Picture books or Apps? Room for both? In this musing I suggest that we should free the story app up to be its own thing, thereby maximising its potential. It’s not a book. Let’s throw away the part of it that still tries to be. Controversial? Probably..…….
A debate has begun about children’s story apps. It’s about time it began. It’s interesting and important. For those of you in the dark, Story Apps are digital picture books with interactive elements. The words appear on the tablet screen and are usually highlighted as the story is read aloud, but the user can swipe, tap, tip and do all manner of things that will make stuff happen and, in some instances (the best instances) will dictate the direction of the story. Clever, eh?
The dialogue was kicked off at The Bookseller’s recent kids’ conference where Nicolette Jones, a respected Sunday Times reviewer of children’s books, cast aspersions on the value of Story Apps for small children, claiming that they took the child’s imagination away from the story, interrupted the story and did nothing that a picture book couldn’t already do. Julia Donaldson, Queen of the picture book kingdom, weighed in, supporting this position, saying that she would not allow her books, which include The Gruffalo, made into E Books. (I think she’s confusing E Books with Story Apps. Story Apps are interactive, Ebooks or ibooks are just a digital version of the actual book with no interactivity. So not much harm in that, I don’t think, and an easy way to take your favourite picture books on holiday.)
The hostility towards the Story App genre (is it a genre?) at the Bookseller conference was countered in an excellent blog by Kate Wilson, Managing Director of the much respected Nosy Crow publishing house. Nosy Crow has gained a reputation for producing some innovative digital content for the younger end of the children’s market, including a lot of story apps. It’s pretty much universally acknowledged that they are the creative leaders in this field. The Nosy Crow apps are beautiful to look at and there’s a real sense that the editorial, rather than the technical expertise is leading the way. Often with this new medium the tail is wagging the dog.
At a recent Nosy Crow conference I asked the same question posed by Nicolette Jones. And Kate Wilson supplied a very clear answer and one with which, broadly speaking, I concur. She claims that the interactivity of the user should move the story on, not interrupt it. And this underpins the interactivity in the Nosy Crow Apps. It’s also the maxim we used for a recent Grandpa In My Pocket story app we recently did with CBeebies. The child isn’t encouraged to enter into some kind of random gaming scenario or “swipe and tap fest” mid-story. Rather, the activity that they’re called upon to do moves the narrative on.
But putting this into practice presents challenges. If you only allow the child to interact with the story when it’s time for the story to take another turn, you’ll probably find that there isn’t enough interaction. (Remember that we are now in a world where if a child sees a tablet, they expect it to DO something so they’ll be disappointed if there aren’t enough gimmicks and gizmos. ) But if you embed random activities within a screen then you’ll probably find that the child gets distracted by those and loses the thread of the story. We have to ask the question – does it matter? Is it just different?
I asked Stuart Dredge some time ago if he knew of any good academic research into this new form. He didn’t. Stuart has been reviewing apps since their inception, as far as I can tell. He is the Apps King and he knows everything. It’s probably still too early for any meaningful research and, when it does come, it’ll most likely be fragmented and contradictory, much like most of the research on the effect of children’s television. So we need to use our common sense and draw on our collective technical, editorial and production experience to move this interesting new beast to the next level.
I confess I started out some years ago with what would be perceived to be a very Luddite view of this digital storytelling malarkey. I came out in an indignant sweat, seeing kids randomly swiping and jabbing at screens in a frenzy of tippy tappying, to see what happened. It felt to me that we were producing a generation of youngsters with the concentration of a head louse on acid, unable to relax and process a story in the time honoured way, unable to give anything time or consideration. But, working on story apps over the past few years, I’ve moderated my view. I can now see enormous potential here – really exciting possibilities. If it’s done well, I think it can be really enriching. But, to be courageously frank, I don’t think anyone has quite cracked it yet. It’s trying to be all things to all men and hasn’t quite figured out its unique identity or purpose.
