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- by Lindy Schneider
Book apps, children’s digital literature and The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore – Masters Submission 2012
‘Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books. His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for’ (Joyce 2012).
We settle back against a mountain of pillows. My six-year-old daughter in fresh pajamas is ready for her bedtime story, a ritual she has enjoyed every evening of her young life. Hannah already has more than a hundred books on her bookshelf, her name carefully printed inside the front cover of each one in her own naive handwriting. She is like me – loves words, loves stories, loves books. Tonight’s story has been told many times. But instead of turning pages, we will tap and swipe, we will move through a series of scenes and we may discover a magical new feature we have not noticed before. Tonight we will be reading – or is that experiencing? – The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, a digital story, presented by a digital reading device (specifically the iPad), an increasingly natural part of the world of a digital child – commonly referred to as the ‘digital natives’ or ‘Generation Touch’.
The iPad is only a recent addition to our family. Since its relatively recent launch in April 2010, when one million iPads were sold worldwide in just one month, sales have grown exponentially. Now in September 2012, I am one among 84 million people who own such a device (Apple 2012), and we live in an increasingly digital world where the average ‘electronic device’ count per US household is 25 items (CEA 2010). With technology well represented in our house by two iPhones, several desktop computers, three iPods, a laptop, a netbook and a TV in daily use, I needed to be convinced the iPad could do something that the others couldn’t. The answer is plenty! And my preliterate young children were quick to prove it. Suddenly I found myself gatekeeper to a world of digital content, and a entirely new way of assessing the suitability of books for my children – not just for reading and implicit value, but also for their total experience, navigation ease and edutainment value. The book App The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore stands out as a solid example of what is possible in digital publishing, and suggests the essential components of book App design that can serve as hallmarks of children’s digital books in the future.
Children are using new technology and tablet devices, such as the iPad, earlier than we realise. Recent US research estimated that 60 percent of children aged between six months and 2 years play with mobile devices (Orlando 2011). Technology is ‘a new basic’, part of a necessary skill set in a modern world – and a toddler’s capacity to learn is well evidenced by the extensive range of other tasks that are mastered in these early years. Anecdotally, it is understood that with the introduction of each successive generation of iPads (we are now in the third generation), adults are passing on ‘earlier’ technology to their children. What was once an expensive device, under the control and direction of the parent, is now the domain of the savvy digital child. In addition, sales of eReaders are estimated to grow by 90 percent in 2012 alone and with a corresponding and ever-increasing demand for content (Dilworth 2012). The digital revolution in publishing is not coming; it has arrived.
In 2011, an annual US report shows eBooks, for the first time, holding the number one position (based on net sales revenue) of all book formats (including print) across all genres, and double the sales on the year prior (BookStats 2012). The America Publisher’s Association posted a 300 percent increase in digital children’s book sales in the twelve month period to May 2012 (Transmedia Kids 2012). Currently children’s eBook sales represent 5-7 percent of all children’s book sales (Transmedia Kids 2012). This upward trend in all total eBook sales is forecasted for children’s publishing, in other genres and in other world markets (Bowker 2012).
While the idea of a toddler engaging with digital devices is still of cultural and societal debate, in the Australian education system, the value of developing children who are ‘digitally literate’ is highlighted in curriculum development and policy. Lynley Matthews writes ‘Digital technology has had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on literacy, literature and language development. There is a need for children to be able to access and make meaning from digital literature’ (Matthews 2011). The culture of children today is digital, and it is demanding.
Yesterday I swiped at the screen of my laptop to turn a page. Nothing happened. How quickly we adapt to new technologies and new ways of interacting with devices. For our children, it has never been any different. In a rapidly changing digital environ, it is necessary to construct new models of critique and different theories of assessment. To enter and involve ourselves in children’s digital publishing we may find it necessary to revise many elements of what we consider ‘a good story’, and as adults find a way of residing in a world that is no longer our own. As I have opened my own gate to the world of digital content, I have also considered a transgenerational conversation that challenges many norms in society. However, the nature of story, whether orated, printed or digitally expressed, provides essential values that underscore human evolution, and that is a reliable constant, regardless of medium.
The generic term ‘eBooks’ covers a spectrum of ‘type’. In the most basic of offers, the eBook is little more than a PDF (Portable Document Format) version of a printed book. Little enhancement is done to the text or image and the book is static, without interactivity or internal/external links. The enhanced eBook offers the replication of printed text with additional images and links supporting or providing complementary information. Features such as page turning, audio narration and text highlighting may be included depending on the developer and/or the device being used. Early executions of digital storytelling also utilised CD ROM, DVD and web-based technologies. An added dimension is bought to eBooks by the book app format and by the concept of gamification, an idea endemic to digital media that blurs the line between storytelling and game playing. Book apps enable a greater level of interactivity, providing a unique environment for immersive reading and for the use of touch screen activity in story execution.
