A recent Publishers Weekly article on enhanced eBooks for children has got me thinking about the whole concept of eBooks which might feature “original music; the story is read by the author and, much like all of these apps, the illustrations—all based on the artwork in the print titles—on each screen can be manipulated to make sounds or animated with the touch of a finger.”
Now these particular eBooks are designed for children and will likely encourage very young readers to keep at it until they understand how to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. As well as the added features: “All releases will feature dedicated Web sites, interactive games, read-along functionality, animation and many other in-app activities for the young reader. Adam Royce, v-p, digital content development at Penguin Young Readers, said the apps offered an “enhanced reading experience and interactive features that are true to the reading experience.”
I take issue with that last phrase, and you’ll see why below, but I’m not so much worried about what’s happening for very young readers, I’m worried that these new developments will bleed into adult fiction where publishers are already looking at “enhanced reading experiences”.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading (print book or eBook device) at some point I stop being in this world and I get into “the zone” where I don’t even remember I’m lying on the lounge any more because I am the character and I’m living the story. Inevitably something happens to plop me out of the story and then I remember it’s ‘just a book’ but prior to that I was somewhere else, in the land of the story, using my imagination to hear wind whispering through trees or see sunlight sparkling off water or smell the salt tang of the ocean. And in fact, if I’d had to stop reading to experience someone else’s idea of what that sunlight looks like or what that ocean smells like, I’d immediately plop out of the story and remember that it wasn’t real.
Now I don’t know about you, but I never wanted that to happen when I was a kid. I was desperate to stay in the story (Alice in Wonderland, Magic Faraway Tree, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie), for the characters to be real, and for the magical settings to be somewhere I could inhabit for as long as possible. I’m sure the same thing happened to kids reading Harry Potter, and I know for sure (because I interviewed a heap of them) that teenager girls reading Twilight lived so thoroughly inside that created world that they’d often get mildly depressed when they returned to ‘real life’ because it couldn’t compare with the sparkle of Edward’s attention. For the period that they were reading, they were Bella, and he loved them. I seriously doubt that would have happened if Twilight had come packaged with werewolf howls and assorted interactive buttons. Maybe as an audiobook, but even then I doubt it would work as well as simply reading the text and letting your own vivid imagination create the sensory experience, with nothing to jerk you out of the story and back to reality.
To me, there’s nothing “true to the reading experience” about adding anything that distracts the reader from being inside the story, because I believe the reader’s imagination is the greatest factor in bringing a story to life – not clever graphics or sounds or even smells and tactile experiences when they work out how to deliver that. And I’m not a Luddite. I’m more than happy for eBooks to overtake print if people want to read on a device. Whatever the reader wants, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of them dropping into the world I’ve created. And I believe “added features” get in the way, so I’m hoping they stay at the very youngest end of the market where they may entice a bored toddler to keep with a story. But once a reader grows up, I really just want them to have text on the first run through.
I do love the idea of the dedicated websites with extra features on them, but only to be used after the reader has finished creating the story inside their own mind. Otherwise we might end up with a generation of children not being able to use their imaginations to fully create the world a writer has sketched out for them. I’m worried about what that means to their enjoyment of story, and also what that means to the creative development of their brains.
As always, I’m really happy to kick start the discussion with my opinions and see what everyone else has to say!