Things To Know About Miyazaki Films

Hayao Miyzaki Howl's Moving Castle


A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

It comes from the famous director Yasujiro Ozu and is common in Japanese cinema. Why are they called pillow shots? It’s the cinematic equivalent of ‘pillow words’ used in Japanese poetry. A pillow word represents a sort of musical beat between what went before and what comes after. It functions as a kind of punctuation, signalling the end of something and a transition to something else.

Similarly, silence plays an important part in Japanese films, and Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t subscribe to the Dreamworks school of thought, in which kids need action from the get-go.

Although it looks as if nothing is happening in some of Miyzaki’s pillow shots, Japanese animators are more likely to use dynamic backgrounds and Western animators to use static ones. For instance, something in the Japanese background will be in motion and change. Even when there’s action going on in the foreground, Miyazaki will quite likely have something going on in the background. Continue reading “Things To Know About Miyazaki Films”

The Best Quiet Children’s Films

By ‘quiet’ I mean the anti-Dreamworks of yak-yak that drives you crazy when you’re listening to it in the background. These films will help a child to feel calm rather than revved up, especially if viewed without fizzy drink and choc-tops.

These quiet movies are set close to nature, feature classical soundtracks relatively little (if any) dialogue. (For some reason the mother is usually absent.)

Please bear in mind that by ‘quiet’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘appropriate for all kids all of the time’. Quite the reverse. Some of these quiet films are confronting, because when something horrible does happen in a quiet film, it feels all the worse for being isolated from all that babble. That said, my 8-year-old daughter has seen all of them numerous times, and she saw some of them when she was quite young. She tends to absorb story to the extent to which she can understand.

Some of these stories are not for children specifically.

Notice these quiet but often disturbing films are not coming out of America? For a fulsome list we must leave Hollywood.


1. THE BEAR (1988)



My father took me to see this in the cinema when I was ten. It’s still great. Like many classic stories for children, the mother dies. But the mother bear dies on screen, so it’s not like Cinderella or something like that, in which we never even mourn for the dead mother. The other note about this: There is a bear mating scene. I remember asking my dad in the theatre what they were doing. “They’re mating,” he whispered. I still didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew enough not to enquire further right there and then!

It’s essentially a father/son story. It’s actually pretty unrealistic if you know the real truth about male grizzlies, who are in reality inclined to eat their sons. So in fact this is an anthropomorphised story which glamorizes fatherhood after getting rid of the pesky mother (a story we see all to often, even in modern films).

For some reason I still love it.

Young viewers may need to be reassured that no animals were harmed in the making of the film.

Fly Away Home also has a shock opening and follows with a quiet story, but I can’t really recommend it here. My kid finds that one not only quiet but boring.



There’s no talking in this — the sound effects can sometimes be a bit noisy, because the insect world is depicted using human traffic sound effects, but overall this is a great before bed movie and I can’t think of any particularly disturbing scenes. It’s the safest of the films listed here. You’ll even empathise with a spider.



There’s very little talking in this, which is good, because if you’re watching in English you can see they’ve dubbed it pretty badly! (It doesn’t matter.) This appears to be a calm, nature-loving story — until the battle sequence. My eight-year-old fox loving kid burst into tears. But then it gets better… I feel it’s a shame they did this.

Spoiler alert:

[The fox appears to be dead but then it’s not really.]

The moral of the story is that you can’t tame a wild animal. You have to appreciate nature for what it is without anthropomorphizing.



I could list a bunch of Studio Ghibli films here.

In My Neighbour Totoro, we again have an absent mother (sick in hospital), and a story that glorifies the relationship between a father and his two little girls, who move to the country to be near the mother as she convalesces. They enter a spiritual world which feels very Japanese but is wholly imaginative, and meet some cuddly creatures.

This appeals to the younger set, even preschoolers. Another in the same vain is Ponyo. I write in detail about that film here. The mother isn’t entirely absent in that one — the father is.



This is one of the Ghibli films for an older audience (compared to Totoro and Ponyo). The scene where the parents are turned into pigs is confronting for a little kid. But overall the pacing is slow and dreamlike. The parents eventually reunite, after Chihiro learns to work hard. (I thought this was a peculiarly Japanese characteristic of story until I read Brian Selznick’s Hugo Cabret!)

I won’t list all of the Ghibli movies — all of them are on the quiet side. Their latest film (2016) is The Red Turtletheir first non-Japanese production (though not the first non-Japanese adaptation).



This historical story is the first live action on the list. Of course, the movie poster features the face of a white dude, rather than the Australian Aboriginal children it actually stars. This isn’t specifically a children’s film.

