Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My first interactive ebook experience

I probably would have stayed interactive-ebook ignorant if it weren't for Jonathan's new iPad. Before today, I'd sworn off anything that called itself a book but didn't have paper pages to prove it. A story is not a book. A book is just one possible way to transmit a story. But a story can be transmitted in other ways--like in the old days, by people, in the intermediate days, by paper, and in the new days, by pixels. Today, after much reluctance, and due to a realization that I can't avert my eyes forever, I had my first real experience with an interactive children's ebook, which, in my opinion, wasn't a children's story at all (see important note on pigeonholing below). It was Oliver Jeffers' The Heart and the Bottle.

The story, as with everything else of Jeffers' I've read or seen, is touching and quiet and full of beautifully simple, and therefore utterly universal, ideas and illustrations. This time, however, I could move some of the pictures around, and draw my own, and even make a scene go from sad to downright dark with the swipe of my hand. Fun! And I could read to myself or have Helena Bonham Carter read the story to me, which was quite a treat. It took me several read-throughs to figure out what the story was saying, though. Up to then, I'd been too busy playing with the pictures and listening to Helena's pretty accent. On the third read, I finally got down to the message, which I found would be completely incomprehensible to every child I've ever known, even those with bottled-up hearts. That said, I've loved plenty of stories I couldn't understand, some even more than the ones I could understand (enter Alice), and children pull things from stories we wouldn't expect, so it doesn't really mean anything when someone stamps an age range on a tale like this. I suggest we ignore any attempts we might come across.

After Jeffers, I did more research and checked out a couple more books (the Alice one is very pretty with its Tenniel illustrations), but in the end, it was all just shaking and swiping and touching a screen, or watching a video clip or playing a mini-game. So, the experience was fun, but not amazingly fun, even though it was a story written by one of my all-time favorite author/illustrators. None of the things I came across, in my opinion, were as exciting, interactive, or versatile as print books can be, particularly those known as movable books: the pop-ups, the flip-books, the old-school tunnel books, and a bunch more, like the peepshow book I saw at the V&A Museum of Childhood and the more accessible Goldilocks one at a bookshop in Cambridge:

There's even an official Movable Book Society! (Click here for an exhibition the Smithsonian had all about paper engineering and here for tons of info and images at the UNT Libraries and here if you wanna buy some beautiful old movable books of your own.) Beyond those, you've got the scratch-and-sniff, all those tactile books (one of my particular favorites is The Black Book of Colors; click here for info on some award-winning international tactile books), the choose your own adventure, and even books that seem to do it all, like the Ology Series.

I'll admit the interactive Jeffers was fun in its own way. Really anything with Jeffers' illustrations involved would make me happy. But I guess what I'm getting at (a conclusion I'm sure lots of people before me have already come to) is that interactive stories aren't new and aren't even as interactive or necessarily interesting as paper books. They're just another in a long line of innovative ways to connect people with stories. It seems in this case, the important thing isn't what they are, but where they are: in the hands of countless kids across the world looking to handheld screens for fulfillment and entertainment . . . at least some of the time.