Good Morning iPad: Technology in 21st-Century Picture Books

After teaching her class the “Star light, star bright” rhyme, my son’s preschool teacher invited each child to express a wish to be inscribed onto a paper star for them to decorate. Lousy with ...

After teaching her class the “Star light, star bright” rhyme, my son’s preschool teacher invited each child to express a wish to be inscribed onto a paper star for them to decorate. Lousy with glitter, my son’s star read: “I wish I could play with electronics whenever I want.” From earliest toddlerhood, he had been chasing after electronic gadgets with all his might, resisting the protestations of adults who insisted that smartphones and computers were not toys. But he also loved books, so I decided to seek out picture books about modern technology to help distract his attention from actual screens and buttons. Or so I told myself, but clearly my motives were mixed. Even though, like many parents, I imposed strict limits on screen time, I also wanted to encourage his interest, as I would have done had he been fascinated by dinosaurs, music, or some other, more socially sanctioned subject.

The pickings were slim. To judge from the scads of chickens and cows and big red barns featured in picture books shelved at our local library, you’d think that the majority of Americans lived on farms. There are also endless tales featuring old technologies like diggers and trains, but these too seem firmly in tune with a nostalgic tendency to align the child with a more primitive past. Aided by librarians and a few of my fellow children’s literature scholars, I managed to track down some twenty-first-century picture books featuring up-to-date technology. But I was disappointed to discover how anxious these narratives are, how frequently they characterize modern machinery and even science itself as a menace to society and personal well-being. Two happy exceptions, Ann Droyd’s Goodnight iPad and Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, take a more nuanced and inclusive stance. To appreciate how exceptional they are, though, requires taking stock of the angst level in recent picture books featuring new technologies.

Take robots, for example. I didn’t find any nonfiction books about them aimed at younger children. As for the fictional ones, HAL from 2001 was a loving helpmate compared to the chaos-wreaking R2D2s built by little ones in such stories as Baby Brains and Robomom and Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). In the former, a mechanical mother created by a computer-savvy baby goes crazy and attacks the family she was designed to nurture. In the latter, a giant robot rebels against his girl creator, rampaging through her school and city until she breeds up an equally giant toad to destroy him. Written in a time when electronic devices have insinuated themselves to an unprecedented degree into our lives and even our bodies, these narratives insist on the superiority of biological over mechanical beings. I am still looking for a picture book that represents an intimate relationship between a machine and a living being as attentively as Sara Varon does in her graphic novel Robot Dreams, which my son consumed greedily despite its length.

Picture books have not always been so unwilling to depict the union of organic and inorganic beings: recall how Mike Mulligan settles down with his beloved Mary Anne at the end of Virginia Burton’s still-popular Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939). As children’s literature scholar Nathalie op de Beeck points out in Suspended Animation, Burton and other artists who pioneered the picture book in its modern form often depicted machine characters as thinking, feeling agents who work together with humans to accomplish great things, as if to acclimate child readers to a world in which people were coming into closer contact with a variety of motorized and electric devices. Still a new medium itself in the 1930s, one enabled by innovations in printing techniques, the picture book was open to representing new technologies.

Tellingly, though, Mike Mulligan does not fall for the newfangled electric or diesel shovel he meets; instead, he loyally sticks by steamy Mary Anne even though she has been rendered obsolete. This type of plot, op de Beeck observes, was common in picture books from the 1930s; ambivalence about the dramatic pace of changes affecting modern life led authors to celebrate machinery from a bygone era. Yet even as children’s fiction writers from this era initiated the deluge of nostalgic tales about diggers and trains, creators of nonfiction picture books such as How the Derrick Works (1930) and SKYSCRAPER (1933) unabashedly celebrated cutting-edge technologies in a way that authors today seem loath to do. My son is still waiting for me to find a picture book with a title like How the Computer Works or INTERNET.

Cordell’s stark binary logic elevates the natural over the technological, but his version of nature is pure video game, all instant gratification and infinite possibilities.

Meanwhile, fictional picture books featuring computers tend to represent them as a dire threat to meaningful human interaction. In Matthew Cordell’s hello! hello!, for instance, a family of four is so busy computing that they can barely manage to acknowledge one another’s existence—until the little daughter finally draws them all outside to commune with nature. Cordell leaves the interior space of the hard-wired home blank in order to contrast its desolate sterility with the blissful fecundity of the natural world, which he depicts as a riot of color, movement, and light. Inside, the expressionless little girl—drawn without a mouth—moves listlessly from one electronic device to another. Outside, having suddenly acquired a kisser, she grins as she immerses herself in a sea of flowers, befriends a wild horse, and, on its back, canters through meadows surrounded by a stampede of other unlikely animals, including a flying whale. Cordell’s stark binary logic elevates the natural over the technological, but his version of nature is pure video game, all instant gratification and infinite possibilities.

