you here, you now. They belonged to her, that other you, so long ago.
She recalls an earlier conversation with him:
Why did you save those ticket stubs and theater progams? They’ll only hurt you later. Throw them away, my dear…It won’t work…No matter how hard you try to be what you once were you can only be what you are here and now. Time hypnotizes. When you’re nine, you think you’ve always been nine years old and will always be. When you’re thirty, it seems you’ve always been balanced there on that bright rim of middle life. And then when you turn seventy, you are always and forever seventy. You’re in the present, you’re trapped in a young now or an old now, but there is no other now to be seen.
The following day the children return, and Mrs Bentley has made up her mind to let them take whatever they like. In return, they help her build a bonfire of items she need no longer keep. Now, whenever they ask her questions, she doesn’t try to persuade them that she was young and pretty once. She insists that she’s always been seventy-two, that she doesn’t have a first name, that she’s just called ‘Mrs Bentley’.
MY FATHER AND THE GREAT PIRATE
A child tells about his faraway father, a pirate, who comes back home only once a year, in summer, bringing with him the sea water smell. The text gives voice to the child, and the pictures re-create the sunny images taking shape in his mind as his father talks, telling him about hidden treasure maps, the faces of the other pirates who are his companions, the black flag waving on the ship… all this until the sad, grey day when the child and his mother have to travel to another country to his father who is hurt and hospitalised. The child finds out that his father has been in an accident but it didn’t happen to him boarding an enemy ship but just working in a mine. The child finds the reality hard to accept, after the fascinating and loving tales that his father has told him in the past and must now find a way to overcome his disappointment.
THE FISHERMAN AND THE THEEFYSPRAY BY PAUL JENNINGS ILLUSTRATED BY JANE TANNER
This is a story for younger readers — even preschoolers would appreciate the tale of a fisherman who catches a very rare fish and decides to throw her back into the sea. That night he goes home with no fish, but he does have his memories, which he values more than the physical object. In this respect, the fisherman has learnt the same lesson that Asaf reluctantly learned as a boy.
STORIES THAT CELEBRATE IMAGINATION (CURATED WITH BOYS IN MIND)
Famous Authors’ Handwritten Outlines for Great Works of Literature.
Meanwhile, I took a look at the original concept sketches I drew for a mock up of Midnight Feast. One thing’s clear: I don’t do pretty mock ups. I’m glad I write the stories myself because I wouldn’t want to have to waste time doing pretty mock ups for approval. The advantage of being writer/illustrator in one is that my concept sketches exist only to remind me of my own original idea.
Men’s voices are scarier. At least they are to me. (Unless we’re talking Kathy Bates inMisery.) Since Baby Grand is a suspense thriller, I wanted its telling to be pretty darn creepy. And I got some pretty creepy samples sent to me too. But, keep in mind, I also needed this male voice to be able to carry those chapters in which Jamie was the narrator, so I needed a male voice to have a pleasing quality, with only a hint of creepiness.
It would have been nice to have a female narrating Midnight Feast, since it’s a story about a girl, and also because there are too few female narrators to achieve anything like a gender balance, but when I read the post above I realised it’s okay to have reasons for stuff like this.
The nice thing about storyapps is that they are narrated. This makes them good for a wider variety of age groups.
This morning Cosmopolitan reports that UK authors are pushing for children’s literature to include sex in fiction for kids. That’s quite a headline grabber. Of course, reading the actual article offers a less sensationalist request:
Malorie Blackman says that including sex in fiction for kids will expose them to it in a shame-free, healthy and positive “safe setting”
Philip Pullman agrees, and says that kids can benefit from seeing sex in a “moral context” where “actions have consequences”.
They’re not asking too much, are they? Bear in mind that in the publishing world, ‘children’s literature’ includes the young adult category.
I wish them all the luck in the world and, given the current attitude towards nudity in picture books, I think they’ll need it. Things haven’t changed all that much since Maurice Sendak’s most controversial book In The Night Kitchen was released in 1970. In that book is a picture of a little boy with no clothes on. We can see his penis.
