The world of children’s digital books is quickly becoming as densely populated as the rest of the app world, if not more so. And why shouldn’t it? People who love to tell and publish stories to children will obviously go to where children are consuming their media to tell them stories. Increasingly, one of those places is in digital environments.
Digital books on touch screens work because touch screens have been designed to meet the fine motor skill development of a child aged two. The same skills a child development professional will look for in a child’s development around two years of age like the ability to point and touch, the ability to roll a ball (swipe) and the ability to pincher grip are the key fine motor skills required to engage with a touch screen. We should not be amazed at young children engaging with the iPad because the user interface has been designed to meet their level of development. We should expect that they can use it. (We should also expect them to be obsessed with the home button — but that is another article).
Digital books don’t come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly they are in one shape and size and it is the same as the screen of your mobile device. But, increasingly there is a growing diversity in what these digital books look like, how they are read and what this might mean for children’s learning. Reading on a digital device is no longer just about language and literacy; some apps are able to teach a range of contemporary literacies that extend to visual literacy (just like picture books) and on to ideas like network literacy (how to find information on the network) and engaging in play-based learning through digital books.
So, this article is an attempt to explore some of the possible categories and how these different types of digital books can be used to engage our children in narrative and learning.
Category 1: Traditional (books turned digital)
These digital books have already existed as traditional books. Publishers are quickly finding ways to get their best titles into digital environments for Android and iOS. They are generally a safe bet because we know the stories well. Many companies have developed engines so that they can reproduce many titles using the same functionality and navigation. This is an excellent idea if we want digital books that allow children to follow a narrative and understand the story. Great examples of this are the way Oceanhouse Media has converted the Dr. Seuss classics or Kiwa Media’s engine that Penguin NZ used to convertHairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy into a digital book. These two engines were leaders in what have in many cases for traditional books become standard functions such as the “read to me/read it myself” function, audio for when individual words are touched and images that make sounds or repeat what they are. There are some people concerned by these developments in the direction of traditional book publishing, but others can see the potential value of classic stories being re-packaged and presented to a new generation. Some academics are looking at the way children can manipulate the digital space through touch and calling it “digital playdough.” This is exactly what you can do with these books as audio is mashed up purely by the touch of a finger. It injects something not dissimilar to play-based learning into the reading experience – something worth exploring.
Alternatively, traditional books have also begun to get a greater makeover. One good example is howCalloway Digital Arts and Sesame Street have reworked The Monster at the End of This Book, using the texts and illustrations to create effectively an animated story where Grover, who is the narrator in the book, narrates the story on the iPad. It was a favorite of mine when I was a child, and worth a look.
Category 2: Originals (books written for mobile devices only)
We are beginning to see titles come out that have been specifically written for the device. Sometimes these have been well thought out and designed by people with a depth of experience in children’s book publishing, like Ruckus Media Group’s A Present for Milo or Auryn’s experimental use of the functionality of the device in Hare and Tortoise (admittedly, not an original story). But, this realm has given rise to a lot of self publishing where stories that would never have made it through a publishing house editorial process are making their way onto the device. They are very often retelling fables and fairytales as well. I won’t point any out, but feel free to leave some of your disappointing digital books in the comments.
Category 3: Gamified Books
This is where things get murky and book traditionalists can often get grumpy.
The reality is that narrative is changing, the way children learn to read and even need to learn to read requires more than a standard linear narrative. To be literate in our future world you will have to be able to navigate stories across multiple narratives and even be engaged in helping shape and tell the story yourself. This does not mean we don’t need linear narratives. We do, and the best place for them is probably in a traditional book with the look, feel and smell and the experience that provides. But, if we have these devices and an internet that demands we understand that navigating a story is a whole new experience, then books like Spot the Dot (Ruckus) for younger children really stands out as a good example.
For older children Scholastic Interactive’s Magic School Bus: Oceans and the new Bobo Explores Lightfrom GameCollage stand out as books for children that are playful hypertexts with stories, characters, information and multimedia set in an environment where children can navigate their way through and around information. These are The Elements books for children aged 7 to 12 years. There needs to be more exploration of how these can be developed and presented in ways that best engage and support children’s learning through contemporary literacies.
In part 2 of this series we will look at three more categories:
- Category 4: Movie & Cartoon-Inspired Books
- Category 5: Bookshop Apps (leverage a delivery system)
- Category 6: Empowering Storytelling (Create your own book)