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By: Roger Sutton
Blog: Read Roger - The Horn Book editor's rants and raves
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Like you (I’m guessing), I felt my soul give a little lurch at the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was getting out of the book business to go online, all the time. Part of my reaction was nostalgia—when I was a child we owned the first four or five volumes of some encyclopedia that my parents had picked up as a supermarket premium, and I would browse them endlessly. As any devotee of the Guinness World Records or the Farmers’ Almanac can tell you, it’s fun to pinball around within the structure a reference book gives you: it has rules so you don’t have to.
But as a librarian, I understand that digital reference sources, done right, have it all over print. The online Britannica is no less authoritative, arguably more so because it is more quickly updated than print. It’s still browsable and inspiring of serendipity: having secured a trial subscription for the purposes of writing this editorial, I’m having trouble keeping myself on task. Wikipedia without shame! Less expensive (given you have the means to access it, which is a big given) than print and more compact—what’s not to like?
Here is the question for children’s book people, though. Does the thought of a kid whizzing his or her way around an electronic reference source give us as much satisfaction as the picture of a kid doing the same thing with a printed book? I thought not. Whether librarian, teacher, publisher, or writer, when we say that at least part of our shared goal is to promote the “love of reading,” what we have always meant is the “love of books.” (Some books.) What will our goal be once books no longer provide our common core?
This is partially a question about e-books. Yes, e-books are books, and libraries want to buy them and enthusiastically promote their circulation to library patrons, who demonstrably want to read them. But publishers complain that they need “friction” to ensure that library borrowing doesn’t take too much of a bite from consumer purchases, and libraries are put into the position of licensing rather than acquiring e-books, just another borrower in the chain. However, this economic tussle is only an early warning sign of the real problem that librarians and (as Stephen Roxburgh argued in the March/April 2012 Horn Book) publishers face: thanks to the leveling power of the internet, electronic literature doesn’t need either one of us, at least as we currently understand our respective missions.
But this is also a question about the independence of readers. In libraries, even those kids who wouldn’t talk to a librarian if their lives depended on it rely far more than they know on the professional expertise provided by the library’s staff, systems, and policies. Readers’ advisory is found as much in the shelving as it is in a friendly chat. When we are reading online, however, we are far more on our own, for good (we can read what we want when we want it) or ill (finding what we want to read can be an adventure beset by false leads, commercial interests, and invasions of privacy).
What can children’s book people become? I reveal my fantasy of what we could make of the future on page 16 of this issue, but in reality what we need to do is to redefine our gatekeeping role. Along with giving up any notion that the only real reading is book reading, like the online Britannica we have to believe in our own expertise and convince others that our knowledge is worth attending to. We’ve spent more than a century dedicated to the idea that some reading is better than other reading, an elitist position we can defend by pointing to decades of excellence in books for youth. Publishers and librarians together, we made that happen. Let us continue to do so.
If you were like me, you applauded Press Here, the ingenious book by Hervé Tullet, for its anti-app bravado. If the news that there is now an app version (Chronicle, April) of the book disgusts you, please don’t be too quick to judge.
The first thing to realize is that Press Here was translated from the French, in which it was called Un Livre—”A Book”—and in most of the many languages it’s been translated into, the original title stuck. The French version of the “Press Here” app came out about a year ago and was titled “Un Jeu,” or “A Game.” In other words, it was not necessarily an app of the book but was rather Tullet’s exploration of his yellow, red, and blue dots in a completely different format.
In its English translation of Un Livre, Chronicle Books chose a title that emphasized the book’s interactive nature. For obvious reasons, when Chronicle made the English-language version of the “Un Jeu” app, they chose to stick with the book’s title. A bit confusing, n’est pas?
Unlike the book, pressing dots in this app actually does make something happen, but what that is may not be what you were expecting. Tullet makes up his own rules and the player’s goal is not to win but to figure out what those rules are. There are fifteen separate games, each using the hand-drawn dot motif of the book. But to call them games is a bit deceptive. They start out seeming like little puzzles to solve, but in fact most have no fixed conclusion.
They are more like little scientific explorations perfectly suited to 2- to 5-year-olds. And adults. Remember those non-competitive games that became popular in the 1970s, intended to encourage youth groups and corporate retreaters to enjoy the journey rather than aim for a destination? That’s what Tullet does here.
