E-book Backlash: Children’s Stories Savage the iPad

A choice between the book and digital media?

There’s a war going on in the world of children’s books between traditional print offerings and e-stories displayed on tablets. The issues are many:

  • Should youngsters be exempted from digital media or should every toddler have their own iPad?
  • Do e-books harm the acquisition of reading skills or do they accelerate that process?
  • And do these electronic devices provide too many distractions for youngsters already having problems with concentration or are they are a wonderful way to teach multitasking, nonlinear thinking, and visual literacy?

The jury is still out.

Meanwhile, parents are conflicted by nostalgia. Writing for the New York Times, Julie Bosnan and Matt Richtel detected a “digital double standard.” When it comes to children’s books, electronically hip parents (“die-hard downloaders of books onto Kindles, iPads, laptops and phones”) want their offspring to have the same experience with printed books that they had when growing up: bound offerings strewn about the house, cuddling and sharing a book in bed, the smell of certain volumes and the fun of turning pages, visits to bookstores and the library–all that.

This reactionary preference for the old-fashioned — by parents otherwise eager to embrace new technologies — has even become a topic in recent hostile children’s books. For example, in Lane Smith’s “It’s a Book” a jackass wonders about an unfamiliar object held by a monkey and is told, “It’s a book.” This prompts further questions: “How do you scroll?” “Can it text?” “Tweet?” “Does it need a password?” Finally, the jackass borrows the volume, adding, “Don’t worry, I’ll charge it up when I’m done.” The monkey’s last words amount to an insult: “You don’t have to. It’s a book, Jackass.”

This same tone of indignation appears in “Goodnight iPad” written by David Milgrim under the wonderful pseudonym “Ann Droyd.” Many may remember how Margaret Wise Brown’s beloved classic “Goodnight Moon” begins (“In the great green room / there was a telephone / and a red balloon / and a picture of– / The cow jumping over the moon”). So, Milgrim’s parody may seem acute: “In the bright buzzing room / There was an iPad / And a kid playing Doom / And a screensaver of– / A bird launching over the moon.” “The old lady whispering ‘hush’” in Brown’s story becomes, in Milgrim’s version, a short-tempered senior: “a fed-up old woman / Who was trying to sleep.” And in the end, in place of the original’s final vision of peacefulness (“Goodnight noises everywhere”), Milgrim substitutes curmudgeonly irritation: “Goodnight iPad / Goodnight Nooks . . . Goodnight buzzing / Goodnight beeps . . . Goodnight gadgets everywhere.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Instead of a clash between the two, there was supposed to be some special friendly relationship between children’s books and electronic devices. Google’s early marketing campaign for its Nexus 7 tablet featured an adorable little girl reading Hans Augusto and Margret Rey’s “Curious George.” Previous ads referenced Dr. Seuss’s “Lorax” and Antoine St. Exupery’s “The Little Prince.”

Indeed, when the iPad first launched in April 2010, Apple’s ads prominently featured pictures from “Winnie the Pooh” on the tablet’s screens and new iPads shipped with a free e-copy of this beloved classic by A. A. Milne. Linking childhood and the familiar with brushed steel and the futuristic, marketers wanted to convey visions of this new device’s coziness and accessibility (even a kid could use it!). Now, in retrospect, it seems uncanny that Apple’s initial ad campaign would unwittingly identify what would become the very flashpoint between old media and new.

Gadgets, Devices, Toys

All this, however, might leave a former child wondering: “What is all the fuss about?” The current clash between print offerings and their digital alternatives rests on the presumption that the book is the native container for stories. That’s not the case. Well before the first flat screen ever shipped from Foxconn, children’s stories were embedded in all kinds of objects and contraptions.

Take the View Master. This device from my childhood was the successor to the stereoscope (and the predecessor of video games) and created the impression of 3D when a disk of transparencies was inserted and viewed against a light. With this nifty gizmo, we could revisit our favorite Disney stories and watch claymation fairy tales unfold.

Another example of the story-in-a-gadget is the pop-up book. Popular offerings these days go way beyond the simple levers of moveable books of yesteryear and employ advanced techniques of origami and “paper engineering.” Among my favorites is Robert Sabuda’s “The 12 Days of Christmas” where the pièce de résistance is a three-dimensional Christmas tree that folds up from the page, surrounded by gifts, and decorated with actual twinkling (battery-powered) lights.

Pop-up books recall the toy theaters of yesteryear when youngsters employed scissors and paste to assemble kits made of cardboard and colored paper to fashion playhouses and stage miniature performances. Incidentally, toy theaters and their cousins have seen a recent revival among amateurs who create stop-action films for YouTube and among professionals doing the same in Hollywood with films like Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs.”

Properly speaking, these story devices might be called “hypnagogic objects” because, like the hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch, they induce a dream-like trance and evoke a narrative. That is exactly how Robert Louis Stevenson described the map he drew for “Treasure Island.” Stevenson suggested a reader could look at his document and see the entire story: including the woods and the brown faces of the pirates with their flashing weapons, watching them pass to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure–all this on just a few square inches of paper. If this moment of lively animation recalls “Jumanji,” the movie and Chris Van Allsburg’s book, that is because the board game is also a hypnagogic object.

Consider, too, those books that come with those expensive and prized dolls offered by the American Girl Company. Once a reader has learned about the life of (Native American) Kaya or (Depression-era) Kit, the doll becomes both a souvenir and a hypnagogic object that evokes remembered tales. Action figures based on comic-book superheroes work in the same way.

“The Slant Nook” by Peter Newell

Here we come full circle: Books, themselves, can be handheld story contraptions as well. Vivid examples would have to include the insect-eaten hole that goes from one page to the next in Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” the shifting placement of words and pictures in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” the gargantuan size of the first edition of Jean DeBrunhoff’s “The Story of Babar” and the appropriately miniature volume that is Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” etc.

But perhaps no one has made this point more cleverly in recent times than Hervé Tullet in his picture book “Press Here.” Like an instruction manual, an opening page presents a yellow dot and instructs us to press it and turn the page. Voila, a second dot appears! Then we are told to press the dot again. A third appears! Next, we are instructed to “Rub the dot on the left, gently.” Turning the page, we see it has become red. Events like these continue and become wilder as we follow instructions and turn the pages: Dots multiply and configure themselves this way and that in response to a reader tilting the book to the left or to right, then shaking it, then shaking it again, and so on.

Of course, reviewers have predictably described “Press Here” as one more salvo against the iPad in the ongoing war between old media and new. But to my way of thinking, Tullet reminds us that the book, too, is a handheld story gadget. It’s not a choice between but of.

This was a lecture delivered March 2013 at the University of Padua and a conference called “The Child and the Book.”

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