The ebook market for children’s books is the single most prolific arm of the digital publishing industry. It is also the most potentially insidious. While the passive technology offered by TV is seen to threaten literacy, research suggests that although ebooks for children, particularly enhanced ebooks, have a significant impact on motivating children to read, they don’t necessarily help them to develop the skills to read.
One significant factor is what we might call the swipe effect: with just one glance of a chubby finger a child becomes master of the touch-screen universe, but what impact does that have on the act of reading?
For my own toddler (who provides an admittedly singular research sample), the potential storytelling function of a digital device remains secondary to swiping; in fact, everything is secondary to the swipe once he gets his hand on a machine. Where he would happily sit concentrating on a single page of a paperback version of one of Richard Scarry’s Busytown books, he is too busy swiping to get much from the tablet edition (Richard Scarry’s Busytown HD , Night and Day Studios, iOS only, €2.69).
At 18 months, he is more interested in the general principal of cause and effect – “I touch the screen and something happens” – than in what the effect might be. He may accidentally put a hat and scarf on the book’s hero, Huckle, but for the moment his teddies provide a more effective lesson in dressing a character and role play.
Indeed, one of the big differences between ebooks and their traditional counterparts is tactility. Swiping a screen requires a single nonspecific hand movement, but a traditional book demands a variety of motions to manipulate and a variety of textures (from the unenhanced basics of page thickness to the now ubiquitous touch-and-feel books in toddler libraries).
That said, we had good fun with Red in Bed (Red in Bed Books, Android and iOS, €1.99), an interactive picture book about colours, written for digital devices. The story is simple: Red isn’t feeling well and needs the other colours to cheer him up. Josh On, its writer and developer, uses a simple musical key to encourage linear swiping, which also helps to develop impulse control when it comes to swiping. Already my toddler gets enough from this for it to count as a book rather than a game, and I can see him maintaining interest as he develops reading skills.
For an early-reading age group, meanwhile, the digital versions of the Dr Seuss canon are highly regarded bestsellers. My five-year-old volunteer and I sampled The Foot Book (Oceanhouse Media, Android and iOS, €3.59), which was already an established favourite with my research assistant.
One of the features most prized by internet reviewers is the Read-to-Me function, with accompanying word highlighting, but the generic American monotone of the reader’s voice is no replacement for the more varied tones of a live rendition. The Read-to-Me function is fairly standard in enhanced ebooks for this age, but it is usually accompanied by an autoplay function, which plays the book like a video and offers little incentive to the young reader to take the challenge on independently.
Story-based ebooks for young readers also offer mixed advantages. Early research has found that interactivity interrupts narrative flow and makes it more difficult for children to remember details. The bestselling author Julia Donaldson has vetoed ebook editions of her picture books for this reason.
"The publishers showed me an ebook of Alice in Wonderland ," Donaldson has said. "They said, 'Look, you can press buttons and do this and that,' and they showed me the page where Alice's neck gets longer. There's a button the child can press to make the neck stretch, and I thought, Well, if the child's doing that, they are not going to be listening or reading 'I wish my cat Dinah was here' or whatever it says in the text. They're just going to be fiddling with this wretched button."
There are, however, some fine examples that manage to circumvent these challenges. Nosy Crow’s interactive versions of the traditional fairy tales, for example, integrate embedded games with a choose-your-own adventure narrative whose diversions all stick closely to the story.
Indeed, the flexibility of the fairy tale makes it a perfect story with which to experiment. In Little Red Riding Hood (Nosy Crow, iOS only, £2.99), for example, every task set for the reader (pick some acorns, collect some feathers) has repercussions for the story’s ending. The autoread option is also delivered by a child’s voice rather than an adult’s; studies for television have shown that children are better engaged by their peers in technological contexts, and this certainly proves true with this ebook.
Most enhanced ebooks being developed are aimed at the under-fives, but one can’t help wondering how many of these are developed with busy parents rather than children in mind. Ebooks for children work best as an addition rather than an alternative to a child’s library. Indeed, recent surveys suggest that even converted adult readers prefer to give their children traditional books to encourage them to read.
For young adults, however, for whom interaction with technology is second nature and reading rarely a priority, the market for enhanced ebooks is also thriving. The big hit of 2012, Chopsticks (Penguin, iOS only, £4.99), isn’t so much a book as a story told through words, music and images.
Created by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corrall, it has no narrative text; instead the story is offered by way of newspaper clippings, text messages, handwritten notes and photographs. It creates a compelling mystery in which the reader becomes one of the authors, filling in gaps in the story themselves.
If the primary function of reading is to fire the imagination, Anthony and Corrall’s sophisticated telling certainly does that.
Sara Keating is a cultural journalist and critic.