The home screen shows five rows of three dots, lined up like app icons and jiggling around a bit. Pressing a dot reveals a game title. Press again and you enter that game (or diversion, experience, puzzle — whatever you want to call it). In each, the player must explore by tapping and dragging dots and blank screens. In some games, tapping a dot changes its color. In others, it makes the dot larger. One game gives the dots magnetic properties. You can make fireworks, play foosball (without numeric score), play with “rain,” test your memory with a lotto game, and more.
My personal favorites are the ones that create music. I still haven’t completely figured out what they are doing, but I find that playing around with them is both engrossing and relaxing. The game called “Music Box” has something to do with gears and old records. You tap to add dots that will connect to some extra-fancy dots (little round doodles) and when you have connected a certain number of them, music begins to play. As you connect more disks, more layers are added to the music — repeated bass riffs, treble, etc.
The other two music games are called “Many Roads” and “Free Play.” In the first, three open dots or circles (blue, yellow, red) are seen. Pressing on each plays a bit of music: blue is clarinet, yellow is oboe, and red is flute. As you press longer on the initial circles, additional dots fill in a grid and the music becomes more complex. When the music dots reach an impasse, a boing sound signals the star
Benji Davies’s illustrations for the Bizzy Bear board books (Nosy Crow) are like catnip for young children. I defy any toddler or preschooler worth her salt to walk by a Bizzy Bear book and not pick it up. The wide-eyed, cheerful animals on the construction site (Let’s Get to Work!) or traveling to the beach (Off We Go!) are irresistible; add sturdy movable elements to push and pull, and you’ve got a kid-friendly novelty book. The texts are uninspired (“Bizzy Bear, Bizzy Bear, / give a shout! / Bizzy Bear, Bizzy Bear, / tip it out!”) and the plot is minimal, but kids won’t care a whit.
The illustrator’s animation work is obvious in his congenial cartoony style, and it’s no surprise that Bizzy Bear now stars in a Nosy Crow app, Bizzy Bear on the Farm (December; based on the board book, Fun on the Farm). The app features Bizzy on a visit to Sunny Farm, where he helps Farmer Joe (a tiger) with such chores as feeding the pigs, putting lambs in their pen (“Those lambs are very jumpy!”), gathering eggs, and putting the tractor away.
The app has the standard Nosy Crow features, including pulsing blue dots that signal users to tap the screen and make a character speak or make something happen. You can choose to read the text and speech-balloon dialogue yourself or be read to by a cast of seemingly professionally trained British children. Their perky voices are a good match for the perky text, but the kids start to sound pesky after a while (again, kids won’t notice). The upbeat background music adds to the sunny atmosphere, as do bird songs and other animal noises.*
The app is simple enough for toddlers to use along with a grownup and engaging enough to hold their attention over multiple viewings.
*NB: I’ve been asked by nearby co-workers to add a warning about the musical quaking ducks. Bizzy may “like to hear the ducks quacking,” but they seem to make more sensitive (on edge?) adults go quackers.
Early in the summer of 2009—many digital generations ago—HarperCollins set out to experiment with several iPhone/iPod Touch apps. We decided to create two apps based on easily searchable and popular topics (example: ABC), and one app based on a classic and best-selling picture book. The staff at Greenwillow Books was charged with figuring out how to make an app of Freight Train, by Donald Crews. Don was happy and willing to experiment, and we were off and running. At that time the field was wide open, and there weren’t many models for us to emulate. Now the technology has evolved so that picture books are adapted as interactive e-books as well as apps, and many of the challenges and frustrations we faced have been replaced by new ones. But here is a record of what it was like in the dinosaur days of electronic publishing.
Our goals for the project were as follows:
1. Create a child-centered app that would be played again and again.
2. Deliver enjoyable interactions with an educational component, excellent music, and surprises.
3. Promote the author and his books; remain true to the author’s vision.
4. Experiment and learn about the business models and about the creative process.
We chose Freight Train for several key reasons. It is an award-winning picture book with sales of more than a million copies. The art is simple and clean and would translate beautifully to the small screen. The subject matter is perfect for the intended audience. The book is linear (it literally moves along one track), so translating to the app experience was possible without creating additional art or files. We could see much potential for interactivity. There was well-known age-appropriate music in the public domain that we could use to enhance the experience for kids. We also had a Spanish version of Freight Train, so we would be able to make the app in two languages. We were further fortunate because Don had created Inside Freight Train (2001), a novelty board book featuring pages that slid open to reveal the contents of the freight cars, so we already had great additional art to use.
