iBooks Author: Making a Fixed Layout Children’s Picture Book

Lotta: Red Riding Hood made with iBooks Author available on the iBooks store for iPad
Lotta: Red Riding Hood made with iBooks Author available on the iBooks store for iPad

I noticed when searching for tips on how to make a picture book (of the sort most often produced for children), the term ‘picture book’ most often refers to a book of photos as far as iBooks go.

But I didn’t want to create a ‘photo book’. Nor did I want to use any of the fancy features of iBooks Author (IBA). After making 3 picture book apps, with all the bells and whistles, I didn’t want any music/narration/video/hyperlinks — I just wanted a plain old linear picture book. I didn’t want to spend 18 months on it, or spend weeks learning how to use new software.

ONE OPTION: BOOK CREATOR APP

I considered making my picture book with the Book Creator app, used by lots of schools when students are creating projects. Book Creator is certainly simple, and very good for use with students, but I’m not a fan of its page turns, and I want my pages to fill the entire screen.

ANOTHER OPTION FOR MAC USERS: IBOOKS AUTHOR

As it turns out, iBooks Author is amazing for what it can do as well as for what it can’t. For example, you can’t hyperlink to an image.  [Now you can.]

IBA is not set up for ‘creating’ a picture book — it’s the equivalent of Adobe InDesign in that you come to IBA after you’ve created all the story and artwork and now want to lay it all out so that it looks nice.

(My favourite ‘creating software’ is Scrivener, by Literature and Latte. Others are using Pages.)

How do I set up an iBooks Author file to create a children’s picturebook? 

tl;dr

Download my very basic IBA picturebook template.

A children’s picturebook has no chapters and only one section. So do this first:

When creating a new document, don’t choose one of the templates — pick the plain one.

Delete its first chapter. You can’t get rid of the ‘section’ below it. Start your page one in the section, then add all the rest of the pages behind it.

Step-by-step instructions are here.

Although all pages after page 01 will be indented inside IBA, as if they’re children of the ‘mother page’ 01, the reader won’t see this incorrect hierarchy, and it doesn’t really matter for us as authors either, since the pages are all numbered correctly. Consider it an unfortunate limitation of iBooks Author, which is optimised for making textbooks, not picturebooks.

Picturebook Template in iBooks Author

Word of warning:  Don’t do what I did and at a late stage decide that actually you’d like to insert a page before page one. If you do that you’ll have to shift a whole heap of assets manually. At least, I never figured out a way to insert a page before the first one.

 

Disable Portrait Setting

It’s necessary when creating a Fixed-Layout Picture Book (FXL) that you don’t want the orientation to change when a reader rotates their device. To avoid this all you need to do is click the “Disable Portrait Orientation” check-box in the iBooks Author Document Inspector.

There are a lot of Internet lamentations about how people are still making FXL books in this day and age, when flowable text exists so use that instead! But no, unfortunately 2015 is not the year in which it’s suddenly easy to create beautiful, bug-free reflowable picturebooks for iBooks. Maybe next year, Apple?

The main problem with creating a FXL book is that it won’t be available to users of iPhones and iPod touches. There are many more iPhones in the world than there are iPads. This will affect the number of downloads you get. Now you can read one of these fixed layout picture books on the small screen which actually creates another issue: For which screen size should you optimise? our Lotta: Red Riding Hood was made for iPad, but now you can read it on an iPhone, the text is actually a little small.

 

What size should I create my iBooks canvases in my art software? 

2048 x 1496px. (That’s landscape)

When you place your image onto the page in iBooks Author, type 1024 into the metrics panel of the inspector. Position it at 0,0:

iBooks Inspector Canvas Size in Pixels

What size do I make the cover?

The cover is always portrait orientation on the iBooks Store.

768 x 1004 pixels

You may have noticed that IBA works with points. I don’t know why. But if you’re interested in more information on pixels vs points, dimensions etc. etc., I found this website the most helpful.

 

What do I do about the text? Do I add the text inside my art software, or within iBooks?

