Picture book apps, children and narrative

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.

Virginia Lowe and I met a number of times in children’s literature circles, but I date our friendship from a shared bottle of hideously sweet wine at a Literature conference dinner in Warburton a good decade ago. A Children’s Book Council executive member and former Book of the Year Judge, a former school and municipal librarian, not to mention a sometime lecturer at university in English, children’s literature and creative writing, Virginia has always been profoundly knowledgable and uncompromising in her standards when it came to children’s book.

Her PhD Thesis was actually based on the record she kept of her two children’s responses to books, from birth to adolescence, in the form of 5000 handwritten pages of meticulous and scrupulous note-taking. Her book Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (Routledge) tells that story.

She has written some fifty articles in professional journals, and three chapters in academic collections. She is also a published poet.

It does not end there.

Since 1997 she has been the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, which offers manuscript assessments for stories from board books to YA novels, e-courses in writing picture books and novels, mentoring, workshops and a free monthly bulletin. Picture books, with or without illustrations, are her specialty and a special focus of Create a Kids Book as well. Over forty books have been published with its assistance. You can learn more about Create a Kids Book here.

All of which made Virginia an obvious choice as a guest for this forum. I hoped when I asked her to take part, that she would focus her essay on picture books, but I did not ask her to do this, having made the decision not to be prescriptive with any of my guests. I am sure you will find her take on this subject as compelling and informative as I did.

8 Responses

    1. Maureen says:

      You raise such an interesting point, Virginia. I think Rosie Borella, Min, Georgie and myself were kind of discussing the issue of what reading and imagination will become in ‘the age of the ereader’ in her post ‘Forgotten Ones Shuffle to Centre Stage,’ but you go into it in far more depth.

      Your discussion of interactive ebooks and apps made me think of my experiences with autistic children (bear with me on this tangent). My brother has autism and I also work with children with ASD’s and a large part of this disability is sensory impairment. Trying to read from an app to learn for these children would be so difficult because of the sensory overload and the distractions involved which divert attention away from the story being told. I wonder if the same thing would happen with people with ADHD and ADD?

      Using ones hands to turns pages, and to play with pop ups also adds a physical development dimension to the reading experience. I wonder how much we are unwittingly changing the way we do things neurologically speaking? Only time will tell how using so much technology will affect human development. Interesting stuff.

      I guess the thing is, at what point is the additional activity detracting from the story, at what point is it enhancing it? Is the point of the app to distract a kid for awhile, or to allow them a different medium to experience reading a story? At what point does it cease to be a new form of story telling, and become a marketing gimmick?

      Maybe parents will have to get smarter about what they choose as an appropriate app and that will involve doing the research like Elizabeth Bird reccomends. You wonder though if in our busy world, parents will have the time?

    2. Chris Neilsen says:

      I vividly remember playing Snake (the original, not even Snake 2) on my mother’s phone while waiting for her to finish having her hair cut (which always seemed to take HOURS longer than mine did, which was at the same time but by one of the apprentices. Thinking back, it was probably nothing like that long…). So I can definitely appreciate the ‘Here look at this and stop bugging me’ aspect of aps on phones and ipads, even though I don’t have my own children.

      But at the same time, I also see that by relying on aps for everything, we’re stripping children of a lot of interaction and relationships. I’m a Cub Scout Leader, which are 7.5 – 10.5/11 year old Scouts, and we do a lot of the back-to-basics kinds of things that are becoming so important to children because they’re not getting them anywhere else. Scouts Australia talks a lot of about how we aim to teach children ‘responsible risk taking’, which was just words to me until I heard Dr Michael Carr-Gregg talking about how children these days are bubble wrapped and missing out on this important lesson. The lesson isn’t “You can climb over a vertical wall that’s less than 3m so long as you have adult supervision” (I made up that number, don’t quote me!), the lesson is “This is a risk of this size and we’ve managed it in these ways.” Kids are missing out on learning about the little risks so they don’t know how to judge the bigger ones later in life (which is, here’s a plug, why your kid should join Scouts 😛 ).

      And whilst a talking Peter Rabbit e-book is not bubble wrapping a child or stopping them from climbing a tree, I wonder if it’s a symptom of the same thing. In the book’s case I think it’s partly that we get over attached to technology and want it in every part of our lives, and maybe for some parents it’s the idea that the ipad can do what they don’t have (or won’t make) time for. But I think there’s a lot of research out there saying that the things we’re relying on technology to do for us for our children aren’t working, and that sometimes simple and old-fashioned is best. Technology is amazing, but it’s not the be all and end all, and it can’t do everything.

    3. Rosie Borella says:

      Hi Virginia – that was a very interesting post. You always relate the theoretical to real life examples, which is great.

      I wanted to ask you – is there much academic research out there yet on ebooks and enhanced ebooks, and effects on young children and reading/and or interaction?

      When I was trawling around looking for information before writing my piece, I found the small-sample, very preliminary Cooney Centre QuickStudy (which seems to support your observations), and a few academic studies – but these were full of jargon and less easy for the lay person to understand.

      Have you found much academic research in progress to date?

      • Maureen says:

        I would love to know this too, Rosie. I was getting at the same thing in my own comment- how will enhanced ereaders and apps etc affect things in child development and literacy? Will they change how future generations think?

    4. Catherine Bateson says:

      I’d urge everyone following this debate to read David Ullin’s book – or long essay, really – The Lost Art of Reading. He isn’t against ebooks but he does have some very interesting things to say about reading:

      ‘Reading, after all, is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage. It connects us are the deepest levels; it is slow, rather than fast. That is its beauty and its challenge: in a culture of instant information, it requires us to pace ourselves. What does it mean, this notion of slow reading? Most fundamentally, it returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book ,we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. Even more, we are reminded of all we need to savor – this instant, this scene, this line. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, but stepping back from the noisier, the tumult, to discover our reflections in another mind. As we do, we join a broader conversation, by which we both transcend ourselves and are enlarged.”
      David Ullin, The Lost Art of Reading, Sasquatch Books, 2010, pp. 150 – 151.

    5. Deb says:

      Turning Peter Rabbit into an ebook just seems wrong, but I guess it’s not that different to turning it into a cartoon for TV.

      • I think the debate about existing paper books being made into apps or eBooks is different to apps and eBooks created specifically for iPads or eReaders. I thought Nick Bland addressed this issue well in his post.

        I think the apps and eBooks just aren’t as good as the printed book argument is mostly sentimentality. App and eBook developers are still exploring the form. There are a lot of bad apps and eBooks out there (I know I’ve made some ;-). Just like there would be a lot of bad printed books available if it was cheap and easy to print books.

        Debate about apps, eBooks and printed books should compare the best examples and consider what each format is capable of. I think they’re all legitimate, full of possibilities, and am excited to see what creative authors are going to do with the new digital formats available to them.

    6. Sorry I haven’t joined in this discussion everyone – I’ve been interstate, and then sick – but okay now.
      Yes, material on the apps, enhanced e-books and the rest, is not easy to come by. i admit I haven’t done an academic search as yet. Here is one fairly brief but interesting article, looking at parent and child reactions to print books, the same books on line, and the same books as enhanced e-books.
      http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/upload_kits/jgcc_ebooks_quickreport.pdf.
      Catherine, I just loved that quote from David Ullin.
      Virginia