I haven’t seen anything quite like that in picture book since. Maybe illustrated eBooks and self-publishing will offer writers opportunities to push the boundaries a little more? After all, not everyone is on board with the censorship of innocent nudity in picture books, and I count myself among them. However, distribution of our work relies on bigger powers, and here are the developer guidelines from Apple:
I recently saw a picture from a fellow developer who’d had his 4+ rated app rejected by Apple. The screenshot depicted a very innocent, almost inhuman looking, smooth-bodied creature. The advice from Apple was to ‘put some clothes on it’.
So, regardless of my personal attitude towards censorship, the real decision makers are standing at the gate of that walled garden.
Sales of digital comics have soared in the past three years. Readers love the look of comics on the iPad screen and they also love the convenience of in-app purchasing, which allows consumers to buy and store their comics within a single app. So it’s a big deal when Apple bans a comic—usually because of sexual or mature material or nudity—and it has happened to at least 59 comics this year.
You may think that creators of picture books for the iPad have less to worry about, but in fact the innocent nudity of bath time and related day-to-day activities is banned equally by Apple. I have seen children’s apps rejected which feature only the vaguest representations of human creatures. If nudity offends you, you’re safe with Apple. If, on the other hand, you think there should be more normalised nudity in children’s media, your bookshelf will need supplementation, because Apple does not distinguish between ‘nudity’ and ‘nakedness’.
Perry Nodelman explains why Apple employees, when working under deadline to accept or reject app submissions, might have trouble with such a distinction in his book Words About Pictures:
In Ways Of Seeing, John Berger suggests that the characteristic poses of nudes in paintings imply the superiority of the viewer, presumably male and dressed, and the subservience of the person they depict — inevitably female, totally exposed, and apparently delighted by her vulnerability in the face of superior power. While the naked human body is not as significant a subject of picture books as it is of conventional painting, its depiction in picture books deserves some discussion. Not only does it reveal much about the kinds of narrative information implied by the depiction of postures and gestures — above all, the communication of attitudes toward characters — but also it suggests how even cultural assumptions we believe we have outlived survive in surprising ways in literature and art.
As Berger defines it, nudity can be distinguished from mere nakedness by means of gestures. Naked people simply have their clothes off; nude people take on certain postures that suggest their availability, their passivity, their willingness to be vulnerable and to put themselves at the disposal of a superior viewer who has the right to survey them. They tend to be supine, relaxed, smiling sensuously with an implied consciousness of a viewer or with their eyes closed. If such poses and gestures represent nudity, then the unclothed children of picture books are, surprisingly often, nude — and not, surely, because artists with to suggest the sexual availability of young children but more likely because the gestures of nudity are so conventional and so interiorized that artists use them unconsciously when they depict naked bodies.
Code, Symbol, Gesture
Nodelman offers some examples of such nudity in picturebooks:
The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
And that, folks, is how we end up with a blanket ban on nudity in the App Store. Meantime, I did wonder if Midnight Feast would be accepted, due to the bath time pages. Fortunately the app has made it through twice so far. Fingers crossed it keeps making it, though I will wonder every time we submit an update if a naked female back may at some stage not pass muster. Nodelman does point out that although female nudity in picture books is rare due to its close connection to sexuality, ‘the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers’.
Isn’t it interesting, that even when clothed, female characters — in picture books, not just in comics — ‘almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity’.
While I understand the line must be drawn somewhere, I am reminded of a documentary I watched recently about young British naturists, who were joined for afternoon tea by a female friend who felt uncomfortable with complete nakedness, but equally uncomfortable fully clothed, so she thought she’d achieve a happy medium by eating afternoon tea in her underwear. As pointed out by one of the naked young men, her underwear had the uncanny ability to make the young woman appear more naked than if she were wearing nothing at all. Female underwear is highly sexualised; as for nakedness, not necessarily.
Censorship is a murky, muddy, ever-shifting beast, but I do wonder if the emphasis on nakedness in apps for children isn’t completely misplaced when the female characters who do appear in children’s media are so often striking the ‘nude pose’.
Nodelman writes, “In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something—moving, active, not posing.”
I would suggest from all this that it’s not the nakedness per se that offends certain censors*, because we get ‘clothed nude’ in spades; it is in fact naked female agency.
*Censorship technically only refers to government restriction. A company who decides not to allow something is technically making a business decision rather than imposing censorship in the truest sense.
Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Because so much religious energy is devoted to controlling sexual behaviour, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened, we have the spectacle of righteous people writing letters of complaint about televised nudity, while from the factory next door tons of armaments are exported to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war.
