This morning Cosmopolitan reports that UK authors are pushing for children’s literature to include sex in fiction for kids. That’s quite a headline grabber. Of course, reading the actual article offers a less sensationalist request:
Malorie Blackman says that including sex in fiction for kids will expose them to it in a shame-free, healthy and positive “safe setting”
Philip Pullman agrees, and says that kids can benefit from seeing sex in a “moral context” where “actions have consequences”.
They’re not asking too much, are they?. Bear in mind that in the publishing world, ‘children’s literature’ includes the young adult category.
I wish them all the luck in the world and, given the current attitude towards nudity in picturebooks, I think they’ll need it. Things haven’t changed all that much since Maurice Sendak’s most controversial book In The Night Kitchen was released in 1970. In that book is a picture of a little boy with no clothes on. We can see his penis.
I haven’t seen anything quite like that in picturebook since. Maybe illustrated eBooks and self-publishing will offer writers opportunities to push the boundaries a little more? After all, not everyone is on board with the censorship of innocent nudity in picturebooks, and I count myself among them. However, distribution of our work relies on bigger powers, and here are the developer guidelines from Apple:
I recently saw a picture from a fellow developer who’d had his 4+ rated app rejected by Apple. The screenshot depicted a very innocent, almost inhuman looking, smooth-bodied creature. The advice from Apple was to ‘put some clothes on it’.
So, regardless of my personal attitude towards censorship, the real decision makers are standing at the gate of that walled garden.
Sales of digital comics have soared in the past three years. Readers love the look of comics on the iPad screen and they also love the convenience of in-app purchasing, which allows consumers to buy and store their comics within a single app. So it’s a big deal when Apple bans a comic—usually because of sexual or mature material or nudity—and it has happened to at least 59 comics this year.
You may think that creators of picturebooks for the iPad have less to worry about, but in fact the innocent nudity of bathtime and related day-to-day activities is banned equally by Apple. I have seen children’s apps rejected which feature only the vaguest representations of human creatures. If nudity offends you, you’re safe with Apple. If, on the other hand, you think there should be more normalised nudity in children’s media, your bookshelf will need supplementation, because Apple does not distinguish between ‘nudity’ and ‘nakedness’.
Perry Nodelman explains why Apple employees, when working under deadline to accept or reject app submissions, might have trouble with such a distinction in his book Words About Pictures:
In Ways Of Seeing, John Berger suggests that the characteristic poses of nudes in paintings imply the superiority of the viewer, presumably male and dressed, and the subservience of the person they depict — inevitably female, totally exposed, and apparently delighted by her vulnerability in the face of superior power. While the naked human body is not as significant a subject of picture books as it is of conventional painting, its depiction in picture books deserves some discussion. Not only does it reveal much about the kinds of narrative information implied by the depiction of postures and gestures — above all, the communication of attitudes toward characters — but also it suggests how even cultural assumptions we believe we have outlived survive in surprising ways in literature and art.
As Berger defines it, nudity can be distinguished from mere nakedness by means of gestures. Naked people simply have their clothes off; nude people take on certain postures that suggest their availability, their passivity, their willingness to be vulnerable and to put themselves at the disposal of a superior viewer who has the right to survey them. They tend to be supine, relaxed, smiling sensuously with an implied consciousness of a viewer or with their eyes closed. If such poses and gestures represent nudity, then the unclothed children of picture books are, surprisingly often, nude — and not, surely, because artists with to suggest the sexual availability of young children but more likely because the gestures of nudity are so conventional and so interiorized that artists use them unconsciously when they depict naked bodies.
– Code, Symbol, Gesture
Nodelman offers some examples of such nudity in picturebooks:
The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
And that, folks, is how we end up with a blanket ban on nudity in the App Store. Meantime, I did wonder if Midnight Feast would be accepted, due to the bathtime pages. Fortunately the app has made it through twice so far. Fingers crossed it keeps making it, though I will wonder every time we submit an update if a naked female back may at some stage not pass muster. Nodelman does point out that although female nudity in picturebooks is rare due to its close connection to sexuality, ‘the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers’.
