Our character Hilda is a deliberate subversion of the idea that female leads (especially those that happen to be royalty) need to be strong and ‘feisty’ and morally upright and I guess GWJ picked up on that.
Any writer will have heard the following advice from Anton Chekov:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
I’m reminded of this quotation when reading a different kind of advice: Tips for what to do and what not to do, for those of us producing interactive content for children. In The Art and Science of the Children’s eBook, Dr. Warren Buckleitner advises something similar to Chekhov:
And of course, I think of a page in our own app, Midnight Feast, which features a balloon. Incidentally, the balloon cannot be popped. Nor can the guitar be strummed. The books on the shelf cannot be read. The rug cannot be vacuumed.
I do remember that ‘balloon pops on touch’ was a part of our initial plans for Midnight Feast. Why did we plan it that way? For exactly the reason Buckleitner explains above. But as the story took shape, it made more sense thematically and symbolically, that the interactive part of this page shouldn’t be about balloons popping — which more naturally symbolises the ‘bursting of hopes and dreams’ (this comes later in the story) — but rather this scene became about ‘enclosure’. Roya is locked inside a small house, and so the nesting of the dolls on top of the nested tables are something I wanted the reader to contemplate. So we made those interactive instead. If you touch the dolls they jump inside each other. I coloured them luridly to suggest they might be a hotspot.
The balloon remains as part of the interior decoration, because this is a father trying to create a party atmosphere for his daughter. I justified it at the time as an ironic counterpoint to the main character’s emotions — the balloon has a big smiley face on it, but is upside down, to match Roya’s lacklustre expression.
Should the balloon be pop-able, nonetheless?
The creation of interactive stories is rife with pitfalls, and full of contradictory advice. Counter advice from the very same document cautions against ‘sprinkling an app with hotspots’ that do not support the story:
Why does the reader think that by touching a balloon it must pop? This expectation does not come from real life, because a balloon cannot be burst simply by touching it. A balloon may burst if poked with something sharp, granted, but I would argue that the reader expectation for popping balloons on screen comes not from any real-world analogue but from prior touchscreen experience. Namely, from games.
It is true, however, that when the user expects functionality and doesn’t get it, there is a micro-disappointment. This leads to several more philosophical questions:
To what extent should creators of interactive books cater to the easily won thrills which follow the user from gaming-world?
To what extent should we expect readers to ‘work’ for meaning? (By ‘work’, I mean ‘think’ — ‘Why is this part of the screen responsive, but not this one?’)
When creating artwork for interactive stories, is it better to ‘leave out the balloon’ altogether, if the user expects it to pop? To what extent do we cater to this?
And which parts of a fictional environment will the user expect to be interactive anyhow? Might this change over time?
Must the user know exactly what to expect upon first reading, or second? Or should interactive books open themselves up slowly, upon subsequent readings? Will users even read something twice if they must tap without reward?
Are there ways artists can signal unobtrusively to the reader which elements are hotspots and which are not, perhaps with colour? If I had made the balloon the same hue as the wallpaper, perhaps no one would think to tap it? Then again, would they even notice it?
The user expects the balloon to pop because they have popped many digital balloons on touchscreens before. As end users continue to interact with touch screens, and as touch screens become ever more integrated into our daily lives, no doubt user expectations will evolve. The question is, in which direction? And who is driving the evolution? Developers, of course. The more pop-able balloons that arrive in the touchscreen world, the more balloons will exist to be popped.
Short for application software: Software designed to accomplish specific user tasks (in contrast to “system software”).
While e-books are single files that require specific software (e-reader software), apps (being software) run by themselves.
A digital story is defined as a ‘multimodal narrative’ text comprising pictures, music, speech, sound and script.
Whereas books are ‘adapted’ for screen, books are ‘remediated’ as apps.