7. MARY AND MAX (2009)


Another fine Australian film, claymation, so appealing to kids but really it’s not specifically for kids. It mixes real life scenery with animation (claymation), similar to the Minuscule movies.

It’s said this movie is not for kids. I think this needs saying because we expect claymation to be only for kids. I say it’s a movie for everyone.



While we’re on the topic of neurodifference, I totally recommend this biopic of the world’s most well-known autistic woman.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Clare Danes as an actor — I felt she touched her hair too much in Homeland — but after watching her play Temple Grandin, I have a renewed respect for her breadth.

Children with sensory processing issues will identify with Grandin. (And may be the reason you were looking for a list of ‘quiet’ children’s movies in the first place.)



Perhaps not what you’d recommend for a kid? It’s true that not all stories about children are for children, and this is a film for adults, based on a short story for adults. Nevertheless, my daughter loved it.

Since it’s about a girl watching on as her parents go through a divorce, I’d not recommend it to a child in the middle of similar trauma themselves.

The entire film rests on the acting abilities of the child actor, who does an amazing job.



Speaking of the wonderful Julieanne Moore…

This is the least ‘quiet’ of all the films above, because it centres on the life of a big family, told from the perspective of a mother’s grown-up daughter. It’s based on the daughter’s memoir. I’d like to include it in this list to bolster the number of mothers. Overall it’s a feelgood film, though the scenes with the moody father might be a bit confronting.

11. WAITRESS (2007)


I’ve written about that film here. After watching this my daughter started an imaginary game of cafes, wearing an apron, writing menus and making food out of plasticine.

It will require prior knowledge of, or a discussion about, babies and where they come from, and how women sometimes end up with babies they didn’t plan, and have to make the decision about whether or not to keep them. This is something which can prey upon young girls’ minds anyway, so I feel such a discussion is never a bad thing. Overall, the message is conservative. The waitress ends up with a daughter, played by the writer/director’s real life daughter. The writer/director was subsequently murdered in real life by a man, but no need to mention that to your kid.

As I keep coming back to, real life is way worse than fiction. Might as well scaffold real life with slightly confronting fiction.



Pixar vs. DreamWorks

Compared to many people I am no great fan of Pixar, partly because of their continued use of The Female Maturity Principle of Storytelling, partly because I think their films a bit more hit and miss than many critics will admit. But I will say this about Pixar:  in comparison to Dreamworks they’re awesome.

IMDb has ranked the Dreamworks films from best to worst. Can you guess what comes at the top of the list? And at the bottom?

And here are the Pixar films from best to worst.

Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Tips

You’ve probably seen Pixar’s 22 Tips on Storytelling because it’s done the rounds, but in case you have not here they are. I’m doing something a little different with it — I’ve divided the tips into ‘tips for the writing process itself’ and ‘storycraft tips’.


  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. [This is just a little simplistic. See How To Structure Any Story for more on this.]
  3. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. [If you’re trying to simplify your cast, take a look at John Truby’s concept of ‘character web’.]
  4. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? [This is them basically telling writers to give main characters moral weaknesses, psychological weaknesses, ghosts and desire, then putting them through the wringer during the battle phase.]
  5. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. [See this post on why your characters do not need to be likeable, even in stories for kids.]
  6. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. [This is echoing advice from everywhere — put your character through so much crap that they come to the precipice of death.]
  7. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. [‘Avoid deus ex machina’ is related to this tip.  In children’s stories, don’t get adults to fix kids’ problems, either. It’s not unheard of, but hard to make that work.]
  8. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. [By ‘essence’, they mean the designing principle. For more on that see John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.]


  1. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  2. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  3. Related to theme, why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  4. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  5. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  6. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  7. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  8. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? [Yep, that’s what this blog is for.]
  9. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  10. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  11. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  12. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  13. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  14. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Here are four of these tips in more detail.

Gender Problems In ParaNorman (2012)

The Smurfette Principle Captured In An Image, 2012
The Smurfette Principle Captured In An Image, 2012

ParaNorman is an animated zombie flick, light-hearted in its intent, and follows the adventures of an outcast 11-year old called Norman, who sees dead people. They’re everywhere.

I identify with Norman, I really do. These days, whenever I watch a kids’ film, all I see are anti-girl references and tropes. These tropes are like ghosts because only a select few of us seem ever to notice them. Where are the feminist reviewers on IMDb?

I don’t really like to make forceful commentary about a movie I’ve seen only once  but the ParaNorman screenplay, written by Christopher Butler, is freely available online. I read through the screenplay after my visit to the theater  hoping to prove myself wrong about the anti-girl messages in this otherwise deftly crafted film. I was really hoping to love this one, which is created by one of the storyboard artists from Coraline, a genuinely girl-friendly story.