Isn’t it interesting, that even when clothed, female characters — in picturebooks, not just in comics — ‘almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity’.
While I understand the line must be drawn somewhere, I am reminded of a documentary I watched recently about young British naturists, who were joined for afternoon tea by a female friend who felt uncomfortable with complete nakedness, but equally uncomfortable fully clothed, so she thought she’d achieve a happy medium by eating afternoon tea in her underwear. As pointed out by one of the naked young men, her underwear had the uncanny ability to make the young woman appear more naked than if she were wearing nothing at all. Female underwear is highly sexualised; as for nakedness, not necessarily.
Censorship is a murky, muddy, ever-shifting beast, but I do wonder if the emphasis on nakedness in apps for children isn’t completely misplaced when the female characters who do appear in children’s media are so often striking the ‘nude pose’.
Nodelman writes, “In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something–moving, active, not posing.”
I would suggest from all this that it’s not the nakedness per se that offends certain censors*, because we get ‘clothed nude’ in spades; it is in fact naked female agency.
*Censorship technically only refers to government restriction. A company who decides not to allow something is technically making a business decision rather than imposing censorship in the truest sense.
At The Art Of Manliness blog is an article called ‘How To Read A Book’. I’m in need of a few tips on manliness. I’m also wondering if there is, in fact, a right and a wrong way to read a book, so I read it. Turns out there are many different ways of talking about levels of close reading. This article divides them into these four:
Since a synoptical level of reading texts is generally achieved at the university level, a good analytic understanding of texts is something to aim for in high school graduates. Yet as pointed out in the article, many aren’t getting there.
Analytical reading is where most readers fall short. The average high schooler in America reads at a 5th grade level, and the average adult American reads somewhere between the 7th and 8th grade levels.
A guy called Mortimer Adler has a few theories on this: school never really teaches how to read a book. So that was back in 1940, and I’m confident schools all over the place are doing a better job of educating the masses than way back when, but one thing hasn’t changed: schools are still pressed for time.
So we get to high school and college and get overloaded with reading assignments that we’re supposed to write long papers about, and yet we’ve never learned how to truly dissect a book and get the most value out of it.
There simply isn’t the time to guide students through a deep-read of all the worthy high school texts. Instead, teachers can guide them through a few and hope for the best.
This is where picturebooks can be useful. The most recent review of our first picturebook app, The Artifacts, tells us that, in Ireland at least, our first storybook app is being used in high schools. I find this really interesting, because that’s how I’d use such a thing, too. Picturebooks are the perfect tool for teaching analytical reading skills to high school aged students because you can do the entire thing in a 50 minute period if you have to. In a couple of weeks you can do 6 or 8 deep reads, from start to finish, and that includes multiple readings. Short stories are good too, and ideally the teacher would have time to collect a variety of short texts on a similar theme. To do the same deep read wit, say, Lord of the Flies it takes five or six weeks and then the teacher has to rely on students reading in their own time. Short texts are better for less advantaged students who don’t necessarily have the peace and quiet to complete long reads at home. Also, a wider range of short texts allows for the fact that different students will be engaged by different stories. So although few students are going to like all six short texts, all of them are going to like at least one.
Then there’s the fact that most of our students are going to be parents themselves, sooner or later. And even if they never finish another novel in their entire lifetimes, we can hope that they will read picturebooks to their own offspring.
Quentin Blake told an audience that children learn to read from an “emotional motivation”, as he urged educators not to “turn their backs” on the fun of illustrations. (The Telegraph)
“The relationship between text and illustration can on occasion be quite complex, but what illustration can first of all do is to welcome you to the book,” he said in the Hay Library Lecture.
That’s why I love picturebooks in the high school language arts classroom.
Here, Cathy Jo Nelson suggests using ‘easy’ books in the classroom because:
These books are a GREAT way to introduce a topic in any classroom or content area. They can be the perfect segue from topic to topic or activity to activity in any classroom. These books also tap into the inner creative side for some, and we all know there are plenty of students who do not respond to dry text, but will respond to stories or pictures that make connections, evoke feelings, and allow for the appreciation of literature, dramatic readings, and in its purest form, the appreciation of art.