This seems obvious to me now, but was a question I started with. There is a huge advantage to adding the words in iBooks Author — the end user can make use of iOS features such as dictionary, highlighting passages, or I believe there’s a setting where they can have the words read aloud to them. Also, the font will look really crisp on the screen if you’ve added the words within iBooks Author rather than embedded them into the page in your art software.

The problem is, how do I know where the words are going to go, as I make my art in a separate program? I hacked around a bit and ended up pasting all the words into iBooks Author (before doing any art at all), deciding which size font fit best (for this book size 20 looked best for the number of words per page).

Next, I took an approximate (but close enough) screen shot of each page (Cmd+Shift+4), saved the screenshot as page1, page2 etc, then used this as a semi-transparent layer in my art software as a guide to where I’d put the words. That way, I was able to create the illustration to fit around the words.

Using Screenshot as Tracing Object in Artrage
Using Screenshot as Tracing Object in Artrage

 

Page Layout

For Lotta: Red Riding Hood I have decided to stick with a traditional verso-recto design, partly because this is based on a traditional tale, so I want a traditional feel. Bear this option in mind for more modern stories: Now that you’re working with a flat screen rather than on paper with a centrefold, your graphic design is not in fact limited by that pesky join in the middle. Here is an example of interesting, magazine-esque graphic design from a book called:

TRICKY VIC: THE IMPOSSIBLY TRUE STORY OF THE MAN WHO SOLD THE EIFFEL TOWER (Click through to find more about this book at Art of the Picture Book).

TRICKY VIC- THE IMPOSSIBLY TRUE STORY OF THE MAN WHO SOLD THE EIFFEL TOWER
Here the double-spread has been broken into three distinct columns.

What should I put into the ‘Intro Media’ area?

I’ve bought children’s picturebook iBooks where the reader is subjected to a promo video of the picturebook as soon as we open it. I think this is the wrong way to use a promo video. After all, the user has already found your book, if not paid for it. Perhaps you can insert a video which provides a prologue of sorts to the story. I’m sure there are other creative ways to make use of this new digital medium. Let me know if you can think of any.

For now, I’ve decided to use this area for a landscape version of the title page. This works well. I feel an iBook picturebook needs a title page as well as a cover — after all, we’ve been conditioned as readers of picturebooks to expect end papers, a colophon and at least one title page before starting to read the story.

I designed the cover and title page pretty much simultaneously, since I wanted to use more or less the same assets to create both a portrait and landscape version of the same thing.

Here’s our front cover:

Lotta: Red Riding Hood cover for iBooks Store
Lotta: Red Riding Hood cover for iBooks Store

And the title page, which I dragged into the ‘intro media’ area in IBA:

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks
Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks

 

What do I put into the Table of Contents Area?

You’ll need to put an image in there, maybe the digital equivalent of endpapers? I created an image related to the story, and now it doubles as a colophon. iBooks Author will show you with semi-transparent squares exactly where the page thumbnails will go, so make sure you don’t put anything ornamental or fussy behind there.

Table of Contents Background Image
Table of Contents as seen from within iBooks Author

Here’s what the same page looks like when it’s on the iPad. (Artwork is in progress during this preview.)

Table of Contents as viewed on the iPad
Table of Contents as viewed on the iPad

As you can see, Apple reserves some space for their tool bar/status bars.

I made a PNG file which you are welcome to use as a reference overlay when creating your background image in your art software. Turn it on and off as necessary to check you’ve positioned your illustration where you want it.

How do you preview an iBook on your iPad?

You need to have the iPad plugged into the Mac, with the cord. Then it will show up as a preview option. (You’ll also be reminded that you need to open iBooks.)

Important Update: Mid 2015, Apple changed iBooks so that you can now read iBooks on an iPhone as well as on an iPad. This has important consequences for how big to make the writing — bigger — and means that you’ll need to decide beforehand which device you’re going to optimise for: Will the words look a little too large on the iPad, or a little too small on the iPhone?

Next job, getting your iBook onto the iBooks Store.

