Why Boys Don’t Read Books About Girls

Why don’t boys read books about girls? Well, first of all, many boys do read books about girls. As for the ones who won’t? They understand that gender is a hierarchy, and their position at the top is tenuous.

Also, the adult book buyers in their lives probably aren’t buying them books starring girls, under the common but misguided assumption that girls will read about anyone, but boys can only be expected to take interest in other boys.

This is not just an assumption held by bourgeouis book buyers. This attitude is baked right into how stuff gets made, about who. Disney clearly buys into this attitude. As evidence? Lilo & Stitch.

After the success of Lilo & Stitch, Disney released several franchise movies, the first of which was titled Stitch! The Movie (2013), followed by Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch has a Glitch (2005) and Leroy and Stitch (2006). Disney’s attempt to repackage the films as a recommodifiable product meant the downplay of Lilo herself, the girl character, emphasizing the focus on Stitch, the boy character, presumably to follow the industry’s old gendered adage that girls will watch a boy character but boys will not watch a girl character, even though the success of the original film had already proven otherwise.

Touching Queerness in Disney Films Dumbo and Lilo and Stitch

Especially interesting to me is the fact that Jeff Kinney, creator of hugely popular but gender problematic middle grade graphic novels, grew up with books centring girls, though he himself, as a contemporary creator of stories for children, consistently others the girl characters across his Wimpy Kid series.

Q: Who were some of the authors you read when you first got into books?

A: I really liked Judy Blume, and my favourite book was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I liked the main character, Peter Hatcher, because he seemed like an ordinary kid I could relate to. And I liked the humour, which was realistic and not outlandish.

Interview with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series

The attitude that boys won’t read books about girls is so entrenched that woman storytellers are frequently asked to comment about the gender of their own readers.

MELISSA SEYMOUR: Do you agree with the statement “Girls will read books with female and male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

LOIS LOWRY: No, I don’t.  One of my books, NUMBER THE STARS, is very popular with boys, though the two main protagonists are both girls.  It may be a bit of a leap for a boy to pick up such a book…and it has a picture of a girl on the cover….but the important element for a reader of either gender is a compelling story.



Guys Read Judy Blume Too, and Not Just for the “Dirty Bits” from Jezebel.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Littera scripta manet The Written Word Will Remain

Thomas Webster - A Letter From the Colonies 1852

“The written word will remain”

Which words will we leave as our legacy?

What we have published in books and magazines, or what we have published on blogs and ezines and Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook…?

A few years ago I set about inputting all of our known family data into a family tree program. Like most people, I can only manage to go back a few generations, and I hit a solid wall with my great grandparents. More than that, the only thing I know of my great grandparents are a few fading stories and a couple of blurry photographs, unsmiling, taken in middle age. They were probably my own age but they look much older. I’m surprised to hear that my particularly stern looking great-grandmother was a jovial woman, always laughing.

If I’m ever anyone’s great-grandmother, what will a family-tree enthusiast know of me? I lot, if they want to dig deep. We’re the first truly documented generation. Those of us on the Internet, we’re all authors.

Header illustration: Thomas Webster – A Letter From the Colonies 1852

Skeuomorphism In Picture Books

Skeuomorphism is a word from the world of graphical user interface design. It describes interface objects which mimic real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them.

I’m starting to hear it outside tech blogs: Has Morality Become A Skeuomorph? from The Society Pages.

Skeuomorphism is also useful when talking about picture books, especially picture book apps, in which any digital book will likely, in some ways, mimic a realworld book.

It’s oft-talked about in app world because developers each decide how much an app needs to emulate the real world. For storyapps, one form of skeuomorphism is in the page-turn. There’s no real need for digital books to emulate the turning page — technically an entire story could exist on a single screen. But we’re at a time in history when most readers are well-adapted to print books, in which the transition to digital needs to feel intuitive to that cohort. Hence the ‘page turn’ icon.

Here’s a pretty cool skeumorphic page turn.

We made use of a page-turn icon in The Artifacts. The button looks like a dog-eared page. That was at the end of 2011.

After a year and a half, certain conventions have started to emerge, and right now the dog-eared page icon indicates the user needs to swipe in order to get to the next page. We don’t like the swipe to turn because younger readers tend to find it difficult to do. Also, swipe to turn the page limits the touch-interactivity possible on each page, with hotspots limited to the centre of the screen.