Successful book apps, those that appear in Top 10 download lists, or ‘most recommended by’ services, vary greatly in feature and content, and over time. However, the Morris Lessmore app is consistently well regarded for its quality production, interactivity and story content. The story, written by William Joyce over a period of thirteen years, is a poignant allegory that touches on the life trajectory, the value of books and reading, and the quest for self-knowledge – mythical themes for children that contain subtle life messages (Moonbot 2012). Joyce, a noted author of over fifty books, and animator who has collaborated with many world-class children’s animation studios, including Disney, Fox/Blue Sky and Dreamworks, lives in Louisiana, US and is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, this setting used in his book (Joyce 2012). It provides an excellent model for comparing and contrasting other popular book apps.
What makes a book app a compelling experience for a child? This is as pertinent a question for a parent as it is a children’s author or a book app developer. Is it more important to have a great story or brilliant interactive features? Jon Grant, co-owner of Australia’s leading app developers Gridstone says that while content is important the digital environment brings another layer of engagement that, in an ideal world, can enhance the reading experience, rather than distract from it (pers. comm, 18/9/12).
‘The statement “content is king” is ubiquitous in the digital media industry but great content is a standard many apps, and indeed a great deal of online content, fails to achieve. Awesome creative is also important in the online environment,’ he says, ‘books apps need both. Awesome creative gives you cut-through in an extremely busy digital world, and it is an investment that many app developers don’t make. The development of book apps for children needs to begin with a great story and end with awesome creative. A poor story is still a poor story even when you add the best interactive features, but a good story can be elevated by thoughtful engaging design and functionality and this is critical as it has the power to change how a story is experienced.’
The elements of what makes a good story do not change when applied to the digital medium, but there are other considerations. Functionality is important as the app needs to be able to hold the users interest. While repetition in storytelling can be a great device to hold a child’s interest, it is less applicable to app design. ‘The novelty quickly wears off an app if the functionality is too repetitive or lacking in dynamic content that ‘grows with me’. The key is for book apps to have an immersive quality’, he says ‘and be both content and context relevant.’
Jon says, ‘the Morris Lessmore app is a great example because it is a great story, with exceptional functionality and visual creative design.’ Jon estimates that the app development alone would have required an investment of between US$200,000 and $400,000. As an animated book that flows like a short film, the app clearly stands out from other offers. Care has been taken with the visual appeal of the characters, the aesthetics of voice and ambient sound, the sets and the overall crafting of the story identity. Pages, or scenes, are moving integrated storyboards rather than separate reading experiences, and the actual text, which is presented as audio and graphics, is an integrated component. This app has been adapted from an Academy Award winning animated short film and production standards and creative development are of an equally high standard for the app development (Oscar.org 2012).
Functionality is also critical to app design – the app needs to ‘just work’ (Lloyd 2003, p 5). At the most basic level, functionality refers to elements such as page/event loading speed –otherwise children being notoriously impatient ‘lose interest in what they are trying to achieve, which is to learn to read, and they focus on the technology’ (Baird & Henninger 2011). The app needs to do what it says it will – debugging and app testing is a necessary part of app design performed to vastly different standards. Functionality is also related to the ability the user is given to personalise the app for their own purposes. It includes the ability to turn sound and special effects on or off, change font, choose preferred language and to start/save/stop or control the apps progression through content. An app that does not allow a child to modify sound so that they can be ‘read to’ or ‘read by myself’ offers less flexibility and impacts on the child’s capacity to be involved in self-paced reading and any inherent literacy development. The Dr Seuss titles, such as Cat in the Hat and One Fish, Two Fish, provide the user/reader with several options for reading including such features as being able to hear a repeat of an individual word by tapping on that word, and seeing a word appear as text when the corresponding image is tapped. This is a well-executed feature by developer Ocean Media who, by charter, seek to develop apps with an educative focus. Zoe, the mother of an autistic preschooler whose favourite story is Lessmore, identifies another valuable need for flexibility in app functionality. When her young son’s demands for ‘again’ prove to be beyond the realm of a parental capacity for patience, the Lessmore book app has the stamina to hold his attention and repeat the information he is ‘experiencing’ well beyond the limits of human patience.
The digital world, as experienced through a simple book app, can provide significant advantages for individuals with learning challenges or other disabilities. There is considerable value in ‘the features of digital technologies which facilitate the notion of “universal access”, making text accessible in a variety of forms to people with disabilities’ (Baird & Henninger 2011). The book app facilitates this type of access with significantly greater effectiveness than many other forms.
