Picturebook Study: Why the Black and White?

1. THE AIR OF UNCOMPROMISING DETACHMENT

While some picturebooks are in black and white for economic reasons, serious picture-book artists who choose to aavoid color in a medium noted for its use of color often have similar special points to make.

The obvious example is the work of Chris Van Allsburg. The black-and-white pictures in both The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and Jumanji evoke the feeling of black-and-white still photographs that have been slightly over-developed to emphasize their contrasts. They are uncompromisingly objective and detached—unlike the world we see subjectively with our own eyes simply because they are so much like photographs. Paradoxically, we commonly associate black and white with uncompromising truth, utter absence of subjective coloring: documentary. Van Allsburg’s pictures have the quality of documentary, of detached observation that shows exactly what there is to see without the frivolous intrusion of color, and they are unsettling simply because what we see so uncompromisingly is often magic and impossible.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

I look at black and white photography as being more pure. It’s really about the content of the frame and subject matter. Often, colour is just a distraction.

Roger Deakins, cinematographer
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). Roger Deakins won the BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography for this film.

2. BLACK AND WHITE MAKES THINGS LOOK OLD, AND THEREFORE CLASSIC

The technology of photography has influenced picturebooks — and art in general — in a number of different ways.

One standout convention is that greyscale images make the reader think of the days before colour film was invented. This works even if the artwork is an illustration, not a photo. It works if the illustration is not even close to photo-realistic. The effect is made very clear when looking at these old images which have been realistically colorised. The effect is really quite stunning: We’re used to looking at wartime photos in black and white, which lends a comfortable distance to horrific world events. Yet when the same photos are colourised, the events seem much more recent and therefore have more impact.

Abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal. London 1945

The inverse works too. I recently watched The Last Picture Show, which was filmed in 1971 and therefore could have been shot in full colour, but the black and whiteness of it makes the town seem older. The story is set in the 1950s.

And the subtitle of the following article points out the defamiliarizing effect of black and white in photographs:

The Passionate Photo Colorizers Who Are Humanizing the Past: When black-and-white images can be hard to relate to, adding color evokes empathy. (at Atlas Obscura)

What about recently produced films set in the past? Why are more not set in black and white? Possibly it’s because in the digital age of film, cinematographers have ready access to coloured filters. A yellow hue cast over the background can lend an old-style look (as seen in Delicatessen, 1991).

I mention these films for adults because I’m not so sure the bulk of consumers and critics feel that ‘black and white’ is of any artistic use at all, let alone ‘appropriate for children’. Do adult gatekeepers accept the convention of black and white pictures in the stories they choose to buy for children?

Case study: After creating The Fanastic Flying Books Of Morris Lessmore, Moonbot Studios produced an app called The Numberlys, which baffled some reviewers because it was in black and white.

The opening of the app is gripping and quite dark (which makes sense given the inspiration), so it is unlikely to really capture the attention of pre-schoolers (I say this because as you’ll read later I have a hunch they are partly considered a key audience). It is in a black and white, slightly sepia tone and harks back to the type of animation that is aiming to appeal to both adults and children – though here it probably will be of greater interest to children of elementary school age and older.

review of The Numberlys from Wired

I sense the reviewer believes the youngest readers cannot be drawn in to a black and white/dark image. Is this something to do with physiology and the way humans have evolved to learn, or is it because two and three year olds have already learned from the culture that anything in bright colours is more likely to have been produced with them in mind? Perhaps this is what put the reviewer of Mac News World off the scent:

I must admit, I felt a bit duped by the description of the Numberlys app after I bought, downloaded and launched the app. I was expecting something bigger and longer that would appeal more to adults.

Was it the black and white look of the app which lead the reviewer to assume that The Numberlys was intended for an older audience?

Touch Arcade writes:

The story is told through beautiful black and white animated graphics which are clearly inspired by the classic sci-fi film Metropolis, but with a modern touch.

…thereby picking up that the black and white is influenced by work that has come before — in this case, the work of Fritz Lang. Will children appreciate any of this? The example of The Numberlys shows that regardless of what children themselves think, reviewers (and I guess adult consumers) are likely to assume that media produced in black and white will appeal to adult sensibilities. A black and white story for children, therefore, better make sure it lives up to the huge challenge of appealing to a dual audience of children and adults alike.

 3. A BLACK AND WHITE IMAGE TYPICALLY CONVEYS EMOTIONS BETTER THAN A COLOUR ONE

Filmmaker IQ has a post on the reasons why we might still choose to desaturate an image, and this is one of them.

In a portrait with strong lighting, a calm face can suddenly look menacing, or vice versa. In this case, the lack of colour means that colour can’t interfere with the tonal contrast. The best example of this is the entire art noir movement.