I did my fair share of teaching with pictures when I was a high school language teacher. I love this approach partly, I’m guessing, because I’m a visual learner myself. But there is one big problem with teaching like this to a group of 30 students: The ones at the back can’t see it properly.
When our school acquired its first data projector, that thing lived mainly in my classroom. I believe many schools have since achieved funding for a data projector in every classroom and this is great news for our daughter, who starts school next year.
So I’m perplexed when I read things like this from picturebook enthusiasts (with blogs that I love, by the way):
The close proximity, the intimacy of [teachers reading picturebooks to a classroom of students], explains why reading picture books online or on a tablet feels so much less satisfying.
As far as I’m concerned, a classroom equipped with a tablet and a data projector is the best possible set up for teaching with picturebooks. A picturebook projected at movie-screen size in a darkened classroom, especially when accompanied by excellent sound equipment, is a wonderfully immersive experience. I’d like to know if students, as well as their teachers, find reading picturebooks via tablets ‘so much less satisfying’. It’s not quite the same as sitting on Nana’s lap, granted, but the addition of tablet computers and other tech equipment feels to me like a huge step forward.
The New Statesman has published an article by Jonathan Emmett who points out that the picturebook world is dominated by women. I’m simplifying here, but basically he argues that this is one problem with picturebooks today, and the feminisation of picturebooks explains why boys aren’t reading as early as girls are.
I feel very uneasy about this article, but I’m just going to respond in bullet point form, because I haven’t worked up my thoughts into a paragraphably coherent state.
All thirteen judges on this year’s Greenaway and Carnegie Medal panel are women. Last year there was only one man. Although there are plenty of men writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female.
I agree that this is a problem. I agree with the author’s suggestion further down: fix it with quotas. I also like the idea of gender quotas for the big, important, financially significant book prizes for adults. Perhaps the picturebook world can lead the way. Part of me is glad that this imbalance is being noticed and talked about. Because that, folks, is what it feels like to be under-represented in the literary world.
There is a problem with boys and books — they don’t seem to want to read them as much as girls do. As a result, boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year’s schooling.
Is the problem instead that we’re expecting too much of our kids too soon? I hear that in America, what used to be taught in the first year of elementary school is now taught in pre-schooling.
“Kindergarten is now first grade, and first grade is now second grade,” says Anne Stoudt, a kindergarten teacher in suburban New Jersey for 19 years.
Is it such a problem that boys are lagging behind? The reason this doesn’t concern me too much is because (speaking of large numbers, obviously) boys catch up in their own time. By the time students graduate from university (for instance) men will walk straight into higher paying jobs than their female classmates who did exactly the same degree. Did picturebooks really let those young men down?
One year after college graduation, men and women have much in common. In 2009, most women and men who had earned bachelor’s degrees the year before were young, single, childless, relatively inexperienced in the workplace, and working full time. We might expect to ﬁnd little or no gender pay gap among this group of workers at the start of their careers. Yet just one year after college graduation, with their newly printed degrees in hand, men already earn more than women do.
It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.
The picturebook world is indeed becoming a pink ghetto. That happens with any industry which women join in great numbers. It happened in the 1980s with teaching, when a great number of men turned away from teaching as a desirable profession after increased awareness and concerns about child protection. Since the picturebook world requires an understanding of children, and since it’s still women who are doing the majority of childcare work, it’s no surprise that picturebook gatekeeping has likewise been left to the women. Julia Donaldson has also pointed out recently that children’s books get very little media coverage in the UK, especially considering how many people are buying children’s books. This surely reflects a general disregard for this form of literature. If men aren’t waving their hands in the air wanting to be picked as gatekeepers of children’s literature, might lack of status have something to do with it? We should fix that.
Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for.
Note to society: stop spreading the message that childcare, including the organisation of birthday parties, preparation of school lunches and buying of presents are women’s work. Note to fathers, uncles and granddads: buy picturebooks. Where money appears, product will follow. (Only one in eight dads take the lead with reading to their children.)
Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed.
