The Importance of Picturebook Endpapers and Other Peritext

Part of me thinks that a reader’s preference for a physical book isn’t just about how it smells or about the reassuring heft of it in the hands, but derives from more subconscious things. Picture books are more ornamental than other kinds of books. In picture books you’ll sometimes see that an imaginative illustrator has done something creative with the colophon, or included easter egg doodles in unexpected places (maybe a face sticking out from under a dust cover). I’ve not seen this much in novels for adults. When an adult picks up a book, they’ve probably done a bit of research about what it’s about, even if that’s just reading the back cover copy. In picture books for children, the peritext — everything in the book which is not the actual story — helps the reader to decode the story. A reader learns something about the story from the cover, the size of the book itself, the type of paper, any dust jacket and — often overlooked — the endpapers.


Lawrence Sipe explains how endpapers are like stage curtains:

endpapers as curtains

What might this mean for those of us creating picture book apps rather than paper products? Picture book apps have their own analogues to the peritext of printed matter. For example:

  • an icon on the app store
  • screen shots on the app store
  • promo videos/trailers
  • splash page
  • title page
  • navigation page

Of this list, the young reader will not necessarily see screen shots on the app store nor watch any promo video, so I can probably cross those off the list as examples of peritext. (I guess it’s called ‘epitext’.) As for the other features, any of those can be left out when it comes to an app. There is no physical cardboard, for instance, requiring some sort of endpaper, and so it can be tempting (due to memory and other limitations) to leave out something like a title page between the splash page and the main menu. A splash page is most often used in apps to advertise the developer’s company and to create a brand across a stable of products, without necessarily tailoring its look to the story in hand.

There is also ‘peritext’ which is specific to book apps:

  • rate this app button
  • credits page
  • links to social media
  • other products from the same developers

Some of this ‘peritext’ isn’t welcomed by adults who purchase picture book apps for children, though I’m sure a great many feel neutral about it, so long as it’s not obtrusive and click-baiting from the main menu. This isn’t an exhaustive list of peritextual possibilities. In an app, would a finger-painting activity or a match-the-words page counted as peritext?

Some questions for picturebook app developers are:

  • How can we introduce our stories with ‘stage curtains’ in this new digital environment, where readers expect some sort of introduction to the story before it ‘begins’?
  • How can we help the reader by making sure our peritext extends the story on every non-story page, even if it’s just a little?
  • What is it about physical books which is best transferred — in some form — to a digital medium? And what can happily be left out?
  • Is there anything we can do digitally which would improve upon the peritextual limitations of printed books?


 Somewhat related:

When we discuss front cover designs, the pinkness of this or the blueness of this, we’re discussing paratexts. And, to be frank. there doesn’t seem to be much research about the impact / affect / effect of them.

Gendered Books In Children’s Literature

 Paeony Lewis points out that when it comes to printed books, not all of them are as beautiful as they could be: “I think many hardback children’s picture books lack what I call ‘gorgeousness’.” This is worth mentioning in a climate where comparisons between digital and printed matter are inevitable.

The Personalisation Of Product

The Little Boy Who Lost His Name Screenshot

Lost My Name, a charming tale of a child on a quest to find their missing name, sold an astonishing 132,616 copies, knocking Julia Donaldson off the top spot for the first time in eight years.

The Guardian

Of all the things it’s possible to do with digital books, one of them is ‘Put Me In The Story’ functionality. Readers can:

  • Take pictures of themselves, then superimpose their own faces on a character’s body
  • Use their own names in place of a generic character name
  • Include their own family members in the story
  • Choose the make up of their family unit
  • Photographs of local setting as background
  • Personalised intratext, for example with the town’s name changed to that of the reader

The list goes on. Some of these personalisations are easier to implement than others, naturally.

Digital Book World asks whether the personalisation of digital stories is likely to become mainstream, or will it continue to be ‘niche’?

Also through my feed this morning is another article on dolls marketed at girls, a topic which has been interesting me ever since I gave birth to a daughter: Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought. I’m not American so I don’t have any sort of history with American Girl dolls, but the article tells me that whereas once these dolls were good role models, girls are now stuck with ‘the dolls they deserve’. Now you can buy a doll in your child’s own image:

Maybe we get the dolls we deserve. After all, the redirection [since Mattel took over the brand] has been to shape them in our own image. You can wear what Saige (yes, SAIGE) is wearing. Saige, in turn, will have no more adventure than is readily available to you. You can indulge in a spa day! A spa day, with Saige. No more trekking across the prairie or dealing with wartime rationing. … Sure, maybe you picked your first American Girl doll because she resembled you – actually a lot has been written on this – but the whole point was to give you an entry point to history. Felicity or Samantha or Addy reminded you that, during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and all the fascinating important times of history, there were Girls Almost But Not Quite Like You. You could see yourself in history! You could engage with the biggest moments of the past! … Now — actual stories are being replaced with bland, featureless faces. The My American Girls have spawned a series of books where you fill in the blanks of her adventures. For instance, in “Bound For Snow,” “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this interactive story, a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime.” Yes, what a stretch of the imagination it is to pretend to be a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime. “She’s teaching Honey the golden retriever how to pull a dog sled, but the pup just doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it.” How tough to put yourself in her shoes. A golden retriever? But you’ve got a chocolate Lab! What a great exercise.

