Sunday, 27 November 2011

Don’t Let the Pigeon confuse you! A Picturebook App. Or not?

By Ghada
Working with the paratexts of picturebook series leads me to investigate myriad ‘external’ connections, and in the past year these have included Apps.  As I have mentioned before I have looked at Apps adapted from picturebook series such as Olivia, The Cat in the Hat, The Berenstain Bears and others. So I was evidently happy when I discovered that Mo Willems, author of 2 of the series from my corpus (The stories about Pigeon and Elephant & Piggie) had announced that he was soon to release an App, and that it would be titled: Don’t Let The Pigeon Run This App! I equally found this announcement strange considering that just a few months earlier he mentioned that he was not fond of adapting his books into Apps. Still, I went ahead and downloaded it. When I did, I was left first confused, then relieved, that Willems was not going back on his claim that, to him, e-books are “narrative killers”. Here is why:


So I thought, perhaps Willems has reconsidered and I was about to take a look at his first ever picturebook series App. That seemed to be a viable assumption before purchasing it. For starters most other Apps were existing picturebooks made into Apps. I also presumed the App would be a picturebook because the App is sold under the ‘Books’ section of iTunes and the logo/icon - which has now come to equate the front cover of a conventional book - greatly resembled the covers of the books in the series.  

Although many of the elements of continuity of the book version of the series are present - the author, the protagonist (Pigeon), the style, even the humorous tone - Willems did not create his App into either a digital replica of one of his books, nor did he create a new picturebook (made especially as an App). 

This App is not a picturebook. So what, then, is it? Well, if I had to define it I would say it is an audio/visual combination between an activity book and an interactive toy. Once opened, ‘readers’ can carry out a variety of activities/actions. They are invited to create, make choices, record their own voice, learn how to draw the pigeon, but unlike other Apps created from a picturebook series, this App does not have a ‘story’ in the conventional sense. Compared to the others, where the level of interactivity is not the main focus, here interactivity is central; it does not have the option of running on its own. It’s functionality demands the ‘reader’ to touch, shake and talk into it; which explains why the front cover even advertises authorship to “Mo Willems and you”.


Any worry that Willems is jumping on the App bandwagon too seriously is put to rest when at this year’s Zena Sutherland Lecture, he expressed his views on the differences between a book and it’s digital breed:

The book doesn’t work, it can’t work, unread … What if books are better because they don’t do things, because they can’t do things? What if the thing that makes books great, that makes them essential is that books need us? They’re simple. You invest in them and become part of them. You contribute. They can be read, but they can also be played … It needs us desperately. We have to pull it off the shelf. We have to open it up. We have to turn the pages, one by one. We even have to use our imagination to make it work …  We have to do all of that, we have to that with our little minds and our flapping flights of fancy. So, suddenly, that book is not just a book; it’s our book. We’re the ones making it work. We’re the ones making it sing. Right there in our chairs as we gently flip the pages, we are, at our own pace, creating a living story just by reading … And you don’t have to turn off a book during takeoff and landing.

Not only do these claims justify why Don’t Let The Pigeon Run This App! bears such little resemblance to a picturebook but they equally reveal that picturebook creators have acknowledged that Apps and other forms of e-books are now becoming an exciting (but different) addition to children’s literature, and are telling us what they think.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Commercial break

By Debbie
After six-million-pounds-worth of creative effort, the John Lewis Christmas television commercial was launched last Saturday. Even by the normal standards of Christmas TV commercials, which have arguably become a distinctive postmodern art form, The Long Wait has produced an extraordinary reaction. Within twenty-four hours, the one-and-half-minute film had been viewed 400,000 times on the internet and had produced a paratextual hinterland of tweets, bleats and repeats, along with string of spoofs which in turn attract further layers of comment. And of course it is accompanied by the obligatory if rather uninformative ‘Making of …’ film. Untelevisioned as I am, even I noticed the ripples.

Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, here it is for reference.

