Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Many children’s book authors aren’t huge fans of the so-called “picture book apps” or “story apps” entering the children’s market at ever increasing volumes. One reason why is because they aren’t authoring them.
I recently spent a lot of time with children’s authors while completing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. So I have a pretty good sense of the sources of their frustration.
The problem begins, in many cases, with a misunderstanding about what book apps for children actually are. Plenty of veteran authors consider apps—sometimes without ever having seen one—to be animated cartoons, games or entertaining videos. As a result, too few experienced children’s authors explore how to adapt their talents to take best advantage of the opportunities digital content affords them.
In fact, most picture book apps on the market today are (if to varying degrees) “translations” of printed picture books. But what interests me more are the digitally born stories conceived and developed with app production in mind.
There still aren’t many of these. In my own research on those that are currently on the market, I didn’t have to look at many apps to conclude that, just as children’s authors tend to snub picture book apps, many app developers overlook children’s authors.
Picture book apps often don’t even cite a writer. When they do, the author is likely the animator, designer or developer. I can fully understand the rationale for publishing copyright-free book apps—digital titles based on stories in the public domain: Why invest in original content when what you’re primarily working out is functionality?
But I’m not sure app developers realize what they’re losing by sidestepping experienced children’s authors. Too often, what today’s picture book apps are missing is the story.
Even the best animation or the most seamlessly speedy download can’t save a bad story. Poor picture book apps come from neglecting the narrative or from relying on digital features that detract from it. Unfortunately, that can result from thoroughly capable developers doing what they should be doing—focusing on creating the right code for the right format for the right device—without devoting equal talent toward creating an engaging narrative experience.
This is where children’s book authors can help.
Regardless of format, authors still possess the skills app developers need, whether or not either side quite realizes it yet.
Here are just some of the strengths and abilities an experienced picture book author can bring to digital children’s content:
- Children’s authors are multimodal writers. We write leaving “gaps” for an illustrator to contribute meaningfully to the story. Our stories have pleasing rhythms and use sensual imagery for movement, sound and touch. We can readily hone those skills for digital media.
- Picture book authors are experts at user experience and design. In print, we know how to get the most from the covers, end pages, title page and spreads with their gutters and page-turns. We also know how to speed up the pace or slow it down. Picture book apps could likewise benefit from experimentation in the ways readers move through a story, and authors with print experience can ably advise on how to create that forward motion and establish compelling sensory and narrative transitions.
- The development process for picture books dovetails with the development process for story apps. Here are just three skill-sets authors can bring to the transformation of children’s apps:
- We know how to nurture the emotional connection that comes from a proficient reader performing and interpreting the story for a preliterate reader.
- We’re proficient at leaving space for readers to fill with their imaginations.
- We make our livings by playing with words and the relationship between text and images.
Of course, app developers have their own unique strengths. Picture book apps approach movement and sound and linearity and interactivity in distinctively different ways than printed books do. Even so, writers and developers need to better appreciate what each other brings to the table in order to push digital innovation forward in the children’s space.
This is where I can help.
In the coming posts, I’ll explore what we can learn by examining the best of both worlds. My goal is to help children’s authors and digital content developers become something of mutual admiration society, or at least effective and productive collaborators—a group that understands and values what print alone can do as well as what only apps can do, and enthusiastically explores ways to meld them into a reading experience that is all its own.
Learn more: Get the latest research on the digital children’s market during Digital Book World’s free webcast on April 7, “Keeping Pace with Digital Natives: Trends and Tactics for the Children’s Market.”