Skeumorphic page turn dog ear button

With Midnight Feast we decided to use an arrow, which looks unambiguously like a button. We hope no one will have trouble working out how to turn the page, even users new to touchscreen devices. We shall see.

Arrow Page Turn Button
Arrow Page Turn Button

We’ve also played a bit with the types of page transitions available in Cocos 2D, and we’re making use of a ‘wavy’ transition to get from ‘real life’ storybook pages into ‘imaginative’ pages. This doesn’t look at all like the paper page turn of a print book.

It will be interesting to see how digital storybooks continue to look less and less like printed matter as the years roll by.

Lemon girl young adult novella


What makes a picturebook re-readable?

“We’re not trying to make stories that are going to be read, we’re trying to make stories that are going to be read a milliondy billiondy times.”

Mo Willems

While children’s books need to be re-readable, books aimed at an adult audience do not:

As anyone who has ever read books to a child knows, young children frequently want to hear the same story over and over again, until they seemingly know it by heart and cannot get anything new from it. Apparently, the deeper understanding of the meaning is achieved by first getting the gist of the story, concentrating more on the details on second reading, incorporating details into the whole on the third and so on. As adults, we presumptuously believe that we have “understood” a book after having read it once. Yet if we take the effort to reread a book, we clearly notice details that escaped our attention the first time. When no longer held in suspense following the storyline, we can focus on such aspects as characterisation, composition (for instance, foreshadowing), point of view and so on.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Nick Cross has compiled a list of things which give a book re-readability. First on the list is brevity, and picture books certainly achieve that.

If I’m talking about picture books specifically, I’ll add a few to the list:

1. Great Use Of Language

Masterful rhythm, something that has good mouth-feel when you read it aloud.

2. Layers Of Meaning

Picture books which appeal to both adults and children will help persuade adults to re-read the books in the first place. One thing which gives a picture book different layers of meaning is with words which tell a slightly (or completely) different story from the pictures. Rosie’s Walk is a classic example of a picture book which does this. Martin Salisbury explains the ‘read-it-again factor, and compares picture books briefly to theatre, in an interview on NPR.

3. Personal Connection

If the story moves you emotionally or reminds you of a time in your own life you’re more likely to revisit.

4. A Circular Story Structure

A lot of picture books end with an image or suggestion that the same story is going to happen again, only with a slightly different slant. For example, the monster under the bed has been found, the child has made friends with it, but the final image shows a different monster inside the cupboard. This circular plot shape is not limited to children’s books. Funnily enough, you’ll also see it quite often in horror for adults. Take Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman’s 1989 horror film Dead Calm, for instance. Just as the characters think the monster has been defeated and that they will live happily ever after, the audience sees him rise from ‘the dead’. For more on plot shapes see this post.

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The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts

Breakfast has changed a lot over time, at least in the West, which in turn has influenced other cultures. These changes have of course been reflected in children’s literature.

It used to be thought that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Now intermittent fasting is on trend, at least for adults.
William McGregor Paxton - The Breakfast Room
William McGregor Paxton – The Breakfast Room
William Hemsley - Porridge
William Hemsley – Porridge
William Bouguereau - Breakfast 1887
William Bouguereau – Breakfast 1887
Harry Brooker - Breakfast Time
Harry Brooker – Breakfast Time
Otto Ludvig Sinding (Norwegian, 1842 - 1909) breakfast
Otto Ludvig Sinding (Norwegian, 1842 – 1909)
Carl Larsson breakfast under the big birch
Carl Larsson breakfast under the big birch
Carl Larsson Martina Carrying Breakfast on a Tray 1904
Carl Larsson Martina Carrying Breakfast on a Tray 1904
Continue reading “The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts”

Stock Yuck In Picturebooks

Charles Spencelayh - Helping Mother 1899

Children don’t tend to like green vegetables. Picture book creators know this, and often, greens are used as proxy for any yucky thing: Stock yuck.

A fairy’s life is filled with danger. Broccoli is often poisoned by the wicked Duchess and should never be eaten.