OK, even if this is the UK’s favourite ethical, not-for-the-benefit of corporate shareholders company, it’s still advertising and it’s still trying to sell stuff. And apparently it works. According to the post-ad press release, “sales at the retailer John Lewis climbed 6 per cent week on week to £76.3m as its Christmas television campaign launched last week”. This news was followed by the intriguing detail that “strong performances came from home furnishing services, particularly floor coverings and the express curtains service.” Not ordinary curtains, mind you, but express curtains. Presumably so you can be confident of being fully hung by Christmas. Leaving the irresistible image of the performing floor coverings to one side, this does makes me wonder what people are actually looking at and thinking about when they watch these things. I can see all sorts of interesting aspects of the ad that you might want to dwell on, but, oh I don’t why, the floor coverings just didn’t stand out for me.

Anyway, sales or no sales, this short film seems to have touched something deep in the national psyche. A good deal of the reaction is from people genuinely touched by what they see as a heartwarming story that restores our faith in stores, subverts the advertising convention of the insatiable child, and somehow gets back to the ‘real message’ of Christmas: that it is more blessed to give than receive. Some, however, see it as mawkish manipulation, often with the complaint that it shows an unrealistic view of children. Said one commentator: “There are no children who would actually look forward to giving a gift rather than receiving one. Again, these people have no idea about actual children.” It’s interesting how this group appear to have a view of childhood as unrealistic as the one they criticise. If you know a child, or maybe just happen to have been one yourself at one time or other, you will know that children can get very excited about the prospect of giving a gift. For giving, for all its consumerist wrappings, is still a symbolic expression of our love for another person, and children feel this. To give is also empowering. Yet another group are up in arms about about what they see as abusive treatment of a favourite song by The Smiths.

Interestingly, one possible response I have not seen is that far from simply subverting the stereotypical view of the child, the ad is actually taking the child out of the child’s traditional position of being a receiver (of love, care, provision) and requiring them to become active within the commercial sphere, quite literally to buy into it all.

So what can we take this response to mean? Is it a straightforward case of nostalgia, or something more specific? What child is this?

This little film is in fact one that fits comfortably into the category of children’s literature, having many of the features we expect to find in children’s books: dual address to adult and to child, a child protagonist, and a child’s point of view. This depiction of a child’s perspective is, I think, artfully done. The slow passing of time is marked out by the rhythms of a bouncing ball, the ticking of clocks, a pendulum-like swing, and tapping of hands and feet. The child tries to exert his power over time by using magic to make it pass more quickly, but is ultimately subjected to the Long Wait – for Christmas and, we might infer, for adulthood. There are also intertextual references to other children’s books, and adults portrayed as peripheral colourless beings who have largely lost the plot of what life is really about.

The film is essentially nostalgic, and constructs the child as adults want him to be – as Jacqueline Rose famously has it, the impossible child of children’s fiction. Thus, the little boy is a silent child, a clean and tidy child, a child whose worst defect is fidgeting when his father is trying to read the business pages. These children play at ball games and dressing up, and paint peacefully at the kitchen table while their mother cooks the dinner (presumably from Waitrose). Not a computer game in sight. Connoisseurs of 1980s picturebooks will realise instantly that this is, in fact, Lucy and Tom, the movie, adapted from the bestselling series by Shirley Hughes. Most obviously, then, this is a straightforward rendering of the Romantic child, a person innocent and untainted by worldly things, yet imbued with a spiritual wisdom that adults have lost.

But this is also a layered text. Just as in picturebooks, where text and image work together in a variety of different ways, so here the verbal text in the form of a song interacts with the images. The song may well have been chosen for the way the line ‘let me get what I want’ reinforces the assumption that the child is waiting for his own presents, but in other places it forms a distinct counterpoint. Whereas the images depict the world from the child’s perspective, the song is very much about the longing and desire of a dillusioned adult, with lines such as:

Haven’t had a dream in a long time
See, the life I’ve had
Can make a good man bad
So for once in my life
Let me get what I want

Lord knows, it would be the first time

The adults in the film certainly look as if they haven’t had a dream in a long time. They are evidently shackled by the cares of life, and the mother has a look that clearly says she has a niggling worry about her firstborn son. At this level the film speaks to adults to remind them what is was like to acknowledge desires, to give rein to unselfconscious delight, to be simply in a state where you feel so passionately about something that all else seems unimportant. And if that’s the case, then perhaps the remarkable response is at least in part to do with adult desire to reclaim a very particular freedom that was lost in childhood. There again, maybe it’s just some subliminal messages from the floor coverings and window treatments.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Children's literature, lol!

by Clementine

These days Cambridge is completely depressing. Night falls roughly three minutes after you've finished breakfast. Today's weather was fine, but generally it rains now and then - not hard enough that you can justify getting your umbrella out without looking like a ninny, but enough that you end up with a slightly damp face and hair like you've just stepped out of a Britney Spears music video. Have I mentioned that the city is already decorated for Christmas? Yes, my friends, these are depressing times.

