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Posted by Kate, September 26, 2014

A defence of story apps after a speaker at The Bookseller Children’s Book Conference said that apps interfered with story

I spent yesterday at The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference.

It was a good day. Informative data shared. Interesting people met and re-met. A new prize for YA fiction announced. Tom Bonnick spoke very well in just ten minutes about some of the ways that Nosy Crow uses and reuses content in print and digital form without hesitation, repetition or deviation. And things that were said at the conference reminded me of some important things. Here are just a few of them:

1. We need, as an industry and a company, to think harder and better about representing diversity in children’s books.

2. As an industry, we continue to under-acknowledge the role of illustrators (Axel Scheffler’s name was not mentioned once by any speaker other than Tom, despite many references to The Gruffalo and other bestsellers that he’s contributed so much to).

3. Nosy Crow is different from a corporate children’s publisher in many ways, and we need to continue to make that difference an advantage.

But there were things said that I didn’t entirely agree with. One of them was said by Nicolette Jones, who reviews children’s books for the Sunday Times and is deeply engaged with the world of children’s books. I have massive respect for Nicolette, and see eye-to-eye with her on many things. But I disagree with her about apps.

Nicolette said that she had “reservations” about picture book apps, on the basis that the printed book “does it better”, and went on to say that the “technology of the app interferes with the story”. She worried that “interactivity in apps replaces the space in children’s imagination”, and that “the app doesn’t go through the adult”. She said that the only apps she’d found successful were apps like the Touchpress Warhorse app, and Hot Key’s Maggot Moon app which provided additional material around each book, which, in itself, remains unaffected by the surrounding multimedia or animation material.

I love print books. I love print picture books. Publishing books that work well on the printed paper page is not just key to Nosy Crow’s commercial success but one of the things that excites us every day… and, in fact, Nicolette mentioned Open Very Carefully as a book that was both interactive and used the printed page particularly well. But I also love story book apps. I think that making multimedia, interactive apps that still deliver a narrative successfully is a challenge that Nosy Crow rises to. Apps are not books, and books are not apps. Successful making of story apps requires an understanding that apps are another country, and we should do things differently there.

When we are making apps, we think hard about narrative, as, I hope, blog posts like this one about the differences between writing picture books and apps suggest. In each scene in our story book apps, we deliver the narrative before we enable interactivity, so that the child has that part of the story delivered to them before they can explore the scene further. We try to ensure that interactivity reinforces understanding of character: the extra, non-linear, touch-prompted dialogue between Cinderella’s stepsisters creates a sense of them as different characters in our Cinderella app. One sister is vain, and one is jaded. We try to ensure that interactivity reinforces story: in our Rounds: Franklin Frog app, which is a non-fiction story of the lifecycle of a frog, we have worked hard to ensure that the frogspawn behaves like frogspawn, drifting back into a sticky mass after it’s been disturbed, and that, when the child helps the tadpole to escape its egg, there’s a level of jelly-like resistance which means that the child has to pull at the surface of the egg several times before the tadpole is released.

Of course (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?), we see terrible examples of picture book apps where the multimedia and the interactivity do interrupt the story, and where there are features that are introduced just because the developer can introduce them. I have, for example, seen Three Little Pigs apps in which the straw and stick houses, having been destroyed with some kind of interactive touch, spring back into shape again immediately, so the child can knock them down again. Fun, maybe, but narratively all wrong: the point – the moral – of the story is that those two lazy pigs’ houses are destroyed completely by the wolf’s huffing and puffing, and the child must understand that the resilience of the brick house is what makes the third pig different. In our Three Little Pigs app, needless to say, the first two houses don’t spring back into their former shapes after the reader helps the wolf to destroy them either with a tap, or by huffing and puffing into the microphone. Apps can increase children’s sense of ownership of, and engagement with, the story as they are making the events unfold themselves – or even, in the case of our Little Red Riding Hood app and Jack and the Beanstalk app, themselves influence the direction of the narrative. As this young child said to a teacher in a recent guest blog post, “I like the series Nosy Crow and the apps that they make because they tell you the story and you get to play the story at the same time.”

So I think that it is possible to create apps that deliver stories well and that involve children in new ways in the story… and I think it’s important that we try our hardest as a company to make sure that apps that do just that.

Because…

First, however lovely it would be to think that there are, throughout the world, and certainly up and down the United Kingdom, young children who can, any time they want to, clamber up into an adult’s lap and share a picture book with them, I don’t think that’s how life is. I think that story book apps with audio that a child can trigger may increase children’s access to text-based stories: when an adult is busy (working, cooking, with another child), the child can still listen to a story at their own pace. And I think that interactive “hot spots” may encourage children to explore the detail of illustration more carefully than they might in a print book. Besides, I really don’t see why adults shouldn’t share apps with their children in just the same way that they share print books with them. Anecdotally, from our social media and other contact with parents, that’s just what the parents who read picture books to their children but also have access to iPads do.

Second, there are children for whom interactivity and multimedia are invaluable supports to the pleasure they get from story. A good example of such a child would be Ines, who is seven and who has Down’s Syndrome, and whose mother wrote this blog post for us earlier this week about the apps, including Nosy Crow story apps, that Ines loves. There’s a picture of Ines at the top of the post, really engrossed in our Little Red Riding Hood app. Ines’s mother has tweeted to say, “Ines now enjoys sharing the real books of the stories that the Nosy Crow apps have introduced her to. For her, the apps have been a bridge.” (The use of “real” in that tweet is telling, though…)

And, third, even if we’re not talking about children for whom multimedia and interactivity might be a particular welcome support, the truth is that children are spending more and more time in front of screens, many of them touchscreens. Various speakers at the conference today spoke about the hugely increased access to touchscreens. Alison York from Nickelodeon shared their research which suggested that 51% of 3 to 15 year-olds in the UK now have a tablet at home – a percentage that has doubled since 2012. If children are spending a lot of time with touch-screen devices, I think that we should want reading to be part of the entertainment they find there. And I think that, if they find reading there, it has to compete effectively with other things they find in the same place – TV, games and social media. I think that children, especially young children, don’t differentiate between different kinds of media that they find on the touchscreen. They expect interactivity and multimedia from any media they find there. So my heart sinks when I see young children presented with a standard ebook (or a poorly thought-through app) on a touch screen: in my experience, they tap, with increasingly disconsolate randomness, at anything and everything, before giving up. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I do not think reading should be the most boring (i.e. least competitive with other media) that children can do on a touchscreen.

Bev Humphrey, who’s a literacy and technology consultant and an ex-school librarian, spoke today about children and young people increasingly using screens for reading outside school, and preferring screen to paper. She also spoke about schools recognising ebooks an incentive to draw children, particularly reluctant readers, into reading. I think that there is a generation of children that we have to serve well with imaginative and compelling digital reading experiences that use the features of the devices in children’s hands in the same way that creators from other media backgrounds do. I can absolutely imagine a scenario in which mass literacy is just a historical blip; something that started in in the 19th century and lasted until the middle of the 21st. Technology could easily make the ability to decode text irrelevant. I think that would be a terrible thing. I want to give children the incentive to learn to decode text. I think we can do that best by making sure that we use technology to engage children with reading in every way that we can.

I disagreed with something another speaker said too, but I’ll leave that for next week’s post…