Virgil Finlay
Virgil Finlay

Perry Nodelman continues with his example of Chris Van Allsburg, and the contrast one can achieve via black and white:

Furthermore, the heavy contrasts of these pictures emphasize the patterns created by the various shapes and so do the black lines that outline each shape, so that the relationships o these shapes on the flat surface of the page are as significant as the relationships of the figures the shapes represent in the three-dimensional picture space. As a result, and as happens in photographs with high contrast, the often intense action the pictures depict is slowed down, held by the patterns; like still pictures of people caught in moments of fast action, the pictures depends to a great extent on these paradoxical relationships between what is depicted and the photographic techniques used to depict it—between our expectations of documentary truth and our perception of magic, between activity and stopped time.

MODERN ALTERNATIVES TO BLACK AND WHITE IN PICTUREBOOKS

There is nothing wrong with black and white as an artistic decision. But is there a ‘hybrid’ decision that can be made about colour, one which will satisfy the artistic goals of a limited palette as well as consumer expectation that children need colour?

Yellow Filters

In the digital era, illustrators can put a yellow tint on a picture and it immediately looks a bit old, but not too old (in which case black and white is good). I have no idea whether ‘yellow’ meant ‘aged’ before that crappy film did the rounds in the seventies, but there you have it. (See Delicatessen, above.)

It will be interesting to see how further developments in technology influence colour choice in art. With everyone sticking filters on things, the filters themselves are sure to come and go. Perhaps when we look back at the twenty-teens, we’ll see ‘iPhone filter’ stamped all over our family shots. So why do we do this? Perhaps photography got too good. Maybe we like the overexposed look, because one thing black and white early photography was very good at was adding a touch of glamour. And who needs every blemish magnified with a 50 megapixel camera?

Limited Palette

If you want to create a retro-looking illustration, you can also limit your palette to the few colours that were available to printing houses way back when. Many older illustrations are red and black simply because the publishing houses couldn’t afford a wider range.

1928 Willys-Knight | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
1928 Willys-Knight

BLACK AND WHITE FOR TO ALLOW FOR SURPRISES OF ACCENT COLOUR

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The Rainbow by Gary Crew and Gregory Rogers Analysis

Published in 2001 by Lothian Books (an imprint of Hachette Children’s Books specialising in Australian tales), The Rainbow is an adventure story about three boys who find something gruesome in the wild. I was reminded a little of Stand By Me.

rainbow-crew-characters

This story is written from first person point of view, and the reader is therefore encouraged to identify with this voice. This is the voice of a younger brother, who tags along with his older brother and friend. Like the reader, the first-person narrator is an outsider. This makes it easy to identify with him. In the picture above, the narrator is shown trailing behind. The two older boys are together, both physically and emotionally. The younger boy is also a bookish boy, who writes of his love of storytelling. He loves that his teacher reads Robinson Crusoe aloud. This is the sort of character oft picked to be the narrator: Such lovers of everyday beauty are the best characters for picking out details.

The landscape is distinctively Australian, with the ochre pastels depicting local fauna. Pastel is a good choice for depicting characters who stand in for the ‘everyreader’. Pastel does not allow the depiction of fine details, so like the most rudimentary smiley face icon, these featureless faces could be anyone. They could even be you. There is also something eerie about a featureless face, and this book offers eerie in broad, Australian daylight. The strength of pastel as a medium is in its ability to render texture. The texture of the footpath looks beautiful on the page. The picture of a boy’s shadow next to a police officer’s feet also gets around the problem that medium to close up shots would have — the boys’ faces are able to remain indistinct to the reader.

rainbow-crew-pastel

Death is uncomfortably close in this story — the circle of life is explored from the start, when the little brother expresses concern about feeding one little fish to a bigger one. The older boy tells him that this is the law of nature. ‘I don’t suppose you ever eat lamb roast on weekends?’ In this way, child readers are asked to think about their own role in the cycle of life and death.here is the story of a girl’s drowning years before. The illustration to accompany this text on the recto side of the page shows dark corners, shaded from the sun by trees, and dark water holes which remind me of traditional illustrations of Waltzing Matilda. (And we all know how that ended.) Even the father is gone, mentioned in past tense. The ephemeral nature of objects themselves is also part of the story. ‘My drawings for the Audrey were gone, although that was to be expected. Certain things aren’t made to last.’

There is big talk of the kind frequently seen in storybooks — the bigger boys tell the younger, more gullible boy made up tales about things they have seen floating down the river, including a hand waving from a caravan. The younger boy says it was probably The Queen, lending a little bit of humour, and this almost always has the effect of making a dark tale darker.