The New Statesman has published an article by Jonathan Emmett who points out that the picturebook world is dominated by women. I’m simplifying here, but basically he argues that this is one problem with picturebooks today, and the feminisation of picturebooks explains why boys aren’t reading as early as girls are.
I feel very uneasy about this article, but I’m just going to respond in bullet point form, because I haven’t worked up my thoughts into a paragraphably coherent state.
All thirteen judges on this year’s Greenaway and Carnegie Medal panel are women. Last year there was only one man. Although there are plenty of men writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female.
I agree that this is a problem. I agree with the author’s suggestion further down: fix it with quotas. I also like the idea of gender quotas for the big, important, financially significant book prizes for adults. Perhaps the picturebook world can lead the way. Part of me is glad that this imbalance is being noticed and talked about. Because that, folks, is what it feels like to be under-represented in the literary world.
There is a problem with boys and books — they don’t seem to want to read them as much as girls do. As a result, boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year’s schooling.
Is the problem instead that we’re expecting too much of our kids too soon? I hear that in America, what used to be taught in the first year of elementary school is now taught in pre-schooling.
“Kindergarten is now first grade, and first grade is now second grade,” says Anne Stoudt, a kindergarten teacher in suburban New Jersey for 19 years.
Is it such a problem that boys are lagging behind? The reason this doesn’t concern me too much is because (speaking of large numbers, obviously) boys catch up in their own time. By the time students graduate from university (for instance) men will walk straight into higher paying jobs than their female classmates who did exactly the same degree. Did picturebooks really let those young men down?
Though I don’t like to focus on pay as a measure of a person’s success or worth, it’s the most easily quantifiable measure of ‘caught up’:
One year after college graduation, men and women have much in common. In 2009, most women and men who had earned bachelor’s degrees the year before were young, single, childless, relatively inexperienced in the workplace, and working full time. We might expect to ﬁnd little or no gender pay gap among this group of workers at the start of their careers. Yet just one year after college graduation, with their newly printed degrees in hand, men already earn more than women do.
Graduating To A Pay Gap, from AAUW
It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.
The picturebook world is indeed a pink ghetto. That happens with any industry which women join in great numbers. It happened in the 1980s with teaching, when a great number of men turned away from teaching as a desirable profession after increased awareness and concerns about child protection. Since the picturebook world requires an understanding of children, and since it’s still women who are doing the majority of childcare work, it’s no surprise that picturebook gatekeeping has likewise been left to the women. Julia Donaldson has also pointed out recently that children’s books get very little media coverage in the UK, especially considering how many people are buying children’s books. This surely reflects a general disregard for this form of literature. If men aren’t waving their hands in the air wanting to be picked as gatekeepers of children’s literature, might lack of status have something to do with it? We should fix that.
Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for.
Note to society: stop spreading the message that childcare, including the organisation of birthday parties, preparation of school lunches and buying of presents are women’s work. Note to fathers, uncles and granddads: buy picturebooks. Where money appears, product will follow. (Only one in eight dads take the lead with reading to their children.)
Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed.
I’ve noticed the same thing and I agree that (American!) picturebooks are not expecting enough from their young readers. Nothing annoys me more than a classic fairytale which has had its ending ameliorated. Those little pigs got et, dammit. But this isn’t actually a boy thing. I’m pretty sure that well-loved little girls are just as capable of processing frightening monsters and aliens as well-loved little boys. I suspect this trend is in response to an increasingly frightening and busy world, in which picturebooks are thought to be a refuge.
Elements with strong boy-appeal such as combat, peril, villainy and technology that are abundant in U certificate films like The Incredibles are rarely found or diluted in picture books.
I don’t want to see The Incredibles held up as a model for picturebook action. In case it’s been a while since you saw that film, here’s one scene, as explained by the F-Word:
Mr Incredible, who believes his wife and children are dead, is hanging sobbing in a torture device. Mirage, who has seen the light, sneaks into the room, turns off the machine and tries to tell him that they are in fact alive. Before she can get the words out, however, he picks her up by the neck, chokes her and starts shouting at her. At this point his miraculously still-alive Elastigirl enters the room and, noticing her, he is so delighted he forgets all about Mirage and drops her in a retching, gasping heap on the floor.
