Skeuomorphism: What is it?

Here’s an infographic.

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

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

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

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

skeumorphic page turn dog ear button

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

Arrow Page Turn Button

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

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

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


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:

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.

The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts

Midnight Feast Breakfast scene

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

It used to be thought that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Now intermittent fasting is on trend, at least for adults.

1848 England

“As for me, I was hungry, and contented myself with silently demolishing the tea, ham, and toast…” wrote Anne Bronte in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848. But the times were already changing. The health of Britons was already being affected by the industrialization of food. Bronte writes several pages later of the vicar, in uncomplimentary terms:

He had a laudable care for his own bodily health — kept very early hours, regularly took a walk before breakfast, was vastly particular about warm and dry clothing, had never been known to preach a sermon without previously swallowing a raw egg — albeit he was gifted with good lungs and a powerful voice, — and was, generally, extremely particular about what he ate and drank, though by no means abstemious, and having a mode of dietary peculiar to himself, — being a great despiser of tea and such slops, and a patron of malt liquors, bacon and eggs, ham, hung beef, and other strong meats, which agreed well enough with his digestive organs, and therefore were maintained by him to be good and wholesome for everybody, and confidently recommended to the most delicate convalescents or dyspeptics, who, if they failed to derive the promised benefit from his prescriptions, were told it was because they had not persevered, and if they complained of inconvenient results therefrom, were assured it was all fancy.

The Edwardian Era In England (1901–1910)

At nine in the morning, servants would be required to do as following:

9 a.m.: The family breakfast is served. While the servants have had porridge or, if they are lucky, bacon and eggs, their employers will be greeted with an array of silver covered dishes with bacon, eggs, kippers, kedgeree, devilled kidneys, freshly baked rolls and fruit.

— from Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

The servants themselves had a less lavish breakfast, but they did often get bacon and eggs if they worked at an opulent house. If they stayed in their working class homes they would’ve been stuck with porridge.

1929 Rural America

In A Long Way From Chicago, two children visit their hillbilly grandmother each summer. There, they eat pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions for breakfast — as much as they like. Then the depression sets in. 

1943 Rural America

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is set during WW2 and is heavily based on stories told to her by her own mother. A breakfast scene shows the exact era in which mothers quit cooking breakfasts for their brood:

“Well, look who’s up,” my mother said as she came in the door, a basket of eggs in her hand. She tied on an apron and said, “Scrambled or fried?”

“I already had cereal.”

1975 (Australia vs America)

Exchange Student is about a 14-year-old Sydney girl who spends a year in Ohio, USA. This observation marks the exact era American breakfast traditions started to be adopted here in Australia:

“My brother will never believe the things they have on this menu,” she said. “He’d go wild over all these pancakes and syrup and the blueberry waffles and things. He’s always complaining about being sick of having eggs and bacon for breakfast.”

— Exchange Student by Estelle Grey

1981 England

From See You Thursday by Jean Ure:

For breakfast there were sausages and tomatoes. Mrs Fenton announced the fact with a brisk: ‘Here we are, then…sausages at twelve o’clock, tomatoes at six.’ Marianne wondered what on earth she was talking about, until slowly it dawned on her that she was describing for Mr Shonfeld’s benefit the postiion of things on the plate. … They never had sausages; not for breakfast. Sausages were supper. She couldn’t eat them at quarter to eight in the morning.

So what did Marianne prefer for breakfast, if not sausages and tomatoes?

To spare Mr Shonfeld’s feelings, she forced herself to eat it. Her mother would only say: ‘What’s the matter with those sausages?’ if she didn’t, and then she would have to say that she didn’t feel like sausages and then Mr Shonfeld might start thinking about bacon and eggs and wondering if it were his fault.

It’s not cereal and toast that Marianne is missing, rather another kind of meat. Later, taking Mr Shonfeld shopping at the supermarket, she recommends eggs, because eggs are nutritious.


What would a modern dietitian think of a breakfast of bacon and eggs? Well, that depends. If you’ve been trained by the government then you’ll be recommending ‘heart healthy whole grains’ for breakfast, along with a small glass of fruit juice and dairy.

But look a bit further and you’ll see a growing number of health professionals — equally well-qualified and equally smart — who are looking at the very latest research in health and nutrition and drawing a very different conclusion. Loren Cordain, Sally Fallon, Dr Mary Enig, Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson, Nora Gedgaudas, Chris Kresser, Chris Masterjohn, Stephanie Ruper and many others are all telling us something quite different about breakfasts:

1. Not everybody needs to eat an early breakfast to maintain good health

2. All meals should include a thumb-sized portion of fat for satiety, with ‘low-fat’ products ideally banished from existence

3. Sugar should be avoided — and not just added sugars, but any processed carbohydrate which breaks down to sugar (glucose) in the body

4. All meals should include vegetables, not just the dinner meal, which is actually in line with the government recommendations (the pyramid and the plate — breakfast doesn’t give you any free pass on the vegetables)

Many think there are problems with this, but the vegetable thing? Everyone agrees on that.