And then all three boys get spooked after happening upon bones. The carcass looks ominously human. After alerting an uninterested policeman, they learn that these are dog bones. Although there is no human death in the world of this story, it is just distant enough to be a menace. In many stories for children, dogs are as human as the characters, so although the death is brushed off by the adult, the death of a dog is significant for a child. It is a death all the same.

There is another small death, of sorts, at the end of the book when the younger boy sits by a window. Geoffrey and Bruce are no longer interested in playing with him much at the creek — they only go down to the creek if they can take girls. This is the death of childhood, seen first in the older boys, but which is inevitably coming for the younger one too.

What about the crystal, found when the narrator went back to the creek to look for his mother’s lost hammer? The crystal makes a rainbow across his page, like the one he saw right before they found the dog bones.

Rainbows can symbolise many things of course, but in The Rainbow I think that the intermittent appearance of rainbows symbolise those flashes and memories of childhood we get, even after the mystery and childlike wonder of the world has dissipated. Like the character in Chris Allburgh’s The Polar Express, this child narrator grows up, but manages to cling onto some of the beauty of boyhood.

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Norton’s Hut by John Marsden Picture Book Analysis

Norton's Hut John Marsden

Norton’s Hut is an out-of-print Australian picture book, the second picture book written by John Marsden, and illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe.

The following notes are from Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 04: Author and Illustrator Devices presented by David Beagley, La Trobe University, podcast available on iTunes U.

PARATEXT

When a young group of hikers gets lost in a blinding snow storm they find shelter in an abandoned hut. Inside the hut they find a man who ignores them and by morning has disappeared. After they are rescued, they question whether the strange events really occurred.

The cover of Norton’s Hut depicts a lonely, tiny hut. The weather contrasts with the window light. We know what time of day it is by the light in the sky. Gouldthorpe illustrates in a photorealistic way.  Illustrator Gouldthorpe is from Tasmania, though this book is not set in Tasmania. The cover gives clues, but whether the clues are accurate, we’ll have to read the book to see. Covers can be red herrings.

What Is A Red Herring?

Red herrings are false leads intended to keep the sleuth and the reader guessing, or send them off-course, making the big reveal more surprising.

This is a technique required in mysteries of all kinds.

PERITEXT

The peritext can also contain specific elements to place the story. In picture books we often need the peritext because there’s nothing in the story to tell us, for example, that it is set in a concentration camp. Title pages are a part of the story itself.

The end papers in Norton’s Hut are a black and white depiction of a snow landscape.

COMPOSITION

On page one we see someone tramping. The point of view positions the reader as if we are walking behind; we are one of them. “We caught our first glimpse of the hut late afternoon…” There are two pictures, one laid over top of the other. This is a montage effect often seen with photographs. You stick a lot of photos together to get a full panorama.

This is for two slightly different effects: First it’s time-lapsed. It’s also to position you in relation to the characters. You’ve looking down on them. The reader gets the idea of the passing of time, the difficulty. The reader is encouraged to pass judgement about the characters.

THE BIRD

The bird is a crow or a raven, often used in literature, particularly old literature going back centuries, as a symbol of death, more specifically of big strugglefields. Why not a rosella or an orange belly parrot? The beautiful birds that we have through those eastern ranges of Victoria are not in the picture. The crow looks down on the group. This is particular use of form and structure and symbolism, where the picture gives suggestions. This point of view gives an idea of the vastness of the landscape, and the loneliness of the group.

ANGLES

The girl indicates something to the group and the reader is encouraged to turn the page. Now it changes hugely. A couple of things are emphasised. We continue this photo sequence as if it’s been put in a scrapbook. Wide angle shot, middle distance, close up. It’s now stormy. Was the girl pointing at the hut, at the sky, at the map? “Beyond the distant governors the clouds churned…” The words create an emotional/visual effect of storming and froth on the water. Overlapping of the pictures indicate sequence of action: things are moving quicker. Now they’re going down the hill. But they’re also disappearing. There’s an urgency to quick, catch up to them!

FRAMING

The next page is a good example of framing: Pointing out the thing that matters by having everything else around it focused on it. On the first (title?) page it is clearly the window with the light.

LANGUAGE

Next we go inside the hut. “We knocked and opened…” This sentence makes good use of commas, inserting hesitancy.

The sentence with commas is followed by a tumbling type of long sentence.

LIGHTING

This page makes use of lighting effect. Inside is the fire, to illuminate characters. We get side-lighting, looking down at them from the ceiling and up at them from the floor and how they’re silhouetted by the light. When we can’t see the face of the character (due to lighting) this seems ominous. The words and pictures work together to change the pace and emotions of the characters.