“I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Stock-yuck is qualitatively different from the truly disgusting material found in gross-out stories. Stock-yuck is not inherently disgusting — it’s usually ‘good’ at its base, and rejected partly because of its goodness.

peas blending into sweets


Never underestimate what kids learn from picture books. 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 picture books; in picture books which are designed, no less, to teach kids not to be afraid of monsters? I have no idea.

Food is especially well-suited to the disgust reaction.

Mud Pies and Other Recipes A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow
Mud Pies and Other Recipes A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow

Another thing I see cropping up time and time again in picture books 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.

And from Slate:

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 big struggle 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:

  1. Avoids glorification of highly processed junk food
  2. Avoids demonising the vegetables I want her to be eating

Hell, feeding kids is hard enough these days. I guess Obama knows that. (I call that a little green lie.)

Bear in mind that stock yuck is culture and era dependent.

In Lebanon, picture book قصة الكوى (The History of Zucchini) by Samah Idriss and Yasmin Nachabeh Taanis is a story about a child who doesn’t like zucchini. His mother invents a trick to get him to eat more of it — classic stock yuck.

Kate Perugini - Portrait of Agnes Pheobe Burra (aka Feeding the Rabbit)
Kate Perugini – Portrait of Agnes Pheobe Burra (aka Feeding the Rabbit)


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.

  1. A recipe which claims to include Vegetables Your Kids Will Eat from Extraordinary Mommy. I have yet to try it out.
  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.
  3. Visual Cues Encourage Vegetable Consumption from Scientific American
  4. Esquire, though for men and not kids, has an article called A Foolproof Way to Make Any Vegetable Taste Good. It includes a bunch of fancy ingredients but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the butter.
  5. From Babble: Mom, May I Have More Spinach?
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.


Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

Michael Pollan has a picky eater. Because sometimes there’s more to it than exposure.

Even in comics for adults, we all expect to see young characters actively avoiding the green stuff. This is the modern Nancy re-visioning.


Have you heard of pinkwashing?

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 behaviour.

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.

Child Proofing Harry Potter

…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.”

Broccoli’s Extreme Makeover, NYT
The Spinach Is Crying
Japanese picture book called: The Spinach Is Crying. I have no idea what’s on the inside.

Header illustration: Charles Spencelayh – Helping Mother 1899

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Touch Interactivity And Animation In Storybook Apps

App developers would do well to remember that when it comes to providing a reading experience that is developmentally valuable for young children, it’s as much down to what the app doesn’t do, as what it does.

a commenter on the Guardian article: Alarm Bells and Whistles

Many of the first digital picturebook apps (‘storyapps’ for short) produced for the tablet computer are created digital versions of real-book interactions (with the exception of scratch-and-sniff!), mimicking printed picturebooks in a retro kind of way. This is perhaps in a bid to win over reluctant audiences who are not yet convinced that digital picturebooks can create great memories in the same way physical, printed matter can. (See for example Popout! The Story Of Peter Rabbit, an iOS app which mimics a printed pop-out book.)

What is skeuomorphism?

a design element of a product that imitates design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product design, but which have become ornamental in the new design.

Apple themselves make use of skeuomorphism, evident for example in their Garage Band app, in which the backgrounds look like grey leather, even though devices themselves are reflective plastic. iBooks looks to be set upon wood, and readers of iBooks place digital purchases upon something that looks like a wooden bookshelf. There is no real functional reason for the mimicry of real-world materials, except that real-world parallels help intuitive navigation through an app, and also imparts to consumers the feeling  that they are not simply buying air when shelling out for bits and bytes, but are receiving an actual product, which costs real money to produce, market and update. It will be interesting to see how design principles evolve as smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous. Likewise, it will be interesting to see whether future generations feel a sense of value when spending money on digital media.

See: Why Do We Keep Making eBooks Like Paper Books? from Gizmodo

The illustrators of printed picturebooks have been creating skeuomorphs too*, since the emergence of digital art software. Few illustrators today produce illustrations without incorporating software at some part of the process, yet apart from a brief period in the 1990s when it was novel to make an illustration look digital (the art equivalent to pop-musical synthesizers), many digital illustrators now go out of our way to make sure the reader can see ‘the hand of the artist’. Hence, we might make an illustration look like a woodcut by making a ‘woodcut’ brush in Photoshop, or by erasing parts of a black layer with an eraser. (Also known as hedcuts.) And although it’s now possible to create photo-realism in illustration making use of powerful software, there seems to be still a general preference for artwork that looks as though it has been created using real-world media such as watercolours and oil paints. (Tradigital art.)

