Are picture books just using the iPad to make pop-up books jealous? / by James Huggins

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book - Puffin Books

I love pop-up books. The craftsmanship of those complex paper structures springing from the page. It’s magical. But often the pop-up bits are just novel extras rather than features central to the story.

I sometimes wonder if regular picture books view them as a slightly extravagant cousin who’s always trying to steal the show at parties. Sometimes picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo get lucky and receive the pop-up treatment. In those cases in particular it feels like the picture book is simply wearing slightly more expensive clothes. Actually they’re Parisian couture because making pop-up books is not cheap. With the arrival of the iPad we’ve seen a flurry of picture book apps appear. But they’re no more an interactive picture book than a pop-up book. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them and have enjoyed playing with a few. But like pop up books my enjoyment centres on the pokey, tilty, shaky bits and not the story. The narrative is obscured by this new layer of interaction rather than enriched. So thanks to the iPad, the picture book now has a new way to dress for special occasions... But will it have a better way to tell a story?

In a way there is a connection here with the wider issues regarding technology and the future of publishing but really, picture books are a law unto themselves. This is why despite the e-book gold rush, picture books tend to end up in the app store rather than iBooks. The reasons are pretty clear, picture books are more fundamentally connected with their format and physicality than novels or reference texts. Even with recent additions of a PDF-like functionality in iBooks and the relative success of the Barnes & Noble Nook, picture books remain a less cosy fit for your average e-reader. For starters, no two picture books are the same size or format, I mean not even remotely. So getting them all to work on a fixed format screen is a challenge filed under ‘fiendish’. Trust me.

The fact that the digital translation of a picture book tends to be an app rather than an e-book speaks volumes about their different nature. So as an app a picture book has an enormous toy box of tricks at its disposal. With this new digital upgrade the picture book might even emerge from the shadow of its fancy pants show-off cousin, the pop-up book.

As the picture book takes in its new digital surroundings, full of promise, it realises that it has wound up in the realm of kiddy apps. Like many toys aimed at younger children the apps created for them generally involve brightly coloured things that the child can poke or tilt and shake. Am I snooty about these apps? Certainly not. I’m guilty of having used them to park the kids at times. Hey, even malevolent warlocks need the occasional tea-break right? But when it comes to picture books it’s very different. These are mostly definitely things we enjoy together, throughout the day but most often at bedtime. After all, it is this shared story-telling experience that is at the very heart of what picture books are all about and why, for the child, they are so developmentally important. I have seen a lot of picture books, really good ones, appear on the iPad as apps, which for me, don’t work. The main reason for this is that they have dipped into a mixed bag of interactions that are fun but ultimately distracting. Consequently the power of the story and stillness of the illustration is lost, becoming little more than wallpaper for a series of entertaining buttons. My daughter (5) and I were playing with one recently and having read the first page of the story I had to sit idly by as she set about prodding the screen with her finger like a pneumatic drill. Only once this exercise was exhausted could we turn the page and resume the story, only by now we’d both forgotten what it was about. The natural flow of the narrative, normally in the hands of the story-teller, was now in my view, fatally disrupted and as such the app, as a picture book experience, was a good deal less than its paper counterpart.

So the question is...

Can the picture book experience be enhanced by technology in any way?

Well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that my answer is no. All in all I seem to be fairly negative, but only because I think that most picture book apps are borrowing from the wrong interactive box of tricks. Rather than compete with the story for attention, the technology should empower it. Picture books are a rich vein of creative and imaginative development for young children. Whether you’re following the story or making up your own version, what really matters is the conversation, spoken or otherwise that unfolds between adult and child. Lots of parents I know aren’t all that comfortable with extending or modifying stories when reading from a book. I have a few friends who would start hyperventilating at the thought of being asked to tell a story on the spot. The main thing here is to realise that if you are going to have a go you’re most valuable ally is the child. They are master storytellers and what’s more, they’re fearless. Concocting an alternate version of Where the Wild Things Are or Little Red Riding Hood is a team effort and a wonderfully collaborative activity. This narrative extension or in most cases invention, is one of the main reasons sharing picture books with your kids is such an invaluable and important experience. Enjoying great stories and beautiful artwork with my children is hands down one of my favourite things to do. But this goes to another level when, once inspired, we respond to those illustrations and stories with our own adaptations and re-tellings.

So for my part, this is where the technology can make things really interesting. Not in relation to the original story, but in the creative response from the reader. Great stories are deliberately crafted to express an idea or view of the world. You can’t change the narrative without undermining that, so why bother? An exciting use for technology is not in telling the stories, but creating a playground of invention around them. I think the question that interactive picture books should be asking readers is not “How do you think the story goes?” but instead, “Where do you think the story goes from here?”

So where does that leave the picture book in this new interactive digital land? It’s possibly too early to tell. One thing is for certain, paper picture books aren’t going anywhere. Will they become more novel and, like wooden toys, continue to hold a mystical and nostalgic appeal? I think so. What’s equally certain is that rather than threatening the time we spend enjoying stories with our children, technology has the potential to discover new forms of it. It's possible we might discover a whole new set of trapdoors and secret passages into their creativity and imagination.

So all you interactive picture book apps out there needn't worry. We would still love you, even without your fancy clothes. So tell us your story, and we’ll tell you ours.

This discussion led to the creation of Me Books, our new picture book app platform.