Interactive Children’s Books: The Future of Reading
by Elizabeth Schneider
Since 2010, surveys from the Pews Project for Excellence in Journalism have shown a growing percentage of online news readership, while traditional print newspaper have consistently declined in subscriptions (O’Dell, “For the First Time..”). Adamantly rebelling against this trend, my mother still gets the New York Times delivered to her front door every week. There is something, she says, about reading the news that gains substance when it is a physical experience: sorting through the sections, folding over the pages, shuffling it in your hands. It is a ritual she grew up with, rooted in her deep love and admiration for my grandfather. Meanwhile, at my sister’s house, the newspaper is already a thing of the past. My nephew, a precocious two year old, is surrounded by screens, and although his conversational vocabulary consists almost entirely of the monosyllable words “car” and “dog,” he navigates the digital world better than both of my parents combined. The last time I visited him, he eagerly went to get a storybook for me to read. I was surprised when he returned with an iPad. It seems books, in additional to newspapers, are not as I remember them from my childhood.
It was then that my nephew introduced me to a new world of interactive children’s books, namely Pandora: The Fearless Beribolt, a digital storytelling app for the iPad launched this past year by the New York-based start up company Hullabalu (Perez, “Hullabalu”).
As I watched my nephew engage with the screen, it was clear I was watching the next generation being trained to read in a new way. The reader-book relationship is evolving, similar to the spectator-film relationship that scholar Kristen Daly discusses in her essay about interactive cinema (Daly 125). Reading Pandora: The Fearless Beribolt is filled with “touchable” moments, requiring my nephew to reach out and help the main character accomplish a task or unveil a hidden truth. As he slides his finger across the screen, the environment transforms, creating a ripple effect mirroring a natural phenomenon (like the wind blowing leaves off a tree) meant to inspire a sense of wonder (and possible give him a god-complex).
As in Daly’s Cinema 3.0, my nephew and I are no longer passive spectators, but take active control and are fully immersed in the fantasy world (Daly 125). Where his printed storybooks fall short, Pandora: The Fearless Beribolt is able to provide a compelling and challenging interaction that put us to work, piecing together the story and building it through our engagement with the screen (Daly 127). It is easy to see the appeal of teaching a two year old the concept of “thinking and linking” at such a young and formative age (Daly 132). After all, the computer and smart phone are integral components of school, the work force, and even our personal and social lives, so introducing these navigational and “reading” skills to the next generation seems like a no-brainer.
After finishing reading (or playing) Pandora’s adventure with my nephew, I was left wondering if perhaps my sister had been duped into believing a video game was a book. While our parents looked at video games as pure entertainment, the new, trendy cousin to their board games, this storytelling app is able to be classified as a “digital book,” and in doing so, gain the respect and approval of parents nationwide. After all, every parent knows: books are good and video games are bad. However, there are moments within Pandora: The Fearless Beribolt, popping clouds with a boomerang or changing the characters’ outfits, that I find it hard to see it as anything but a video game, disguised as a book in order to train the next generation of children to be fluent in the language of the interactive screen.
If my nephew learns to read on an interactive screen, with books littered with mini video games, will he be an ADD disaster when it comes to reading a classic, devoid of all the bells and whistles of technology? Or maybe the classics will just have to be remade on this new platform, so we can take a mini break from reading what will happen between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, in order to play a duck hunting game or unlock a secret scene by clicking on an anachronistic object hidden within the frame. I am left thinking of my mother, desperately holding onto her newspaper, correlating the physical substance of the medium to the intellectual substance contained within it. Perhaps the future is bright, lit by the interactive screen. Or perhaps the screen is a gateway to the corruption of literature, remediated into digital technologies. Only time will tell.
Images from: https://hullabalu.com/
Daly, Kristen. “Cinema 3.0: The Interactive-Image.” 2010. [CP]
O’Dell, Jolie. “For the First Time, More People Get News Online Than From Newspaper.”
Mashable. 14 March 2011. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://mashable.com/2011/03/14/online-versus-newspaper-news/>
Perez, Sarah. “Hullabalu, A Startup With A Different Take On Touchable Storybooks, Arrives
On iPhone.” TechCrunch. 18 July 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://techcrunch.com/2013/07/18/hullabalu-a-startup-with-a-different-take-on-touchable-storybooks-arrives-on-iphone/>.