When it comes to storyapps, some of the major developers at present seem to be in limbo**, appeasing consumers who might still feel that physical, printed matter is superior to similar stories presented digitally. This applies not just to art style of course, despite the example above, but also to programming decisions.

We posit that when storyboarding for a storyapp, there is no real need to be limited by the constraints of printed matter. When stuck in limbo, storyapp developers end up compromising between what is digitally possible, and what consumers will accept in a definition of ‘picturebook’. For example, storyapps do not need to be either 32 or 24 pages to accommodate printing restraints.  Yet readers have been primed to expect a standard picturebook of 32 pages***, so how far either way can storyapp developers push the boundaries before a reader feels a storyapp is either too long or too short? Does interactivity lengthen the reading event to the point where shorter picturebooks are preferred? Will readers happily accept a longer one? These are all questions currently being put to the test.

*There is another way of thinking about the different types of interactive stories, this time making use of film terminology: Native Interaction, to describe stories which have been created from scratch with the touch screen in mind; and Post-Processed Interactivity, to describe printed matter, often with a wide, adoring and attentive audience, which has then been adapted for the touch screen.
**It would be a mistake though, to assume that printed picturebooks are immune to evolution. Picturebooks have undergone consistent reinvention along with printing technologies, exploding to life after the introduction of offset lithography. Printed matter will continue to evolve along with digital storybooks.
***In principle, a storyapp can be as short or as long as it needs to be, with restrictions coming not from paper and printing but instead from memory allocation, in a rather nebulous guideline from Apple stating that apps need to play nicely with each other.

Moving The Story Forward

Knowledgeable folk of storyapp world — reviewers and developers — advise frequently that interactivity in a storybook app should move the story forward. I have spent the past few years unpacking this simple sounding phrase. ‘Meaningful interactivity’ is a ‘I know it when I see it’ kind of a term, but do we really know what it means?  It pays for we as developers to unpack it fully.

Below, we make a case for various reasons for interactivity, where not all kinds of good interactivity ‘move a story forward’. Some interactions and animations exist purely for world-building; others for humorous effect. Some of the most sophisticated interactivity in storyapps may in fact contradict both words and pictures, providing an extra layer of meaning, and an added challenge for increasingly sophisticated readers. Hypothetically, storyapps can require more of a reader than printed matter can. (Digitisation of picturebooks certainly does not equal ‘dumbing down‘.)

The Various Purposes Of Touch Interactivity

1. Educational

For example, a reader touches an item on the screen and the written word appears. (Pop-out words.) Since the Mercer Meyer book apps became popular I see this from smaller publishers too. But developers need to be careful that there is genuine benefit here. If a reader touches a chair and the word ‘chair’ appears, the app is obviously aimed at either young readers or at NESB (non-English speaking background) readers.  (Obviously I’m writing from an Anglocentric point of view — same is true for any language.)

If a reader cannot be expected to be fully familiar with the written word ‘chair’, however, it should also be assumed that the audience has very emergent language skills in general. Such a story should unfold mainly in pictures, with text pitched at the basic level expected of a reader who has yet to learn the word ‘chair’. But is it really adding anything for older, native readers? Pop-out words need to match the general level of the app. It’s easy for a developer to add this sort of faux-educational interactivity, but much thought should be given to which items of vocabulary the reader is likely to know. Otherwise, it’s all just distraction. I feel that kids recognise pedagogical intentions, even if it is just vocab and spelling.

That said, pop-out words may indeed result in an educational outcome, if done properly. In cases where text expands the picture (most often it’s the other way around), if parts of the picture are labelled on touch, the reader is encouraged to find all the words mentioned in the text, in a fun,Where’s Wally sort of a way. The pop-up words provide a sort of confirmation (‘You’ve found me!’), allowing the reader to move on.