Less has been written about the personalisation of digital books, but I feel the same sarcastic tone could equally be applied. Throughout the entire history of human storytelling haven’t children been able to empathise with characters in a story without needing to literally see their own faces in it? Is this really such a struggle? Are we applauding narcissism?

Personally, I am struggling with some cognitive dissonance when it comes to the personalisation of digital books. Because my thoughts are unformed, here they are in bullet point format:

  • Yes, children do need to ‘see themselves’ in picturebooks. This is exactly why I have a problem with the disproportionate number of white boys represented in literature.
  • The personalisation trend may be one response to accusations of symbolic annihilation of PoC and female characters.
  • Regarding picturebooks and illustrated texts, some kinds of art styles are already perfectly good at allowing readers to see themselves in the characters. I’m talking about the simplistic style of art in which faces, while very expressive, are reminiscent of a smiley emoticon, and can therefore represent almost any character. Other art styles (such as mine, in Midnight Feast) are more detailed, and the character looks like ‘a certain individual’ rather than the everygirl. It is harder for a reader to see themselves in such a character.
  • But how similar must a character look to a reader in order for the reader to empathise?
  • Might it not be a very good thing if white children were empathising with PoC characters, and boys were more frequently given the opportunity to put themselves in the place of girls, and not just ‘tomboy’ characters — I mean boys putting themselves in the minds of girls doing girl things?
  • Is an interactive personalised story inherently metafictive, in that the reader is constantly reminded that they are not in fact living inside the pages of a story, but looking in at a rather gimmicky storytelling technique? Might this instead have the opposite effect to that intended ie. a vicarious, immersive, empathetic experience?

I have no answers, only suspicions:

  • There’s a slight danger that the personalisation of stories might absolve publishers from offering genuine diversity in main characters.
  • Some stories suit personalisation better than other types of stories.
  • Personalisation may suit some ages better than others — culturally we have a lot more tolerance for egocentricity in preschoolers than in, say, teens.

Related Articles:

Things Possible With Digital Stories Which Are Not So Possible With Paper Stories

The little boy/girl who lost his/her name

Some Text Highlighting Research; Limitations Show.

I’ve written before my thoughts on text highlighting in digital stories. I’m waiting for some good research before changing my mind.

Here’s one that came through my feed this morning, from Digital Book World:

2 Ways Digital Books Benefit Kids, Research Shows

And now I’d like to point out a few things about that article. First, the article does not link to the research. It links to some Eye Tracking software and to a company (MeeGenius) who make money (as we do) from selling book apps. Theirs happen to include word highlighting, I guess. Either way — even if they’re right about this — I acknowledge their bias.

And now I’d like to make a clear distinction between a finding and a conjecture.

Finding 1: Highlighting draws children’s eyes to words.

Their interpretation of this finding: The more time kids spend gazing at words while hearing them spoken, the more familiar they become with the idea that the sounds can be represented symbolically with writing.

Another possible interpretation of this finding: The more time kids spend gazing at words while hearing them spoken, the more time they’re gazing at words. And not the pictures. And not thinking. And not moving on through the story. 

We simply don’t know from the article (and probably from the research) anything other than ‘Highlighting draws children’s eyes to words.

Finding 2: When listening the recorded storyteller, the pace of the reading activity slowed down. The recorded voice was found to be 37% slower than the tempo of actual caregivers reading aloud.

Their interpretatin of this finding: This unhurried pace can help provide children with an alternate to the fast pace sustained in many households.

Another possible interpretation of this finding: Word highlighting hinders reading fluency and comprehension.


In short, I’m still waiting for that Golden Egg of studies.

Text Highlighting In Storybook Apps

…the vast majority of picturebooks are created for children. If we wish to be clearer about the nature of the picturebook should we attend to what children make of them or will our own close reading of individual texts be sufficient? And how relevant is it to our attempts to understand picturebooks that they are often used for teaching children to read?

– from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text by David Lewis

As children we relate to our picture books in a holistic fashion, merging sensations of the eye and the ear (for first we are read to), which marries the image and the sound of the words, and later, as we learn to read, the look of the words.