A few weeks ago I went to a conference day organised by Action for Children’s Arts. It was at The Globe Theatre. It was about children’s immersive theatre. This, I realised, is the low tech equivalent of the story app. The idea is that the audience becomes immersed in the theatre show – sometimes by becoming part of the story; sometimes dictating the story but there are always interactive elements, from the obvious call and response panto-type moments to more physical, tactile and even olfactory elements. As part of the day we were treated to a performance of “Muse of Fire” – billed as an immersive family show, devised and produced by the education department at The Globe. In my humble opinion I thought it was very weak. It was a promenade performance that took groups of the audience from one setting to the next where they would encounter an actor or two engaged in a little scene. The story was non- existent as far as any of us could tell. It was more a thematic experience. It was a kind of “happening” rather than a piece of storytelling or theatre as we know it. But the kids in the groups did engage. They did try to guess answers. They did seem to enjoy it. It has won audience awards. So let’s not judge too quickly. Clearly the children are getting something out of this. My contention is that they could get more. Similarly, I think they could get more from story apps. And as the technology steams relentlessly on, so the story app will undoubtedly evolve.
The Globe conference highlighted exactly the same issues that face us in the digital space. How much to you sacrifice the flow and the drama and emotion of the story by interspersing it with activity? We’re all struggling with this. But it may be because we all have an inherent need to cling to the concept of story. And there’s a reason for that and it’s because story is so fundamental to our very being. So when it gets mucked about with, it feels somehow unsatisfying. But perhaps we should allow the story app simply to be different?
The other thing that strikes me is that the aim of both immersive theatre and story apps is to make the child a participant in the story so that they suspend disbelief to the point at which they believe themselves to be at one with the world of the story. But, frankly, if, as an audience, you’re required to participate, rather than sit back and lose yourself imaginatively in the story, you’re much more aware of your own role in it. That self-awareness actually serves to distance you from the story, not immerse you in it.
The story app is making kids think, make decisions, be reactive, be proactive, make things happen. This is all good, no? But I would contest that in doing this they’re using a different bit of the brain to the bit that is activated when a picture book is simply read to them, where they don’t have to participate, they can just allow themselves to drift into that imaginative world and be part of it in that kind of way. So, in that respect, I can totally see where Nicolette is coming from. And the sensible answer is – there’s room for both.
Kate Wilson rightly claims that Apps are another country where we must do things differently and that publishers should go where the kids are. And the kids are on line. Agreed. She also points out that if we can introduce a reading experience into the space that the kids are occupying, it has to be a good thing. I take slight issue with the whole reading experience argument because I think that it is this very thing that’s holding the story apps back from having their own real identity and being able to fly.
The fact is that the Story App is a totally different beast from the picture book. It isn’t a book. I would contest that, as the tech improves, the story app is going to move closer to an interactive little film than to a book. So here’s the controversial idea. What if we throw away the notion that this is some kind of variant on a book. It’s called a STORY App. The clue is in the word “story.” It’s not a BOOK app. Let’s lose all the words from the screen. Let’s stop seeing it as a reading aid. The app should be an exciting, energised, dramatic experience; an interactive drama or comedy in which a kid can participate and make things happen. An app needs to be something that a book can’t be. The story should be told by the best storytellers and actors, properly paced with great sound, music and bags of atmosphere. The child is far more likely to get engrossed in a story if it feels real, dramatic, exciting. For my money the highlighted words on the screen hamper the experience. They take the eye and they hold back the pace of proper storytelling. Bespoke digital reading aids can be produced in a far more effective way with proper language scaffolding appropriate to the age of the child. So I say let’s experiment with not trying to shoehorn reading into an app.
When Audio Books first emerged I was working in Audio Publishing. There was a good deal of sniffiness about the fact that kids weren’t reading the words. Horror! How were they ever going to learn to read if we just gave them content aurally without them having to make any effort Shocking! The fact is that it was simply another way of children accessing STORY – and a perfectly valid one. The world came round to the idea that it was just fine. Parents stopped stressing when they realised that this didn’t mean the end of reading. I suspect that this “reading experience” bit of the current app world came about because we were inherently wary that parents might be better disposed towards this latest screen based activity if it had some kind of tangible educational value. We get that in television all the time. Please the parents. Make them SEE the “learn.”
But here’s the thing. The “learn” is the STORY. Forget the reading. Story is the single most important educative tool for pre-schoolers. They find story in everything. Let the story app be about story not about reading. Let it not try to be all things to all men. I would love to find a way to use the technology that’s increasingly available to deliver the best possible dramatic storytelling in which the child can play a part. And to let the part that the child plays affect the story.
Forget the reading aid. Forget the book. Let the story LIVE in a way in which only an app can make it live. Let an app be an app. It IS another country. Allow it to break free. Give it its independence!