Next, a fellow commenter at Reel Girl argued a pro-feminist ending after seeing exactly the same film. I assume all intelligent commenters at Reel Girl to be among the best educated and most thoughtful in relation to feminism and kids’ films, so I read the script looking for the girl-friendly bits.

While failure to find any may simply be a failure on my own part, after looking closely at the script, I came away feeling even less impressed. Before, I had said that everyone should see this movie and make up their own mind. Now I say, nah don’t bother.


Quoted directly from the script:

An attractive FEMALE SCIENTIST in a gore-spattered labcoat moves fearfully along a wall, passing benches strewn with broken lab equipment. Her ample bosom heaves as she PANTS nervously, mascara-rimmed eyes darting to and fro.

Glass SMASHES on the floor nearby and MELODRAMATIC MUSIC swells. The woman backs into a shadow, not noticing a pair of dead eyes catching the moonlight behind her.

The music climbs to a frenzy as something GROANS horribly into the woman’s ear. She spins around on her stiletto heels as a rotted face looms out of the darkness, drooling through broken teeth, and lunges at her neck.

What isn’t mentioned in the script, but what viewers did see in the opening to ParaNorman, was the woman scientist’s buttocks thrust provocatively toward the audience. Along with the threat of her imminent demise, the audience is invited to admire her rump.

The camera cuts away to reveal Norman and his (dead) grandmother watching one of those old zombie flicks, safe in the comfort of his modern-day living room. His grandmother is appropriately dismissive of this film; the two of them are watching a Night Of The Living Dead type of ridiculous zombie-flick after all, which are so bad they can be appreciated in the modern world only as ironic spoofs of death and femininity and heroism. That’s the point of zombie films, right? They’re ridiculous by nature, and no one can take any single thing they say seriously. Especially the old ones. Except an argument can be made for the exact opposite: that zombie films rely on realism:

The protagonists of these apocalypses are everyman characters, blue collar heroes of modest ambition and means. In the zombie genre, average citizens are thrown into the chaos of the apocalypse, such as Shaun from Shaun of the Dead. Even when the characters are professionals, such as the soldiers and scientists in Day of the Dead, they do not possess pulp fiction levels of ability nor do they stop the apocalypse. They are swept up in the events, helpless to counteract them. The zombie genre demands realism on the part of its human characters, as they are not heroic saviors, but people the audience can identify with.

– from The Survivalist Fetish In The Zombie Genre, Part 2

When viewing zombie stories ironically, bear in mind that even the most ironic sexism is still sexism, and still harmful. Anita Sarkeesian explained it beautifully in a commentary on retro-sexism in advertising. To take The Walking Dead as a more modern example of a zombie story (albeit for adults), this from The Idiot Box:

I feel like something more insidious is at play…I was absolutely shocked to see that a male character from the show who tried to rape a female character at the end of the last season is still being treated as a hero.

Bearing all this zombie- and retro-sexist-background in mind, I’m already wary of ironic sexism in a movie for kids, so when the female scientist’s sexualised rump is presented to us baboon-style in the very first scene, I’m already the tiniest bit uncomfortable. This feels to me like a very cheap way to draw an audience in. I wonder if lots of girl viewers are already feeling slightly excluded from this story, without necessarily being able to articulate why.


Impressed at the grandmother’s dismissive commentary (“That’s not very nice… what’s [the zombie] doing that for?”) I settle in for the rest of the ride. This film is going to poke fun at zombie films, and turn weak-female characterisation on its head, right? I push down the feminist sitting on my shoulder and reason that a middle grade audience will come away with a fuller understanding of zombie tropes, realising that almost everything these days is ironic, and the world will seem a better place as a result of this epiphany.

I can see the creator of this film might well have made this film with such noble intentions, but I’m about to argue that he falls way short.

I’ll also argue that by including a few interesting female characters, namely the grandmother, the drama teacher and Salma (the Minority Feisty), this obfuscates the fact that any female speaking roles are minimal as a proportion of the total, and just as importantly, masks the fact that the female characters exist first to prop up the male roles, and second because they kind of have to be there for realism (boys need mothers, for instance). A look at the surface level of this film and an audience may well come away under the impression that although this is boy-centered-film, it is very girl-friendly to boot.

Here’s why it’s not.


Most female characters in Paranorman are as stereotypical as female characters in the original zombie flicks, without actually smashing through the heavy irony.