Applying creative design to functionality provides opportunity for new ways to enter and read text, ways that do not necessarily subscribe to linear or expected storytelling paradigms. Creative functionality provides for multisensory experiences to be embodied in the text and the devices of multi or layered story telling to be activated. Digital storytelling invites the user/reader into a different level of participation in a story. User-led content, placing the self in story and having agency, is a promising yet underutilised feature of book apps. Many apps I reviewed allowed the child to enter their name within the app, some allowed them to photograph or upload a portrait, but this tended to occur in apps towards the ‘game’ end of the spectrum rather than the story-orientated products. The multimedia development Santa – Portable North Pole provides an insight into what is possible (Santa PNP 2012). Via a website, a parent can enter information about their child’s likes and dislikes, present wishes, schooling, family life and other personal details, and upload several photos. In minutes, a short personalised video is created featuring the child, for example in framed photos on Santa’s mantlepiece, and an audio address to the child by Santa. Although not a real-time interactive video, such personalisation brings a perspective to the future of book apps and the sense of magic they can activate by personally ‘including’ the reader. The empowered reader who thinks ‘I can choose’ not only the ending, but also the beginning and middle of a story, and be invited to ‘make my own’ story as co-author rather than being the passive observer, could be a defining feature of digital texts in children’s literature.
‘Gamification’ is a term that holds increasing relevance in digital design as there is progressively less demarcation between the (video) game and the storybook. As a device of engagement and interactivity, book apps will increasingly provide contextually relevant gaming opportunities that ideally augment or contribute to the story. Done poorly these present distractions that detract from the story’s enjoyment. From the child’s perspective, these are anticipated and natural features in the digital arena. Gamification can create a place for mystery and autonomy within a book app. In better applications, the child is given the power of choice (opt in/out options are essential) and the games are beyond gimmickry and story relevant. The Lessmore app uses gamification principles in several interactions. When Morris is fixing books, the child is able to piece together a range of ‘puzzles’ that replicate the pasting and repagination of torn library books. When a piano is featured in one scene, the child is able to discover a hidden keyboard and the iPad device is turned into a functioning piano that teaches the child to ‘play and follow’ a simple tune. (See appendix for a full list of interactive features.)
This style of gamification is based on exploration, discovery and subtle clues/directions, and, as a consequence, it is a source of delight in readers. Discovery is another hallmark of quality app design that marks the Lessmore app as a standout as it invites a level of critical thinking and creativity to be applied to reading. Primary school teacher and mother of two Kate used a digital projector to bring the story to life in the classroom. ‘The children engaged strongly with the story. They were delighted to read along with the story and call out the interactive elements on each page. They’d pick up on the subtle clue (sometimes just a hover of colour to direct the child as to what to touch) and be engrossed in each page and what it had to offer. I value it as a teacher and as an adult because the story line carries a strong message about a love for books and reading that is reinforced by every interactive experience the child has,’ says Kate.
One of the greatest challenges as a digital gatekeeper is finding quality content easily. Book apps need to be discoverable and with over 700,000 apps available from iTunes alone, the difficulty facing any parent is finding appropriate products to download (Apple 2012). Concepts that have life across various platforms carry an obvious advantage for exposure. Word of mouth is critical engagement amongst parents and educators, and reviews (parent-led and industry based) can be just as critical in the digital world as they are in traditional publishing. Morris Lessmore has successfully straddled a variety of media platforms. A website, short film, downloadable app, traditional book (with additional ‘Imag-N-O-tron’ iPad app that allows the reader to view the physical page through the iPad screen, bringing content to life with audio and special effects) and Social Media presence are integral to this apps discoverability. The number of times a book app has been downloaded is not necessarily a mark of quality. Price (or free) and recognisable characters may be the determinants for many downloads that are quickly discarded when they (or their stories) fail to contain features that interest a child or warrant repeat telling. From experience, the apps, such as Lessmore, that were recommended to me by others have been far superior to the products I tested from ‘top selling lists’ or those based on ‘known characters’.
The term ‘ludic reading’ may carry more relevance for children’s book apps than it does for many other writing genres. The joyful connection to a story that can be fostered through interactivity could be a defining feature of digital storytelling, as the digital medium allows for multiple levels of emotional engagement with the story that have the potential to travel deeper into a child’s psyche than a storyline alone. A love for a particular story can be particularly individual and often indefinable, especially for a child. My daughter says ‘Morris makes me happy’ – what that means in the broader world of successful book app design may be more a function of instinct over intellect, and allegory over plot. Her enjoyment of the story is a combination of the story itself and her favoured activities within it.