There are a number of different lists of qualities that make a book postmodern. It is thought that when a postmodern book is remediated as an app, the postmodern effects may be rendered null due to the change of medium. The following aspects of postmodernism may not work very well in apps because in order for postmodern techniques to work, the reader must remember they are reading a book:
Indeterminacy: there are ambiguities because there is a lack of information or too much information
Reverberation: the story echoes other stories or material. In its more extreme form the result is similar to a collage
Short-circuit: happens when the narrative communication hierarchy is altered
Play: if the important thing in the story is to enjoy the signifiers rather than the signified, or the work considers the reader as a player
Diegetic and Non-diegetic
These are film terms which are also useful for apps.
diegetic = part of the world of the story
non-diegetic = not part of the world of the story — obviously added in afterwards by the creator of the story
These terms are often used to describe sound:
diegetic sound = noises which would occur within the world of the story, such as music which is playing on a radio
non-diegetic sound = noises which have been edited in and would in no way be part of the setting, for example an orchestra of violins when a character cries.
These words are also often used to describe different sorts of narrators:
autodiegetic narrator = pertaining to a narrator who is also the protagonist
heterodiegetic narrator = of or relating to a narrator that does not take part in the plot
homodiegetic narrator = of or relating to the narrator of a dramatic work who is also the protagonist or other character in the work
Verbal, Visual, and Sonic signs
The analysis of book apps calls for a broad use of the term “text.” The text of an app as I understand it comprises its totality of verbal, visual, sonic, and interactive elements, or the “surface” of the app as distinguished from the underlying structure of the source code.
As defined by Aarseth: The cybertext is, literally, “a machine for the production of variety of expression”. Aarseth’s textonomy of the cybertext can only partially be applied to book apps. For example, the aspect of “transiency” (meaning that in a transient text “the mere passing of the user’s time causes scriptons to appear” (Aarseth 1997, 63)) is not very helpful since virtually all book apps for children are intransient text. If a book app is played in the “read-to-me” mode (the closest thing to a transient text I have encountered in a children’s book app), the reading can usually be stopped and modes switched.
The concept of cybertext is neither limited to nor does it include all kinds of literary texts published in the digital medium. Hypertexts, on the other hand, are a specific type of fiction within this medium that is distinguished by certain technical characteristics, that is, “a text that […] will ‘branch or perform on request’ (by links or other means)” (Wardrip-Fruin 2010, 40). Even a cursory glance at children’s book apps reveals that only a limited number of them fall into either category. Therefore, a different framework must be used to assess this kind of media.
As defined by Aarseth: Cybertexts are part of “ergodic literature,” that is, literature in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. The keyword in defining a text as ergodic is, of course, “nontrivial” which is vague enough. While swiping and tapping to navigate from one screen to another can clearly be defined as “trivial” (much like turning a page), gestures like tapping on a hotspot to trigger an animation should be regarded as alterations of the text, namely the story, and can thus not be qualified as trivial.
Rather than ‘readers’.
Co-author, Co-illustrator or Co-narrator
Words for ‘users’ when the apps require participation (or the illusion of participation) in order to complete the story.
Interactive engagement on a creative level is, indeed, what most apps promise but seldom offer in a meaningful way.
In contradistinction to ‘story’: Fabula refers to “a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors”—thus answering the question “what happens?”—the term story indicates “a fabula that is presented in a certain manner” (answering the question “how is it told?”) In other words: “discourse for the analysis of hypertexts”
multiple fabula apps = in which user follows the concepts of “creating your own story” or “choosing your own adventure.” This type of app is most strongly affiliated with gaming and role-playing, sometimes to the extent that border lines become blurred. users can determine (to a certain extent) what happens in the narration. To evaluate multiple fabula apps, it is useful to consider the actual purpose of this narrative device. Is it to create a random text out of random fragments or is it to encourage users to explore narrative modes ? Does it give the user the opportunity to alter the fabula to produce aesthetically satisfying narratives that have been noticeably affected by the user in a purposeful way? Is randomness the result of the app’s mechanization or an aesthetic failure?
alternative storyapps = Basically, all apps that offer some kind of tap-triggered dialogue, sound or animation fall into this category.