The description of Norman’s mother:

Norman’s mother, SANDRA BABCOCK, is emptying the dishwasher. She is in her late thirties, and wears ‘mom’ clothes that do no favors for her figure.

Have you noticed how often the term ‘figure’ is used to describe women, yet how rarely it comes up as an item of importance for men? When is the last time you heard anyone talk about a man’s ‘figure’?

Personaje Sandra Babcock en El alucinante mundo de Norman

Next, the audience is introduced to Norman’s teenage sister:

Courtney Babcock

Breezing into the kitchen through the back door while CHATTING inanely on her cell phone, Norman’s older sister COURTNEY is fifteen years-old and is the bleached-blonde cheerleader archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.

COURTNEY: Oh yeah, he’s r-i-double p-e-d. Like, a seven pack at least. (to Norman) Ew! Watch it!

She pushes her brother out of the way as he drags the garbage outside.

I now have a sense of how the screenwriter thinks about women. A certain amount of character description is necessary in any screenplay. What stands out to me is that Courtney is FIFTEEN — she is sexually underage, yet still exists primarily as a sexual object: the ‘archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.’ (What does this say about ‘every schoolboy’?)

Admittedly, the viewer doesn’t get an accurate number on Courtney’s age. Given her role, I’d assumed her to be more like 17 or 18. Reading the script tells me something I didn’t want to know about her creator.

The next female character is Norman’s drama teacher, who is directing a comically over-the-top play about the witch burnings which happened locally 300 years before.

In a director’s chair far too small for the job is MRS HENSCHER, an imposing woman with spectacles and beret who looks like she smells of too-much perfume.

It’s important to this screenwriter that Mrs Henscher is fat: ‘in a…chair too small for the job’. Mrs Henscher has a larger-than-life personality and I admit that her physicality is a good match. I find the second part of the description interesting: ‘who looks like she smells of too much perfume’.


Mrs Henscher, smelling of too much perfume
Mrs Henscher, smelling of too much perfume
Mrs Henscher, who comes into her own during the zombie battle. Here she is wearing face mask as war paint.
Mrs Henscher, who comes into her own during the zombie battle. Here she is wearing face mask as war paint.
Mrs Henscher's imposing size is emphasised by camera angle
Mrs Henscher’s imposing size is emphasised by camera angle

I include this description of Mrs Henscher first for completion’s sake, but also because I do appreciate this character. She’s interesting. Mrs Henscher is a classic example of the Acrofatic trope, or possibly Stout Strength. She’s a kind of Ladette.

But we don’t see much of her. And I doubt the target audience would identify much: she is presented as an eccentric and formidable teacher, and is as self-absorbed as she is physically powerful. Do I find her interesting because she is a jumble of mismatched tropes, similar to Megan on Bridesmaids, a butch-pearl-wearing woman, rejected by the mainstream but confident in her own right? (The only interesting character in that film, I might add.) At the risk of overthinking it, is this ‘mismatch’ between feminine accouterments and brute strength another kind of ironic novelty trope, which ultimately says something quite negative about femininity and all its associations? If a girl isn’t likely to identify with a female character, do we include her in the count of ‘strong female characters‘, whose very definition is problematic in its own right.


Girl stuff is embarrassing and any resemblance to girls at all means you’re less of a man

ALVIN: Don’t get your bra in a twist, fat boy, this has nothing to do with you! Keep out of my way!

NEIL: Or what?

ALVIN: Or I’ll punch you in the boobs!

NEIL: I don’t have boobs. These are pectorals!

Alvin jabs him in the chest.

NEIL (CONT’D): Ow! My boobs!

A common joke. Yet I can’t think of any middle grade story which makes a joke out of a girl owning a pair of balls. Obviously, that would have the opposite message.

Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.

Gwen Sharp

(The anti-fat jokes running throughout this film I will save for a separate post altogether.)

Later, the script describes a comically violent scene in the following manner:

Alvin [the bully] SCREAMS like a little girl, smacks it ineffectually with his spatula…

As Headless Horse writes at The Round Stable, “Clearly our cultural vocabulary could stand to grow up a little bit, and girls deserve to know they’re not afterthoughts—not to the makers of cartoons, and not to anyone else either./The parallels to other fronts in the broad, slow-moving war of social equality are clear: Polite adult company doesn’t use gay as a derogatory term anymore. Nor are words like retarded or bitchy considered welcome adjectives outside of the dialogue of deliberately retrograde fictional characters.” It’s not okay to use ‘gay’ as an insult in a kids’ film, and it’s not okay to use ‘retard’ as an insult, so why is it still okay to use ‘girly’ analogies… as an insult?


