From the moment I saw a touch-screen device – an iPod Touch – I was excited about the potential for apps to become reading experiences for children.
The first thing that struck me was the immediacy of the experience relative to other screen experiences: when you touch the screen, something happens. As adults, we have learned that we can make something happen on a screen by fiddling around with a mouse or a keyboard or a remote control. But if you showed a computer to someone from Shakespeare’s time, she wouldn’t touch the keyboard, but (when she’d got over her fear) would, I think, try to make something happen by touching the screen. If you type “toddler using an iPad” into google, you’ll see two year-olds using that device for the first time instinctively.
The second thing that struck me was how portable the devices were. I am a mother, and, when my children were little, I carried a huge bag that contained, as well as snacks and wet-wipes and a change of clothes, toys and at least five board or picture books. I realised that you could store hundreds of books in this tiny thing: an iPhone is approximately12 centimetres by 6 centimetres by 1 centimetre.
The third thing that struck me was how lovely the screen looked, and how beautiful colours looked on it. The backlighting that many people find annoying when they read texts on screen meant that colour images were lit up like little stained-glass windows.
And the fourth thing that struck me was that, now these things were in the world, they are unlikely to go away.
At The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference in September 2010, Justine Abbott, from Aardvark Research shared some of her research about young children’s engagement with digital media.
She talked about the fact that 28% of children under six have a television in their own rooms.
She said that pre-schoolers in her survey were watching television for over two hours per day.
She said that the youngest iPad user she’d met was four months old.
She quoted the mother of her 20 month-old son, “he’ll probably learn to read from the computer”.
She said that parents welcomed iPhones as “electronic Mary Poppinses”, providing interactive and engaging entertainment for their children without their intervention.
She concluded by saying that families were increasingly embracing screen-based technology as entertainment for their child, saying it was “portable, personal and (importantly) permissible”.
I know that many people involved in the world of children’s books shake their heads in sorrow or horror at Justine Abbott’s statements, and would, I know, recoil from the other statistical evidence that children are spending less time with print and more with screens and that their parents and teachers are letting them or encouraging them to do so.
But what are we to do? We could turn our back on the evidence, and say it is nothing to do with us, and keep our focus exclusively on print. Or we could try to ensure that some of that screen-time is reading time.
At Nosy Crow, we love books. We love the smell of them. We love the feel of them. We love the way that everything changes when you turn a page. Some of the books we will publish really have to happen on the printed page: they are very physical things. There are touch-and-feel elements throughout the Noodle books illustrated by Marion Billet that we will publish in May 2011. There are illustrations for the reader to complete with their own pens and pencils in the Mega Mash-up books by Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson that we publish in February 2001. And there are good, “old-fashioned” (in format, not content) paperbacks like S C Ransom’s romantic fantasy Small Blue Thing, published in January 2011, and beautifully produced picture books like Axel Scheffler’s Pip and Posy titles that are published in April 2011.
But, while we love books, we love reading more. And we profoundly believe in the potential for literacy and, specifically, reading for pleasure, to transform lives. We know that reading for pleasure correlates with increased attainment in reading and writing; that reading for pleasure fosters creativity and imagination; that reading for pleasure develops good social attitudes; that reading for pleasure contributes to knowledge and understanding of the world and that reading for pleasure contributes to self-esteem. We don’t just make this stuff up. These are the conclusions of decades of research: PIRLS 2007; Cox and Guthrie 2001; Meek, 1987; Allen et al 2005; Bus et al, 1995; Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993; Hatton and Marsh, 2005; Pressley 2000.
I’ve just come back from speaking at a children’s publishing conference in Munich: Wie digital wird das Kinderbuch?(How digital will children’s books become?). There the statistics presented about German children’s embrace of technology were just as overwhelming, but several publishers there were advocating a softly-softly approach: let’s make apps, but let’s not make them too different from books. Let’s keep the book, but have it appear on the screen. Let’s not get into competition with computer games and animated films.
That’s not what I think we, as publishers, should do.
I think that this route risks making reading less exciting to children. If games and books exist in the same screen space, the comparison between the two will be made. If something happens – a noise, a movement – when you touch the iPad screen when you are playing a game, won’t you feel disappointed if nothing much happens when you are reading a book?
I think that, as publishers, we shouldn’t be trying to squash the books that already exist onto a phone. We should, I think, be creating reading experiences for touch-screen devices. The devices have the capacity for sound, animation and interactivity built into them, and we should use those capacities to tell stories in a new and engaging way.
We’re trying to do just that. If you go onto YouTube and search Nosy Crow, you will find a video of the first of our 3-D Fairy Tales: The Three Little Pigs. It has text and it has illustrations, but it also has an audio track, and animation. When you touch the characters, they move, and you get additional comments. You can make the wolf blow down the house. You can explore the picture, and, when you tip the device backwards and forwards, the images look as if they are in 3-D. Here’s the link.
Making this app, and working on the others that we are developing has used many of the skills we already had: shaping text, determining pacing and choosing illustrations. We have had to learn new skills too, some of them purely technical, but many of them about how to tell a story in this new medium.
We think that, for us and for the people we have worked with, the process has been exciting. But what is important is that we’ve ended up with a reading experience that is engaging, fun, scary, funny, worthy of repeating – in the same way that a good book is all those things.
We shouldn’t turn our back. We shouldn’t go a little way down the digital path or do it half-heartedly and with reluctance. We should, I think, go to where our readers are going, and make sure that they read along the way.
(This is an edited version of an article that Kate has written for Books For Keeps, published in 2011)