Speed, Order and Frequency
These categories are helpful when applied to hypertextual structures and further distinguish between empirical and computed behaviour or strategies.
For example, the computed minimum or maximum speed for progressing from one page to the other might substantially differ from the empirical speed of a specific user at one specific running of the app.
Vita activa and Vita passiva
Those who are active versus those who mindlessly consume.
Academics are distinguishing between the several possible meanings of the concept participation:
conventional participation, such as letters decoding or the passing of pages or screens
active participation, a complex interpretive demand related to a postmodern configuration of meanings
interactive participation, or physical cooperation with the work
The user is given the illusion of doing something that actively moves the story along but in fact the user is not free but must adhere to the app programming.
A part of the screen which initiates an action when touched. The effect is said to be ‘tap-triggered’.
Degrees Of Interactivity
selective participation, in which the user chooses among the options offered by the program
transformative participation, in which the user selects and transforms the contents proposed by the author
constructive participation, in which the user can select, transform and build new proposals that are not planned by the author
Forms In Which Interactivity Becomes a Part of the Story
Real participation stands for an interactive proposal in which the action of the user works in a necessary cause–effect relationship with the story.
Simulative participation occurs when the user’s action produces an effect in the story that would appear equally even if he or she did not trigger the hot spot.
False participation refers to cases where the effect of the user’s action is repetitive or meaningless for the development of the story.
Unsurprising interaction, given what has come before. For example, the book app works like a digital version of a book, complete with ‘page turns’.
User-Device Response Techniques
Describes the sort of interaction that happens between computer and user in games, but which is rarely seen in book apps. Book apps cannot offer the same narrative freedom of choice as role-play gaming where the user directs an avatar more or less freely through a virtual world.
various forms of multi-user experience which could be fruitfully applied to concepts of multiple fabula or alternative story apps to create alternative texts in interaction with other users.
the introduction of blanks, either literally in the interface as free space where the user can fill in words, drawings, or photos of their own choice or by using the possibilities of the device that allows users to make videos, take photos, or record their own words all of which can then be integrated into the app as forming part of the narrative.
Most often, two distinct things:
learning to read and write
such things as drawing conclusions, making associations and connecting text to reality
There is another kind of literacy required for reading digital stories: technical literacy—knowing how to progress through a story. A higher level of literacy again involves creating meaning, understanding and at the same time being critical. There is no evidence that literacy, in and of itself, leads to the cognitive functioning of, for example, logical, analytical, and critical thinking that the ‘literacy myth’ prescribes.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to attend the Bookseller’s Children’s Conference held in London last month, mostly because we live on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I read children’s book news with keen interest. Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow was indeed at this conference, and I was interested to read her response to something which was said by a respected critic of children’s literature. Here’s Kate’s summary, which is what I have to go on:
Nicolette [Jones] said that she had “reservations” about picture book apps, on the basis that the printed book “does it better”, and went on to say that the “technology of the app interferes with the story”. She worried that “interactivity in apps replaces the space in children’s imagination”, and that “the app doesn’t go through the adult”. She said that the only apps she’d found successful were apps like the Touchpress Warhorse app, and Hot Key’s Maggot Moon app which provided additional material around each book, which, in itself, remains unaffected by the surrounding multimedia or animation material.
I’m not the slightest bit surprised to read this, and a large part of me wants to ignore it. After all, if you’re not ‘in the ring’, your opinion as a critic ain’t worth all that much to me. On the other hand, this kind of thing directly affects our sales. And sales are, unfortunately, relevant in this discussion. As noted by Philip Jones at FutureBook:
[The] combination of huge abundance and the difficulties of commercialising the products should not be under-estimated when looking at book apps. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whether particular apps work, or don’t, but not enough time figuring out how the market conditions may be impacting these developments.
I have suspected a dismissive attitude towards book apps from longtime children’s literature critics and established printbook authors for a while now, and I’m glad to see it voiced, as it gives those of us in App Land a chance to respond to something concrete.
ARE YOU THERE, CRITICS? IT’S WE, BOOK APPS.