Together my daughter and I have explored digital book apps download by download. We’ve looked at top grossing apps such as Five Little Monkeys (iTunes 2011), continual best-sellers such as Jack and the Beanstalk Children’s Interactive Storybook Book and licensed properties such Disney’s Lightening McQueen, Dora the Explorer and Barbie, which dominate the top 50 download list for all eBooks on iTunes. We have read and reread with Dr Seuss, and discovered a range of well-produced edutainment titles from Peapod Laboratories such as ABC Food. The highly recommended book app Dandelion had us blowing on the screen to scatter dandelion flowerets as we learnt about bullying, and Chopsticks was a ‘story without text’ app told through a ‘photo album montage’. The Horse, is a hyper-real ‘experience’ that benchmarks a new era in interactivity where the child’s own digital pony will follow a finger across the screen. We’ve had an amazing variety of experiences that have covered the spectrum from story to game – the better titles being somewhere in the middle. And we have done this at relatively little cost, with many apps ‘no cost’ (although often a ‘sample’ in reality) and the upper end of the general price range around the seven dollar mark.
Morris Lessmore is not the ‘ultimate’ book app but it provides a model that sets a standard of quality in a rapidly changing industry. The challenge the digital environment presents for new ways of story telling, for example for non-linear, or hypertextual story development, is just as relevant in the children’s publishing genre as it is in any other. The digital medium provides an opportunity for a different approach, one that broadens the market and seeks to engage readers creatively and, potentially, in an entirely new method of reading. As we explore what it means to be digitally literate, we need to enter into the realm of the child and seek to understand and create what they value in book apps, not what we can adapt. Hans Wilhelm, an author of over 200 books who has just launched a children’s vBook (video book) on Youtube, sums the future of children’s publishing by saying, ‘If I still want to reach them, I have to meet them where they are’ (Digital Book World 2012). It is children of today, the digital natives, who demand the most from tomorrow’s technology and parents, authors and publishers, now have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to embrace all that the digital world can offer.
Hannah and I kiss one another goodnight and the iPad becomes mine again for the rest of the evening. Her love for story does not discern between the digital or traditional – for children of her generation, both formats are equally natural and appreciated. And as a parent, a child inspired to read is all that truly matters.
‘And so it ends as we began… with the opening of a book’ (Joyce 2012).WATCH TRAILER
REFERENCES Apple reports quarterly results (2010/2011/2012), Quarterly Press Releases, Apple, viewed 17 Oct 2012, http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2012/01/24Apple-Reports-First-Quarter-Results.html (as summarised on http://ipod.about.com/od/ipadmodelsandterms/f/ipad-sales-to-date.htm) Apple unveils new iTunes, Press Release 12/9/12, Apple, Viewed 19 Oct 2012, http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2012/09/12Apple-Unveils-New-iTunes.html Baird,C and Henninger M 2011 ‘Serious Play, Serious Problems: issues with eBook applications’, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal, Vol.3. No.2, 2011, University of Technology Sydney, viewed 10 Sept 2012 www.epress.lib.uts.edu.au/ojs/index.php/mcs/article/download/…/2359 BookStats 2012, Association of American Publishers 2012, viewed 15 Oct 2012, http://www.publishers.org/press/74/ Bowker releases results of global eBook research, PRWEB, viewed 17 Sept 2012, http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/3/prweb9336807.htm Children’s EBook Trends, Transmedia Kids, Viewed 19 Oct 2012, http://www.transmediakids.com/2012/05/childrens-ebook-trends.html Digital Book World 2012, ‘Best-Selling Children’s Author Publishes Video ‘V-Book’, Viewed 22 Oct 2012 http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/best-selling-childrens-author-publishes-video-v-book/?et_mid=584961&rid=3095663 Dilworth, D, Tablet shipments will grow 90% in 2012: IHS iSuppli report, APPNEWSER, Viewed 17 Oct 2012, http://www.mediabistro.com/appnewser/tablet-shipments-will-grow-90-in-2012-ihs-isuppli-report_b21008 Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in US homes, Consumer Electronics Association, Viewed 15 Oct 2012, http://www.ce.org/CorporateSite/media/Government-Media/Green/Energy-Consumption-of-CE-in-U-S-Homes-in-2010.pdf, p 117 Joyce, W 2012, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, Simon & Schuster Inc, New York. Lloyd, et al 2003, Interactive Books, Center for Spoken Language Research, Univeristy of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA. Matthews, L 2011, ‘The role of literature in language and literacy learning’, Australian Literacy Educators’ Association Journal, Viewed 18 Sept 2012, http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/Practically-Primary/269690187.html Moonbot Studios website, Viewed 31 Aug 2012 www.moonbotstudios.com/william-joyce.html Orlando, J 2011, ‘Modern Technology needs to be more than child’s play’, The Age online, Viewed 19 Sept 2012, http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/modern-technology-needs-to-be-more-than-childs-play-20110822-1j6om.html Santa’s PNP, ugroup media, Viewed 19 Oct 2012, http://www.portablenorthpole.tv/home Oscar.org The 84th Academy Awards, Short Film (animated) Winner, viewed 19 Oct 2012, http://oscar.go.com/nominees/short-film-animated/the-fantastic-flying-books-of-mr-morris-lessmore