Digital Picturebooks’ Double Standard

Today, digital picturebooks are at the heart of one of the biggest conversations in Children’s Publishing: the controversy of app versus hardback. There is an element of nostalgia placed behind a picturebook: physical handling, illustrations, story lines and interactivity to name a few aspects. However, no matter how successfully an app replicates these areas a hard-bound picturebook will always resonate as the ideal product for most parents.

By comparing a children’s picturebook app against the picturebook format it was constructed from, adults place a double standard on picturebooks as they unfairly criticise a digital platform not on the success of the product, but on the publishing platform it resonates on.

Picturebook apps have the potential to expand

New methods of obtaining picturebook apps – through Apple iPads, tablets and most touchscreen technology – are increasing the accessibility of digitalised picturebook apps. In 2014 Nielsen Book found that 50% of family households now own at least one tablet; a figure which has risen 26% from the previous year.

The digital platform is clearly expanding, John Styring the CEO of Igloo Books believes while children’s publishing ‘has generally been seen as “lagging behind” in the digital stakes, it is catching up fast as more parents have the technology available to them, and publishers feel that the technology is relevant to their offerings.’

Publishers such as Nosy Crow build their apps in-house, employing game developers to complement their core publishing skills. This specialist team collaborates to avoid a clash of cultures, sharing a set of beliefs about what their apps should be like, and what’s going to appeal to children. This ethos appears successful, with The Guardian referencing the company as a children’s publisher that prioritises reading over digital gimmicks. Nosy Crow, a leading picturebook app developer, therefore sets the foundation for other publications to follow.

So why do adults have reservations?

Traditional arguments appear to focus on similarities and differences in story-telling between books and apps, the success of coding on compatible devices and a comparison of sales figures – all of which conclude either print or digital is more successful. However Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow’s Managing Director, argues ‘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.’

With this understanding it is redundant to argue which format is more successful because of differing digital or print features. Instead the similarities between the two formats should be emphasised: after all, it is believed apps are constructed upon the conventions and gestures of print books.

Adults are becoming lazy

Apps are an additional form of storytelling, they are simply another way to use technology to engage children with reading. However, it is with this double standard, a technophobia of digital, that appears to deter many adults from engaging with digital picturebooks themselves.

Asi Sharabi, co-founder of Lost My Name, a publisher which makes personalised books for children, believes:

‘One thing that the iPad as a device, as a cultural artifact, has never really been good at are these shared co-reading experiences. Unlike books, where there’s no option but to sit down and read it with your kid in the early years… The tablet took a slightly different direction: it became the modern babysitter, or the modern pacifier. That’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it’s more about giving the child the device – “It’s your iPad time now” – rather than sitting down to read or play together on it.’

How picturebook apps negate an adult audience

The nostalgia placed behind the traditional reading experience is creating an unwillingness within adults to collaborate with the child while they hold a touch screen device. Data from Nielsen’s Children Book Summit 2016 found that data on apps is targeted towards children; despite this they believe ‘you need that moment when the device is in the parent’s hands. That’s the selling moment.’ Therefore, picturebook apps are failing to market themselves to a dual-audience and by doing so are restricting themselves by forcing a child to read alone.

Taken from Scholastics 2015 data: Parents’ Book Preferences for Their Child: Print vs. eBooks.
Figure 1. Parents’ Book Preferences for Their Child: Print vs. eBooks. © Scholastic, 2015

No matter how profitable picturebooks are or how successful interactivity becomes addictive to the story, it is the reading relationship between adult and child which makes a story limitless. Nicolette Jones found ‘if you look at a book with a small child, it’s a hug’; this sentimental concept shows how the participation of an adult extends the book beyond its pages and gives the story power. Publishers are therefore failing with picturebook apps as they are not encouraging adults to become co-users with the child.