Pop-out words can also be useful if the words are in fact new to the reader. For example, a storyapp adaptation of Elsa Beskow’s Children Of The Forest (1910) might teach the reader the names of the plants, which are botanically accurate. In order for this to be useful, I feel that the pop-out words must be at least one level of specialisation above the vocabulary used in the main text. So the reader would be expected to know ‘flower’ and ‘tree’ (main text) but is guided to learn more with a pop-out ‘snowdrop’ and ‘lingonberry’. I learned my hues from a 64 box set of Crayola crayons, so I know from experience that labeling can work to expand vocabulary, but only if the child reader has fallen in love with the story in the same way I fell in love with my crayons.

Another use for labeling parts of pictures is when making use of text within pictures (a.k.a. intraiconic text) without the intraiconic text competing for attention with the main text until the reader is good and ready, ie, on user touch. An example of intraiconic text is when, for example, an illustration depicts books on a bookshelf, which each have their own titles, or when illustrated shops display billboards. Ticket stubs, restaurant menus, letters, computer screens… there are many, many plot-advancing reasons for displaying intraiconic text within an illustration. The iPad screen does not afford the real estate of the larger printed picturebooks, so a developer might get around this limitation somewhat by having a magnified view of a sign or letter on user touch — too small to be seen beforehand, but read easily on iPhone sized screens on touch.

Breaking Research: Most apps bad

2. Novelty

There is a place for humour and pure fun in story apps. Ideally, novelty interactivity should marry with interactivity that moves the story forward, or it should at least lead the story off into its own mini tangent. For example, the farting teddy bear in Teddy’s Night (by Bruno Hachler) is mainly for novelty value. I’ve noticed with my own toddler (and heard from other parents) that young children are inclined to skip straight to this page, then linger on it, presumably without getting into the story itself. So overly attractive novelty interactions are a double-edged sword: they encourage children to go back to your app over and over, but as far as brain candy goes, they aren’t necessarily any better than having them watch junk TV. It might be argued that these sorts of interactions inspire a love of reading. I’m inclined to think they inspire a love of novelty. But this is nothing parents can’t fix by guiding children through the story from start to finish.

As far as novelty interactions go, there is the full spectrum. The best seem to advance the setting of the story. An example is the floating swimmer in Heart And The Bottle, in which the swimmer shoots up a small fountain of water from her mouth on touch. The words on the page say, ‘With wonder at the sea’ — nothing about floating in the ocean, shooting seawater from your mouth. In this case, the shooting water is both fun for the reader to do and also adds to the atmosphere of the setting: lazily relaxing in the sea. This mood is reinforced with the sound of the ocean and cry of seagulls which autoplays in the background.

Another way in which novelty interactions can add to the setting is when, say, the user touches a bath tap which fills the bath with water. It can be fun to fill a virtual bath with virtual water, and perhaps draws readers into the story by helping them to feel that this storybook world is real. Novelty can add to the verisimilitude.

Some interactivity offers a surprise, reminiscent of that scene in Tim Burton’s 3D Alice In Wonderland movie, in which a ball flies toward the audience as the characters are playing a game. I remember ducking in my seat. Annoying as that was, it was memorable.

Interactivity can be used to create a ‘pageturner’ — a book that children must read to find out what happens. This sort of novelty, which encourages movement forward through the story, is a positive thing, though not when it comes at the expense of comprehension. This is a difficult balance to achieve, and depends somewhat on the age of the reader and all sorts of external things an app developer can’t control for (like the presence of adult co-readers, slowing the child down). The issue storyapp developers face is, where to put the interactive ‘pageturner’? That’s the conventional place to put something charming or interesting, to encourage the child to turn the page. Interactive story apps require that space for actual digital pageturning, be it push-button or swipe (which is even harder to incorporate). It’s likely that readers of digital stories need to learn a slightly altered story code. This will only work if it can happen intuitively and subconsciously, just as it happened when we all learnt to decode printed picturebooks.

One thing is clear: Developers should be able to rationalise every hotspot on a page. The ‘distraction issue’ isn’t limited to storyapp developers, though. The producers of printed picturebooks are equally capable of unconscious distractions in their work. From How Picturebooks Work:

In pictures…with many details, our reading is arbitrary. The artist may deliberately or unconsciously place a detail in the picture that will attract our attention and compel us to start reading the picture from this point.

