Sugar Hits and Cuckoo Chicks

I was watching TV the other day; ‘The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds’. As an experiment, three children were each given a tablet to play with. From that moment every bit of physical movement, apart from the press or swipe of a finger ceased. Even the smell of marshmallows and dipping chocolate could not get the kids to look up from their screens.

It set me wondering why such powerful alchemy has not already seen the demise of the picture book. I have a vested interest of course, but even so I think there are good reasons to believe that the picture book will survive. I’m less certain about printed adult fiction, although that also seems to be holding up in the face of the touch screen.

Why do I single out picture books? Because in their case the medium which carries the storytelling really matters. A novel is squiggles on a page. In a very real sense it is already virtual. It springs to life in the merging of the writer’s and readers’ shared imagination. It doesn’t, therefore, really matter what medium carries the story so long as the device is thought of fondly. And that depends on it being so efficient that it can be ignored, effectively disappearing as the imagined world of the story comes into view.

Picture books are different. They have two different kinds of squiggles; the words and the pictures. And these have fixed spatial relationships to each other and to the page turns. These graphic relationships form an important part of the storytelling. The stories are anchored to the book itself.

When the blue balloon turns into rainbow colours at the end of the story, that is not an imagined event. It is a concrete event fixed by the illustration. In fact, to a small child, the story is the book. It might live in a special place on the bookshelf or be lost under the sofa, but it is not floating somewhere in the digital ether. It is real.

So the story binds to the book and is entire and discrete. It cannot be added to or subtracted from. And unlike an event on a tablet it does not have to rent a timeshare of the screen until one of a million alternative choices replaces it. This physical reality gives it heft which translates into value, both as a commercial object and in the mind of the child, where at best it assumes special status.

A story lovingly crafted into the pages of a picture book will only take a few minutes to read, but it will be read repeatedly. It will hopefully become a little dog-eared. It will somehow gain value over time.

But surely digital media would elevate The Blue Balloon? It could open up all kinds of interactivity, virtually expanding the reach of the book’s pull-out pages? Yes it could. It could introduce animation. And sound. It could offer alternative endings. It could teach children their colours. It could fill each virtual page with buttons to press. It could do a million exciting things that ‘add value’. In fact, if it didn’t offer all that excitement how would it compete with the digital games on the same device?

But that is the point. Throughout human history stories have mirrored the course of real life, each offering only one linear reality; no optional endings and no distractions. A story’s primary purpose and its central appeal has always been to relate what happened next. The experience is as familiar to us as the oxygen we breathe and so we take it for granted. But it relies on a fragile contract between the storyteller and the reader. ‘You sit down and listen – and I will tell you what happened’.

Suspended disbelief requires a certain quietness. Interactivity taken to the extreme of offering alternative outcomes and reader input usurps the authority of the storyteller and severs that strange and primal bond. It destroys story. I think that is at least part of the reason why tablets are not the automatic replacement for picture books that they first seemed.

But I have one huge caveat. Touch screens are brilliant. Dazzlingly so. Their user-friendliness is devastatingly solicitous. They are sugar hits. They are attention seekers. They are time gobblers. Given the choice children will pretty much always choose them over anything else. It is entirely possible that, like cuckoo chicks, they will elbow out picture books along with exercise and much else besides, simply by eating up time.

So like marshmallows and dipping chocolate they need to be rationed. For storytelling with pictures, let children be mesmerised by the picture book, not by the touch screen. Then when the story comes to an end there will be no endless stream of swipes and presses clamouring for attention. And it will be time for bed.

Mick Inkpen is one of today’s most popular picture book author/illustrators and the famous creator of both Kipper and Wibbly Pig. Mick has won the Children’s Book Award for Threadbear and the British Book Award twice, for Penguin Small and Lullabyhullaballoo. Kipper won a BAFTA for Best Animated Film. The year 2019 sees the 30th Anniversary of Kipper’s debut appearance in The Blue Balloon.