  • I called the American Tax Office via Skype and requested an EIN. Strangely enough, we’ve been selling apps on the App Store since 2011 and have never needed one of those. It took no time at all — at least, it wouldn’t have, if the Skype connection had been better…. [Was it the connection, or my non-American accent?!]
  • You’ll need to download an extra piece of (free) software called Producer. (Whyyyy)
  • It took about a day for LRRH to be approved (or, overnight, since I’m here in Australia). A subsequent book seemed to appear on the iBooks store right away.
  • No, you don’t need an ISBN — it’s no longer a required field. (If you’re Canadian you might want to grab one anyway. I heard over your way, they’re free.)

Lotta: Red Riding Hood

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks
Click to download for free from iBooks Store

If you are familiar with Slap Happy Larry’s story apps for iOS — illustrated picturebooks for older readers — you’ll know approximately what to expect from this pdf eBook.

Recommended for readers age 13 and above, this is a dark tale with a positive ending, and will leave much for younger readers to discuss with older co-readers, especially in regards to personal freedoms, gender expectations and rape culture.

For those without an iPad, also available as a PDF document on Scribd.

Some Limitations Of Studies On Book Apps

The following is from an article in the New York Times, and the ideas within are familiar to those of us listening to professional criticism of our products:

“There’s a lot of interaction when you’re reading a book with your child,” Dr. High said. “You’re turning pages, pointing at pictures, talking about the story. Those things are lost somewhat when you’re using an e-book.”

In a 2013 study, researchers found that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from an electronic book had lower reading comprehension than children whose parents used traditional books. Part of the reason, they said, was that parents and children using an electronic device spent more time focusing on the device itself than on the story (a conclusion shared by at least two other studies).

– Is e-reading to your toddler story time, or simply screen time?

The first of these studies is behind a paywall, and I’m interested to know if the researchers published the exact materials used in the study. I’m not reading to pay the 12 bucks to find out, because some other researchers I’ve seen are reluctant to let on which book apps, exactly, they used in the study. The second hyperlink in the NYT excerpt above, from a report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, is a case in point: We’re not told which book apps exactly were used, but we do know that they were appified versions of printed matter. It would be difficult to compare two completely separate products, so for research purposes, this makes some sense:

Which book apps were used?

Note the wording ‘We selected the enhanced and basic e-books’. This suggests that a number of each media type were used in the study, but further on we learn that, actually, only two book apps were used:

Limitations

Honestly, I’m not sure if the article refers to ‘book apps’ or ‘e-books’ which are two different things, though perhaps not in the consumer’s mind (except insofar as the consumer must retrieve them from different places on the App Store). I’m not sure if by ‘science themed’ they’re using non-fiction titles. But why not give us the titles?

The study isn’t just aimed at educators and consumers; apparently designers of apps are to take note:

For designers

This is all good advice, but it’s too general to be of much use. Unless publishers of studies are going to release which book apps they studied, it’s difficult for we developers to learn much from it. Ideally, we want to download and go through these apps ourselves. If this study is published in longer form elsewhere, and someone knows where to find it, please point us in the right direction.

Here are some other problems with reports/studies such as these:

Printed books which have been turned into apps/enhanced e-books are not the same as books which were created as apps from the ground up. It is indeed possible to turn a successful printed book into a wonderful appified version, but this is simply not happening very often. Instead, developers are using static, scanned versions of the printed matter, adding a few cheap enhancements such as wiggling assets and stock sound effects, then relying on the success of the printed matter to sell the apps, which in turn help to sell the printed books (and associated merchandise) by being visible in another place (the App Store).

The media selected for study was ‘produced by a recognized publisher of enhanced e-books’. What does ‘recognized’ mean? Does this mean the e-books/apps they considered worthy of study came from one of the big 5 publishing corporations, who are presumably the best funded and presumably putting out the best material? This is a big assumption indeed. Until publishing corporations start to see profit in book apps (and that may actually be never), they’re unlikely to pump thousands of dollars into their book apps. And by ‘book apps’, I’m not talking about cheap apps starring big-brand characters, of which there are plenty of ho-hum examples.

There’s another phrase which needs further clarification: ‘Just for fun’. The researchers themselves recognise the limitations of this phrase, putting it in speech-marks.