CONTRAST

There is contrast in the words and contrast in the pictures. This is trying to make us think of something in particular. With half a face, just a nose and a cheek, this is all we’re going to see of this character’s face. We get the full face shots of the hikers, but this is all we see of him. Framing around the fireplace.

Outside, mist and cold and cloud flooded over the peak.

But the words explain that inside, they’re warm. So there’s contrast between inside and outside. The words carry more than just their dictionary meaning: Poetic devices: alliteration and other repetition of sound, repetition by use of similar meaning words, words with onomatopoeic resonance, metaphor “the terror of gust”, “snow stung at the door”.

CINEMA

The pictures get more claustrophobic: inside sleeping bags, inside the hut, enclosed by the white frame.

The illustrations reflect the influence of cinema. Closer and closer and closer views. Individual close ups of characters. The slow, wide-angle pan. This story uses a lot of cinema technique.

In the morning the man had gone, but we…stayed three days trapped inside the hut.

What’s the mystery? Again time lapse photography is used to depict the passing of time. There is a series of photos again showing the lapse of time. They’re looking out the window, and they’ve found things to do: Braiding hair, looking out the window, brushing teeth. We also have the idea of scrapbooking and diaries.

The red herring: There are clues in each picture to the resolution of the story. You only see them when you go back from the end of the story and realise what those clues are. Some are red-herrings and some scream out, ‘This is what the story’s about.’ But the reader doesn’t know on first reading. This is an example of delayed decoding in picture books.

CIRCULAR ENDING

The final image reflects the first: We’ve returned to the sweeping vista — freedom at last. There’s been a change in colour from the yellows and browns to the sky-blues. There’s been a change in tension — a release after the storm. Continuing the release of tension, the characters do a lot of hiking — a lot more action. Again there is the time-lapse technique, and a POV which puts the reader in relation to the characters again.

But looking back, the characters can’t find the hut. The reader’s eye is drawn to where the hut ought to be, with the characters gazing. There’s even a little photo superimposed over the top of it — a telescope view, pulling it out from where it is in the scene to highlight that bit.

We camped that night by clinker’s cold lake…

This story is open-ended, no resolution, yet you’re given a resolution. Red herrings: ‘Christmas 1955’. The shadow puppetry that they’re doing — a wolf. The little match game could almost be a swastika. (But neither of these last two things have anything to do with the story.)

READERS AND THE WORK OF READING

The reader contributes as much to the story as the illustrator and writer. The story that you enjoy may not necessarily be the same story that other people are getting. Don’t ever assume there is only one story in any given book. There are as many stories as there are people to read it.

PHOTOREALISM

Authors and illustrators make very deliberate choices. Would this story have worked if Gouldthorpe had used cartoon/comic characters, or little animals rather than humans? Probably not as well. The photorealism allows the reader to place ourselves in this situation.

DON’T STOP READING THE PICTURES

Picture books for older readers such as this one include intertextuality (cinema references) and explores sophisticated emotion. When reading a picture book, read the whole book. Don’t just read the words. As readers grow older it is presumed that words become more dominant than pictures. As we get older we want more from our books. We find them in words, but also in pictures.

Picturebooks For Older Readers

Children’s literature continues to evolve as society evolves alongside our concept of ‘child’.

A Brief History Of Teenagers

The teenager is an idea from the 1950s. Before that you were a child, and then you were an adult. The transition was recognised earlier than the 1950s, but before the 1950s teenagers were not treated as a separate category. TV helped to bring about this change. Audiences were required to become far more visually literate, and did so. This challenged accepted wisdom that only young children enjoy and require visuals in their storytelling.

The Deficit Model Of Teenagers

Teenagers are largely defined by what they’re not, rather than what they are. Yet teenagers are required to behave differently from children. They have neither the rights and luxuries of childhood nor all the responsibilities and rights of adulthood.

Tweens

Marketers continue to carve the population up as finely as possible in order to target their campaigns and sell more products. So today adolescents have their own label. The concept of tween came about only to exploit a particular social market. This is a marketing construct rather than a separate developmental stage.

Each form of storytelling has its own visual vocabulary. There is a very specific vocabulary in Japanese manga, for example.

The Medium Is The Massage

The medium is the massage (not message) — the medium ‘massages’ us towards new messages.

The Influence Of Children’s Book Awards

In the world of literature, the Children’s Book Council Of Australia (CBCA) and the awards they give out are a good way of seeing how children’s literature has changed in Australia. CBCA awards started in 1946. (Here is a PDF of all the winners since then.)

The CBCA distinguishes between novels and picture books. This mirrors what happens in the big awards overseas. Children’s book awards work on the assumption that picturebooks are for young readers and novels are for older readers.

It was only later that readers around years 3 and 4 began to be catered for separately. This age group is not quite ready for the full teenage novel, so there is now a category of novel for young readers and these are called chapter books.