I’ve noticed the same thing and I agree that picturebooks are becoming too tame. Nothing annoys me more than a classic fairytale which has had its ending ameliorated. Those little pigs got et, dammit. But this isn’t actually a boy thing. I’m pretty sure that well-loved little girls are just as capable of processing frightening monsters and aliens as well-loved little boys. I suspect this trend is in response to an increasingly frightening and busy world, in which picturebooks are thought to be a refuge.
Elements with strong boy-appeal such as combat, peril, villainy and technology that are abundant in U certificate films like The Incredibles are rarely found or diluted in picture books.
I don’t want to see The Incredibles held up as a model for picturebook action. In case it’s been a while since you saw that film, here’s one scene, as explained by the F-Word:
Mr Incredible, who believes his wife and children are dead, is hanging sobbing in a torture device. Mirage, who has seen the light, sneaks into the room, turns off the machine and tries to tell him that they are in fact alive. Before she can get the words out, however, he picks her up by the neck, chokes her and starts shouting at her. At this point his miraculously still-alive Elastigirl enters the room and, noticing her, he is so delighted he forgets all about Mirage and drops her in a retching, gasping heap on the floor.
Why does violence have ‘strong boy appeal’? Well, that depends on which side of the nature/nurture debate you subscribe to. But here’s one thing that makes logical sense to me: If we expect that little boys like ‘combat’ (also known as violence and fighting), and put it into picturebooks at every opportunity, little boys are indeed more likely to like combat.
both sexes should be equally represented on the judging panel of the Kate Greenaway Medal
Yes, I agree, but while we’re on the topic of equal representation, I’d like to see as many female characters as male characters in modern picturebooks. I haven’t done a count, but Janet McCabe has, and if you guessed that the ratio is about 2:1 male to female, you’d be right. Here’s the full paper. I’m all for gender equality, but personally, I think that ratio is more in need of urgent correction. On the other hand, if picturebook creators (writers, illustrators and publishers) weren’t consistently being told that there’s a boy problem, we might not see such a gender imbalance. There’s an old chestnut doing the rounds that ‘While girls will read anything, boys won’t read about girls.’ This isn’t actually backed up by evidence. This very article provides the counter evidence: Apparently boys aren’t reading even though picturebooks are heavily populated with male characters. Meantime, girls get annihilated. Not the answer.
if we want books to appeal to boys as much as girls, shouldn’t the UK’s “most prestigious children’s book awards” reflect male tastes as much as female ones?
There’s a few unspecified assumptions here. First, we’re starting with a gender binary. That is never good. Gender is better thought of as existing on a continuum, with the acknowledgement that differences between individuals are far more significant than generalised differences between different genders. We’re assuming that little boys and little girls are different creatures entirely. Maybe. But how? How are they different, exactly? Tell me how they’re inherently different and then we might be able to make a start on fixing this boy problem. Perhaps my own stance on this is starting to become clear. Write good picturebooks and they will come. Boys AND girls. Be aware of your own gender biases, but write first and foremost for ‘children who live in the same diverse and complicated world’, not for ‘boys’ or for ‘girls’, in order to fix some perceived gender problem. We should no more write for boys/girls than for blacks/whites, aboriginals/immigrants, men/women. It seems ridiculous to say of an adult novel, ‘This is for women aged between 25 and 30’, yet this is what marketers seem to expect of picturebook creators.
men from related professions such as teaching could be included [in the judging panel]
I’m not on board with this at all. Being good at one doesn’t make you good at or knowledgeable about the other. If there are indeed plenty of men in picturebook world itself (as pointed out in the article), recruit them.
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.
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.)
a skeuomorph is 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.
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
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
That’s not to say that there isn’t 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?
Do you have a dream house that exists only inside your head? Perhaps it’s somewhere you hope to build one day, or a mixture of great spaces you’ve been to in your lifetime. If you were asked questions about this dream house, I wonder how specific you could get?
How many bedrooms does it have?
How does one get from one bedroom to another?
Where do the inhabitants keep their clothes?
What would I find in the larder?
Which direction does it face?
If I flew into the air above your dream house, what does the surrounding area look like?
As Gaston Bachelard says, quoting Rilke in The Poetics of Space, those of us who keep dreamt-up houses in our heads haven’t worked out the details. Details such as: How does one get from one room to another without a connected corridor?