Just for fun

My question is this: What is the difference, exactly, between ‘fun’ and… actually I’m only guessing its corollary: ‘educational’? This is a false dichotomy. Fun does not equal ‘non-educational’, just as ‘serious’ does not equal ‘educational’. Enhanced e-books and apps are perhaps uniquely singled out for this form of literary criticism, or perhaps this question has been asked of pop-up and novelty books and I just never noticed it.

Another question: The study above focused on e-books/apps for 3-6 year olds. Most of the existing book apps on the App Store are indeed catering for this age-group, so it is indeed a sensible place to begin with the research. I’m keen to know whether older readers approach apps in the same way as the younger set, who tend to push buttons with abandon (in my own limited experience).  When the iPad was first released, Steve Jobs said that he had designed it so that even two-year-olds could use it. Indeed, we had a two-year-old at the time, and Apple succeeded in its mission. As a result, the App Store became flooded with kids’ apps designed for the 3-6 age range, with far fewer apps available, even now, in the older categories. Something I’ve wondered all along, in the midst of criticism of book apps: Might book apps actually be better suited to older children who have already learnt how to progress through a printed book, despite the fact that even a 2-year-old can (technically) ‘use’ an iPad? We’d love to see age-specific research. Because are iPads really as easy to use as we think they are? Watching a little kid swiping and pinching at a touchscreen has a certain fascination for those of us who underestimated the digital dexterity of 2-year-olds — for me it’s a bit like watching a monkey deftly open a banana. But ducking between apps, pinching and swiping with grace, is not quite the same thing as ‘utilising a touchscreen to its best advantage’.  We’d like to see broader research on how, exactly, toddlers and young children are making use of touchscreens.

Leading on from that, the first studies were naturally conducted on families who were new to touchscreens. We know from our own user testing that there is a huge difference between asking an owner of an iOS device to open your book app, and someone who has never seen a smart phone or an app in their life. What was the touchscreen experience of the families in the study? Had those 32 families used a touchscreen before? If not, the device would have indeed got in the way of the experience. When I first picked up the iPad one, I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to swiping to turn the page of certain apps without accidentally activating other functionality. The iOS itself requires a certain dexterity in this manner: touch with too many fingers and you’ll be taken out of the app; swipe too low or too high and you’ll bring up the universal task bars… These are things you quickly get used to if you use a touch screen daily, and if researchers are going to conclude that the device is ‘getting in the way’ of the reading experience, I’d like some reassurance that their test subjects are not touchscreen newbies.

Some Notes On Children’s Literature Critics And Their Thinkings About Apps

Unfortunately we weren’t able to attend the Bookseller’s Children’s Conference held in London last month, mostly because we live on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I read children’s book news with keen interest. Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow was indeed at this conference, and I was interested to read her response to something which was said by a respected critic of children’s literature. Here’s Kate’s summary, which is what I have to go on:

Nicolette [Jones] said that she had “reservations” about picture book apps, on the basis that the printed book “does it better”, and went on to say that the “technology of the app interferes with the story”. She worried that “interactivity in apps replaces the space in children’s imagination”, and that “the app doesn’t go through the adult”. She said that the only apps she’d found successful were apps like the Touchpress Warhorse app, and Hot Key’s Maggot Moon app which provided additional material around each book, which, in itself, remains unaffected by the surrounding multimedia or animation material.

A Defence Of Storybook Apps, Nosy Crow blog

I’m not the slightest bit surprised to read this, and a large part of me wants to ignore it. After all, if you’re not ‘in the ring’, your opinion as a critic ain’t worth all that much to me. On the other hand, this kind of thing directly affects our sales. And sales are, unfortunately, relevant in this discussion. As noted by Philip Jones at FutureBook:

[The] combination of huge abundance and the difficulties of commercialising the products should not be under-estimated when looking at book apps. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whether particular apps work, or don’t, but not enough time figuring out how the market conditions may be impacting these developments.

I have suspected a dismissive attitude towards book apps from longtime children’s literature critics and established printbook authors for a while now, and I’m glad to see it voiced, as it gives those of us in App Land a chance to respond to something concrete.