So, obviously, I don't want to be reading yet another emo YA novel. I want to be reading children's books that make me LOL and ROTFL and LMAO! And thankfully, the Roald Dahl Funny Prize has just been announced. I haven't read it yet, but I'm getting my copy of Andy Mulligan's first Ribblestrop book tomorrow.

Meanwhile, and just like that, here are a few children's books that made me laugh when I was a kid and still make me laugh today, and which all of us in dreary dark corners of the Northern Hemisphere should read now and again to laugh November away!

And first on the list is the incomparable Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren! When I think of her at school, or in the shops, or in the (colonialism alert!) South Seas, I immediately start smiling. But Pippi is also the universal saviour of all girls who 'suffer from freckles', such as myself. How many times did I read and reread this passage when I was little:

In the shop window was a large jar, and beside the jar was a sign, which read: DO YOU SUFFER FROM FRECKLES?

"What does the sign say?" asked Pippi.
"It says, ‘Do you suffer from freckles?’" said Annika.
"Does it indeed?” said Pippi thoughtfully. “Well, a polite question deserves a polite answer. Let’s go in.”
She opened the door and walked into the shop, closely followed by Tommy and Annika. An elderly lady stood behind the counter. Pippi went right up to her.
“No!” she said decidedly.
"What is it that you want?” asked the lady.
"No,” said Pippi once more.
"I don’t understand what you mean,” said the lady.
"No, I don’t suffer from freckles,” said Pippi.
Then the lady understood, but she took one look at Pippi and burst out, “But, my dear child, your whole face is covered with freckles!”
"I know,” said Pippi, “but I don’t suffer from them. I love them. Good morning.”

And second on the list (as anyone who knows me will expect) are Jennings and Darbishire, the funniest schoolboys in literary history by Anthony Buckeridge. In one of my favourite passages in the series, Jennings and Darbishire ask their friend Temple to help them write a professional-sounding letter to a company that sells videocameras, in the hope that they'll send them a catalogue...

"You see, I want a catalogue, and I bet the chap won't send it if he thinks I'm just a chap at school, because he'll know I haven't got enough dosh; but if you write it, he'll never guess. Look, here it is in rough, and we want you to make it sound more grown-up."
Temple's twelve horse-power brain soon grasped what was expected of it, and he stared searchingly at the rough copy that Jennings had written.
"Dear Sir", he read aloud. "I would like to buy one so how much are they and please send one at once but not if they are more than eleven and eight if so just a catalog. We beat Bracebridge School in the end. There was Sports practics last Wednesday only there was not any owing to the wet it was scratched. Hopping you are quit all rit. Yours truly, J.C.T. Jennings."
Temple raised both eyebrows. "You're bats!" he said. "What on earth does it mean?"
Jennings showed him the advertisement for the Grossman Ciné Camera de Luxe.
"Oh, I see," said Temple, as light dawned. "But what's all this quit hopping stunt?"
"Well, it's only decent to hope it's quite all right," Jennings explained, "and if he isn't - if he's got chicken-pox, or something, he'll be wizard pleased to know that somebody cares about him."

I'm not a diehard fan of the Asterix comics by Uderzo & Goscinny, but there is that passage in Asterix in Britain... Background story: the Britons have this strange habit of drinking hot water without anything in it. Thankfully, Asterix has an idea: how about adding some herbs to it?

Copyright Uderzo & Goscinny, bien sûr!
And thus Asterix invented tea.

Frenchwise, there are so many funnies that haven't been translated that just thinking about how you're all missing out makes me cry. Poor you!

What else? Georgia Nicolson's hilarious diary, of course, by Louise Rennison. From Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging to Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas (and another 8 or 9 books in the series), every page brings moments of lolarity:

If I truly gave up I could be like Wet Lindsay. When Robbie dumped her she got all pale and even wetter than normal. She was like an anoraksick. (A person who is both very thin and wears tragic anoraks.) I just made that up as a joke. Even though I am very upset I can still think of a joke.
Everytime I see a skeletal girl in an anorak I secretly call her anoraksick.

