Tom Bonnick: Bending old fairytales in new apps for children

Tom Bonnick: Bending old fairytales in new apps for children

Editor's Note: Following on recent discussions around gender issues and children's literature -- and, coincidentally, as The Bookseller's children's editor Charlotte Eyre writes up the UK Literacy Association's newly announced award for digital ebooks and apps for children -- it's good to have Tom Bonnick's frank commentary here on Nosy Crow's handling of fairytales, many of which come to us with deeply outdated perspectives. Bonnick tells us that we need not fear rethinking these ancient stories for today's understandings of personhood. As he writes: "Fairytales, we like to say, bend, but they do not break." -- Porter Anderson

On Thursday, Nosy Crow launched its fifth fairytale app, Snow White.

This series of fairytales has become, I think, one of the things that we’re most known for, and with good reason: they are really amazing, truly innovative pieces of storytelling. And it takes us about a year to make each one, so whenever launch time comes around, we try to make a fuss about it.

We decided to make fairytales apps for reasons that were both pragmatic and idealistic.

In the first category: when our first app came out, Nosy Crow was a new company without a backlist to mine, and fairytales are copyright-free. They’re also internationally known, which was important, because we wanted to sell our apps globally. And without having big licensed brands at our disposal, we knew we would be at a discoverability disadvantage in the cutthroat world of the App Store: we needed to create stories that people would search for and be able to find.

But there were more literary reasons for deciding to make apps from fairytales, too.

The fact that children and parents knew these stories so well was a virtue: we could adapt them more freely, and make use of the advantages of the platform -- interactivity, non-linearity -- more imaginatively, knowing that children would not lose sight of the story. They would always know that Cinderella married the prince, that the third little pig’s house did not blow down, and that the Big Bad Wolf had disguised himself as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Fairytales, we like to say, bend, but they do not break.

More importantly than that, they are simply brilliant stories.

I joined Nosy Crow soon after the launch of our first fairytale, The Three Little Pigs, and, at the risk of sounding terribly earnest, the experience of making each app since has taught me something new. I think there’s something fascinating about the enduring appeal of the fairytale canon: what is it that makes us keep returning to these stories -- not just in print, but in film adaptations, on touch screens, and elsewhere?

I was interested to read Holly Smale’s thoughts on fairytales in The Guardian last week:

Traditional fairytales were stories told to reflect – and reinforce – the status quo at the time they were written. In essence: girls should look pretty, be quiet, do as they’re told, get saved by a man and – as a reward – live happily ever after…That’s not the world we live in anymore – it shouldn’t be the world we live in anymore – so our stories need to reflect that. Children growing up today need new fairytales where girls are active, dynamic, smart and capable.

I agree with a lot of what Holly has to say: there are some fairytales that I find incredibly problematic, particularly in their treatment of women.

It’s something that we’ve thought about a lot and addressed, ourselves, over the years.

In our Cinderella app, we’ve forgone the usual “ugly” stepsisters and replaced them with “mean” stepsisters. Cinderella and the Prince still fall for one another, but they talk about each other’s personalities rather than looks. In our version of Little Red Riding Hood, our hero is brave and resourceful rather than foolish, and she defeats the wolf using her wits -- and in different possible ways, depending on the path that you’ve taken through the forest.

Snow White has been a particularly interesting app to develop.

It’s a fairytale that feels almost uniquely resistant to transformation. We soon realised that we could not make a non-linear or multi-branching narrative, as we had with Little Red Riding Hood and, latterly Jack and the Beanstalk, without fundamentally altering the nature of the story.

This was a text with such a classically constructed dramatic arc that it quickly became clear that in order to do it justice -- and to really put story at the centre -- the app that we would make would need to be a relatively straightforward one. No less rich in terms of art, animation, sound, dialogue, and interactivity, but told in a more “conventional” narrative form.

And as well as its structure, the story also feels curiously resistant to modernisation in its themes. Like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, our Snow White is a hero who is celebrated for her kindness and bravery rather than her looks. And yet this is, in many ways, a story that is inescapably about appearance: Snow White is named for having skin as white as snow. To entirely depart from some of these tropes would, I think, rob the story of its poetic power -- and invite the question, why make this particular story at all?

I agree with Holly that children “need to believe that who they are is more important than what they look like: that adventures aren’t something that happen to them, but things they can choose and participate in.”

And I do think that we need new fairytales. The ones that we make at Nosy Crow just happen to be old fairytales, too.

Main image from Nosy Crow's new Snow White