To be sure, the phenomenon of very young children spending more and more time in front of screens raises legitimate concerns. Yet historians of film, radio, and TV would remind us that every time a seductive new medium takes off, adults fret that it will turn young people into antisocial, lethargic drones. Maybe this time the danger is genuine, but even if that’s so, merely to deny the appeal of new technologies seems like a lost cause.

So much for robots and computers: how about rocket ships? Here we do find some good nonfiction titles, including Meghan McCarthy’s Astronaut Handbook and Brian Floca’s Moonshot. But strikingly few fictional picture books send child characters up into space. Instead, what we get are stories about kids pretending to take rocket ship trips, which would be fine, except that many of these represent science and technology as the enemies of imagination and creative play. Raúl Colón’s Orson Blasts Off! belongs to this genre, as does Roland Chambers’s The Rooftop Rocket Party, which chronicles the adventures of a fanciful little boy named Finn who visits the home of a pedantic rocket scientist named Doctor Gass.

According to The Rooftop Rocket Party, being a man of science means indulging in endless lecturing and squelching the dreams of young people: when Finn shares his fantasies about the Man in the Moon, Doctor Gass flatly insists that the nonexistence of this figure is “a mathematical certainty”; when Finn has a dream about visiting the Moon Man, the Doctor views this incident only as a pedagogical opportunity to “explain … how dreams worked. And he went on explaining until Finn begged him to stop.”

Some of the heightened anxiety about technology in contemporary picture books stems from the fact that we perceive electronic devices as a grave threat to the existence of physical books.

Finn’s fantasizing is validated: his midnight jaunt to see the Man in the Moon takes up the second half of the story and forces Doctor Gass to acknowledge that something “so unmathematical … so very unscientific” has transpired. The scientist’s theorizing, in contrast, makes him seem full of hot air: Finn is disappointed to discover that “there were no real rockets in Doctor Gass’s laboratory,” just some vague, unconvincing plans. If only Chambers had found some way to integrate the beautifully detailed endpapers of The Rooftop Rocket Party into the main text: here, at the outer margins of the story, we get dazzlingly specific diagrams of rockets etched in spaceship white on a background of NASA blue, images that suggest that scientific accuracy can fuel rather than fetter the imagination.

Some of the heightened anxiety about technology in contemporary picture books stems from the fact that we perceive electronic devices as a grave threat to the existence of physical books. In a formulation so premature that Publisher’s Weekly later compared it to “Dewey Defeats Truman,” a 2010 front-page headline in the New York Times declared “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” Reporter Julie Bosman cited the increasing array of digital options as one reason why sales of picture books were steadily declining. Publisher’s Weekly disputed this and other claims in its well-balanced response, “Don’t Write the Obit for Picture Books Yet.” Most recently, in “Dead Again,” literary historian Leah Price reminded readers of the New York Times Book Review that generation after generation of writers and critics have raced to write the book’s epitaph, ignoring the fact that new technologies often subsist side-by-side with old ones.

The possibility of peaceful coexistence is certainly nowhere to be found in Lane Smith’s sourly defensive It’s a Book, a picture book pervaded by the fear that electronic gewgaws will supersede literary tomes. The two sides in this fight, as in the case of our bitterly opposed political parties, are represented by animals of different species; the story begins when a tech-savvy donkey fails to recognize a physical book when he sees it, barraging a monkey pal who is reading with questions such as “What do you have there?” and “How do you scroll down?” Forced to admit that his book cannot blog, text, tweet, and so on, the laconic primate does not attempt to describe what he gets out of books; he simply shoves his treasured text into the donkey’s hooves. The donkey quickly becomes absorbed in what turns out to be an ersatz retelling of Treasure Island that bears only the slightest resemblance to R. L. Stevenson’s actual text. Deprived of his (virtual?) book, the monkey then stomps off to the library to get another one—but not before delivering a final smackdown: when the donkey promises to charge up the book when he’s done, the monkey leans over so that a mouse sidekick riding on his head can snarl, “IT’S A BOOK, JACKASS.”

Goodnight iPad by “Ann Droyd” (a.k.a. David Milgrim) seems, at first glance, to be equally anxious about the fate of books and hostile toward the chronically hard-wired. After all, this parody sets out to contrast the peace and quiet of the domestic scene depicted in Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s classic Goodnight Moon (1947) with today’s relentlessly plugged-in households. The sparsely populated green bedroom of Goodnight Moon—in which a single bunny falls asleep next to “a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’”—becomes in Droyd’s retelling a “bright buzzing room” crowded with multiple bunnies manipulating a plethora of ringing, dinging, and beeping gadgets, including a baby shaking a virtual rattle on a tablet.

