Children’s author Julia Donaldson has said ‘no’ to an ebook version of her bestseller, The Gruffalo. The picturebook has been translated into 31 other languages and you can have Gruffalo in Russian, Irish and Hebrew versions, but she has drawn the line at a digital one because she thinks interactive books distract children from reading: “I think there are lots of pros to ebooks but I don’t feel we have to be controlled by technology and I don’t feel we should say, ‘Oh, that’s the future, let’s do it … There is a danger ebooks could take over.”1
This is the latest bit of news from the publishing world to signal the fact that we have arrived at a crucial moment. We’ve seen it on the horizon for while, but quite suddenly it’s really here: the moment where the challenge to the codex has become significant and real. A further sign, perhaps, of its arrival is the publication last month of It’s a Book!, a picturebook in which the child-surrogate protagonist is baffled by a real book because it doesn’t behave in the right way – it doesn’t behave, that is, like an electronic device. Of course, as historians of technology point out, we’ve been here before. Cue my favourite sketch: ‘Introducing the Book’. (There is a version in English, but nowhere near as funny. It really is lost in translation.)
So do historical precedents mean that it’s simply a question of accepting content in a new format which we will all get used to in time and whose inexorable advance, we are, in any case, not in a position to resist? That seems to be more or less the stance of many in the industry. Kate Wilson, who published Gruffalo at PanMacMillan, and who now runs her own company publishing digital as well as print books for children, says that although she understands Donaldson’s decision, that’s where parents and children are moving. “It’s luddite and refusenik,” she says, “not to embrace where your readers are going.”2
But is that really where everyone is moving? My own impression is that there’s a very wide range of feeling about this, from the e-i-WOAH! gang, who embrace all the epossibility and ipotential, to the Real Books brigade, some of whom are probably still coming to terms with the paperback. Most people are probably somewhere on a continuum between the two – people like me, who can see the advantages and disadvantages in both, who do engage with and genuinely enjoy some of the new technologies, but who experience and observe some of the unintended side-effects, and who understand that the issues are various and complex. But here, too, there is nervousness: the language of danger and takeover in Donaldson’s comment expresses some of the fear that many feel about the very real prospect of bytes replacing books.
Well, we have to acknowledge that technology changes things. Of course it does. That’s what it’s for. But technology is launched into the world without knowing all the ramifications, and the change isn’t always what people expect or desire. This isn’t necessarily negligence; it’s just that the ramifications and their interconnections are just too extensive and complex to afford predictions.3 We are notoriously bad at predicting the technological advances of the future, as proven by the poor old chairman of IBM’s oft-repeated prediction of 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” We are even worse at anticipating how technology will be used and what social effects it will have.
So what might be the effects of ebooks for children? On the positive side, we can say that they might make the texts more affordable, accessible and attractive to those who are less inclined to read traditional books. We might observe that, anyway, multimodal texts are a different form of text, and we simply shouldn’t be comparing the two. We might venture the suggestion that ebooks encourage young readers to interact with the text, and anything that encourages active engagement must be a good thing.
On the other hand, an ebook – as last Sunday’s post so clearly demonstrated – is not simply the book transferred to the screen with a handful of extra entertaining features. Ebooks lose their edges; they melt into the joined-up web of digital information and the “ecosystem of interruption technologies”.4 They also lose their finality and their linearity. Of course, we sort of know all this. We know instinctively that a book and an ebook have a different atmosphere. And research is just beginning to point to the whys and the wherefores. Neurological studies indicate there’s a crucial link between the sensory-motor experience of materiality of a written work and the cognitive processing of content;5 that there is there is little support for the idea that hypertext leads to an enriched experience; that hypertext stimulates activity in the pre-frontal area of the cortex (decision-making and problem solving) but not in the areas of language, memory and visual processing;6 that comprehension and personal engagement are more difficult with hypertext than linear text. The issues really are complex. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sit back and let technology take its course. And in relation to children, especially, we have to take responsibility for the choices we make in shaping the techno-enhanced world. So I have to ask myself, if I was in the enviable position of Julia Donaldson, having written a bestselling children’s book, would I allow or forbid a digital version? I think, on balance, I’d probably say no, not least to help stimulate the much-needed debate.
1. Reported in the Guardian, Friday 25 March 2011
2. The original Luddites were not protesting against technology per se, but against the social conditions that were bringing enforced factory labour. The coinage of the term Luddite is really a misrepresentation of the aims of followers of Ned Ludd. I do try to put in a word for the Luddites when I can, but this, I fear, is a lost cause. Much like theirs.
3. David Pullinger (2001) Information Technology and Cyberspace. DLT
4. Cory Doctorow (2009) Writing in the age of distraction. Locus. January 2009
5. Anne Mangan (2008) Hypertext Fiction Reading. Journal of Research in Reading. 31(4).
6. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan (2008) iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Collins