Once again this is a double standard enforced from an adult’s perception. If placed in the context of a picturebook, children are guided in their learning; they have opportunities to ask questions and read at their own pace so that they can fully interact with the text. The Guardian found that for young children books are very much a social activity. Therefore, by taking away an adult who navigates a child through their learning, the child will struggle to form a relationship with a book. App publishers such as HarperCollins and online markets like Apple’s App Store are attempting to combat the lack of parental input by introducing a recommended reader age. By doing this an adult would assume the picturebook is age specific, resulting in an app which can be trusted to maintain focus by suiting a more specific audience.

A failure of engagement

Libby and James destroying the double standard and interacting together as co-authors on picture book app Pango
Libby and James destroying the double standard © Keith Wilkin

This brings us to how an app fails. Despite how an app introduces different devices such as guided reading, interactive characters and story lines which can only progress with the users’ participation, if a child refuses to engage they are unable to ask questions and instead are left to view the screen with no coherency. A regular feature writer for The Guardian found that when they write about children’s apps, ‘commenters steam in with variation on the argument “children should be READING not jabbing at screens”’. Once again this plays on the assumption that the child is independent in reading, an idea that would never be assumed if a child was left alone with a picturebook.

A way to destroy this double standard with picturebook apps is to encourage an adult to read with the child from a device. The app is only as successful as the level of interest a child shows it: in a recent study analysing picturebook theory in a digital age it was found ‘the flow of narrative only emerges if the user interacts with the images’. The opportunities that an app therefore presents ­– allowing the child to become a co-author as they explore the virtual reality – is a fantastic opportunity for both child and adult as they guide each other.

Children’s picturebooks on an adult platform

Adults place pressure on children to engage with an app as they would a book. Statistics have found more than eight in ten children agree that their favourite books, and the ones they are more likely to finish, are ones they have chosen themselves. This therefore is a concept which cannot be applied to apps as the market itself makes it hard for children to choose their own books.

It has been found standardised app icons limit the variety and diversity of picturebooks expressed on app stores. Moreover, the price and system of keychains a child would have to navigate through to make it to an app store means it is more likely an adult would choose, and purchase, a picturebook app. Therefore, a double standard has been placed on expecting a child to engage with an app they have not chosen themselves.

How are apps attempting to destroy this double standard?

By reformatting text, some picturebook apps are replicating classic books which play on the adult’s nostalgia. Sarah Llyod, Digital Director for Pan Macmillan believes their apps deliver so much more than the book format they derived from. Similarly, Nosy Crow’s app development remakes traditional stories that both children and adults enjoy reading. Stuart Dredge believes:

‘[Nosy Crow’s] Three Little Pigs, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood show it is perfectly possible to make a fairytale app with craft and care, while ensuring that interactivity and inventive use of device features like the camera and accelerometer don’t detract from the app’s main purpose: storytelling.’

Nosy Crow have not just restricted themselves to making translations of picture books; Tom Bonnick, Nosy Crow’s Digital Project and Marketing Manager, says Nosy Crow are hoping to adapt their Snow White app into a picturebook. ‘Although they’ve been adapted, these books are standalone products and they do demonstrate the value and the power of print books. Reading print is a very different experience from using apps. It’s about reusing material in different ways and extending the life of content.’ Watch how Nosy Crow’s app Little Red Riding Hood allow readers to create their own stories:

Jack and the Beanstalk is a further example of how Nosy Crow are developing apps further by remarketing picturebooks: Bonnick found they ‘made it with younger boy readers in mind, maybe who are reluctant to read too much on the page, but who are comfortable with on-screen gaming experiences’. Picturebook apps are no longer restricted to digital boundaries, with digital immigrants transforming and giving life to old text, and digital natives introducing new ideas, the opportunity to entice both adult and child is endless.

We need to change our perceptions

Adults need to work with a child to de-code picturebook apps in the same way they would with the hard-cover counterpart. By doing so a child is more likely to actively engage as it becomes a collaborative experience. This means like picturebooks themselves, apps should not be restricted by its format, but instead should flourish from the opportunities this presents both the adult and child.


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