[The imagined dream house] is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in The Poetics Of Space
I realised that the house I had imagined inside my head wouldn’t necessarily work. And the architecture of the house is essential to the plot, which is certainly not true of many other picture books.
I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper.
Once I’d sketched a layout of the apartment, illustrations progressed at a faster pace*. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.
(By the way, I decided the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)
*This particular piece of paper also has the honour of helping a super poisonous Australian spider into a glass for deposition at CSIRO, so it’s come in handy indeed.
This picturebook is really charming. Sabrina Malcolm is principally an illustrator, possibly best known to New Zealanders via her collaboration with Melanie Drury on Koro’s Medicine.
De Goldi was drawn to it but at first couldn’t work out why. Then she realised it was probably the slightly retro feel. The illustrations have a palette and design influenced by the 70s. That’s deliberate of course. Even the toys are retro. The pictures are intricate. The MC has red hair of course, like all good heroes and heroines!
This is a very simple, modest, unassuming story with a very alluring opening, echoing people as various as Roald Dahl, but other authors right through storyland history. The story is incredibly compacted.
The text is very beautifully designed throughout, incorporated into the visuals.
The middle page spread is particularly beautiful.
The story is about loneliness and friendship. Shaun Tan explored those same ideas with The Lost Thing (in an entirely different way, of course).
The writing is very economical. The pictures star, but the writing is also very good. There’s a lot of momentum.
This is an adventure a boy has all by himself. The adult caregivers are mentioned but never actually there, so the young readers know the boy has safe harbour.
Blue Moon Bird would be a lovely story to read to an under 5.
Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
Mal Peet is an English author and illustrator best known for young-adult fiction:
Elspeth Graham is Mal Peet’s wife. They have collaborated on two beautiful picturebooks which have been illustrated by some wonderful artists. Elspeth does a lot of work on books for young/learner readers, and does a lot of research for those books. She comes up with an idea that entrances her for one reason or another. For Cloud Tea Monkeys she got very interested in merchants who took long, dangerous journeys to find foodstuffs. She and Mal go for walks. She talks passionately, then he picks up the ball and then writes the story. They didn’t meet the artists at all. These days it’s much more likely that you’ll have had discussion with your artist.
These stories are beautifully written.
The sentences are of varying lengths. The word choice is excellent, and unusually for a picturebook, the colon and semi-colon is used beautifully as well. (It’s a triumph!)
In terms of a story to grip, first of all it paints a place, a child, a culture and then the line, ‘Inside the house, the mother coughed.’ Twice, because this is going to be really important to the story.
The illustrations are by Juan Wijngaard, who is Dutch, born in Argentina, and studied art in Britain but now lives in California. He has also illustrated the work of some brilliant authors such as Jan Mark and William Mayne.
Cloud Tea Monkeys is enchantingly old fashioned (which is by no means a criticism). This is old-fashioned in quite a different way from Sabrina Malcolm’s work — the illustrations in this book are reminiscent of Arabian Nights. There are little line drawings throughout, but they are framed on the opposing side of the text, which is very much like books from the 50s and 60s.
Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
The artwork in Mysterious Traveller is equally beautiful. P.J. Lynch is an Irish artist.
Again, the story is alluring in the Arabian Nights kind of way. A baby is left by travellers who get caught in a sandstorm, found and raised by a man. She eventually becomes his eyes.
Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham wanted to write picturebooks that were longer than usual because they grew sick of having to read nine picturebooks every night before bed. Kim Hill hesitates before calling these picturebooks because the text is so thrilling. [This includes some assumptions about picturebooks!] These fall somewhere between chapterbooks and picturebooks. It probably would take a couple of nights to read a single story.
The words on the tongue are a genuinely sensuous experience.
These are gift books — books that will be read over and over again.
Well done Walker Books for bringing us back to that kind of book, and well done to Mal and Elspeth for insisting on it.
Children’s literature is a place of great experimentation. Like children themselves, it can be hilariously playful and deeply serious. It isn’t content to sit on shelves and behave. It is inquisitive, exploratory – and difficult to categorise.