Why does violence have ‘strong boy appeal’? If we expect that little boys like ‘combat’ (also known as violence and fighting), and shove it into picturebooks at every opportunity, little boys are indeed more likely to like combat.
both sexes should be equally represented on the judging panel of the Kate Greenaway Medal
Yes, I agree, by the way it’s ‘all genders’ you’re after. And while we’re on the topic of equal representation, I’d like to see as many female characters as male characters in modern picturebooks. I haven’t done a count, but Janet McCabe has, and if you guessed that the ratio is about 2:1 male to female, you’d be right. Here’s the full paper. I’m all for gender equality, but personally, I think that ratio is more in need of urgent correction. On the other hand, if picturebook creators (writers, illustrators and publishers) weren’t consistently being told that there’s a boy problem, we might not see such a gender imbalance. There’s an old chestnut doing the rounds that ‘While girls will read anything, boys won’t read about girls.’ This isn’t actually backed up by evidence. This very article provides the counter evidence: Apparently boys aren’t reading even though picturebooks are heavily populated with male characters. Meantime, girls get annihilated. Not the answer.
if we want books to appeal to boys as much as girls, shouldn’t the UK’s “most prestigious children’s book awards” reflect male tastes as much as female ones?
There’s a few unspecified assumptions here. First, we’re starting with a gender binary. That is never good. Gender is better thought of as existing on a continuum, with the acknowledgement that differences between individuals are far more significant than generalised differences between different genders. We’re assuming that little boys and little girls are different creatures entirely. Maybe. But how? How are they different, exactly? Tell me how they’re inherently different and then we might be able to make a start on fixing this boy problem. Perhaps my own stance on this is starting to become clear. Write good picturebooks and they will come. Boys AND girls. Be aware of your own gender biases, but write first and foremost for ‘children who live in the same diverse and complicated world’, not for ‘boys’ or for ‘girls’, in order to fix some perceived gender problem. We should no more write for boys/girls than for blacks/whites, aboriginals/immigrants, men/women. It seems ridiculous to say of an adult novel, ‘This is for women aged between 25 and 30’, yet this is what marketers seem to expect of picturebook creators.
men from related professions such as teaching could be included [in the judging panel]
I’m not on board with this at all. Being good at one doesn’t make you good at or knowledgeable about the other. If there are indeed plenty of men in picturebook world itself (as pointed out in the article), recruit them.
TOO LONG DIDN’T READ VERSION
If we teach boys that it’s not shameful to do girly stuff, then it won’t even matter if reading is seen as a girly thing, will it?
The first chapter of the book Notice and Noteby Beers and Probst (2013), which you can buy here. I found the following portion especially interesting, and I wonder how prevalent this attitude is among teachers of English literature, not just in America but around the world.
At The Art Of Manliness blog is an article called ‘How To Read A Book’. I’m in need of a few tips on manliness. I’m also wondering if there is, in fact, a right and a wrong way to read a book, so I read it. Turns out there are many different ways of talking about levels of close reading. This article divides them into these four:
Since a synoptical level of reading texts is generally achieved at the university level, a good analytic understanding of texts is something to aim for in high school graduates. Yet as pointed out in the article, many aren’t getting there.
Analytical reading is where most readers fall short. The average high schooler in America reads at a 5th grade level, and the average adult American reads somewhere between the 7th and 8th grade levels.
Mortimer Adler has a few theories on this: school never really teaches how to read a book. So that was back in 1940, and I’m confident schools all over the place are doing a better job of educating the masses than way back when, but one thing hasn’t changed: schools are still pressed for time.
So we get to high school and college and get overloaded with reading assignments that we’re supposed to write long papers about, and yet we’ve never learned how to truly dissect a book and get the most value out of it.
There simply isn’t the time to guide students through a deep-read of all the worthy high school texts. Instead, teachers can guide them through a few and hope for the best.
This is where picturebooks can be useful. The most recent review of our first picturebook app, The Artifacts, tells us that, in Ireland at least, our first storybook app is being used in high schools. I find this really interesting, because that’s how I’d use such a thing, too. Picturebooks are the perfect tool for teaching analytical reading skills to high school aged students because you can do the entire thing in a 50 minute period if you have to. In a couple of weeks you can do 6 or 8 deep reads, from start to finish, and that includes multiple readings. Short stories are good too, and ideally the teacher would have time to collect a variety of short texts on a similar theme. To do the same deep read wit, say, Lord of the Flies it takes five or six weeks and then the teacher has to rely on students reading in their own time. Short texts are better for less advantaged students who don’t necessarily have the peace and quiet to complete long reads at home. Also, a wider range of short texts allows for the fact that different students will be engaged by different stories. So although few students are going to like all six short texts, all of them are going to like at least one.