While the developers of picturebooks are often great lovers of the form, and have spent so much time immersed in them that even the unconsciously placed details are meaningful, our choice to include interactions and animations in storybook apps is best if it’s the deliberate kind. The medium is perhaps too new, even for lovers of the form, to have developed a purely intuitive sense of what’s right. Besides, studying the form can never hurt.

3. Animation

“One of the things we love about the still image is the way in which it can stimulate the imagination to create a fiction around an image,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard. “The fact that we can commit a single image to memory in a way that we cannot with video is a big reason photography is still used so much today.”

The Death Of Photograph Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

3.1 Animation That Matches The Text Exactly

You might call this ‘Paratextual Movement’. This kind of animation is not necessarily ‘interactive’, because animation can autoplay after the reader turns onto the page. Or it might be ‘semi-autoplay’, for example the reader taps anywhere on the page and something starts to move, regardless of whether the reader has engaged with that part of the picture.

This kind of animation can fulfill a limitation of picturebooks: animation to depict the flow of movement, long employed by film-makers.  The words might say, ‘The boy jumped’. Then, when the reader touches the boy, he indeed jumps. This doesn’t advance the story but it does help with story comprehension in readers whose language skills are in the emerging stages. In other words, the reader doesn’t need to be able to read the text at all. This kind of interactivity is of limited value to older readers who are able to read the text for themselves and who remain unchallenged by paratextual movements.

For books aimed at competent readers though, I prefer animation to exist without the redundancy of words. If the boy on the screen jumps, then the words don’t need to tell us he jumped.

3.2 Animation To Advance The Plot

You might call this ‘Extratextual Movement’. The animation adds something to the picture which the words do not duplicate, thereby making it redundant.

This is the sort of interactivity to aim for in stories for older readers who are better-versed in reading pictures. At times this sort of interactivity creates a gap between the story and the text; at other times it helps the reader to fill it in. What results is a story in the reader’s head that is bigger than the sum of text/pictures and interactivity.

Printed picturebooks sometimes rely on a series of pictures to depict the passing of time and a series of events, which may or may not be dependent on each other. (Simultaneous succession.) But younger readers need time to decode this convention. A younger reader may look at five pictures of a dancing bear and mistakenly believe that there are five different bears rather than a single bear in five successive poses. Animation does away with this confusion, and therefore animation has its place in storyapps for younger readers.

On the issue of depicting the passage of time, this is one area which may be made easier for stories with animation and touch interactivity, as it is a difficult thing to convey in static pictures, without specific reference to a clock. But an interactive book can dim the lights or show hands moving round on a clock or have a cock crowing outside a window or something like that to show that time has passed.

5. Interactivity to Depict Internalised Thoughts/Emotions Of A Character

Something picturebooks and film must do differently from chapter books and novels is the depiction of a character’s inner life. This is not easy in visual media, and interactivity allows the possibility of helping with this task. I’m not seeing much of it, though.

For example, emotions can be depicted by changes in hue and saturation. This is a customary technique in visual media and sometimes in print picturebooks the reader turns the page to see a new colour palette. This change in colour could become part of the interactivity, with a slow fade out of saturation or with a rub-to-reveal portion, or with isolated areas of colour blending to create a new picture. The possibilities are endless, and these are just a few examples that spring to mind.

Or the user might ‘zoom in’ on a character to switch from omniscient to close-third-person point of view. Or developers might borrow from different graphic codes such as photography and camera work, making use of pull-focus, blur, motion lines and distortion of perspective.

Story app developers can also take advantage of comicbook conventions, with thought and speech bubbles, or with mimesis and onomatopoeia emerging from objects on touch. (See Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. TED Talk by author here.)

6. Pure Animation

Some interactivity exists purely to give the storybook an animated feel. Blinking eyes, nodding heads, walking legs can give a storyapp a polished feel that places the genre somewhere between printed book and TV. Sometimes these movements are not interactive but autoplay. This may be a better option. When planning interactivity, I do wrestle with where to draw the line. If you start out animating too much, the reader will expect the same level of animation on following pages. Do we really need to make eyes blink? Or should eyes blink only when there’s a reason to, for example because the scene has changed. Maybe the character’s eyeballs could move because the thing that’s drawing her attention has moved to the other side of the page. There is a certain amount of intuitiveness necessary when planning for animated interactivity. The blinking eyes are necessary in Teddy’s Night because the teddy and girl being awake when they’re not meant to be is an integral part of the story. Blinking eyes in other storyapps won’t necessarily move the story forward.