How Picturebooks Work, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott

It’s not surprising that research on a new medium happens only after the new medium comes into existence and gains a foothold in culture. Since interactive storybook apps are so new, there is still relatively little research that has been done, and when making development decisions, developers are instead reliant upon our own commonsense, and inevitably, our own experience of literature and reading.

One of the assumptions to have arisen about the nature of ‘good’ storybook apps is that they include word or phrase highlighting synchronous with narration. The assumption: that word highlighting is beneficial for emergent readers.

At this point, the beneficial nature of text highlighting is an assumption. It may be of benefit. It may not be. And it is also possible that word highlighting actually does more harm than good to an emergent reader.

Why this assumption in the first place? I think word highlighting is often considered the digital equivalent to pointing at words with a finger, and many are under the impression (rightly or wrongly) that when a caring adult co-reader points to words as they read, that the child will pick up reading — as part of a much wider program to teach reading skills, of course.

So before focusing on the topic of word highlighting, I would first like to look a little harder at the finger-pointing assumption.

From an article in the Telegraph titled ‘Pointing to words helps children read in later years‘:

Researchers claim this is the first time a study has shown a link between referencing during reading and literary achievement in later life.

So, if there have been many good studies on the effect of pointing to words on emergent readers, they haven’t been widely published.

Let’s go with that and trust our parental instincts: that occasionally pointing to words in books, and drawing children’s attention to various technical aspects of reading does improve literacy. I’m not going to argue with that because I intuit this is the case.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, because there seem to be many app developers who intuit that pointing to words by a trained or careful adult can be emulated electronically in a storybook app.

This, I’m not so confident about. Pointing to words may be really quite different from animating individual words in digital stories:

  1. When pointing, the finger does not obscure the actual word. Instead, effective pointers would  surely place their fingers BELOW the word in question, not over it.
  2. Also when pointing, the fingers are not making those jerky movements reminiscent of colours flashing on a screen. The hand glides across the page unobtrusively. Emergent readers may well be less distracted by a hand than by digital animation of words.
  3. Fluent readers do not read by looking at one word at a time. We take in three words at once. While it’s clear that early readers need to learn words one by one, when it comes to training the eyes to move across the page, is it really that helpful to highlight words individually, especially when the narrator is reading fluently themselves? I wonder about what we are modelling when app developers choose to individually highlight words.
  4. It’s possible that some ways of highlighting words are better than others. We need more research into this. It’s not enough to simply assume that ‘apps with word highlighting are good’ while ‘apps without word highlighting are lacking’.
Here are some various ways of word highlighting that you’ll see in some popular storybook apps right now.


Sir Charly Stinkysocks and the really BIG Adventure

This is a storybook app produced by a large publishing house. The words ‘jump’ off the page as they are read. But when a word is jumping, it’s moving, and therefore not able to be read. All the emergent reader can see is where in the paragraph the narrator is up to; they can’t see the word itself. Not unless their own reading is actually out of sync with the highlighting.

Here is another app which makes use of the same technique:

Logan and the upside-down sea



Perhaps to avoid the choppiness which results from highlighting words individually, this app developer decided to make the word highlighting last slightly longer than the narration itself. The colour that appears around the words fades out slowly, so you end up with an ‘approximate’ highlighting of words. It certainly works to avoid that choppy feeling that happens when words jump.

But if the highlighting isn’t 100% accurate, leaving the reader perhaps one word behind the ballgame, might this be worse than no highlighting at all? We don’t know this yet.


Cozmo’s Day Off

I prefer this method of word highlighting, where phrases are highlighted rather than individual words. This emulates the way we read as fluent readers – not just by taking in a single word at a time, but by encouraging us to take in several. This may aid reading fluency, and fluency aids comprehension.

I suspect this book has it right. If words are to be highlighted, this is how I’d like to see it done. I like that the words themselves don’t move. Instead, a blue outline appears around the words. This doesn’t prevent the reader from actually reading them.

Temporary Conclusion:

  • I suspect that the highlighting of individual words is useful in word games in which emergent literacy skills are the target.
  • I suspect story app developers should stay away from individual word highlighting, and consumers should be wary of expecting it by default.
  • Just because something is possible with the digital format doesn’t mean it’s an improvement on non-digital versions of a story.
  • For now, app developers who use word highlighting as a selling point are making money based on something which doesn’t have good research behind it.
  • The option to turn off word highlighting should be an option, just as it’s an option to turn off narration.

I’m prepared to change my mind on this. The issue of word highlighting in storybook apps desperately needs research. But we can’t assume that highlighting equals finger pointing. It may not.