As you may notice from the digital badge to the upper right of our website, our second picturebook app Midnight Feast won a mention in the BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards earlier this year. There are few literature prizes open to digital picturebooks — most we must pay to enter and are therefore not worth a damn — but the BolognaRagazzi is the one big exception. So we were thrilled when our book app was judged as one of the top three fiction apps of the year (alongside an app by Nosy Crow, as it happens). Of course, a literature prize is not a running race — individual tastes of the judges are relevant rather than a millisecond on a stopwatch, and so we must always take literature prizes for what they’re worth. The fact is, any of the shortlisted apps as judged by the BolognaRagazzi panel is a heavyweight. If you’re interested in checking out the jurors’ commentary, you’ll see this is not an effusive bunch. Each member of the panel is suitably critical and careful when it comes to literary use and abuse of new technologies.
So, what happens to your app after it wins a mention in a big prize these days? Less than you might think*. Organisers of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize asked us for fifteen promo codes which were to be distributed to reviewers and critics over the course of the book fair. The wonderful advantage about being in the business of apps (rather than in printed materials) is that Apple provides us with unambiguous statistics. We can tell you via our stats that of the fifteen promocodes requested by Bologna, only three of them were actually redeemed, and none of them was redeemed by a user with a UK iTunes account. It’s possible that Bologna did not get around to sending out the codes, or perhaps they sent them to the wrong people at the wrong time. But when influential critics publicly dismiss the entire shebang, I’m inclined to err on the side of, ‘critics weren’t interested in them’. Lest it be thought that I am focusing these thoughts on the single critic Nicolette Jones, this is obviously a bigger issue. I am asking the question: Which influential people in Children’s Literature world (not Tech World, not Teaching World, not Parent World) are seeking out the award winning picture book apps before dismissing them? Nicolette Jones is not personally responsible for evaluating our book apps in particular, especially since we never sent her any promocodes. I’m pointing out that Children’s Literature World, in general, is increasingly closed to creators of picturebook apps. I do wonder if the promoters of award-winning printed picture books have any trouble giving them away at book fairs?
*To be fair, I’m pretty sure — insofar as anyone can be sure of anything when it comes to the Charlie’s Chocolate Factory which is Apple — that the mention of Midnight Feast in the BolognaRagazzi led to our previous app The Artifacts being featured in the App Store several months later. (Midnight Feast itself is and always will be a hard sell. Nor does it fit neatly into any App Store age category in the Kids’ section.) It’s easy to criticise Apple for failing to help book developers. Apple prefers to promote games. Philip Jones sees ‘very little evidence that Apple is doing anything to help with this transition,’ and I can’t really argue, except to add that Apple has done a darn sight more for our sales figures than any critic of children’s literature. (And I say this knowing it’s easy to say, AFTER a book app of yours has been featured.)
Unredeemed promocodes aside, I would like to share with you Midnight Feast’s sales figures for the United Kingdom* over the year since our ‘award winning app’ has been released: 52. Fifty-two downloads from the UK.
The reason I share all of this is because it’s highly unlikely (though slimly possible, yes) that one of the fifty-two people with a UK iTunes account to download Midnight Feast was the children’s literature critic Nicolette Jones. Children’s book critics are busy. Most wouldn’t have much time to seek out stories they’re not sent. With the avalanche of children’s stories published these days, a children’s literature critic can make a more-than-full-time gig out of sticking to printed picture books alone. And it’s true — we did not send Nicolette Jones a promotional code on the off-chance she’d take a look. She has no history of being a book app enthusiast. We sent one to Stuart Dredge instead, whose attitude towards apps we respect, and who indeed gave us a review.
My point is this: Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times is a wonderfully knowledgeable critic of children’s literature, but I don’t consider her an expert on picture book apps. At this point, it’s frustrating that she offers an opinion at all, other than to open up the discussion, which is important. Making a value judgement on the other hand, is inappropriate.
UPDATE: I thought it only fair to offer Nicolette James some promocodes. Here’s her response. Irony, indeed.