Other examples: clouds move across the sky, wind blows leaves on the trees, small animals peep out from bushes, birds fly across the sky.

Some storybook apps with higher budgets pull off entire animated scenes. Many of these are made from movies and short films. An example is The Amazing Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore. These sequences tend to have very high production values and turn a storybook into something between printed matter and a short film. Although these animated sequences tend to be set off by the reader, who turns a page or touches somewhere on the screen, I don’t consider them true interactions, because all that is asked of the reader is to sit before the screen and watch, immersed. As long as these sequences create immersion rather than impatience and distraction I don’t take issue. Here at Slap Happy Larry we both have a personal preference for story apps which function closer to printed matter than to film, but we are film lovers equally.

6. Extra-textual Interactivity

In some storyapps you find some dalliance that takes you out of the story for a while. Jigsaw puzzles are one common example. Heart And The Bottle has a page in which the reader draws on a piece of paper. The drawing appears on the wall in the next scene, which has some novelty value. It also shows that the main character is using her creativity by drawing pictures, and is therefore connected to the story. Similar interactivity exists in Teddy’s Day, in which the user touches the girl’s paper, flipping to another screen. Another page in the same app shows the girl building a block tower. On touch the user is taken to a different screen in which the physics engine has been employed to show the blocks floating midair. I have thought about how this advances the story, but concluded the developer enjoyed the novelty of the physics engine.

I do feel developers need to be careful though, because in being asked to draw a picture, apropos of nothing, the story turns temporarily into an art app, and the reader is first expected to work out how the mini-app works, and then to come up with something out of thin air before moving back into the story, which they’ve just been pulled out of. I liken this to a classroom experience in which a teacher gathers the class onto the mat for storytime, reads half the story, then asks the children to get out paper and pencils, draw a picture, then draws them back onto the mat to finish reading the story. Obviously this is not good teaching practice, and obviously it takes less time and organisation for a single child using a single iPad to move in and out of story/artistry. Nevertheless, I wonder if at the most basic level, we’re doing exactly the same by embedding fancy technologies into the middle of stories. At the very least, we’re changing the reading experience, turning it into metafiction by drawing attention to the fact that it’s a story.

I prefer to see puzzles, colouring activities and other kinds of gamification at the end of a story, or available only via the main menu, if at all. I hope extras do not become an expected part of story apps. I hope they don’t become a cheap drawcard to get children opening an app.

6. Marketing

But while certainly a little peculiar, the toilet-paper-selling and jeans-hawking ultimately aren’t all that weird. In fact, they’re actually a reminder, kinda strange and kinda funny, that books are part of a commercial ecosystem that moves stories and steam cleaners in very similar ways. That may be especially true of the Kindle, considering Amazon’s totalizing ambitions and aggressive merchandising, but it applies more broadly, too. Books are, in many ways and in many contexts, simply commodities. They aren’t sacred, and they aren’t just disembodied ideas; they are things (whether of paper and ink or bits and bytes) first of all, and they move around like things do.

My E-Reader Is Selling Me Toilet Paper, Book Riot

It’s worth pointing out from the get-go that advertising in children’s literature is far from new. (See Advertising In Children’s Literature, a paper by Afsana Kahn.) Unfortunately, interactivity, and the need to recoup funds spent on producing expensive storyapps lends an extra dimension to all things kidlit, not least in the advertising opportunities. Also, as pointed out by Nikolajeva and Scott in How Picturebooks Work, authors have long amused themselves by including references to their own former works, for example by drawing a picture of one of their own books lying on a bedroom floor.

Several developers have done a similar thing in their apps. In Teddy’s Day, for example, if the reader touches a bookshelf they are taken to a page advertising Teddy’s Night, the companion story. Yet unlike the print equivalent, the reader has touched the book expecting a different kind of interactivity: There is no warning that this is going to take the reader out of the story.

While this sort of promotion is common and almost expected in gaming apps, it’s unfortunate for story app developers that literature has a revered position in most people’s hearts, perhaps to an unreasonable degree. Nevertheless, marketing embedded within storyapps  is something we hope consumers learn to avoid. Unless consumers boycott such practices they are likely to continue.