50 Best iPad Apps for Reading Disabilities from Teachers With Apps

Addictive Apps

I was listening to Jonathan Storment yesterday, and something that he said really caught my attention. He talked about how we can spend hours of our day, months of our lives, pursuing things that in the end have no value. He gave the example of his obsession with the Rat on a Skateboard game on his smart phone. Jonathan was so proud when he figured out that he was ranked number 37 in the world on Rat on a Skateboard, but the more he thought about that, the more uncomfortable he became in realizing how much time he must have spent on this silly game. On thinking over our tendency to be distracted from worthy pursuits by trivial ones, Jonathan said, “The worst thing that you can do with your life is not to fail, but to succeed at something that doesn’t matter.”

– from Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker


A hypothetical situation for you: Say you downloaded a game app for free, got a good hour’s worth of play out of it, accrued lots of points, then something happens within the world of the game and you’re about to lose everything you ever played for. (Well, the last one hour’s worth.) But you have an option: Via a simple in-app purchase, you can keep all your points for  just 99c.

Of course you wouldn’t do that, right? Nobody does that. That’s blatant manipulation. You throw the phone down and get on with your day, right after you delete the app from your phone forever.

Except people do pay the 99c. I’m guessing such people walk among us. Because there are app companies out there specialising in creating addictive games, manipulating a certain percentage of consumers into paying for imaginary pixels with their expert understanding of human psychology.

Here is some required reading for the young gamers in your life.

How Puzzle & Dragons Coerces Players To Pay Big Bucks, a heart-sinking read from Games Beat

4 Design Secrets Behind Dots, the Insanely Addicting iPhone Game from Wired

How F2P Games Exploit Your Brain from Games Radar

Children’s Book Covers

The covers of picturebooks signal the theme, tone, and nature of the narrative, as well as implying an addressee. Few artists create a unique cover picture not repeated inside the book. The choice of cover evidently reflects the importance attached to the particular episode.

– from How Picturebooks Work by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott

…illustrations in children’s books contribute to our perception of character, giving an instant and immediate external portrait. Even when a novel is not illustrated, a cover picture may be revealing enough. Even a very brief examination of a number of covers to classics such as Anne of Green Gables shows how a visual portrait of a character can influence our expectations. In existing covers, Anne is portrayed sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes very pretty, which contradicts the text, and sometimes plain, in consistency with the text. In any case, the cover signals that the protagonist is a young white female. This may make adult, male, and non-Caucasian readers reject the novel.

The covers of Roll of Thunder and The Planet of Junior Brown show black characters, filling the gap left by the text and signaling the characters’ social status. Book covers are paratexts that contribute to our understanding of the character. Unlike adult novels, it is almost inconceivable that a children’s novel would not have a cover illustration. A character’s portrait on the cover or in illustrations enhances the verbal description of the character or replaces it.

– from The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva


A Book Cover In Time: The Changing Art Of Our Childhood Reads from The Atlantic

Book Cover Monday: Strong Females, from Rabia Gale

The Animation Look… no such thing

I remember asking a friend what his favourite music was. “Indie,” he replied.

He was expressing a political preference rather than a genre, because the fact of being independently produced is in itself a defiance of established norms, but at the time I was perplexed. How can anyone so broadly say “Indie” as a genre.

Then I knew someone who listened to a lot of different indie artists and sure enough, I knew what he’d meant: ‘indie music’ has a certain feel to it. My knowledge of music isn’t strong enough to encapsulate exactly what that is, but I’ll go with ‘complaining male voice almost drowned out by instrumentals’ and you might get a sense of it.

Have you seen Pixar’s short animated film The Blue Umbrella yet? I haven’t, but I’m looking forward to catching it sooner or later because unlike a lot of the most recent animated films, that sounds original and the screenshots look stunning.

Here’s what the creator says, remembering his pitch to the two guys at the head of Pixar:

 “They are the strongest proponents of ‘animation is not a specific look.’ It feels like animated movies have a certain style, but there is no reason for that. Animation nowadays can be whatever it wants to be. With the first Toy Story, you could only do plastic, metal, stone, but you couldn’t do people. It took until The Incredibles–the first time there were humans in digital animation. Now you don’t really have that barrier anymore, it’s just that everyone got used to what animation looks like. Everyone [here at Pixar] really likes the idea of pushing animation into areas no one has thought of yet, at least in mainstream animation.”

And here are a couple of animated movies which have caught my eye lately. Unfortunately, they’re not always that easy to get a hold of here, but I have these on my to-watch list simply because they look animated in a completely original kind of way:





Related: It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster, from Hollywood and Blake Snyder at Slate

We could argue that all movies are ‘animation’, but yeah, let’s not do that. Life is already confusing.


Skeuomorphism: What is it?

Here’s an infographic.

Skeuomorphism is one of those words you keep hearing, once you’ve learnt what it means. I’m even starting to hear it outside tech blogs: Has Morality Become A Skeuomorph? from The Society Pages.

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.

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

So with Midnight Feast we’ve 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

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.

Related: Here’s a pretty cool skeumorphic page turn.