A lot is still being said about all the ways in which ebooks and tablet books are not as good as ‘real books’: you can’t smell them, there’s screen glare, you don’t know where you are up to in the book…
Ebooks: “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”
Then there are the dissenters and skeptics who think that excessive focus on the physical beauty of books undermines the real purpose of literature, which can be found in the text and not in the vessel that delivers it.
— Internet Book Fetishists, from The New Yorker
But there are also some excellent things that are newly possible in the age of digital books. I focus here on digital picturebooks in particular.
1. ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS AND OTHER NON-LINEAR STORYLINES
I know from book club that endings pose a particular challenge for authors; no single ending can satisfy all readers. But with eBooks and apps, technically, it’s possible to offer a few different endings. Whichever one the reader gets might be based on a few simple questions at the very beginning of the book, such as, ‘Do you have a high tolerance for ambiguity?’ or ‘Are you a fan of happy endings?’ or something like that. Or the reader might simply be asked, ‘Do you want the happy ending or the tragic ending?’
I can’t see publishers ever embracing the option to encourage readers not to read every single book in a series — publishers are making most of their money from series after all — but I write now of pie-in-the-sky possibilities afforded by the electronic age.
It’s possible that most readers don’t want to choose when they sit down with a book, though this doesn’t explain the popularity (though niche) market of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. It’s possible that paper books do best when it comes to lengthy, linear works:
“Printed content also tends to be packaged in a way that encourages the reader to consume it, if not in its entirety in one go, at least in a linear fashion. In doing so, the reader leaves mental footprints from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of the textural landscape. Some psychologists believe these mental maps of a reader’s journey through a piece of text provide the deeper sense of understanding that distinguishes reading on paper from reading on a screen.”
But what about the non-linear works? Speaking of her book Paradise, Toni Morrison said:
“People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies,” she says. “But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past.”
Might we be on the cusp of a new age of non-linear storytelling?
2. MULTIPLE RATINGS IN THE ONE STORY
After realising that our three-year-old had remembered one of the more scary pages in a proto version of Midnight Feast, and that she was requesting this page before bedtime, I worried that she might start waking from nightmares. As it happened, she didn’t, but at the time I had been mulling over whether a certain scene in our next story was perhaps too scary for the more tender individuals in our target readership.
So for the Midnight Feast release version readers or parents can turn off the scariest elements of the story for younger or more sensitive readers. This is definitely something which might be more widely implemented if time and money were no object.
Related to this: Same book but not: Publishers offer titles in adult, kid versions (from the Los Angeles Times).
3. TOUCH INTERACTIVITY AND ANIMATION TO INDICATE THE PASSING OF TIME
Depicting the flow of time in a picturebook isn’t easy, especially if the story is for younger children, who haven’t yet learnt the usual codes. For instance, in Eva Eriksson’s illustration of The Wild Baby, we see six different babies on and around the stairs. The wild baby is doing a different naughty thing in each picture, and older readers will easily pick up that there are not suddenly six different wild babies — this is the same baby doing different naughty things successively. Young readers can get confused, wondering where the other wild babies came from.
A storybook app can avoid this problem, if touches to the screen get rid of one baby before the next one appears.
(Over at The Guardian, Naomi Alderman has contributed an excellent article in her capacity as both games writer and ‘serious writer’ explaining how interactive technologies open up various possibilities in storytelling.)
4. THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
The element of surprise in a picturebook is constrained by the page turn. In order to reveal something unexpected, an author/illustrator team must sometimes contrive the prose so that the surprise doesn’t happen on the recto side of a double spread, but rather overleaf. Lift-the-flap books do more with the element of surprise, though in my experience, are best man-handled by an older reader, even though the target readership are chubby little destructive fingers! In an app, a surprise can be hidden until it is found via touch.