The message that girl stuff is vapid

The tiny room is crammed full of posters, pom-poms, plush toys and plastic trophies. Pretty much everything is pink. [pink=girly, no?] Courtney sits talking on her phone, cotton buds between her toes as her painted nails dry.

COURTNEY: So I said to her, “Girl, come back  and talk to me when your basket toss gets twelve thousand hits on YouTube!” Yeah, no, I said that. (listens and nods) Yeah, I’m stuck on lame patrol. Tonight’s gonna be a total yawn.

The audience is constantly reminded of Courtney’s shallow empty-headedness, with exclamations such as, ‘Oh, I broke a nail!’ An adult audience must surely recognise this as comically cliche. I’m not sure a younger, middle grade audience has been around long enough to see an  entire fantasy world ironically.

Let us not forget that in kids’ films, as well as in real life, girl stuff is uncool, and must be rebranded entirely if boys are to have anything to do with it.

Related: Blonde, Self-Tanning Essex Teen Girl Has Higher IQ Than Einstein And Everyone’s Annoyingly Surprised, from Jezebel.


The minority feisty is classically unattractive and only speaks when she’s saying overtly feminist stuff

The ParaNorman wiki entry on the Minority Feisty character of Salma sums up her role:

Not much is known about Salma outside of her name and status as a friend of Neil, as she’s seen hanging with him as well as trusting him enough to give him her number.

Below is a screenshot of Salma. Notice the monobrow and the glasses. She is described in the script as ‘a nerdy Indian kid with braces’.

This is what feminists look like.
This is what feminists look like.

Making use of the screenplay PDF and Ctrl-F, here’s the sum total of Salma’s speaking parts:

SALMA [playing the bossy girl type]: Neil, come on. Let’s go.

SALMA: Why is the witch always a hideous  old crone with a pointy hat and a  broomstick? I don’t believe it’s historically accurate, Mrs Henscher!

SALMA (speaking as her onstage role as a witch): I curse you accusers to die a horrible and gruesome death and rise from your graves as the living dead; your souls doomed to an eternity of damnation!

SALMA (Salma talks into her cell phone with an expression of withering disdain.): So Norman, let me get this straight; you guys all go on this big supernatural adventure and you’re calling me in the middle of the night because you need someone to help you do your homework?

Even though Salma comes out with insightful commentary about what is essentially The Hermione Trope*, her physical presentation and her facial expressions make clear to an audience that Salma is to be perceived as ‘The Wicked Witch Of The West’. From the screenplay itself:

Salma is holding her hand up. She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West.

The feminist/wicked witch analogy is underscored in the slapstick, of which Salma is a victim:

Norman is yanked off balance and staggers into Neil who keels over, rigid branch arms unable to stop his fall. He lands on top of Salma, her kicking legs sticking out from under him as though Dorothy’s house had just landed on stage.

Is the audience to laugh when bad things happen to Salma? That’s surely the point of the slapstick.

SALMA [in response to Norman’s appeal for help with his research]: Well, duh. People found guilty of witchcraft weren’t considered people anymore. Norman, your witch was buried someplace else… in an unmarked grave! (reproachfully) If you cared to pay attention some of the time, you would know that we covered this in fifth grade history class… [notice that despite her protestations, she obliges the boys, compliantly] Okay. It says here she was tried in the old Town Hall on Main Street. There may be a record of her execution and burial in their archives.

In short, the audience is encouraged to disassociate ourselves from this sexually unappealing feminist character, who only ever bosses boys around and raises her hand in class to offer intelligent but very annoying feminist commentary. So any feminist observations Salma comes out with are nulled. This feminist character is actually worse than absent. This characterisation is not only anti-feminist, it’s anti-thinking.

*What I call The Hermione Trope: smart girls only exist in stories to help out the boys on the boys’ adventures while she sits at home doing the hard yards by reading books. To be fair, Hermione does join in the adventures even though she must read a lot of books ‘off stage’. I have yet to find a good name for this relationship. It’s evident again in Monster House, a movie with character dynamics very similar to this one, except the Hermione character (Jenny) gets a lot more screentime and is a lot more likeable than Salma.


The commodification of female bodies


Neil! Will you get the door?

NEIL: I’m busy!

MITCH (O.S.): Are you freeze-framing Mom’s aerobics DVD again?

ANGLE ON TV, with a still image of a Lycra-clad instructor bending over. Neil quickly turns it off.


Needless to say, the ‘Lycra-clad instructor’ is female, and her buttocks fill the screen. I think the reason an audience finds this funny is because of the innocence of it: an older, more worldly young man would have found more hard-core/covert methods of objectifying women’s bodies. This is the sort of humour prevalent in comedies like Ted (2012). But Ted is for adults.