ARE YOU THERE, CRITICS? IT’S WE, BOOK APPS.

Griswold is a: Writer, critic, speaker on children’s literature.
Griswold is a: Writer, critic, speaker on children’s literature.

 

I'm looking forward to the day when apps are included  on lists of themed picturebooks, not just on lists with other apps.
I’m looking forward to the day when apps are included on lists of themed picturebooks, not just on lists with other apps.

As you may notice from the digital badge to the upper right of our website, our second picturebook app Midnight Feast won a mention in the BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards earlier this year. There are few literature prizes open to digital picturebooks — most we must pay to enter and are therefore not worth a damn — but the BolognaRagazzi is the one big exception. So we were thrilled when our book app was judged as one of the top three fiction apps of the year (alongside an app by Nosy Crow, as it happens). Of course, a literature prize is not a running race — individual tastes of the judges are relevant rather than a millisecond on a stopwatch, and so we must always take literature prizes for what they’re worth. The fact is, any of the shortlisted apps as judged by the BolognaRagazzi panel is a heavyweight. If you’re interested in checking out the jurors’ commentary, you’ll see this is not an effusive bunch. Each member of the panel is suitably critical and careful when it comes to literary use and abuse of new technologies.

So, what happens to your app after it wins a mention in a big prize these days? Less than you might think*. Organisers of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize asked us for fifteen promo codes which were to be distributed to reviewers and critics over the course of the book fair. The wonderful advantage about being in the business of apps (rather than in printed materials) is that Apple provides us with unambiguous statistics. We can tell you via our stats that of the fifteen promocodes requested by Bologna, only three of them were actually redeemed, and none of them was redeemed by a user with a UK iTunes account. It’s possible that Bologna did not get around to sending out the codes, or perhaps they sent them to the wrong people at the wrong time. But when influential critics publicly dismiss the entire shebang, I’m inclined to err on the side of, ‘critics weren’t interested in them’. Lest it be thought that I am focusing these thoughts on the single critic Nicolette Jones, this is obviously a bigger issue. I am asking the question: Which influential people in Children’s Literature world (not Tech World, not Teaching World, not Parent World) are seeking out the award winning picture book apps before dismissing them? Nicolette Jones is not personally responsible for evaluating our book apps in particular, especially since we never sent her any promocodes. I’m pointing out that Children’s Literature World, in general, is increasingly closed to creators of picturebook apps. I do wonder if the promoters of award-winning printed picture books have any trouble giving them away at book fairs?

Chris Haughton tweet

 

*To be fair, I’m pretty sure — insofar as anyone can be sure of anything when it comes to the Charlie’s Chocolate Factory which is Apple — that the mention of Midnight Feast in the BolognaRagazzi led to our previous app The Artifacts being featured in the App Store several months later. (Midnight Feast itself is and always will be a hard sell. Nor does it fit neatly into any App Store age category in the Kids’ section.) It’s easy to criticise Apple for failing to help book developers. Apple prefers to promote games. Philip Jones sees ‘very little evidence that Apple is doing anything to help with this transition,’ and I can’t really argue, except to add that Apple has done a darn sight more for our sales figures than any critic of children’s literature. (And I say this knowing it’s easy to say, AFTER a book app of yours has been featured.)

books lumped in with reading apps

Unredeemed promocodes aside, I would like to share with you Midnight Feast’s sales figures for the United Kingdom* over the year since our ‘award winning app’ has been released: 52. Fifty-two downloads from the UK.

