Would you give an app to a child?

Would you give an app to a child?


I really don’t see why adults shouldn’t share apps with their children in just the same way that they share print books with them. Anecdotally, from our social media and other contact with parents, that’s just what the parents who read picture books to their children but also have access to iPads do.

That's Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, in a widely applauded and deeply detailed essay: A Defence of Story Apps After a Speaker at the Bookseller Childrens' Conference Said That Apps Interfered With Story.

Wilson's "well-argued riposte," as characterized by my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller for The FutureBook in This other country, was saying this, per Jones:

Her chief point was that "successful making of story apps requires an understanding that apps are another country, and we should do things differently there". Furthermore, publishers absolutely have a responsibility to be wherever children are. "If children are spending a lot of time with touch-screen devices, I think that we should want reading to be part of the entertainment they find there. And I think that, if they find reading there, it has to compete effectively with other things they find in the same place – TV, games and social media."

Meanwhile, another thoughtful write on the subject from Bev Humphrey, a speaker at the #kidsconf14, as we hashtagged The Bookseller Children's Conference last week. In The Bookseller app debate, Humphrey writes: 

One of the biggest issues that came out of it was whether book apps are a good thing. Nicolette Jones, children's editor of the Sunday Times was somewhat scathing about apps...In her opinion too much interactivity takes up the space in your imagination that you would be using with a classic picture book.

And there, Humphrey is getting at the heart of the problem perceived by many with a lot of apps: The technological capabilities -- the "enhancements," as they're sometimes called of video, image, audio, interactivity -- actually get in the way of the immersive-reading imaginative context for children, rather than support or deepen that experience. 

By all accounts I've read, Nosy Crow's consistently acclaimed apps are the exception. They make a point of overcoming this, and -- when Wilson gave me a #PorterMeets interview for The Bookseller -- she told me something she says every chance someone gives it to her:

Reading must not be the most boring thing a child can do on a touchscreen.

Sometimes I wonder if we're really hearing that. What Wilson is saying is that we are surrounded today by electronic media and their ability to entertain. Moving images, bombastic sound, beguiling interaction -- these things are so seductive to adults that we spend a constant battle trying to stay on-track: even our social media are, if we're to be honest, less boring sometimes than reading the things we may need to read, say, for work, right?

How then, Wilson is saying -- and trying to discover in her development of this body of apps work at Nosy Crow -- do we keep reading at the center? How do we make reading the main event, especially when we float it to kids on a sea of other enticements? 

Humphrey, is closely aligned with this worry: 

I thoroughly dislike book apps that take children away from the main story to play games - if I am encouraging them to read the book, I want to keep them enthralled in the tale, not rushing to go to another part of the app for gaming. If the interactive elements are included as part of the story however I don't have a problem with it, I myself quite enjoy 'added extras'. Not all apps do this well.

But she also cites ways in which apps can be good for walking children into the reading experience we want them to know:

Apps are just fantastic for motivating those 'won't read' kids, they don't notice a lack of using their own imagination because they are so 'book phonic' in some ways that seeing the story unfold in their head is a completely alien experience for them. I often have my daughter's young godsons to visit and before bed they like nothing better than cuddling up to auntie Bev (it's as easy to be cuddled whilst holding an iPad as it is when holding a book!) and being read Nighty Night which is a wonderfully calming bedtime story app that they probably know every word of by now but which they still want to hear again and again. That's not to say they don't enjoy being read physical books, of course they do but they want both, it's not an either/or choice. 

And Wilson, for her part, is by no means defending the wrong kinds of apps that do interrupt reading:

Of course (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?), we see terribleexamples of picture book apps where the multimedia and the interactivity do interrupt the story, and where there are features that are introduced just because the developer can introduce them. I have, for example, seen Three Little Pigs apps in which the straw and stick houses, having been destroyed with some kind of interactive touch, spring back into shape again immediately, so the child can knock them down again. Fun, maybe, but narratively all wrong: the point – the moral – of the story is that those two lazy pigs’ houses are destroyed completely by the wolf’s huffing and puffing, and the child must understand that the resilience of the brick house is what makes the third pig different.

And Jones calls the question well: what if, indeed, we're trying too hard to make an unholy federation of two different "countries"?

It may be then that the answer to NicoletteJones' challenge is not to chide publishers or developers (or even readers) for their lack of imagination, but to focus on whether the platform itself provides the right environment for exploiting the type of content publishers produce. To borrow Wilson's analogy, it is not just that the app world is "another country", it may also be a hostile environment to the types of publishing practised by children's publishers for decades.

An almost eerie reminder comes from Humphrey -- we are, after all, not those kids in question, ourselves:

We are seeing these books through the somewhat jaded eyes of adults - the children that are read, or themselves read, these book apps invariably greatly enjoy the experience and personally I don't care if they read on paper, on a tablet, from a comic or on a mobile phone - as long as they do read - all and any reading is of value and helps to extend the imagination and give them a reading habit to comfort, amuse, delight and amaze them for the rest of their lives.

And this darker warning from the much-awarded Wilson:

I can absolutely imagine a scenario in which mass literacy is just a historical blip; something that started in in the 19th century and lasted until the middle of the 21st. Technology could easily make the ability to decode text irrelevant. I think that would be a terrible thing. I want to give children the incentive to learn to decode text. I think we can do that best by making sure that we use technology to engage children with reading in every way that we can.

And -- news just today from The Bookseller's children's editor Charlotte Eyre: the author Jeff Norton's Stomp School: Love You, Kaiju!, a "nursery school adventure starring the chidren of the world's most famous kaiju monsters," is coming out as an app -- and is in development for an animated TV show with Made in Me's Eric Huang:

Author Jeff Norton is publishing his first picture book as a digital exclusive through Me Books, an e-reading app from digital creative agency Made in Me...In the book, described as “Godzilla meets Muppet Babies”, the kaiju children learn how to construct and then destroy cities, but Rikki, a creative kaiju, doesn’t want to ruin his creations...[Huang says:] "We have a large audience [that is] hungry for quality stories for kids. Stomp School feels like an instant classic.” 

Norton -- who also spoke at the Children's Conference -- has worked in various areas of the vanguard in this space for some time. We're in good hands here with him, as with Huang. (You know him as @dinoboy89 on Twitter.) 

But what are we to make of all this? And what do you make of it? 

What if, as Jones posits, we're actually facing a retail/distribution issue so massive that it's hard to ask publishers to move in the right direction?

I agree with Wilson when she writes that "reading" ought to be part of the app experience, but I see very little evidence that Apple is doing anything to help with this transition. And if that's the case, it is little wonder that so many publishers are simply not bothering. That should concern us all, except with sales of kids print books growing publishers will fret less than they ought to. However, if I was Apple, or any other tablet developer, it would concern me greatly. I would want to figure out how tablets can be as good for readers are they are for gamers—and I would want publishing's golden legacy to have a seat at that table when the next young-reader comes to tea.


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Image - Shutterstock: Monkey Business