Step One: The Editors’ Storyboards
The first thing we did was to storyboard the app as sequential screens. We imagined interactions, sounds, and movement. We thought about the pacing and how we were going to keep kids engaged and surprised. Freight Train (the book) has two distinct parts—the introduction of the cars, before the train moves, and the pages showing the train moving through the landscape. This was a challenge, because we realized that the interactions would primarily happen in the first half of the app. The second half of the app would basically be a movie. We trusted that the magic of the book’s pacing would translate to the app format. We showed our storyboards to several developers and chose a developer who shared our vision.
Step Two: Don’s Storyboard
After we had a developer on board, Don brought his own ideas to the process and refined the rough editorial storyboards for the developer. He also weighed in on music, sound effects, and design.
Step Three: The Developer
Our developer then created detailed storyboards, told us what was possible technically (and what was not), suggested revisions, and encouraged us to move away from the book in order to deliver more interesting interactions, such as an addictive game featuring a mechanical scoop kids could manipulate to load and unload the cargo in the gondola car. But Don opted to remain true to his original work at all times, resisting a suggestion, for example, to introduce an animated opening sequence featuring music and
With the digital literary world ever-expanding and evolving, picture book apps are multiplying like Wanda Gág’s cats. In this rapidly changing climate, what gives a book-based app staying power? A successful picture book app…
Is interactive—but not too interactive
What distinguishes a picture book app from a traditional picture book or an e-book is the integration of interactive elements. But these should be used wisely, as too much interactivity can overwhelm or distract from the narrative. A busy adaptation of a well-known book, such as Pop-Out! The Tale of Peter Rabbit or Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as most users will already have a sense of the story. But the narrative thread of the app-only (and thus initially unfamiliar) tale A Present for Milo may snag on the plethora of opportunities for animations. It may take a child several times through to really follow the trajectory of story.
A straightforward translation, Donald Crews’s Freight Train (see pages 47 to 50) contains relatively few interactive features, mostly sound effects and opportunities to explore the cargo. The train’s journey remains the focus; users move through the book without much delay—or opportunity — for play.
The best approach may be a balanced one, such as Bean Creative’s in When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic and Wes Hargis. Narrator Billy enthusiastically discusses his many improbable career options (e.g., “snail trainer”), with brief interactive moments throughout. More extensive games based on his potential occupations (“EXtreme Snail Race”) may be played as they’re introduced in the story, but can also be accessed from the main menu.
Creates meaningful counterpoint between all parts of the app
Every aspect of an app—text, images, narration, music and sound effects, and interactive enhancements—should be accessible and enjoyable, not distracting. The features should also be interdependent, creating an experience greater than the sum of an app’s parts. In Nosy Crow’s Cinderella: A 3-D Fairy Tale, speech bubbles (separate from the “official” text) pop up when a character is tapped to reveal more information about his or her personality and behavior. Nosy Crow uses interactive elements as a narrative tool as crucial as text or illustration; the deepest understanding and appreciation of the story comes from interplay among all the parts.
In The Monster at the End of This Book, Grover’s narration of the text is enhanced by his reverse-psychology invitations to explore—“If you touched right here, that would turn the page…so do not do that”—and his frantic animated attempts to contain the “monster” lurking at story’s conclusion. Flying dust and tool sound effects ratchet up the humor.
Makes use of the “drama of the turning of the page”— even without physical pages
Loud Crow Interactive’s book apps photographically represent the book itself from cover to cover, maintaining all original page-turns and pacing so that animated elements seem to come to life inside the pages of an ordinary book. Many apps just as effectively display an individual page (or spread), then move to the next when the reader swipes to trigger an animated page turn. Some developers—such as Random House in Tad Hills’s How Rocket Learned to Read — additionally zoom in on one part of each illustration at a time, directing attention to moments as they’re narrated.
Puts users in charge
Users should be able to customize their experience of an app by turning on and off or changing narration, sound effects, or music. Users may prefer to have the