The reason I share all of this is because it’s highly unlikely (though slimly possible, yes) that one of the fifty-two people with a UK iTunes account to download Midnight Feast was the children’s literature critic Nicolette Jones. Children’s book critics are busy. Most wouldn’t have much time to seek out stories they’re not sent. With the avalanche of children’s stories published these days, a children’s literature critic can make a more-than-full-time gig out of sticking to printed picture books alone. And it’s true — we did not send Nicolette Jones a promotional code on the off-chance she’d take a look. She has no history of being a book app enthusiast. We sent one to Stuart Dredge instead, whose attitude towards apps we respect, and who indeed gave us a review.
My point is this: Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times is a wonderfully knowledgeable critic of children’s literature, but I don’t consider her an expert on picture book apps. At this point, it’s frustrating that she offers an opinion at all, other than to open up the discussion, which is important. Making a value judgement on the other hand, is inappropriate.
**
UPDATE: I thought it only fair to offer Nicolette James some promocodes. Here’s her response. Irony, indeed.
The irony
I wonder if Jones realises what the self-described ‘irony’ is? That she comments regardless upon an area she doesn’t review? I have since replied that I wasn’t actually asking for a review (though it was fair enough that she assumed I was, given how often she would be asked.) I hoped only to change her mind about book apps.
(On a more positive note, Nicolette Jones has since agreed to receive the promocodes I offered.)
A well-known critic of children’s literature would not consider herself widely read in her area of expertise were she unfamiliar with the winners of the Newbery and the Caldecott. Yet apparently it’s okay to make sweeping statements about children’s literature apps, even when you haven’t familiarised yourself with the award winning products from the previous year. Dredge urges developers to use “the considered criticism from experts like Nicolette Jones” as “an incentive for more developers to strain to reach those heights”. But really, what are ‘the heights’ exactly? Instinct tells me to listen to the enthusiasts anyhow, and not the dismissive critics. Rule of thumb for life, that. There are plenty of critics complaining about all those terrible apps out there, but who is willing to put into words what exactly they were looking for when they were at first optimistic about all those possibilities?

There’s only one thing worse than a children’s critic slamming an entire category, and that’s failing to mention it at all. Part of me is glad that critics recognise that book apps count as books. A book app’s lack of an ISBN is problematic to its credibility as a work of literature. But the difference between a critic and a reviewer is surely this: A ‘reviewer’ is welcome to pick and choose from a subcategory of books according to the reviewer’s own interest, whereas a ‘critic’ has a responsibility to read and seek out** award winning and starred reviewed examples of a category before speaking about the category in public as a figure of authority.

Stuart Dredge quotes Jones directly:

“I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.”

The Guardian

 

**I know that critics are not accustomed to ‘seeking things out’. They are sent an avalanche of material every week (50 printed picturebooks for Nicolette Jones, according to reports from Stuart Dredge) and for them it’s a matter of culling them. But we are now in a different place when it comes to publishing, and Ron Charles explains brusquely in the Washington Post ‘No, I don’t want to read your self-published book’ why critics and review sites simply cannot respond to everything. I understand, fully. Our apps are self-published, and largely ignored. My response to that: Nor may they comment on the quality of everything. And if they are interested in commenting on the quality of what’s being self-published, a time-efficient way of seeking out the best would be to seek out the prize winners.

I would prefer Nicolette Jones to add, ‘but I am not a particular enthusiast of picturebook apps and I certainly don’t pretend to have done a wide survey of them’. Note that Jones spoke of the most expertly marketed picture book apps:

“I can see some publishers like Nosy Crow doing fantastically well with very interesting apps, and trying to reproduce the quality of a book. [Aw, bless!] There’s a lot of energy and creativity and intelligence going into this, and I don’t want to be too dismissive,” she said [dismissively].

This should be a red flag. Would you listen to a games critic dismiss mobile apps if he offered the example of Angry Birds to make his main point? The Nosy Crow picture book apps are the Angry Birds of App Picturebook World, known to anyone who’s had even the most passing interest in the category.

BUT WHY THE HIERARCHY, ANYWAY?

So, ‘I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something a book doesn’t do better,’ she said.

Between our first two picture book apps I noticed something of a paradox when it comes to expectations of the interactive medium. To quote myself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Jones says that she’s never seen a picture book app that a book doesn’t ‘do better’, I am very suspicious: Has she actually seen and studied picture book apps (like ours) which were created for a touch screen? Our products do not exist alongside printed versions. They exist in their own right. A comparison, let alone a hierarchy, is therefore difficult. In order to even make a statement that includes the word ‘better’, a critic would have to compare a printed picture book alongside its appified version. If a critic were to approach Midnight Feast or The Artifacts in this way, she would have to imagine-up a printed version of the story — one which exists only inside her head. Here’s the thing about things that exist inside heads: They are always better than any real-world product. (Any creative’ll tell ya.)