7. Non-story Related Activities


 Lucas and Spielberg on storytelling in games at The Verge

There remains a place for non-story related activities embedded in the same app as the story itself. After all, teachers have always made use of extra-narrative activities when guiding students through the understanding of any given work of art.

Also: Playing With Books Is Important Step in Path to Early Literacy. Might this apply to the digital literacy of eBook reading as well?

The Age Categories of Picture Books

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

C.S. Lewis

The publishing world can’t run properly unless books are connected to the right readers and when it came time to upload the app onto iTunes we had to decide what age the ideal reader would be. We guessed the category of 4+, because younger kids seemed to enjoy playing with the caterpillars. Older kids and adults would understand the themes. But once again we’re about to upload our next storyapp onto the store in the coming weeks, and I’m scratching my head about the age category thing because until the story’s out there, really out there, you don’t actually know how it’s going to be received.

Do picturebooks need an age category at all?

(Excluding board books, of course, which are clearly for toddlers and babies.) To my mind, picturebooks are for everyone except for maybe adolescents, who self-identify as too old for kid-lit and are keen to identify as adults. Adults, especially adults with children and grandchildren, often revisit picturebooks and derive as much pleasure the second-time around.

The ideal picturebook must surely appeal to all ages. Yet it feels like hubris to announce that ‘this is for everyone!’ when we all know that no book can possibly be for everyone.

On picturebooks and age categorisation, Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Even today in many countries children’s books carry age recommendations: “7 to 10 years”. The same practice in mainstream literature would seem ridiculous; no one would suggest recommending an adult novel “for men between the ages of 35 and 45.” These recommendations and genre markers, however, have arisen out of the common prejudice that “children” are a homogeneous group with homogeneous preferences, tastes, interests and previous knowledge.

from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age (1996)

Philip Nel writes similarly:

Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them.

And in an article headed ‘How Not To Write About Children’s Literature‘:

Children’s literature is quite unique in that it has to appeal to both the ‘adult’ and the ‘juvenile’ reader in a way that, say, Chesil Beach never can.

And that pretty much sums it up.

See also

Weird book title
Weird book title
Suitable for ages 5 - 10.
) :

The Musicality of Picture Books

by Arthur Getz (1913-1996) The New Yorker cover April 26, 1958 teens records music

Listening to a folktale — or a children’s book — is more like listening to a musical piece than reading a modern novel. It is normal to listen to musical pieces more than once, under different circumstances, and performed by different musicians.

Maria Nikolajeva, Children’s Literature Comes Of Age


Onomatopoeia and Mimesis in Children’s Literature

Magic Words and Spells

Header illustration by by Arthur Getz (1913-1996) The New Yorker cover April 26, 1958.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Unusual Eating Phobias

Adolphe Millot illustration of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from Nouveau Larousse Illustre, (1898) fruits and vegetables

Getting annoyed at someone when we listen to them eating or breathing is called Misophonia, and it’s an actual neurological disorder.

Here are some more strangely specific fears:

  • Air swallowing – Aerophobia
  • Alcohol– Methyphobia or Potophobia
  • Chopsticks – Consecotaleophobia
  • Cooking – Mageirocophobia
  • Crystals or glass– Crystallophobia
  • Dampness, moisture or liquids – Hygrophobia
  • Dining or dinner conversations – Deipnophobia
  • Eating or swallowing – Phagophobia
  • Eating or food – Sitophobia or Sitiophobia
  • Eating or swallowing or of being eaten – Phagophobia
  • Food – Cibophobia
  • Garlic – Alliumphobia
  • Meat – Carnophobia
  • Mushrooms – Mycophobia
  • Sourness – Acerophobia
  • Taste – Geumaphobia or Geumophobia
  • Teeth – Odontophobia
  • Vegetables – Lachanophobia
Adolphe Millot legume et plante potageres [1907-1910] Larousse pour tous, publisher vegetables
Adolphe Millot legume et plante potageres [1907-1910] Larousse pour tous, publisher vegetables

Header painting: Adolphe Millot illustration of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from Nouveau Larousse Illustre, (1898) fruits and vegetables