Then there’s the fact that most of our students are going to be parents themselves, sooner or later. And even if they never finish another novel in their entire lifetimes, we can hope that they will read picturebooks to their own offspring.
Quentin Blake told an audience that children learn to read from an “emotional motivation”, as he urged educators not to “turn their backs” on the fun of illustrations. (The Telegraph) “The relationship between text and illustration can on occasion be quite complex, but what illustration can first of all do is to welcome you to the book,” he said in the Hay Library Lecture.
That’s why I love picturebooks in the high school language arts classroom.
Cathy Jo Nelson suggests using ‘easy’ books in the classroom because:
These books are a GREAT way to introduce a topic in any classroom or content area. They can be the perfect segue from topic to topic or activity to activity in any classroom. These books also tap into the inner creative side for some, and we all know there are plenty of students who do not respond to dry text, but will respond to stories or pictures that make connections, evoke feelings, and allow for the appreciation of literature, dramatic readings, and in its purest form, the appreciation of art.
Then there are the dissenters and skeptics who think that excessive focus on the physical beauty of books undermines the real purpose of literature, which can be found in the text and not in the vessel that delivers it.
But there are also some excellent things that are newly possible in the age of digital books. I focus here on digital picturebooks in particular.
1. ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS AND OTHER NON-LINEAR STORYLINES
I know from book club that endings pose a particular challenge for authors; no single ending can satisfy all readers. But with eBooks and apps, technically, it’s possible to offer a few different endings. Whichever one the reader gets might be based on a few simple questions at the very beginning of the book, such as, ‘Do you have a high tolerance for ambiguity?’ or ‘Are you a fan of happy endings?’ or something like that. Or the reader might simply be asked, ‘Do you want the happy ending or the tragic ending?’
I can’t see publishers ever embracing the option to encourage readers not to read every single book in a series — publishers are making most of their money from series after all — but I write now of pie-in-the-sky possibilities afforded by the electronic age.
It’s possible that most readers don’t want to choose when they sit down with a book, though this doesn’t explain the popularity (though niche) market of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. It’s possible that paper books do best when it comes to lengthy, linear works:
“Printed content also tends to be packaged in a way that encourages the reader to consume it, if not in its entirety in one go, at least in a linear fashion. In doing so, the reader leaves mental footprints from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of the textural landscape. Some psychologists believe these mental maps of a reader’s journey through a piece of text provide the deeper sense of understanding that distinguishes reading on paper from reading on a screen.”
“People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies,” she says. “But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past.”
Might we be on the cusp of a new age of non-linear storytelling?
2. MULTIPLE RATINGS IN THE ONE STORY
After realising that our three-year-old had remembered one of the more scary pages in a proto version of Midnight Feast, and that she was requesting this page before bedtime, I worried that she might start waking from nightmares. As it happened, she didn’t, but at the time I had been mulling over whether a certain scene in our next story was perhaps too scary for the more tender individuals in our target readership.
So for the Midnight Feast release version readers or parents can turn off the scariest elements of the story for younger or more sensitive readers. This is definitely something which might be more widely implemented if time and money were no object.
3. TOUCH INTERACTIVITY AND ANIMATION TO INDICATE THE PASSING OF TIME
Depicting the flow of time in a picturebook isn’t easy, especially if the story is for younger children, who haven’t yet learnt the usual codes. For instance, in Eva Eriksson’s illustration of The Wild Baby, we see six different babies on and around the stairs. The wild baby is doing a different naughty thing in each picture, and older readers will easily pick up that there are not suddenly six different wild babies — this is the same baby doing different naughty things successively. Young readers can get confused, wondering where the other wild babies came from.
A storybook app can avoid this problem, if touches to the screen get rid of one baby before the next one appears.