MOREOVER.

THE DEVICE ISN’T NECESSARILY ‘OVER THERE’

Julia Donaldson

 

 

terrible technology

From Stuart Dredge’s summary of Nicolette Jones’ comments:

“If you look at a book with a small child, it’s a hug,” [Jones] said, making a gesture to show a parent with a child sitting in their lap, and an open book in front of them.

“With a device over here, there isn’t that relationship, and it doesn’t go through the adult,” said Jones, motioning to an imaginary tablet by a child’s side.

Cutesy hug metaphors aside, this is frustrating. I mean, it’s ridiculous to blame app developers for adults who may (or may not be!) using our products as substitutes for (rather than as complements to) parent-child interactive reading. Although I sense Jones isn’t talking about the ‘point of purchase’ when she says that a picture book app ‘doesn’t go through the adult’, it’s worth pointing out that an adult with a credit card is required in order for a book app to appear in front of a child in the first place. We’re not just leaving them lying around in gutters, for instance, like discarded bottles of rum, ready for two-year-olds to clap their chubby hands upon. Is there hard evidence, even, that an adult who has just selected and installed an app is throwing the device into the lap of the child before briskly leaving the room? Our own anecdotal evidence suggests that any adults who buy and share our apps care very much about what their children are reading. I see it in the quality of their App Store reviews. Ours are some of the most coherent on the store. (I know that’s not saying much, but still.)

THERE ARE ACTUALLY A FEW THINGS THAT PICTURE BOOK APPS CAN DO BETTER.

innovation can go unnoticed

It’s true that interactive books can be somewhat overhyped. Developers are quick to label something as ‘educational’ in the same way food companies are keen to label products as ‘natural’. (i.e. It’s meaningless.) I have my own reservations about certain taken-for-granted enhancements; in particular I’m waiting for more research about the benefits of text-highlighting, or for a study which will lead developers into best practice.

research in digital reading is still new

Lack of research on book apps

 

I’m not a big fan of heavily animated book apps, mainly for aesthetic reasons. I’m very wary about games which pull a reader out of the story. Perhaps my biggest reservation of all about e-reading in general is that when a book exists on a device, it exists alongside push-button access to games, TV and the Internet. I’ve noticed from my own experience of reading ebooks on a tablet that it’s harder to become immersed in a novel when you know you can dart here there and everywhere to look up a word, then dilly-dally back to the story-at-hand via a quick few games of Boggle. Still, I’m not going to blame publishers of my favourite ebooks for that.

Different Attitudes

 

the slow reading movement

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from the comments section in The Atlantic. Click through for the article.

So sure, let’s take a moment to indulge in the undying need for hierarchies. I have given much thought to what book apps can achieve and what printed books can’t, partly as a way of deciding the future for our own indie company: Is it worth it, to spend years creating picture book apps when the environment is basically hostile? I might include a number of other more obvious benefits of the touchscreens themselves, such as the ability for a teacher in a classroom to share and discuss a picturebook via the big screen, without needing to buy a slightly larger printed version of a popular book, seen best by those sitting at the front of the mat, or of publishing advantages, such as the ability to sell your stories in Saudi Arabia, and to keep a book app in the App Store for as long as it needs to be there, even if it doesn’t immediately take off. (The Artifacts took 2 and a half years to be featured by Apple. If it had been on a bookstore shelf it would’ve most likely have disappeared forever after 6 months.)

readalouds and reading retention

Happily, we’re not the only ones asking questions about how touch screens might be integrated in children’s literature. The academics care a lot and some of them are all over it. Junko Yokota spoke on this very topic for her keynote at the International Research Society Children’s Literature conference 2013 in Maastricht. You can watch her speak here. I highly recommend it, to developers, reviewers and critics alike. But when it comes to ‘interactivity’, as far as we’re concerned at Slap Happy Larry, the main ‘interaction’ happens between the screen and the reader’s brain.