5. Fruit should be eaten in moderation, and if you’re going to juice it, throw away the juice and eat the pulp. There’s nothing you get from fruit that you can’t get from vegetables.

6. Trans fats are terrible for the body.

7. Industrial seed oils (‘vegetable oils’) should be avoided at all costs

8. Animal proteins are superior to plant proteins in every single way

9. Each meal needs to contain some animal protein

10. Fat doesn’t actually make you fat. Nor does it lead to heart disease.

Our great grandparents knew this. (Maybe even your grandparents, depending on your age.) That’s why they ate meat and eggs for breakfast.

Season six of Mad Men is especially interesting because it’s set in that period of American history in which the ad men were charged with the job of persuading the public that margarine is healthier than butter, and that extruded cereals should be taken at breakfast, straight from the supermarket shelves, rather than meat from the local butchery.

Those ad men did a wonderful job on us. Now, even though every bit of good science is telling us to go back to eating the pre-industrial way, our idea of a ‘healthy’ breakfast is so embedded in our culture that it’s almost impossible to think in any other way. It all changed in the 80s.

1988 America

Take this Whitbread award winning passage from 1988:

Every morning, after walking the dog, I wait for the post. Our postman, despite his vigorous life, does not look healthy. His skin is showing signs of trouble within; a tinge has spread over his cheeks, a sort of threadwork of veinous blood vessels, suggesting cardiovascular irregularities. The surface of his skin is being irrigated by diverted blood; that is my diagnosis. I would guess that the beneficial effects of walking miles every day are nullified by his daily breakfast of sausages, egg and bacon. I have seen him with his fellow postmen gathered for these huge breakfasts at Lil’s Cafe, near the Electric Cinema. There’s hardly a person left in the developed world who doesn’t not know that this sort of diet is fatal, yet Cockneys must have it. All Cockneys are unhealthy as a result.

Leading The Cheers by Justin Cartwright

It’s no accident that literary breakfasts parallel exactly the food trends of our society. Equally interesting: breakfasts of toast, margarine and cereal also mark the beginning of the diabetes epidemic. Since fat helps to regulate blood sugar, this is no coincidence.


Have we always eaten these three meals a day? from BBC News Magazine

Do we really need all three? Some people think not.

Breakfast Is A Liar, Might Not Be Most Important Meal Of The Day from Jezebel. The Paleo eating community has been saying this all along, by the way. If you’re a paleo person you eat breakfast when you’re hungry, even if it turns into lunch. You also eat vegetables for breakfast. This might seem totally weird until you realise that even the government issue food plate does include a large portion of vegetables, and nowhere does it say you get a free pass for breakfast time.

 The spread of America’s obesity epidemic in just 14 years from Explore

 Children’s Breakfasts Around The World from The New York Times

I Broke Breakfast, about how Americans eat an unvaried breakfast, from The Atlantic

What It Looks Like In The Beginning

Creativity is messy, and these are reassuring:

Famous Authors’ Handwritten Outlines for Great Works of Literature.

Meanwhile, I took a look at the original concept sketches I drew for a mock up of Midnight Feast. One thing’s clear: I don’t do pretty mock ups. I’m glad I write the stories myself because I wouldn’t want to have to waste time doing pretty mock ups for approval. The advantage of being writer/illustrator in one is that my concept sketches exist only to remind me of my own original idea.

storyboarding IMG_1488 IMG_1489 IMG_1490 IMG_1491 IMG_1492 IMG_1493


Also, I don’t have the messiest workings. This is pretty ugly: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Manuscript for “Ozymiandias”

This is cool: Inside The Sketchbooks Of Famous Artists

And funny: The Original Manuscripts, What Books Look Like Before They Are Sent To The Publisher from Laughing Squid

Gods, Heroes and Ordinary Characters In Children’s Fiction

 The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani


Gods, Heroes, Ordinary Kids


Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible Podcast has an interesting discussion with the author of a biography of Superman. It’s episode 82, here. Like me, Roman Mars finds Spiderman a far more interesting character, but as is pointed out, Superman was never meant to be relatable. Before he was known as ‘Man Of Steel’ he was known as ‘Man of Tomorrow’, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.

This raises an interesting question: Where are we headed? Are humans becoming more kind or more harsh toward others? Steven Pinker thinks we’re getting less violent, for one thing. This is the main argument in his book: The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

Listen to him speak on iTunes U, in a podcast from the School Of Humanities and Sciences from Stanford.