I wonder if Jones realises what the self-described ‘irony’ is? That she comments regardless upon an area she doesn’t review? I have since replied that I wasn’t actually asking for a review (though it was fair enough that she assumed I was, given how often she would be asked.) I hoped only to change her mind about book apps.
(On a more positive note, Nicolette Jones has since agreed to receive the promocodes I offered.)
A well-known critic of children’s literature would not consider herself widely read in her area of expertise were she unfamiliar with the winners of the Newbery and the Caldecott. Yet apparently it’s okay to make sweeping statements about children’s literature apps, even when you haven’t familiarised yourself with the award winning products from the previous year. Dredge urges developers to use “the considered criticism from experts like Nicolette Jones” as “an incentive for more developers to strain to reach those heights”. But really, what are ‘the heights’ exactly? Instinct tells me to listen to the enthusiasts anyhow, and not the dismissive critics. Rule of thumb for life, that. There are plenty of critics complaining about all those terrible apps out there, but who is willing to put into words what exactly they were looking for when they were at first optimistic about all those possibilities?
There’s only one thing worse than a children’s critic slamming an entire category, and that’s failing to mention it at all. Part of me is glad that critics recognise that book apps count as books. A book app’s lack of an ISBN is problematic to its credibility as a work of literature. But the difference between a critic and a reviewer is surely this: A ‘reviewer’ is welcome to pick and choose from a subcategory of books according to the reviewer’s own interest, whereas a ‘critic’ has a responsibility to read and seek out** award winning and starred reviewed examples of a category before speaking about the category in public as a figure of authority.
Stuart Dredge quotes Jones directly:
“I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.”
**I know that critics are not accustomed to ‘seeking things out’. They are sent an avalanche of material every week (50 printed picturebooks for Nicolette Jones, according to reports from Stuart Dredge) and for them it’s a matter of culling them. But we are now in a different place when it comes to publishing, and Ron Charles explains brusquely in the Washington Post ‘No, I don’t want to read your self-published book’ why critics and review sites simply cannot respond to everything. I understand, fully. Our apps are self-published, and largely ignored. My response to that: Nor may they comment on the quality of everything. And if they are interested in commenting on the quality of what’s being self-published, a time-efficient way of seeking out the best would be to seek out the prize winners.
I would prefer Nicolette Jones to add, ‘but I am not a particular enthusiast of picturebook apps and I certainly don’t pretend to have done a wide survey of them’. Note that Jones spoke of the most expertly marketed picture book apps:
“I can see some publishers like Nosy Crow doing fantastically well with very interesting apps, and trying to reproduce the quality of a book. [Aw, bless!] There’s a lot of energy and creativity and intelligence going into this, and I don’t want to be too dismissive,” she said [dismissively].
This should be a red flag. Would you listen to a games critic dismiss mobile apps if he offered the example of Angry Birds to make his main point? The Nosy Crow picture book apps are the Angry Birds of App Picturebook World, known to anyone who’s had even the most passing interest in the category.
BUT WHY THE HIERARCHY, ANYWAY?
So, ‘I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something a book doesn’t do better,’ she said.
I’m hearing two distinct but conflicting messages from those of you who know children’s literature:
1. Apps should be simple. You’re encouraging us to think very hard and long about interaction and animation. This is good. I’m thinking. Hard.
2. Apps have to offer something more than a print book does. For less cost to the consumer, by the way.
But we didn’t go into this industry hoping to add something more than print books can achieve.
Printed picture books are an excellent medium. I can’t see a single way in which the print book fails. [There are fewer ways in which to cock it up.] The best of them do a great job of sparking imagination, transporting children to other worlds, offering the gift of story and creating a love of reading.
Can a digital medium possibly offer more oomph than that? And should the savvy consumer expect it to?