The element of surprise in a picturebook is constrained by the page turn. In order to reveal something unexpected, an author/illustrator team must sometimes contrive the prose so that the surprise doesn’t happen on the recto side of a double spread, but rather overleaf. Lift-the-flap books do more with the element of surprise, though in my experience, are best man-handled by an older reader, even though the target readership are chubby little destructive fingers! In an app, a surprise can be hidden until it is found via touch.
5. SYNCHRONISING TEXT AND PICTURE
Related to this is that sometimes in a picturebook (though more often in illustrated stories) the words and pictures are somewhat out of sync. I notice when reading illustrated chapter books to my six year old that she’ll often ask about some element of a picture but if she were to wait for me to read all of the accompanying text she would have her questions explained. Sometimes questions are good; other times they are distracting, and occur only due to the constraints of the physical page. An app can manipulate timeing with touch interactivity; text and the relevant part of an illustration can appear together, or not, as best serves the reader.
6. BORROWING ELEMENTS OF FILM
For Hilda Bewildered we are playing around with various light effects in the screen transitions. Done badly, these can look like a terrible PowerPoint presentation. On the other hand, various film camera techniques can enhance a picture book in an unobtrusive and subtle way. For example, a ‘pan’ can be emulated by swiping to reveal more of a scene; a zoom effect can get around the limitations of the fixed-size screen; tilt-shift can be emulated to draw attention to a certain story element; the list is endless, if only the budget were.
7. WORD PLAY
I haven’t seen this yet (not to say it doesn’t exist) but there are many possibilities for word placement. In a printed book, the words are static on the page, which is indeed fine for most stories. But there is plenty of scope for an imaginative development team to come up with an interactive picturebook in which the movement/substitution/reader-selection of words becomes part of the story, and fosters a love of language via word play. Inspiration can be drawn from (rather old-fashioned, now) tomes of word puzzles (you know the kind, printed on newsprint, designed to be written in), or perhaps inspiration can come from some of the many word game apps on the App Store today. In an app, words could be flung off the page, arranged by the reader (a la Endless Alphabet), shuffled around to create something new (like fridge magnet poetry with pictures to match)… The possibilities are endless for developers who are adept in storytelling.
8. PALIMPSESTIC POSSIBILITIES
The rub-to-reveal feature of some book apps is sometimes used to no real effect, but we have used it with a definite purpose in mind: The image which is revealed beneath the rubbings reveals the inner-world of a character, or in Hilda Bewildered it reveals a different interpretation of the same event. The underlying picture can be completely different or it can be mostly the same. In a printed book, palimpsestic relationships between spreads work well if the picture is completely different; harder to convey is where the picture is only slightly different. The rub-to-reveal abilities of touch screens draw readers’ attention towards similarities in a way I’ve only seen in ‘Spot the difference’ type gamification in printed books.
9. SOUND EFFECTS AND NARRATION
This is yet another area to get badly wrong, but when done right, sound effects and music can really enhance the mood of a story. Print books sometimes come bundled with CDs; others such as the Little Einstein publications have a panel of buttons which the young reader can press when told to inside the story. In picturebook apps, sound is more flexible: Sound can either autoplay, or it can be activated by the user, depending on how the developers would like to manipulate the reader’s experience of the story. Sound effects can be calm and unobtrusive or they can be surprising and comical. It almost goes without saying, but the read-aloud benefits of narration help emerging readers and readers with dyslexia. Even competent readers can be helped though difficult texts via narration. Other apps may avoid the option of narration, opting instead for a soundscape that sounds best on its own.
10. CINEMAGRAPHIC INTEREST
A cinemagraph is like a GIF. Well, it is a GIF, except the difference between a cinemagraph and a GIF of a cat falling down a crevice over and over again is that a cinemagraph is more subtle, and often loops seemlessly. For instance, the only moving part in a cinemagraph of a woman sitting on a park bench may be the slight up and down movement of her foot. This simple movement can signify her impatience in a way a static picture could not. In short, the cinemagraphic possibilities of pictures in apps allow for even more telling of the story via pictures, which is good, because picturebook apps don’t tend to do well with large blocks of text.
11. HELPING WITH READING DIFFICULTIES
I’m looking forward to emerging research on this.
But in the end, is it right to expect more of a storyapp than of a picturebook? Is it not enough to expect the same immersive experience, preferably shared? Such discussions are taking place all around the Internet, with a variety of diverse opinions. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing the research, which is by necessity behind the new technology itself.