Less Glitz Makes for More Magic in Children’s Apps

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

children's apps publishing BolognaRagazziAt the end of March, a fortunate group of children’s authors, book publishers and app developers from around the world gathered at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where the Children’s Technology Review hosted talks and workshops on children’s apps and announced the winners of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize.

This year’s winner, My Very Hungry Caterpillar, based on the work of Eric Carle (StoryToys), and first runner-up, Spot by David Wiesner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), together suggest a new trend in children’s book apps toward nonlinear narrative experimentation and away from gratuitous use of digital features like flashy animation.

Publishers of digital children’s content should take careful note.

Recent research suggests it’s far from clear that the sorts of multisensory features that distinguish kids’ games and other forms of digital entertainment must be replicated in reading experiences in order to hold children’s attentions.

The titles the BolognaRagazzi judges recognized this year take a different approach altogether. They are both:

  • wordless picture books
  • by an award-winning picture book author;
  • original stories
  • read in a nonlinear way; and
  • interactive in the truest sense—by calling for readers to co-write the story

Many expect digital stories, by their very nature, to be nonlinear, but few book app developers have explored the possibilities of nonlinear storytelling to their fullest potential.

The app edition of My Very Hungry Caterpillar animates the same caterpillar character as Eric Carle’s printed book. In the app, though, readers can move the caterpillar left or right to explore his new environment. In fact, the child reader has to play with the caterpillar in order to keep the story moving forward.

First, the reader follows the dotted line to make an apple fall from a tree, and then the caterpillar inches his way through it. Later, after the reader waters some potted plants, the caterpillar eats a fresh crop of reader-grown strawberries.

As the story moves on, scenes move away from eating and growing toward more imaginative play. The caterpillar nudges a bouncing ball up, down, back and forth and takes a round-trip ride on a raft in a pond full of rubber ducks.

In other words, My Very Hungry Caterpillar is unique because interactivity is the basis of narrative progression, not self-contained activities or detours injected into an otherwise static, sequential story. Instead, digital functionality adds details and changes the very story each time a child reads it.

This might seem like an obvious use of the format, but it hasn’t widely been done by other publishers and app developers. On the second reading, pear trees are next to the apple trees. Very gradually, the caterpillar gets bigger, and after an even longer time, once it’s had time to rest, it builds and sheds a cocoon in order to emerge as a butterfly. But it takes repeated engagement with the content—and the discovery of something new each time—for any of that to take place.

In fact, the runner-up for BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize holds even more promise for the future of book apps in this regard than the winner does.

David Wiesner actually wrote the story for Spot specifically for digital production, whereas Carle simply allowed the illustrations for his popular picture book to be licensed for a digital app. And it’s Wiesner’s work that plays more boldly with nonlinear narrative.

Similar to Istvan Banyai’s book Zoom (Puffin Books, 1998), Spot features miniature pictures within pictures. Borrowing the two-finger zoom motion common in touchscreen devices, readers use two fingers to move deeper into a scene and blow it up—in one instance zooming in on a dot on a ladybug to discover that it’s actually a black umbrella held up by a smaller ladybug.

The app starts with a scene that has five glowing entry-points into five different story worlds. Readers can create separate stories per world or stories that thread through worlds. Yet, what’s effective in Spot is how its simple form balances that complexity in the story building.

While I appreciate the artistry of both award-winning apps, I still feel impatient for book apps that play with language in some of the ways physical picture books do—with word play, cadence, rhyming, and the relationships between text and image. Many children’s book authors may feel similarly.

Yet I recognize that these apps succeed because, like the best picture books, they leave ample room for children to use their imaginations. And at least in these two cases, words could actually impede that, as would excessive animation. What StoryToys and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did by holding back on technology—and what Carle and Wiesner did by holding back on words—not only allows space for parents and children to create stories together but actually compels them to do so.

This type of ‘negative’ enhancement could become a pivotal feature for those committed to improving kids’ book apps until they are as beloved by new generations of young readers as some of the most celebrated picture books. As Arthur William Radford says, “Half of art is knowing when to stop.”

Imagine the possibilities, for instance, if writers and illustrators applied motion metaphorically—like stiff, paper-doll-like movements to show a character’s unwillingness to bend. How could changes in sound alone allow for variation in the meaning of a story? What new tales could an app inspire by requiring a reader to select from a menu of recorded sound effects—or by prompting readers to record their own? A door that creaks when it opens makes for a different narrative than one that opens with a gentle tinkling of bells.

When app developers fill in too many gaps, readers lose the chance to use their imaginations and to delight themselves. I’ve been searching for an app that does what Wiesner accomplished in his print picture book The Three Pigs—where he breaks free of the linear continuum of time. The three pigs take a ride on a paper airplane, and Wiesner cleverly uses the white spaces to convey the plane’s motion. Readers must imaginatively fill in the zigzags and loops from the time the plane flies off the page one way and flies back onto it in a different direction and angle.

Picture book authors have pursued nonlinear narrative innovations like that for decades, all with just a simple idea or device that makes the best use of the format. Won’t it be exciting if children’s apps continue to take innovative leaps as they figure out how to work a similar magic all their own?

3 thoughts on “Less Glitz Makes for More Magic in Children’s Apps

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Apps should also encourage a child’s curiosity by not necessarily making what to do obvious or easy. Let the try different paths to discover which ones work and which don’t.

    For this hungry caterpillar, that’d mean the child has to discover what it likes to eat and how to get it. And developers shouldn’t always make things easy. Make that apple fall on the far side of a fence, for instance.

    Life is like that.

    Reply
  2. Gretchen Haertsch

    Nice to read this very intelligent discussion of children’s apps. You raise so many important points and they’re not obvious unless one really things about them. Glad to see the issue explored in detail!

    Reply

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