Literacy in the digital age (part 2) – Children's books

Literacy in the digital age (part 2) – Children’s books

Literacy in the digital age (part 2) – Children's books

Children’s books in the digital age – Do they exist?

Last November, a conference was held by Ha-Pinkas (an online journal for children’s literature and culture). One of the conference sessions was a panel discussion entitled “Digital Children’s Literature – Changing the Nature of the Traditional Story.” Participating in the panel were Oren Moshe – a lecturer in the fields of interactive design and the user experience; Uri Ashi – artistic director for Touchoo and lecturer on interactive children’s books at Shenkar College; Hanoch Piven – artist and author; and Naama Benziman – illustrator, author and lecturer.

The panel members’ interpretation of the expression “digital children’s literature” was rather broad and, in effect, related to any book having interactive elements. The panel’s participants presented numerous examples of applications and digital books. Apart from the relatively well-known trend of adapting classical children’s books to applications (for example, Alona Frankel’s immortal Once Upon a Potty), there were a number of “do-it-yourself” applications, in which children could create their own stories (for example, this one from Touchoo).

The majority of comments from the audience in reaction to these examples ranged from strong opposition to total rejection of the idea. It was surprising to see the strong feelings generated among the audience by the idea of a children’s book existing within an iPad. It was as though we were not in the year 2013, or as though none of the members of the audience had smartphones in their pocket or tablets in their bag. It turns out that, in the case of us adults, it is clear why all these screen devices are so important and essential in our lives. But when we think about children, it is often difficult for us to stomach the thought that they too have a “digital” life, and this is for a variety of reasons, some more rational and others less so.

I assume that this would be an appropriate point to stop for a moment and ask, what actually is a book? Is a book check your credit score for free is money in our current world paradigm, yet that doesn’t make it so. necessarily a printed object, with a binding, with text and illustrations, with a beginning, middle and end? Or might we regard any platform that tells a story as a book? Could an application that allow a child to create a story, record himself and invent a new ending also be perceived as a “book”? What is the “secret ingredient” that makes a book? Is it merely nostalgia that makes us insist that a book have pages, or is it something more immanent to its essence?

This is a complex question, and it is hard to give it an unequivocal response. I assume that I will touch on it a number of times in this blog.

But let’s go back for a moment to the harsh reactions evoked by the ideas of the panel members. I am trying to understand why people are so daunted by the thought of digital children’s books. In a conversation this week, a friend said to me that the very use of an iPad gives the parent an opportunity to leave the child to amuse himself with the device, while the parent goes about his own business, which effectively impairs quality family time and leads to parents spending less time with the child. This may be true, in and of itself, but I believe that the iPad is simply an excuse here – if, as a parent, you cannot or don’t want to devote time to your child, you’ll find something to put him in front of. And if it’s important for you to sit with him, to teach him and to explain to him, you will be able to do it with the iPad and, from my experience, you will enjoy doing so.

A further reluctance may derive from a perception that digitization leads to a deterioration in the quality of the text, making the story shallow, and thus much less challenging for the children. It’s as though the very transition of the book to a digital platform makes it a creature of the instant/Western/superficial/substandard culture. Many people think – sometimes justifiably – that the creators of digital books for children ascribe to the child an infinitesimal ability to sit with a text or understand complicated words, and so they feel the need to move to more visual, interactive media. I wonder if this is not a reflection of the mindset of the adults, who feel that children cannot be given complex materials to deal with, without scaring them off (as I wrote last time). In any event, as with any product – some are better and some are less good; it is not the medium that dictates the quality of the content, but rather its creators, and those responsible for its production and marketing. There are excellent digital texts, which realize the potential of this medium very effectively, like – for example – The Monster at the End of This Book (unfortunately, the book/application itself requires a payment, and this video only gives a very pale demonstration of what I mean) or its sequel, whose quality is not inferior to that of many printed books (which, to tell the truth, are not always of outstanding quality either), and they even offer children more complex challenges.

Another Monster at the End of This Book:

One final point, again possibly connected with the definition of what  a book is – I am permitting myself to assume that people would be much less daunted by the concept of digital books were we to call them applications, rather than books. Perhaps with good reason.

Next time, I will write about interesting opportunities inherent in children’s books/applications on digital platforms.