When Jones says that she’s never seen a picture book app that a book doesn’t ‘do better’, I am very suspicious: Has she actually seen and studied picture book apps (like ours) which were created for a touch screen? Our products do not exist alongside printed versions. They exist in their own right. A comparison, let alone a hierarchy, is therefore difficult. In order to even make a statement that includes the word ‘better’, a critic would have to compare a printed picture book alongside its appified version. If a critic were to approach Midnight Feast or The Artifacts in this way, she would have to imagine-up a printed version of the story — one which exists only inside her head. Here’s the thing about things that exist inside heads: They are always better than any real-world product. (Any creative’ll tell ya.)
THE DEVICE ISN’T NECESSARILY ‘OVER THERE’
From Stuart Dredge’s summary of Nicolette Jones’ comments:
“If you look at a book with a small child, it’s a hug,” [Jones] said, making a gesture to show a parent with a child sitting in their lap, and an open book in front of them.
“With a device over here, there isn’t that relationship, and it doesn’t go through the adult,” said Jones, motioning to an imaginary tablet by a child’s side.
Cutesy hug metaphors aside, this is frustrating. I mean, it’s ridiculous to blame app developers for adults who may (or may not be!) using our products as substitutes for (rather than as complements to) parent-child interactive reading. Although I sense Jones isn’t talking about the ‘point of purchase’ when she says that a picture book app ‘doesn’t go through the adult’, it’s worth pointing out that an adult with a credit card is required in order for a book app to appear in front of a child in the first place. We’re not just leaving them lying around in gutters, for instance, like discarded bottles of rum, ready for two-year-olds to clap their chubby hands upon. Is there hard evidence, even, that an adult who has just selected and installed an app is throwing the device into the lap of the child before briskly leaving the room? Our own anecdotal evidence suggests that any adults who buy and share our apps care very much about what their children are reading. I see it in the quality of their App Store reviews. Ours are some of the most coherent on the store. (I know that’s not saying much, but still.)
THERE ARE ACTUALLY A FEW THINGS THAT PICTURE BOOK APPS CAN DO BETTER.
It’s true that interactive books can be somewhat overhyped. Developers are quick to label something as ‘educational’ in the same way food companies are keen to label products as ‘natural’. (i.e. It’s meaningless.) I have my own reservations about certain taken-for-granted enhancements; in particular I’m waiting for more research about the benefits of text-highlighting, or for a study which will lead developers into best practice.
I’m not a big fan of heavily animated book apps, mainly for aesthetic reasons. I’m very wary about games which pull a reader out of the story. Perhaps my biggest reservation of all about e-reading in general is that when a book exists on a device, it exists alongside push-button access to games, TV and the Internet. I’ve noticed from my own experience of reading ebooks on a tablet that it’s harder to become immersed in a novel when you know you can dart here there and everywhere to look up a word, then dilly-dally back to the story-at-hand via a quick few games of Boggle. Still, I’m not going to blame publishers of my favourite ebooks for that.
So sure, let’s take a moment to indulge in the undying need for hierarchies. I have given much thought to what book apps can achieve and what printed books can’t, partly as a way of deciding the future for our own indie company: Is it worth it, to spend years creating picture book apps when the environment is basically hostile? I might include a number of other more obvious benefits of the touchscreens themselves, such as the ability for a teacher in a classroom to share and discuss a picturebook via the big screen, without needing to buy a slightly larger printed version of a popular book, seen best by those sitting at the front of the mat, or of publishing advantages, such as the ability to sell your stories in Saudi Arabia, and to keep a book app in the App Store for as long as it needs to be there, even if it doesn’t immediately take off. (The Artifacts took 2 and a half years to be featured by Apple. If it had been on a bookstore shelf it would’ve most likely have disappeared forever after 6 months.)
Happily, we’re not the only ones asking questions about how touch screens might be integrated in children’s literature. The academics care a lot and some of them are all over it. Junko Yokota spoke on this very topic for her keynote at the International Research Society Children’s Literature conference 2013 in Maastricht. You can watch her speak here. I highly recommend it, to developers, reviewers and critics alike. But when it comes to ‘interactivity’, as far as we’re concerned at Slap Happy Larry, the main ‘interaction’ happens between the screen and the reader’s brain.