5. SYNCHRONISING TEXT AND PICTURE
Related to this is that sometimes in a picturebook (though more often in illustrated stories) the words and pictures are somewhat out of sync. I notice when reading illustrated chapter books to my six year old that she’ll often ask about some element of a picture but if she were to wait for me to read all of the accompanying text she would have her questions explained. Sometimes questions are good; other times they are distracting, and occur only due to the constraints of the physical page. An app can manipulate timeing with touch interactivity; text and the relevant part of an illustration can appear together, or not, as best serves the reader.
6. BORROWING ELEMENTS OF FILM
For Hilda Bewildered we are playing around with various light effects in the screen transitions. Done badly, these can look like a terrible PowerPoint presentation. On the other hand, various film camera techniques can enhance a picture book in an unobtrusive and subtle way. For example, a ‘pan’ can be emulated by swiping to reveal more of a scene; a zoom effect can get around the limitations of the fixed-size screen; tilt-shift can be emulated to draw attention to a certain story element; the list is endless, if only the budget were.
7. WORD PLAY
I haven’t seen this yet (not to say it doesn’t exist) but there are many possibilities for word placement. In a printed book, the words are static on the page, which is indeed fine for most stories. But there is plenty of scope for an imaginative development team to come up with an interactive picturebook in which the movement/substitution/reader-selection of words becomes part of the story, and fosters a love of language via word play. Inspiration can be drawn from (rather old-fashioned, now) tomes of word puzzles (you know the kind, printed on newsprint, designed to be written in), or perhaps inspiration can come from some of the many word game apps on the App Store today. In an app, words could be flung off the page, arranged by the reader (a la Endless Alphabet), shuffled around to create something new (like fridge magnet poetry with pictures to match)… The possibilities are endless for developers who are adept in storytelling.
8. PALIMPSESTIC POSSIBILITIES
The rub-to-reveal feature of some book apps is sometimes used to no real effect, but we have used it with a definite purpose in mind: The image which is revealed beneath the rubbings reveals the inner-world of a character, or in Hilda Bewildered it reveals a different interpretation of the same event. The underlying picture can be completely different or it can be mostly the same. In a printed book, palimpsestic relationships between spreads work well if the picture is completely different; harder to convey is where the picture is only slightly different. The rub-to-reveal abilities of touch screens draw readers’ attention towards similarities in a way I’ve only seen in ‘Spot the difference’ type gamification in printed books.
9. SOUND EFFECTS AND NARRATION
This is yet another area to get badly wrong, but when done right, sound effects and music can really enhance the mood of a story. Print books sometimes come bundled with CDs; others such as the Little Einstein publications have a panel of buttons which the young reader can press when told to inside the story. In picturebook apps, sound is more flexible: Sound can either autoplay, or it can be activated by the user, depending on how the developers would like to manipulate the reader’s experience of the story. Sound effects can be calm and unobtrusive or they can be surprising and comical. It almost goes without saying, but the read-aloud benefits of narration help emerging readers and readers with dyslexia. Even competent readers can be helped though difficult texts via narration. Other apps may avoid the option of narration, opting instead for a soundscape that sounds best on its own.
10. CINEMAGRAPHIC INTEREST
A cinemagraph is like a GIF. Well, it is a GIF, except the difference between a cinemagraph and a GIF of a cat falling down a crevice over and over again is that a cinemagraph is more subtle, and often loops seemlessly. For instance, the only moving part in a cinemagraph of a woman sitting on a park bench may be the slight up and down movement of her foot. This simple movement can signify her impatience in a way a static picture could not. In short, the cinemagraphic possibilities of pictures in apps allow for even more telling of the story via pictures, which is good, because picturebook apps don’t tend to do well with large blocks of text.
11. HELPING WITH READING DIFFICULTIES
I’m looking forward to emerging research on this.
But in the end, is it right to expect more of a storyapp than of a picturebook? Is it not enough to expect the same immersive experience, preferably shared? Such discussions are taking place all around the Internet, with a variety of diverse opinions. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing the research, which is by necessity behind the new technology itself.