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Digital Picture Books: Breaking the Paper Habit

By Jean Gralley

I've seen dread when I get up to speak. My audiences have been writers, illustrators, librarians, and other lovers of children's books and I've felt their reluctance to be in the same room with someone who's about to use the word "digital" liberally and with enthusiasm.

I wrote an article for Horn Book Magazine last year; it also used that word enthusiastically. One librarian blogged that although she'd liked my last book enough to buy several copies, the piece made her want to "rip them up." I don't think she actually finished the article. I'm also pretty sure she didn't see the little animation that accompanied it on Horn Book's website. All the same, I'm grateful for her reaction; she howled for the many who simply get queasy.

Why this reluctance and dread? Does the advent of digital books seem to toll the demise of traditional books? We know now, this isn't going to happen; bound books are here to stay. I think, instead, there is genuine concern that book reading by young people has declined and, in conjunction with the rise of all things digital, digital seems the clear enemy. Also in the mix is the fact that most of us have had a nibble of digital picture books at some point and it left a bad taste. So when I get up and a large screen comes down the audience thinks they know what they're going to see and they think they won't like it.

But instead they hear something they didn't expect, see something they haven't seen before. They react with sighs of relief, applause, and, in the case of writers and illustrators, business cards held out with calls, "sign me up!"

Unfortunately, there's nowhere to "sign up" just yet.

I write and illustrate picture books and love everything about traditional picture books. I see digital picture books currently falling into 2 camps: the glorified CD player and the (sometimes animated) slide show. In my opinion, neither of these goes far enough. But to understand how much further digital books can go, let's examine these two archetypes.

Consider the "wired book." It looks like a book and feels like a book but a digital sound file reads the text aloud while the child watches the words. The child may soon be just listening and turning pages. I worry that narrated storytellers may not persuade the child that reading unlocks its world. And isn't that the purpose we want to serve in books for young children? Not just to entertain, tickle, use toys or technology to draw children in ... but draw children in to catch the reading bug. Reading unlocks the whole world.

Consider the second archetype, far more common. Illustrations from the bound book have been scanned and translated to a computer screen; you click through one page of words and flat pictures after another. If a book married a slide projector this would be their baby. A picture may twitch or make a noise, even read itself aloud, but it's all pinned to the surface because, essentially, this book still imagines it's on paper.

It's stuck in the "paper habit."

QuoteThis kind of digital book reminds me of the circus pony my friend Marcia received when she was a little girl. Excited beyond belief, Marcia saddled him up for a wild ride but all the poor pony would do out in the open field was trot in little circles. This is the state of "computer books" today. There they are in a digital environment and all they do is stay in an imaginary confine, not even realizing they have all the room in the world to play.

This kind of book goes a long way to mimic paper. Paper will always do that better.

Word-driven books (novels, textbooks, newspapers) translate well to a digital environment, paper habit in tact. But when visuals are as dominant as they are in picture books, the limitations of the paper habit are glaring. If they don't make a break, digital picture books will continue to be a convolution of what's so simple and pure on paper and will fall short of their potential to be an exciting and engaging new form of reading experience.

I propose taking that step, that we break the paper habit and let digital be digital. Then we'll see there's a new way to TELL stories, a new way to READ stories, and, because these stories need to be imagined differently from the start, a new KIND of story to be created.

This kind of thing is best shown rather than described. In 2005 I created a friendly little animation called "Books Unbound" to demonstrate what a book not based on a paper model might be like. It can be found here (www.jeangralley.com/books_unbound). It's a very simple attempt to describe in 6 minutes a digital book that's not a slide show nor a speaking book, not a game to play, a puzzle to solve, a project to build, nor an animation to passively watch stream by.

Unlike animation, these kinds of stories would have a segmented structure that allows the reader to linger, go back, or move ahead. In a paper book we call that a double spread. Here it's a sequence, a short sequence of words and pictures in motion with a pause at its end. There can be beautiful sequences just as there are beautiful double spreads, and readers can repeat a sequence just as they savor a beautiful spread. There can be suspense at the end of a sequence and, just like on paper, a surprise on the other side. Just as with a traditional book, the reader is the driver. And the reader READS.

The Katoneh Museum in New York and the Eric Carle Museum of Massachusetts will show "Books Unbound" to represent "the future of picture books." The exhibition starts mid-2007 and will travel across the United States, ending in Los Angeles in 2009. What's even more exciting, there's a chance that before the tour is over, a mobile reader might be able to put these stories in visitors' hands for the first time.

This means the kind of book I describe will be portable, able to be read in an armchair, in a grown-up's lap, even under the covers at night, no flashlight required.

QuoteIs this really a book?

We're at a crossroads here. New forms do not have to take on the old names. For many the only proper form of book is the codex. But I contend the thing I describe is a book and that it's a good thing to think of it as a book. Perhaps it's just a sentimental choice. I like to think of a scroll as an early book, the Trajan Column as an early comic book. I'd also like to think our enjoyment of tales told by digital story weavers to be enjoyment of another in the series of continuing forms. I love the word "book." I'd want it to live far in the 21st century as an elastic, expanding, living word.

But here's the ultimate reason to embrace digital as part of the continuity of books: kids are having trouble reading in any form. If we continue to insist a codex is the only way to go and kids continue to lose interest, the irony is that we do more to doom the future of the codex than preserve it.

We in the traditional children's book publishing industry work hard to create wonderful reading experiences for kids, season after season. But our paper habit may have made us "paper blind," unable to really see anything not on it, unable to see the potential for quality literature elsewhere.

To be blunt, the reluctance of generations not raised with computers (and I count myself among them) will become increasingly irrelevant. But our reluctance has consequences. We are the gatekeepers. If we shut out digital and relegate it to software companies by default, to what kind of formative reading experiences are we sentencing so many kids?

I invite you again to take a look at "Books Unbound." Then, if you're a writer, illustrator, or publisher who'd like to explore the possibilities of breaking the paper habit, please get in touch. I know of many other book creators looking to "sign up." We need a place to go.

We also have a generation of young readers who love the digital form and are more than ready for us to catch up. Let's make a break for it and run there!

 

About the Author
Jean Gralley is a picture book writer/illustrator whose Very Boring Alligator was a cbc "Best Book." She was the Staff Artist of Cricket Magazine for 14 years. Her Horn Book article, entitled "Lift-Off: When Books Leave the Page" can be found at www.jeangralley.com/lift_off. While that ran in its Jan-Feb 06 issue, Horn Book showed "Books Unbound" on their website, a print/digital "first" for the magazine. Jean can be reached at jeangralley@aol.com


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