In 1993 the CBCA started a children’s literature award for non-fiction. A lot of these look like picturebooks, especially those which teach history etc.

Around the turn of the 21st century, the CBCA created an award for the ‘early childhood’ book. The CBCA were rethinking the assumption that picturebooks are always for early readers. There are now three age categories. On top of that, picturebooks are divided by genres. A picturebook could hypothetically win various awards, not just a ‘picturebook’ award.

Separately, each Australian state has a children’s choice award, in which children select and vote for the books.

Anstey and Bull say that reading is an intellectual activity. Reading requires you to interpret codes that an author/illustrator have used to construct their communication. The reader interprets. This interpretation may be as simple as recognising the pattern of letters that make a word, scaled up to interpreting a sentence, then the pictures (bright/dark etc.). Interpretation can also require higher level reading skills: Is there a meaning behind the sequence of pictures across an entire book? This requires readers to understand visual motifs. An example of this kind of reading: Noticing and talking about variations in size across Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Modern teenage readers are highly visually literate. Books for this age group must make use of visual vocabulary. Naturally, 15-year-olds don’t want to read Rosie’s Walk. They want something more complicated and they don’t want it in the form of a picturebook for young readers. Picturebooks for older readers are therefore quite different in nature, even when they come in picturebook format.

Features of Picturebooks For Older Readers

Stories come in various plot shapes. The most basic plot shape is linear. Stories for young readers are also often circular, but stories for older readers can work on several different diegetic levels, they can contain more than one plot (subplots), and can work with callback humour from other stories. The story may be branching in shape.

Stories for older readers leave more space for reader interpretation and extrapolation. Or there might be several different main characters, switching point of view.

The content and themes are different. Picturebooks for young readers often include: animals, bedtime, bathtime.

Picturebooks for older readers might be about homelessness, death, injustice and focus on social issues outside the safety of home.

Fictional characters need to exist at all points on the morality spectrum in order to allow expression of difficult themes.

Older readers have more experience both of life and of reading — they know there are bad people and good people and people in between. They understand some politics.

The key difference: Older readers do not passively receive a message. Older readers must become active in the interpretation of a text. This process is known as interanimation.

Examples Of Crossover Texts

The word ‘crossover’ text is sometimes given to books which appear to be one thing (e.g. a picturebook for young readers) but which actually function as something different.

THE LOST THING

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is the classic Australian crossover text. Unlike some of Tan’s other work, which can be photorealistic, the illustrative style is caricatured. The boy’s head is not a normal human shape. This may say something about him in relation to other people. He looks different because he feels different.

THE DROVER’S BOY

The Drover’s Boy is a story in picturebook format by Ted Egan (an ‘Australian bush legend’), illustrated by Robert Ingpen. This is a story about drovers in the early days of European settlement.

It’s about death. Someone is killed on the first page. The main character moves on — they have to get a mob of cattle somewhere. But the main character cries, and men aren’t supposed to do this. The story has a song rhythm — not sung with a melody, more chanted. Ted Egan doesn’t play instruments (only a cardboard box) and he drums a rhythm on it as he chants. The illustrations look like old photographs which have been placed into an old album.

Robert Ingpen has a bigger reputation overseas than here in Australia. This story is historical and reflective.

THE RABBITS BY JOHN MARSDEN AND SHAUN TAN

The Rabbits, written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan is about the colonisation of a country. You can read it as Australian. There is nothing that specifies Australia, though there are some strong correlations in the uniforms and flags that they use. There is one phrase which will be picked up as familiar in Australia. ‘…stole our children’. Illustrations feature straight lines and stiff collars, in contrast to the fluffy creatures in other picturebook format stories.

WOLVS IN THE SITEE

Wolvs in the Sitee is written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas.

Wild has has in more recent years been making stories for older readers. The spelling of the title invites you to make judgements about the boy. Clearly he’s frightened. There’s something about to happen. Wolves are coming. What are these wolves? The layout is very interesting, and the palette comprises very dark in browns and blacks. But these are not hard lines, in contrast to The Rabbits. It’s charcoal and slightly smudged. You can’t quite make out what’s written inside the pictures.

Roberto Innocenti is not an Australian author. He took a famous photo and people knew this photo long before Innocenti used it as a picture in one of his picturebooks. There are other pictures throughout which have more meaning if you have a historical understanding. Rose Blanche — if you know German history you’ll get the references of Rose Blanche. This is a good example of ‘quoting in an illustration’. This is a technique used by illustrators, but only older readers can interpret meaning.

Books are not always explicitly pedagogical.

What does pedagogical mean?

