Monday, November 22, 2010

'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books

I wrote last week about some worrying trends with picture books and asked 'Are Picture Books Dying?' My post was motivated by my concern that the picture book is seriously under-valued by some parents and teachers and yet, I believe that it offers things that chapter books can't for young readers. You can read it if you missed it HERE.

But in this post I address a different question.  Is it possible that new technology could enhance the picture book? Regular readers of this blog would be surprised that I'm even asking the question. There have been many attempts in recent years to produce electronic versions of picture books, but so far few have done more than put picture books on a screen with a few minor enhancements, often as small as allowing text size or font to be changed (this is not to deny that this is useful).

There are of course some practical problems if electronic books are going to work with young children. Will they pass the cereal and bath tests? Will kids be able to chew them, sleep with them and could they survive if left in the back seat of the car in summer? At the moment I can't see us letting toddlers drag around our iPads, but with technology advances it just might happen sooner than we think.

I don't think for a minute that technology will kill off picture books, but it might just open up a few new possibilities for using them and for combining image and word. I wouldn't have thought this until I saw the latest example of a picture book on iPad that tries to integrate image, word and sound in new ways.  Have a look at the preview below of 'Alice in Wonderland' for iPad. 

I'm grateful to Stella Reinhard one of the speakers at the '8th International Conference on the Book', which I just attended in St Gallen Switzerland who shared the above video clip.  I also presented a paper on the 'Power of Literature' that I might blog on later.  Stella presented a paper on the traditional pop-up book and showed us some of the wonderful examples that have been produced over a period of 200 years.

The extent of the paper engineering is quite extraordinary, as the creators have tried to add movement and dramatic effect to support the text.  The examples opposite and below are both from legendary 'pop-up' book creator Robert Sabuda's well-known version of 'Alice in Wonderland'. But as much as these wonderful books are interesting and exciting for children (and adults!), are they ever more than a novelty? I think the answer is both yes and no.  They are a novelty, but this doesn't mean that their impact is trivial and unimportant.

I'm reminded of one of my grandchildren, Elsie who is now almost 4 years old and loves books. In the family Christmas letter of 2007 her mother and my daughter (Nicole) wrote something about every family member's favourite books in the year past. For Elsie she wrote, "Elsie likes pretty much anything with flaps". Elsie, in her first year of reading, like many children as they start to encounter books, was enjoying being able to physically manipulate books and feel as if she was helping to 'create' the story as it unfolded (literally!). Flap lifting or being able to pop-up an elaborate piece of Sabuda paper engineering will help young children to learn to participate in reading, make predictions and enjoy being part of the act of reading.

It remains to be seen if Apple can create interactive picture books that are more than just novelties, but if they do I'm sure that they will help to get some children excited about reading and literature.


Hannah Blake said...

Hi Trevor,

A really interesting post! The video clip makes Alice on the iPad look amazing. I have some thoughts about it though...

The whole "books on the iPad" thing reminds me a lot of those Leap Pad books/toys - ostensibly designed to enhance reading, but I've never seen kids use them as they were intended to. They don't tend to read the text (or listen to it being read), they just want to play the games and use the wand it comes with. It doesn't really end up being reading at all.

It seems to me that in such cases as these, there are two choices offered to the reader. They can do the hard work of reading the text, and allow the novelty aspects to enhance the experience for them, or else they can focus solely on the electronics or the games, avoiding the actual reading, which takes effort. It's a kind of instant gratification. Although reading the text itself makes for a more enjoyable experience, most people will settle for the ease and comfort of option B. (Kind of like seeing the movie rather than reading the book?)

When kids (or adults, for that matter!) are handed that iPad, they will be presented with this choice. I think the vast majority of people will enjoy playing with Alice without reading Alice - although at the end, they'll feel like they HAVE read Alice. It'd be nice if the interactive element was a kind of gateway drug into the actual book, but in my experience it seems like it might just short-circuit that process.

When children start by reading simple, pop-up style books, there's a concerted effort made to move them onto more advanced literature when that's appropriate. I'm not convinced that such an effort would be made for many older children. Largely I think this because it looks as though books such as Alice on the iPad have all the benefits of the original book, and then some! In a sense, this is true, but the benefits of the original book may not be accessed by the reader to the same extent on the iPad.

Thinking about it now, I think it sounds like I'm saying is something like "don't give the children choices! They'll choose the wrong one!", which isn't really what I want to say! Technology can be really, really good. I just wouldn't want it to overshadow books, simply because it's easier. Reading is ALWAYS going to be better than computer games. It's worth the effort.

I'm repeating a lot of what you said, Trevor, but do you think I'm on the right track? Is this danger a real one?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Hannah,

Nice to hear from you again. Thanks for your comment. The comments you make are very appropriate and interesting. Like you I have a number of fears about the application of technology like the new iPad stories. I suspect that for some children they will be just toys, and others will end up being distracted from the text in favour of the gimmicks.

I think the concept might work well for simple picture books for the very young. Then again, I can imagine some amazing things that could be done with older fiction if they could incorporate other forms of interactivity - imagine a map that progressively changes with the story in the 'Lord of the Rings'or the 'Narnia Chronicles', or background historical information for some brilliant pieces of historical fiction.

I suspect that the issues with the new technology versions will be the same as for the addition of gadgets and gimmicks to paper books (like the pop-ups). If well used, they will add greatly to the literary experience, if not they might end up being distractions.

By the way, the iPad video makes the book experience look more dynamic than it is with the constant movement and music (that's called advtertising!), but it is very well done and shows some new possibilities.

Parents and teachers will need to be wise in the way they channel children's interests and reading habits as they always have.

Thanks for your stimulating comment, which got me thinking further about the topic.