The female buttocks-fill-the-screen thing are (no doubt deliberately) reminiscent of one of the very first images in this film: that of the female scientist in the labcoat whose brains get eaten in that over-the-top Zombie film watched by Norman and his grandmother. After hoping that this film was going to highlight the ridiculousness of that storyline, now I’m convinced that this film only serves to reinforce them, to a brand new and younger audience.

Later, during the zombie invasion:

A corpse stands agog before a billboard. The poster is for a line of “Lady Luck” lingerie and features a buxom woman in her underwear draped over a roulette wheel. The tagline is “FANCY YOUR CHANCES?” The corpse’s one eye pops out of its socket and dangles by its optic nerve.


11-year-old boy speaks in a fatherly and all-knowing manner to an 11-year-old girl, saving the helpless little creature

This is a story in which a boy is chosen to Save The World (or at least, the community).

PRENDERGHAST GHOST: Oh it’s you all right! I’ve been holding back the witch’s curse for years, but now I’m dead. It has to be you!

NORMAN: But I… I don’t know what any of it means!

Norman understands that he is just like the little girl, in age at least.

NORMAN: How could you?! She was just a little kid! She was no different than me!

Here’s the scene where Norman calmly reasons with Aggie:

Norman climbs up a tree root, Aggie’s flames searing his skin and clothes as he gets close enough to touch her.

NORMAN: Then stop. This is wrong and you know it! You’ve spent so long remembering the bad people that you’ve forgotten the good ones. There must have been someone who loved you and cared for you. You don’t remember them?

AGGIE: Leave me alone!

NORMAN: But you’re not alone! You have to remember!

AGGIE: Keep away from me!

Norman reaches the end of the root and jumps. His outstretched fingers shake madly as they approach Aggie’s tiny hand, as though the air is fighting against him.

NORMAN: Remember!

There is a flash of white, and silence.

NORMAN: Sometimes when people get scared they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared, that you forgot who you are. But I don’t think you’re a witch. Not really.

Aggie looks into his eyes.

AGGIE: You don’t?

NORMAN: I think you’re just a little kid with a really special gift who only ever wanted people to understand her.

He smiles softly.

NORMAN (CONT’D): So we’re not all that different at all.

So why the huge wisdom differential? TECHNICALLY, the little girl has been around for CENTURIES longer than he has. Norman goes ahead and ‘talks the girl down’ from her temper tantrum in the sky.

Admittedly, some of his precocious wisdom has come straight from his dead grandmother, who filled the fairy godmother role much earlier. Grandma Babcock appears seldom on screen, but when she does, she offers some weighty one-liners and theme-revealing advice:

GRANDMA BABCOCK: There’s nothing wrong with being scared Norman, so long as you don’t let it change who you are.

The Grandmother is the only truly positive female character in this film, since I’m discounting the strangely unappealing drama teacher and the deliberately scorned young feminist, Salma.

But Grandma Babcock cannot possibly make up for everything else, even if her lines are some of the most memorable. Arguing that ParaNorman is girl-friendly and then citing the grandmother would be like saying that Cinderella is a feminist story, because the fairy-godmother is very wise and helpful. Just like those old fairytales, ParaNorman is still, at its core, a story about girls waiting in the sidelines for boys to save the day, fairy godmother notwithstanding.

See: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit:

Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

EDIT: After reading the ParaNorman review written by Hoyden About Town, I understand exactly how I haven’t seen the forest for the trees.

Hoyden writes:

It was all going so well until Norman speaks to the ‘witch’ who was actually an 11 year old girl who was executed for witchcraft because she could speak to the dead too. Norman solves the problem of her raining down destruction on the town built around tourism based on her legend by insisting to her that she must forgive and forget. He gets really up in her face about it. Forget that this jury of mainly men (one woman) killed an innocent child for being a witch, that she as an 11 year old must understand that the adults made a mistake because they were scared, that it is her duty to forgive them and go to the grave.

I had to stop my list of complaints somewhere, but I really should have looked more closely at the entire plot and structure of this film, which is predicated upon something very wrong indeed. I’m clearer now on exactly why I found the ending so offensive.

See also: The Problem With Raising Good Girls from Role Reboot. ParaNorman has exactly the same problem as Bland’s story for preschoolers.


Girls stand by and cheer Norman on in stereotypically feminine supporting roles

Either that, or they run away.

The fat woman from the Drive-Thru runs past SCREAMING, her face and T-shirt covered in blood-red ketchup.