Pedagogical means there is a direct, specific, teaching intention.) Who Sank The Boat? makes you think a bit about addition.

Can’t You Sleep Little Bear? has the direct intention of getting the child ready for bed and understanding about the dark.

Texts for older readers may well have a pedagogical function, but there may be layers of meaning or multiple possibilities. There may even be contradictions. The purpose may be purely aesthetic – designed to be enjoyed as a piece of art.

CHARACTERS

The characters in picturebooks for older readers may be adults, not necessarily children.

SETTINGS

The settings may be a different time or a different place, and tend to be much more grounded in reality, though not the familiar reality of the reader.

ENDINGS

Storylines may not tidy up loose ends of the plot. They may end as lyrical short stories often end, leaving the reader to infer or create what happens next, perhaps after receiving clues from the symbolism, motifs and other non-plot related aspects.

The older readership still requires scaffolding (background information). It’s not assumed the reader knows everything about a topic. These stories present information, offering new, shocking, surprising, different ways of looking at it. Equity issues are common. Stories frequently explore the grey area between right and wrong.

REFERENCES

Anstey, M and Bull, G. (2000) Reading the Visual: Written and illustrated children’s literature. Sydney, Harcourt

David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture “Picturebooks For Older Readers”.

Who does the nurturing work in children’s books?

French Interior c.1907 Harold Gilman 1876-1919

“Mothers in the books were more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behaviour, including verbal and physical expressions of love, encouraging, praising and listening,” the researchers write. Similarly, mothers outperformed fathers on every care-giving behaviour.

Gender stereotypes plague children’s picture books, from Salon

Mothers often appear at the beginnings of hero tales. They preside over the home which the hero leaves when he sets out on his quest, remaining there when he has gone. Sometimes they reappear at the end of the story to welcome him home. These mothers are invariably good, nurturing, sometimes almost saintly. They are the presiding spirits of the domestic sphere…The stereotype of the gentle mother content with her role in the home is, of course, not restricted to hero tales. It is widespread in advertising and it abounds in children’s literature of all kinds, functioning as a powerful tool of social conditioning. In 1992 a random selection of 282 children’s picture books published since 1970 revealed that 62 per cent of the mothers in these books were depicted in a purely homemaking role, with another 29 per cent in an indeterminate role. Only 9 per cent were shown in professional or professional/home-making roles, despite the fact that 1986 Bureau of Statistics figures showed that almost half the married mothers in Australia were employed. Interestingly, 36 percent of the home-making woemn in these books were depicted wearing aprons. Earlier studies had shown this badge of domestic servitude to be rampant in children’s picture books and while this study revealed some lessening of the phenomenon it was still quietly flourishing.

Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan, referencing The image of mothers in contemporary children’s picture books by Gillian Tunstall

I was called a misogynist because I was reducing women to mothers. ‘Reducing women to mothers’ — now there is possibly the most anti-women statement I’ve heard.

Steven Moffat

This is not surprising when the general message is still that parenting is for women. Even large media outlets such as CNN are busting out with headlines such as The 7 kids’ health myths every mom should ignorewhich manages to ignore theh fact that dads might also need to ignore health myths, because dads are parents too. Salon has been interested in this issue for a while now, and also published a piece called: The Times thinks dads are just baby sitters. A flipside of this attitude is that women and men feel as though they are judged differently on their parenting skills: You know there’s still a double-standard for fathers and mothers when a man who can change a diaper is hailed as a hero from The Guardian. Australia is currently talking a lot about parenting in the lead up to the election, but it’s being framed as a women’s issue. Apparently French fathers don’t change nappies.

The links could go on and on.

Back to picture books, I was already aware of these issues when I wrote and illustrated Midnight Feast, and it was a deliberate decision to have Roya and Afya’s father involved in the bedtime routine. As the evening of the Midnight Feast progresses, it was a deliberate decision on my part to have the mother step down. While the father suggests party games, the mother reads her own book and talks on the phone. I ended up mindful of the fact that as the mother, this character would be judged more harshly unless she reappeared at bedtime the following night, saying ‘Goodnight’ alongside the father.

I still look at Midnight Feast and see a gendered society in action: It is the father who asks the mother about food, assuming that women are responsible for the household catering. In the morning, it is the father who is dressed in a dress-shirt and tie, presumably off to a middle-class job.

I considered reversing that, too. And now I’d like to explain why I didn’t: Because in the limited space of a picturebook, illustrators need to rely on certain stereotypes, or risk confusing the reader. The father’s necktie is designed to represent middle-class employment. This is important to the storyline because the message is that hunger may eventually affect even the middle classes of rich countries. Sometimes women wear uniforms to work — there’s no doubt I could have had the mother hungry, asking the father for food. I could have had the mother dressed in a work uniform with the father making the sandwiches for his daughters. And I’m looking forward to the day when I can do this without even thinking of it as a transgressive act against gender norms.

