Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is a neat little white bound volume which I found fascinating as a child (the series all had spines, like real books!). This universally known story is about four little rabbits, three good, one bad.
In many homes, and for over a hundred years, it has been a favourite bedtime tale – excitement for kids, and the moral of disobedience bringing its own consequences, for parents. Though of course this does backfire as well – who had much the most thrilling time, the good sisters picking blackberries, or wilful Peter? Who would the child-reader want to emulate?
And the language is so colourful and powerful. Vocabulary to be tasted and tried out, to be cherished and chosen. Some friendly sparrows ‘flew to him in great excitement and implored him to exert himself’. Heard over and over on the parent’s knee, this language, its vocabulary and singing structure, lodges in the child’s subconscious, and some of it takes its place in their growing vocabulary. And the story – the beginning (in their rabbit hole under the oak tree), the middle, where Peter goes into the farmer’s garden and only escapes by hiding in a full watering can, and the ending where he’s sick and is put to bed with chamomile tea instead of bread and milk and blackberries – this pattern lodges in the child’s mind as well. So that’s what narrative is all about – leaving home, having adventures, and returning to security.
Now take our child exploring Peter Rabbit as an app, instead of as a book. PopOut! Peter Rabbit is created by Loud Crow Interactive, and widely praised (by Elizabeth Bird in the School Library Journal for instance). On the first page leaves fall from the oak tree, on the next page Mrs Rabbit’s basket swings on her arm. Each picture has an interactive aspect for the child to play with, many with tabs – just like an old fashioned pop-up book. And all the time, a voice is telling you the story – a sort of canned muzak, maybe pleasant background, maybe an irritant, but almost certainly not taken in as lush language to be enjoyed. The child will turn the page when she is bored with the activity, and to find out what the next page offers in the way of interactivity, but probably not to find out what happens next in the story.
Of course the pretend pop-up aspects are fun to watch, and to activate. But surely the charm of the ‘real’ pop-up book, even to a young child, is the way the artist has crafted the paper to create something that little fingers can make to move – the cleverness of it. Does it feel so clever when it’s an app? At some level, doesn’t the child realise that there are no constraints of paper and cutting and folding and what tabs can do? Anything at all is possible on the screen, and though it is clever of the programmer of course, it is not admiration for the creator that the child will feel (especially if they had tried the craft for themselves), rather they will be impressed by what they themselves can ‘make’ the picture do.
So although this app is as close to a book as it’s possible to be and still be an interactive app, it’s not really giving what the book itself would give, the warm sitting on the knee, and the parent’s own voice, with its timbre and its vibrations, reading the words from the page. The words have become secondary to the interactive experience. And narrative? Maybe plot and characterisation have flown out the window with admiration for the pop up artist? (Incidentally I do know that The Tale of Peter Rabbit was not a pop-up book as Beatrix Potter originally produced it).
Perhaps the app works best when the story is familiar, when the child can enjoy this extra aspect to a well-known story. And certainly it will keep them entertained in the car on a long trip.
A colleague has children, ages two and five, and has had an i-Pad for a year. She tells me:
All that my children seemed to do with it was “play” with the interactive elements [of the Peter Rabbit app] (squashing the blackberries being their favourite!), completely bypassing the story and ignoring the voice reading to them. I’ve tried to read books on the i-Pad, but all the children wanted to do is tap their fingers on it to see what they could change or move. I found the experience very frustrating and gave up on using the i-Pad as a means to read stories to them.’
She finishes by commenting:
For some it may be an e-book, but in my house it is still the printed book.
There are different forms of picture book app. Some, like Peter Rabbit, are very closely based on an actual book. The Dr Seuss ones are like this – the pictures just move about the screen, while the voice reads. There is little or no interactivity. But others are completely different – they are to entertain the child rather than impart a story. So in the middle of the tale, the child might find a picture to colour, or a word game or jigsaw to solve. Here, even less of the narrative is going to get through. The child will be so thoroughly distracted that the story must become irrelevant. Besides, if they are using an iPhone, rather than an iPad, only one page at a time can be presented, not the whole double page opening, which is the aesthetic unit in a picture book.
In her article, Elizabeth Bird suggests things to look for in selecting a picture book app. Among them are: Can you turn the voice off and read it yourself? Do the activities only happen once or twice on a page, or can the child keep playing with them indefinitely? Can it be heard in a different language? How much intrusion is there into the story itself? Can you easily skip from one part of the story to another? Is there anything it does better than a simple book would do? The Kirkus site also has useful reviews.
It’s probably no surprise that I’d always opt for the paper version. Apps are a great form of entertainment – I wish they’d been around when my kids were squabbling in the back of the car – but as far as understanding the narrative – the characters and plot – well, I’m not sure.