Even at the climax, Courtney MIGHT have undergone some sort of character arc, learning to be proactive instead of pathetically passive in the presence of an attractive young man (the one who turns out to be gay* — SUCKED IN COURTNEY, JOKE’S ON YOU), but instead she has only learnt to respect her little brother. She cheers him on like the expert cheerleader she has been acculturated into being as the townsfolk gaze on in wonderment:

COURTNEY (CONT’D): Everybody, listen up! You all need to stop trying to kill my brother! You’re adults! Stop it! I know that this seems crazy, believe me I’m with you on that, but I think he does actually know what he’s talking about!…I’ve cheered the uncheerable, Norman, and I’m not  letting you give up now!

It’s easy to forget that it’s information gleaned from the knowledgeable and hard-working Salma which is what actually Saves The Day. But where is Salma when Norman is busy being congratulated at the end? I don’t even remember.

*See also: Representing sexuality in animation:

In spite of animation’s inherent plasticity and the implication that animation can “resist outmoded notions of… performance” and “carry with it alternative ideological imperatives” (Wells, 1998, p.227) prime time television animation tends to follow the stereotypical representations of most visual narratives when depicting homosexual characters, using the traditions of feminizing, demonizing or ridiculing the homosexual male, or more recently othering such characters by intellectualizing them, or in the case of lesbians, dumbing these characters down to unibrow car mechanic hicks.


Girls are treated poorly then smile demurely

I’m not imagining things here. This is what it says in the script [parts in parentheses are mine]:

Courtney counters the backseat barbs [from a male character she likes] by smiling demurely

And during a zombie action scene:

VARIOUS ANGLES ON the garish town center nightlife intercut with CLOSE-UPS of the wide-eyed zombies.

Two teenage girls in mini-skirts walk along the curb. A pickup truck crawls by, driven by red necks who wolfwhistle and gesture rudely. The girls GIGGLE.

At no point in this film do girls stand up for themselves.  Except for Salma, who is shot down and sat on.


Perpetuation of some pretty damn dodgy mars vs venus gender bullshit

This is an interaction between Norman’s parents, in which we are reminded that men don’t ask for directions and women can’t read maps:

PERRY BABCOCK: We’ve already been this way. We’re going around in circles!

SANDRA BABCOCK: Maybe we should pull over and ask someone?

PERRY BABCOCK: Oh, right, you think maybe we should stop at a graveyard and dig up some other eighteenth-century corpses?

SANDRA BABCOCK: It’s not a bad idea.

PERRY BABCOCK: I wish I understood you.

Women, OF COURSE, are completely non-understandable. Unintelligible, even. Yes, women are fucking crazy, and totally useless during a zombie apocalypse.


At the climax, Norman has saved the day. A boy is pleased to make his Dad proud, but doesn’t care for his mother’s reaction.

SANDRA BABCOCK (CONT’D): My brave little man! I thought I was going to lose you!

NORMAN: Mom, you’re embarrassing me.

SANDRA BABCOCK: That’s my job.

COURTNEY: Good job, Norman.

Perry takes a deep breath and looks at his son. There is relief and a hint of admiration in his eyes.

PERRY BABCOCK: Well done, Son. You did it.

Throughout the film, the mother and father’s dialogue have been equally inane, but in the end, only the mother is found to be stereotypically embarrassing. We learn that while it’s important to make your dad proud, mothers require forbearance.

Limits of the Bechdel Test

The movie does in fact pass. There is a brief exchange between Selma and Mrs. Henscher in the scene where the kids are rehearsing the play. Selma complains that the play not being historically accurate, and Mrs. Henscher replies that the point is to promote tourism, not be historically accurate. Only a few lines, but I think it qualifies.

from a website where people argue about whether a film passes The Bechdel Test.

There is a moment where the little ghost witch girl is talking to her mother under a tree. So this film technically passes The Bechdel Test. But what about The Magowan Test, which I feel is more appropriate for kids’ stories? It doesn’t pass that.

In Conclusion

Feminism is a niche area and anyone who fancies he’s up to the job of writing a feminist screenplay starring middle grade kids would be well advised to do some goddamn reading on the matter. Either that, or leave the feminist commentary right out of it, since stories about boys deserve to exist in the world — just not at the expense of girls.

ParaNorman is an excellent example of the insidiousness of female representation in kids’ films, because with its straw-feminism,  it’s easy to sit back and consider that part taken care of. This mirrors exactly how feminism works the real world, here in 2013: We all see a few women in power and assume feminism has done its job. Instead, I fear we’re heading swiftly backwards.