Small steps in the transgressive direction. I think we should all aim for that.

Related: Does Biology Determine Gender Roles? New Study Says It’s a Numbers Game from Dads and Families

Header painting: French Interior c.1907 Harold Gilman 1876-1919

Given the substantial impact of feminism on children’s literature and culture during the last quarter century, it comes as no surprise that gender studies have focused predominantly on issues of female representation. The question of how the same patriarchal ideology structured representations of male bodies and behaviors was until very recently a marginal discussion. Now that masculinity has emerges as an overt theme in children¿s literature and film, critical consideration of the subject is timely, if not long overdue Ways of Being Male addresses this new concern in an unprecedented collection of essays examining how contemporary debates about masculinity are reflected in fiction and film for young adults. An outstanding team of scholars elucidates the ways in which different versions of male identity are constructed and presented to young audiences. The contributors, drawn from a variety of academic disciplines, employ international discourses in literary criticism, feminism, social sciences, film theory, psychoanalytic criticism, and queer theory in their wide-ranging exploration of male representation. With its illuminating array of perspectives, this pioneering survey brings a long neglected subject into sharp focus.

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Skeuomorphism In Picture Books

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

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

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

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

Here’s a pretty cool skeumorphic page turn.

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

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

Skeumorphic page turn dog ear button

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

Arrow Page Turn Button
Arrow Page Turn Button

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

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

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What makes a picturebook re-readable?

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

Mo Willems

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

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

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

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

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

1. Great Use Of Language

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

2. Layers Of Meaning

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

3. Personal Connection

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

4. A Circular Story Structure

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

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Stock Yuck In Picturebooks

Charles Spencelayh - Helping Mother 1899

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

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

ALICE THE FAIRY BY DAVID SHANNON

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

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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

peas blending into sweets

POOKIE BY IVY WALLACE (1946)


Never underestimate what kids learn from picture books. Trouble is, it’s not always what you want them to learn. Would kids even know the concept of monsters if they weren’t exposed to monsters in picture books; in picture books which are designed, no less, to teach kids not to be afraid of monsters? I have no idea.

Food is especially well-suited to the disgust reaction.

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

Another thing I see cropping up time and time again in picture books are green vegetables as a stock example of ‘yucky stuff’. TV Tropes calls this ‘stock yuck’: Broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage. It’s not limited to food, but when it’s already a challenge getting kids to eat their greens, I groan when I come across brassicas as stock yuck in books for kids.

As TV tropes points out, there’s an evolutionary reason for a childhood aversion to green vegetables:

They actually taste different to children, and generally, they taste worse. Children are more receptive to bitter compounds in foods than adults (likely an evolutionary measure to prevent us from dying of plant poisoning while young), and tend to be put off by the bitter taste.

And from Slate:

How did broccoli become the poster child of the good-for-you yet ostensibly bad-tasting vegetable? Why didn’t Jeffrey seize on spinach, or Brussels sprouts, or peas as an example of produce that liberty-loving Americans would hate to be forced to buy?

Thing is, I’m not convinced that picturebooks can fight this particular big struggle with overt healthy eating messages. (Picturebooks with overt anything messages aren’t generally very pleasant to read, IMO.) Here are my pretty simple criteria when choosing picturebooks for our own daughter:

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

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

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

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

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

GETTING KIDS TO EAT VEGETABLES

When the three year old announced, ‘I don’t like green food’, it was as if she’d been reading some research about the taste preferences of toddlers. I tried to get more good food into her, struggled, struggled. Here are some interesting links I came across in my travels.

  1. A recipe which claims to include Vegetables Your Kids Will Eat from Extraordinary Mommy. I have yet to try it out.
  2. Kids Choose to Eat Vegetables If Their Plates Have Pictures of Vegetables Printed on Them, from Bon Appetit. The best place to find these, by the way, are in those cheap stores in malls which import a whole bunch of cheap crockery from Asia. I suspect Asian parents don’t have quite as much trouble getting their kids to eat their vegetables. I have a set of soup spoons with eggplants and celery people on them. They’re very cute. Everything I find in a typically Western store has cupcakes.
  3. Visual Cues Encourage Vegetable Consumption from Scientific American
  4. Esquire, though for men and not kids, has an article called A Foolproof Way to Make Any Vegetable Taste Good. It includes a bunch of fancy ingredients but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the butter.
  5. From Babble: Mom, May I Have More Spinach?
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.

FURTHER READING

Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

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

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

PINKWASHING

Have you heard of pinkwashing?

Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is a theme in our house, so I hastily add a line in which McGonagall gives Harry a paper to write on the importance of following instructions. Then I underscore the responsibility of being on a team, so that getting to be seeker doesn’t seem entirely like a reward for bad behaviour.

I do this sort of on-the-fly editing all the time when reading to my 5-year-old. I call it “pinkwashing” after the scene in “Pinkalicious” in which the poor, discolored child must stomach horrible green vegetables as a cure for her unfortunate pinkness. She chokes down artichokes, gags on grapes and burps up brussels sprouts. The passage serves important narrative and stylistic functions, of course, but Emmett loves artichokes, grapes and brussels sprouts. He never complains about eating them, so rather than hint at a generation-long struggle against the tyranny of green veggies, I replace the negative verbs with positive ones. Pinkwashing.

Child Proofing Harry Potter

…the ad team visited an elementary school in Boulder, Colo., to get a better sense of what children thought about broccoli. This was a progressive school, certainly as far as food was concerned. The school district’s director of food services, Ann Cooper, was imported from Berkeley, Calif., where she once worked with Alice Waters; on the school’s grounds there was a garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown, to inspire the students to be connected to the source of their food. The team was encouraged when it heard that the students had generally positive feelings — until Cooper reminded them that children were only one part of the challenge and that the parents who actually bought the groceries were, by and large, part of a generation that viewed broccoli as “brown, squishy and smelly.”

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

Header illustration: Charles Spencelayh – Helping Mother 1899

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Nudity In Picturebooks

Sam The Eagle On Nudity
Sam The Eagle On Nudity

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 picture books, 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 picture book since. Maybe illustrated eBooks and self-publishing will offer writers opportunities to push the boundaries a little more?

I recently saw a picture from a fellow app 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.

MORE ON CENSORSHIP IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books At Misrule

On censorship

Below are some notes from an interview between Australian author Sally Rippin and Kim Hill (Saturday Morning With Kim Hill, Radio New Zealand)

Examples of things which have been taken out of children’s books before publication:

  • children from walking alone (because guardians are legally obliged to accompany children)
  • sharp objects (because children shouldn’t be given sharp objects)
  • a boy climbing a ladder (so as not to encourage the climbing of ladders)
  • ‘Crossover’ fiction gets away with more compared to books marketed as ‘young adult’.
  • Gatekeepers are parents, teachers, librarians. There is a certain amount of self-censorship when writers write.
  • There is pressure on illustrators to create racially ambiguous characters rather than specific to one culture.

Sort of kind of related and also interesting: a post on female sexuality as depicted in young adult fiction, at YA Highway.

The most challenged books of 2012, and why from Book Riot

THE NAKED APPLE

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.

Are Comics Too Hot For Apple?

You may think that creators of picture books for the iPad have less to worry about, but in fact the innocent nudity of bath time 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 picture books.

The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith is one example.

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 bath time 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 picture books 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 picture books, 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.
Rudyard Kipling - The Jungle Book Illustrator Gennady Kuznetsov
Rudyard Kipling – The Jungle Book Illustrator Gennady Kuznetsov
‘Songs for little people’ by Norman Gale; illustrated by Helen Stratton
‘Songs for little people’ by Norman Gale; illustrated by Helen Stratton. The fairies in the bottom border are without clothes.
Gumnut Babies by May Gibbs
Gumnut Babies by May Gibbs

RELATED

In The Buff from The Smart Set

iBooks and their covers are also subject to Apple’s business decisions. Apple refuses to allow female nipples on the cover of La Femme.

Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Because so much religious energy is devoted to controlling sexual behaviour, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened, we have the spectacle of righteous people writing letters of complaint about televised nudity, while from the factory next door tons of armaments are exported to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war.

A.C. Grayling, The Meaning Of Things

Dicks, Tits and Clits: What Would Equal-Opportunity On-Screen Nudity Look Like? from Jezebel

Why Are There So Few Dongs On TV? from Clementine Ford

The Social and Legal Arguments for Allowing Women to Go Topless in Public from The Atlantic

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Touch Interactivity And Animation In Storybook Apps

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

a commenter on the Guardian article: Alarm Bells and Whistles

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

What is skeuomorphism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving The Story Forward

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

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

The Various Purposes Of Touch Interactivity

1. Educational

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Research: Most apps bad

2. Novelty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Animation

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

The Death Of Photograph Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

3.1 Animation That Matches The Text Exactly

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

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

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

3.2 Animation To Advance The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Pure Animation

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

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

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

6. Extra-textual Interactivity

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

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

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

6. Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

7. Non-story Related Activities

“BY ITS VERY NATURE THERE CANNOT BE A PLOT IN A GAME.”

 Lucas and Spielberg on storytelling in games at The Verge

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

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