A Psychoanalysis Of Clark Kent (from Emory University on YouTube)

Sinking Into The Creative Mindset

John Cleese On Sinking Into Creative Mode

Cleese is a very good public speaker, and talks about two different mindsets: the ‘closed’ mindset, in which we get day-to-day things done, and ‘open mindset’ in which we need to immerse ourselves if we’re to achieve creative work. According to Cleese, you need space, time (about an hour and a half), confidence and humour.

Things which work against creativity: solemnity, lack of confidence, time pressure. But he does recognise the need for time limits: a creative mindset must have an end point, at which time a decision must be made. But don’t make any decisions before you have to, because the longer you have to mull over a creative problem the more creative you will be. The most creative people are those who are willing to spend the most time getting to the most creative ideas in their brains.

Others have also pointed out that frustration is an essential part of the creative process:

The act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.
– Jonah Lehrer
“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t “try” to do things. You simply ‘must’ do things.”
– Ray Bradbury

Likable Characters In Children’s Literature

The assumption that as readers we necessarily must identify with some character in the story we are reading has been seriously questioned by contemporary literary theory. Children’s writers have successfully subverted identification by creating a variety of repulsive, unpleasant characters with whom no normal human being would want to identify.

– Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

There’s been quite a bit in the press this month about expectations of likability in novels for adults:


Claire Messud to Publishers Weekly: “What kind of question is that?” Do you like Jonathan Franzen’s characters? David Foster Wallace’s? Roth? Then stop asking Claire Messud about hers, from Salon

And I do like the word ‘subversion’ in reference to some of the most popular fiction for children. I had two favourite authors as a child: One was Enid Blyton (for the fantasy) and the other was Roald Dahl. I have to admit, that was probably partly for the subversion of likable characters.

Wicked And Delicious: Devouring Roald Dahl from NPR



Narration and Reading Aloud


Why not a female narrator?

Men’s voices are scarier. At least they are to me. (Unless we’re talking Kathy Bates inMisery.) Since Baby Grand is a suspense thriller, I wanted its telling to be pretty darn creepy. And I got some pretty creepy samples sent to me too. But, keep in mind, I also needed this male voice to be able to carry those chapters in which Jamie was the narrator, so I needed a male voice to have a pleasing quality, with only a hint of creepiness.

Why I picked a male narrator for the ‘Baby Grand’ Audiobook

It would have been nice to have a female narrating Midnight Feast, since it’s a story about a girl, and also because there are too few female narrators to achieve anything like a gender balance, but when I read the post above I realised it’s okay to have reasons for stuff like this.

The nice thing about storyapps is that they are narrated. This makes them good for a wider variety of age groups. Here’s a short article offering 5 ways to use audiobooks to help struggling readers. Naturally, narrated storybook apps are included in that group called ‘audiobooks’.


Reading Aloud


Lake Bell’s ‘In A World…’ Explores Why Women Aren’t Used To Narrate Trailers

Stock Yuck In Picturebooks

peas blending into sweets

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.



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

Another thing I see cropping up time and time again in picturebooks 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.

from Some Things Are Scary
from Some Things Are Scary
from The New Yorker

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 battle 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 dependent.

stock yuck in Japan


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?

Now that our kid is five, she’ll eat vegetables. This was a n=1 experiment, sure, but this worked.

1. We got rid of added sugar in the home, including cereals at breakfast time. Breakfast sets you up for the rest of the day. Eggs, banana, cheese, berries, nuts: that’s what ours has for breakfast. Once you get rid of sugar in the house, vegetables taste a hell of a lot more appealing because the brain changes in response to taste. You’ll have no trouble getting kids to eat the sweet veges like sweet potatoes and carrots and pumpkin. Even the green vegetables taste sweeter once you kick sugar. (By the way, kicking sugar isn’t easy. I recommend reading a book on how to do it first. There are quite a few of them now.)

2. Put butter on them. Grass fed, organic butter — the kind that’s bright yellow by nature. Here in Australia and New Zealand we’re lucky with our excellent dairy products. (Apparently Americans need to keep their eye out for something called Kerrygold.) Kids need saturated fat for their brain development and there’s a reason why butter tastes good. We also sprinkle pine nuts on the vegetables but I don’t know if this actually helps because the kid picks the pine nuts off and eats them separately.

3. Keep dishing up the vegetables. Familiarity breeds contempt but not in the case of vegetables, for some reason. It’s called the ‘Mere Exposure Effect’. Preference for protein tends to be inherited whereas taste for vegetables happens after many introductions.

4. Make sure the father figure eats veges too. I read somewhere that kids look to their dads when deciding what to eat. Completely unfair, since it’s often the mother doing the cooking. I was skeptical of this nugget of research at first, but I’ve since observed it’s probably true. Make the man do the ‘nom nom’ sound while chowing down on a green floret. That’ll make it worth it.

Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt

Vintage produce crate labels are now truly so wonderful as art. Could Not resist this one.....killer vegetables? Love it! cratekiller.jpg

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.


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

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 behavior.

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
The Spinach Is Crying