A recent exploratory study found that 40% of primary schools and 18% of pre-schools are using or trialling iPads, which makes me wonder, as I have many times before, why more children’s publishers aren’t taking tablets seriously. Not just educational content (academic publishers are actually doing a bit better here, I find) but any kind of reading material at all. Although at Nosy Crow we don’t create apps with a particular educational focus, we are interested in reading for pleasure, and just as every Nosy Crow print title has a child reader in mind, every app is made with the ambition of getting children excited about reading in new and exciting ways.
Every now and then – usually in the comments section underneath pieces that mention our apps in The Guardian – I am told that our apps are bad, that they don’t “count” as reading, and that they are depriving children of valuable time which could be spent with real, print books. This strikes me as an entirely false dichotomy. I don’t believe that our apps are competing with print books for a child’s attention – I think, actually, that they are competing with all of the other forms of media available on an iPad: watching movies, surfing the internet, playing Angry Birds, and so on. We are pragmatists: we know that children are spending an increasing amount of time in front of screens, and we want reading to be one of the things that they can “do” on a tablet.
We also know that children using tablets have incredibly high expectations of interactivity (just watch the famous video of the baby mistaking a glossy magazine for an iPad), and we don’t want reading to be the least exciting thing to do on that device. So we make apps that are highly interactive, very multimedia-rich (our apps all have original artwork, animation, music, voicework, sound effects, and take advantage of all the great technological features of an iPad), and that often blur the distinction between “story” and “game”. Our guiding philosophy is that we’re not interested in just squashing a book onto a phone: we make original apps that have been designed especially for the screen.
Our most recent app, Jack and the Beanstalk, is probably our most “gamified” story app yet. This was a deliberate decision on our part: we made it with reluctant readers in mind – and particularly, reluctant boy readers, who may not be used to books, but are very comfortable with on-screen gaming. Our version of the story contains all of the traditional elements – taking the cow to market, meeting a suspicious salesman who offers Jack some magic beans, returning home to a furious mother who throws the beans away, and waking up to find a giant beanstalk – but we’ve reimagined the third act. Once Jack reaches the giant’s castle he’s confronted with nine different doors, each with a different character and game behind them: you have to collect keys to unlock more of the story. At certain points, Jack meets the sleeping giant, and you can succeed or fail at attempts to collect his treasure: if you wake the giant up, he’ll chase you out of the castle and that version of the story will end.
Although there’s plenty of text in every scene (not just core story, but also lots of ancillary dialogue, which can be triggered by touching characters), it’s a very non-linear narrative experience. You can explore the castle in a different order every time, and the ending will change depending on how many tasks you’ve completed. The inherent structure of the app is one that rewards success with more story, and we found that to be a hugely exciting opportunity – one that puts a real emphasis on reading for pleasure.
And the very nature of fairytales – their familiarity, their classic story structures – is, at least in part, what allows us to tell stories in this way. We can move away from the “main” narrative of Jack and the Beanstalk (with games and tasks) and children won’t lose sight of the story: they know that Jack will find the giant’s golden coins, his singing harp, and his golden egg-laying goose. You can “bend” a fairytale and it won’t break.
That notwithstanding, the interactivity in our apps is very carefully designed to never detract from the story and reading elements – which is the mistake a lot of poor quality apps seem to make – but rather, to enhance the narrative and propel it forward. Every scene of Jack and the Beanstalk begins with text which can’t be interrupted – the core part of the narrative – and we add features like text-highlighting, to support emerging and early readers.
I’d love to see some large-scale research into the impacts on literacy rates and reading time from children using touchscreen devices, but in truth, I do not think apps are either a magic elixir that will rescue our children from illiteracy, or a blight that will condemn us all to a future of booklessness. They are a platform, just like the paperback or the scroll, and as such, they are fairly content-neutral – there are good and bad stories available in every format. For us, what matters is that children are reading, and enjoying it: we aren’t particularly concerned how they’re doing so.