And of course there's all the modern ones! Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid! That moment when Greg has to thank his family for Christmas presents and decides to write a 'general form on the computer with blanks for the things that needed to change':


Thank you so much for the awesome ENCYCLOPEDIA! How did you know I wanted that for Christmas?
I love the way the ENCYCLOPEDIA looks on my SHELF!
All my friends will be so jealous that I have my very own ENCYCLOPEDIA!

Of course, for some gifts, it doesn't really work as well:

Thank you so much for the awesome PANTS! How did you know I wanted that for Christmas?
I love the way the PANTS look on my LEGS!
All my friends will be so jealous that I have my very own PANTS!

This seems like a good place to conclude that there are tons and tons of funny books for kids out there and that should you want to get me a Christmas present, you can't really get it wrong if you get me one of them. Just sayin'.

I hope this post made you feel a little happier. Long live funny books for kids! Add your own favourite ones in the comments.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Children's Literature Open Day Report

by Erin

Yesterday was the second ever Homerton/Cambridge Research and Teaching Centre for Children’s Literature open day. I felt so proud to be part of this event, which showcased the strength and diversity of the children’s literature program. Having organized a very successful open day in May, many of us felt that it would be a good idea to repeat the event, to continue spreading the word about the value of studying children’s literature. While we might have worried that it would be impossible to match the success and turn out of the May open day, I feel that it was equally as successful! We had a great turn out – so thank you to everyone who came out on a dreary Saturday afternoon to hear what we are all about.

Some things stayed the same: like Zoe’s amazing cupcakes. Instead of being inspired by Alice, she now drew on a Beatrix Potter theme, creating pastel-coloured delicacies complete with frogs and rabbits. Zahra, an MPhil student, equally demonstrated her cupcake-baking skills, producing Twilight-inspired treats.

Clementine, Debbie and Susan made their fellow students proud, as they spoke eloquently and wittingly about why they study children’s literature at Cambridge. Debbie explained that, for her, it all began in a bookshop in York, where she found a copy of ‘The Cool Web,’ and later read it from cover to cover. Who would have thought that children’s literature could be so critical? Clementine re-told the Cinderella story, adding in a modern-day twist, using her own brilliant illustrations. Susan reaffirmed the strength of the MPhil program, in particular, telling future applicants ‘what to expect’ as students of children’s literature. In short, expect to have your expectations exceeded!

We also had the absolute pleasure of hearing author Adele Geras speak about her experience as a writer. She compared the process of writing to that of cooking, and used this metaphor throughout her presentation. I was interested to hear her explain how her own life has influenced her stories, and that she writes about ‘what she knows’. She explained that she grew up in a family that travelled extensively, moving from place to place every two years or so, and how she draws on these experiences within her own work. The places she has been have become part of her work. Alongside characters and plot, she argues that setting is important — it stays with you long after the book is finished.

Between the presentations, there was lots of time for us to mingle: to meet new people, to ask questions, to answer questions, to share our experiences. I had lots of questions from prospective students, about the nature of the course and what my own research entails. They all were very enthusiastic!

If I had been a visitor, trying to decide whether or not Cambridge or children’s literature was for me, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been convinced. As for those of us already here, I think it made us realize (yet again) how lucky we are.

Photos were taken by the very talented Faye Yung. Thanks for sharing, Faye.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Halloween Special!

By Faye

Pale Face, Panda Eyes, Bloody Mouth and Mr Bandaged in Toilet Rolls had a lot of fun and made a lot of noise on the street. But I am convinced our little Halloween get-together was way more enjoyable. No extreme make-over would be helpful in a game of Charades when one got 1984, or To Kill a Mockingbird anyway. We also played numerous rounds a game that inflicted extreme self-doubt, a game in which one questions “Am I a non-gendered vegetable, but not green, which appears in an animated film in the last 50 years?” I will just call it Am I …? for literal sake.

To capture, share and extend the fun to you all, I drew the above. There are 13 allegories in the image tailored to our taste and expertise. Enjoy. Answers will be announced later. (Note: 2 bonus ones for the ones present at the night’s gathering)