Here’s me trying to get a four-year-old to say, ‘I love eggs!’
A lot is still being said about all the ways in which ebooks and tablet books are not as good as ‘real books’: you can’t smell them, there’s screen glare, you don’t know where you are up to in the book…
Ebooks: “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”
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.
— Internet Book Fetishists, from The New Yorker
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.”The Paperless Dilemma
But what about the non-linear works? Speaking of her book Paradise, Toni Morrison said:
“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.
Related to this: Same book but not: Publishers offer titles in adult, kid versions (from the Los Angeles Times).
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.
(Over at The Guardian, Naomi Alderman has contributed an excellent article in her capacity as both games writer and ‘serious writer’ explaining how interactive technologies open up various possibilities in storytelling.)
4. THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
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.
Good apps or games should facilitate conversation between parents and children during this play, not get in the way of it.
– from a study from the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, summarised here.
But I don’t really buy the idea that gadgets can babysit. Kids need attention, and they demand it.
This chair sums it up perfectly.
It’s called The Abooba Chair. Someone without kids — or else someone with an amazing tune-out ability — designed it to allow parents to read while their children play.
Don Draper’s advice to Peggy Olsen in Mad Men was to think about it hard for a really long time, then don’t think about it at all. I’m pretty sure the creator of Don Draper didn’t come up with that — I suspect it’s what all creative people learn sooner or later.
For those of us working with graphics, here is some more advice, tailored to the visual medium. I think it applies to illustration as much as to design.
How To Get Unstuck, from Eric Paul Snowden
I don’t see many artists of this style working in children’s picturebooks. That’s not saying there are none at all, but the art in children’s picturebooks tends to be more ‘illustrative’ rather than photo-realistic. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing — I’m not trying to make any statements about one style of illustration being superior to another. But I would like to see more of this style in children’s books because photo-realistic artwork was my favourite kind as a kid. The more realistic it was, the better I liked it. I’m pretty sure that’s why I liked the artwork of Georgina Hargreaves in my large, illustrated editions of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree — the artwork looked as if the children and the made-up creatures had been created from photographs. There is certainly charm in the oft-seen watercolour strokes defined by dark outlines, and the likes of Quentin Blake can do a marvellous amount with a few quick flourishes of an inkpen.
All that said, I’d love for some of the SFF artists currently working in the game industry to illustrate some really good picturebooks for school aged children. I think that would be an excellent way to get a certain reluctant demographic into reading.
I say all of this with one big reservation. Artists working with the SFF genre are very much inclined to depict female characters in sexualised poses, exposing as much of their bodies as possible.
So when I say I’d like to see more SFF artists moving into children’s illustration, what I’m really asking is for artists working in children’s illustration to be paid adequately, to support the number of hours it takes to create such artwork — not for artists trained in SFF tropes to bring those SFF stereotypes down into children’s illustration.
Hilarious Video Proof: Your Ability To Make Realistic Sound Effects Is Gender-Based.
Here it is: Sound Effects Film
Is it just me, or are the men actually no better than the women at making sound effects in this short film? They just don’t look as stupid doing it.
I would agree that the worst of the female sounds have been edited to appear at the beginning and I would agree that the men are better at imitating guns than the women. I would hazard a guess that this is because the men of this demographic — youngish and white as they all are — have had more practice listening to such sound effects while playing computer games and watching action films. Then there’s, you know, all those years of school yard play.
I also get the feeling from that film that the men are less inhibited about making such sounds.
But as one of the women says, why weren’t they asked to make a duck or something? I think women and men would be equally good at making duck noises. I can definitely do a better sheep imitation than my husband. Definitely. I think that’s to do with the fact that his voice dropped due to testosterone and mine didn’t. So, can a woman make another short film and get the men to make sheep noises and music boxes and babies crying, perhaps? Don’t ask them to stand on their own. Get them to stand with their friends, preferably after a few drinks.
We’d soon find out that women are just as good as men at making stupid sound effects with our mouths.
Related, sort of: Ever wondered how the dinosaur sounds got made in Jurassic Park? No? Not keeping you awake at night? Well, I guess you don’t need to check out the answer, then.
In this clip, Tom Myers talks about his job as sound designer for the Pixar animated film Monsters University (which I have no intention of seeing, BTW). He explains that he has to create the world from the ground up, unlike in regular (non-animated movies, in which there exists some diegetic sound to work with). It involved visiting real world locations on campus, though they didn’t get invited to any frat parties. They pan the dialogue a little more aggressively because the voice is so clean. The sound designers play with ‘reflection’ and ‘perspective‘ and tricks like that. They didn’t put a lot of ambient material in a scene which already had music. The last pass is the ‘foley’ pass, where they put in footsteps and things like that. The most important thing about sound editing is keeping the dialogue clear. (As the feet swell the sound of their footsteps change.) I’m sure that next time I watch an animated film I’ll be listening with newly appreciative ears.
Childhood minutes are scarce, so filling your $500 iPad with freebie apps is like setting up a huge fish tank but skimping on the fish. Fifty dollars on apps can go a long way.
– from Low-Tech Tips for High-Tech Parents, Boston Mag Blog
From a technical standpoint, Bob Dylan sucks at guitar.
…but he is a legendary communicator.
He was, at one point, the voice of a generation.
Bob Dylan is living proof that a lack of artistic skill does not prevent an artist from changing the world.
…but a lack of clear communication will keep all of your world-changing ideas, your ability to tell meaningful stories, locked inside your head.
from Free Yourself From Perfect, ChrisOatley.com
Sometimes the postures in which artists freeze their subjects to gain the most animated effect are not even found in the real world. Galloping animals like horses are often depicted with both fore and hind legs outstretched. Quadrupeds only adopt such postures when leaping and never when running. But the depiction of rapid movement requires the full extension of the limbs even when such extension is unreal.
– Rudolph Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception
I only heard of this term this week, thanks to an article at Jezebel, but I’ve been aware of the concept for a while. Once you start noticing how few non-white characters exist in modern picturebooks, as well as the gender discrepancy (it’s about 70/30) you can’t stop noticing. And now I know what it’s called.
Symbolic Annihilation from Wikipedia.
Its correlate is Symbolic Glorification, for example sporting heroes in Western culture, or ethnic minorities but only on festive days, or of women on TV, so long as they’re under 30 and fit the Beauty Ideal.