The Credits

The screenshots above come from the fan-created ParaNorman Wiki. Here’s a very telling screenshot of that site. Notice what’s there and what’s missing?

ParaNorman Wiki, 31 Jan 2013

A Further Note On Audience

Kids deserve better: not ‘morality stories’, but yes, they deserve politically correct. Partly because ‘politically incorrect’ can’t be funny in an ironic sense until ‘correct’ has been learned in the first place.

If this were a film for adults, I wouldn’t even bother. Adults — ideally, at least — have a well-honed sense of irony.

It has been suggested that this film is not for little kids. And it’s true that we shouldn’t simply assume that ‘animation=for kids’. When deciding who a film might be for, far better to look at the storyline and themes.

See: At What Age Do We Understand Sarcasm? from io9: “It appears that when kids at around the age of eight or nine encounter sarcasm, they know it’s sarcasm only by tone.”

The protagonists of ParaNorman are 11-years-old. While I could go on at length on a different topic: the infantalisation of entertainment, I don’t feel this particular animated film has enough depth to appeal exclusively to adults. That’s not to suggest that adults won’t also enjoy this film, should they go along KNOWING IT’S A KIDDY FLICK, but surely if a film starring 11-year-olds were marketed as a film for adults, without the added wisdom of hindsight a la The Wonder Years, an adult audience might feel a bit weird about that. The themes in ParaNorman are summed up in far too heavy-handed a manner for this film to be a deliberate appeal to adults. As for the morals, an experienced audience has been there, done that. The slapstick comedy of ParaNorman appeals to an even younger audience who, unfortunately, would likely suffer nightmares (tried and tested). Middle-schoolers are a varied crew, but any parental guidance should by rights focus on the unintended messages mentioned above; with films such as this one, parents aren’t just there to provide a warm presence in the face of supernatural themes. There are more important jobs than that.

What Parents Need To Know about the ratings of this film, from CommonSense Media.


A Limitation Of Animated Apps

Apart from the vast resources and expensive software and the need for highly trained personnel there is another reason for avoiding too much animation in storybooks, regardless of ethical considerations regarding whether books should even be trying to emulate animated film anyhow, and it is demonstrated in the picture below:

Tyson Murphy — click to get to original Tumblr blog

As you can see, it’s a purely aesthetic one. The character in the top picture is beautifully rendered, depicting the light coming from above. The character below is what we generally see in even the high budget animated features, such as those from Studio Ghibli, because the time and resources required to have shadows fall naturally and beautifully upon a moving figure is vast, and impossible to achieve unless moving into the super-duper expensive realm of 3D — which has a distinct look all its own.

Here is a screenshot from Spirited Away:

Notice the backgrounds of Spirited Away are of a different, detailed style than the characters. This is a legitimate and successful style, with the simplified characters looking distinct against the backgrounds — overly detailed characters may well make the screen too cluttered. Characters are instead given form with solid fills of darker colour, with a maximum of two tones per object — Sen’s hair, for example, is one tone for the part of the hair which catches light, and a darker tone to depict the shadow.

A more photorealistic style would depict many shades of brown. When characters in apps are animated, a more ‘painterly’ or more photorealistic style becomes unattainable. This is something to consider whether developing a storybook app or judging a storybook app for its animation, or absence thereof.

But in many works, of course, these two different styles is not an unfortunate consequence of animation but a stylistic decision — as Perry Nodelman writes in Words About Pictures:

Illustrations do have a narrative purpose. They must show us not just beautiful patterns and evocative atmospheres but what people look like as stories happen to them; that is, as they move and talk and think and feel. So their faces and bodies usually have the simplicity, and consequently the expressiveness, of cartooning, a simplicity at variance from the frequent richness and detailed accuracy of their backgrounds, which give us a different sort of narrative information. When faces and bodies do have the same solidity and detail of shading and lines as their backgrounds, they may come to seem static and inexpressive…The extraordinary expressiveness of cartooning seems to make it a particularly appropriate means of communicating narrative information. To suggest that all picture-bo0k art is a sort of cartoon or caricature is no insult; it merely stresses the extent to which the purposes and pleasures of this art differ from those we assume of other kinds of visual art.

The Animation Look… no such thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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


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.)


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


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

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


– from Lucas and Spielberg on storytelling in games at The Verge

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for non-story related activities embedded in the same app as the story itself. After all, teachers have always made use of extra-narrative activities when guiding students through the understanding of any given work of art. Also: Playing With Books Is Important Step in Path to Early Literacy. Might this apply to the digital literacy of eBook reading as well?

See also:

Sesame Workshop’s ideas about best practice for touch devices, with a preschool demographic in mind