Droyd seems to take a page from Smith by characterizing books and electronic devices as locked in a winner-take-all battle for supremacy. Above the line “There were three little Nooks/ With ten thousand books,” we see a daddy bunny perusing an e-reader in a no-longer-cozy corner: next to the denuded, spiderwebbed bookshelves sits a trashcan overflowing with discarded volumes. Moreover, the climax of the plot involves “a fed-up old woman” wresting away the iPad and other devices and throwing them out of an upstairs window. Silence and serenity then descend on the room and, in the book’s final image, we see a little tyke cozily curled up in bed reading Goodnight Moon. Close thy Nook; open thy book!

And yet, for all that, Goodnight iPad doesn’t come across as phobic about the combination of children and technology. Rather than seeming fearful or defensive, Droyd’s text hums with a sense of cheerful inclusiveness. Why? First of all, she takes for granted that young readers will be familiar with the latest hand-held devices and old literary chestnuts. Indeed, my son (now six) got a kick not only out of Droyd’s references to Angry Birds and BlackBerries, but also out of the way the text and illustrations parody Brown’s words and Hurd’s images.

Second, Droyd tempers her ending, refusing to banish technology completely. In the last image of the literate tyke, two state-of-the-art flashlights facilitate his reading while a mechanical mouse hangs out on his pillow. The text on the back cover reassures readers that the ejected objects will be resurrected: “For parents and children alike, here is a modern bedtime story about bidding our gadgets goodnight. Don’t worry, though. They’ll be waiting for us, fully charged, in the morning.”

Finally, as the phrase “parents and children alike” indicates, Droyd does not represent techno-mania as a failing unique to children. When grandma bunny goes ballistic, Nook-reading daddy and a business-suited mommy freak out just as much as the baby bunnies. Even at this stressful moment, Droyd’s crowded, hard-wired house exudes a merry feeling of community that is missing from the “great green room” in Goodnight Moon, which now strikes me as an eerily detached and evacuated space. While it would have been easy for Droyd to depict the bunnies as locked into their own private electronic worlds, she does not: everything from the wires linking neighboring houses to a lively Skype session to the multiple bunnies watching 2001
together on the “huge LCD Wi-Fi HDTV” bespeaks connectivity rather than isolation. Attuned to the pleasures as well as the dangers of engaging with electronic gizmos, Droyd emphasizes their power to capture our imagination and link us to one another and the outside world.

But to my mind the most joyously ingenious response by a picture book artist to our ceaseless contemporary button-pushing is Hervé Tullet’s Press Here. Hovering in the center of a square white page, we see a single yellow dot; underneath, in a font whose handwritten aspect renders it chatty rather than insistent, we are invited to “PRESS HERE
AND TURN THE PAGE”—whereupon we see that one yellow dot has turned into two. The book continues in this vein, with the reader’s actions apparently affecting what happens to yellow, red, and blue dots. We press, rub, tap, shake, and blow, and then turn the page to see that the dots have multiplied, changed color, shifted position, or spread outward like a cross between a puddle of paint and an expanding balloon.

Pretty, isn't it? Try blowing on them ... to get rid of the black

Pretty, isn’t it? Try blowing on them … to get rid of the black

Reviewers of Tullet’s book routinely describe it as interactive and compare it to electronic devices such as iPads and smartphones. But in fact Press Here is not interactive at all. Whatever we do as readers, the book remains inert: we need not follow the commands to see the changes, and whatever we do as readers, the number and placement of the dots on each page stays the same. Furthermore, unlike all the other books I have discussed here, Tullet’s text could have been published in 1900: there is not a single representation of any new technology in it. The words “button” and “push” never appear, and the dots are resolutely two-dimensional thanks to the visible brushstrokes that make them look painted rather than pushable. Furthermore, many of the actions we are asked to perform are not ones associated with electronic devices: yes, we press the dots like buttons, but we also rub them gently (like a genie’s bottle), blow on them (like birthday candles), and clap our hands to make them grow.

The fact that it takes such effort to recognize the absence of technology in Press Here shows how naturalized and inevitable electronic modes of engagement have become. Press Here addresses technology not by representing it, but by prodding us to contrast how we read books and how we relate to electronics. Ask yourself this: would an electronic device that did what Press Here does be interesting? You don’t need to guess. Try the Press Here app for Apple’s iPad and you will quickly realize how dull it is. Of course, the app does a hundred things more, but it is still, even according to my button-loving son, “not really that good.” Interacting with an object that can actually do all these wonderful things can never give us the experience of pretending that an inert object has suddenly acquired magical powers. Not for nothing was the original French title of Tullet’s book Un Livre (A Book).

Indeed, what Tullet provides is a gorgeous illustration of the amazing array of things readers can do with books. Would you throw your iPad out the window and then expect it to work just as well? Only in a picture book. But Press Here could take this abuse and continue to function just fine. Its thick white cover is made of the same material as baby board books, which are famous for being so indestructible that they can be used as teething toys. Go ahead: tip a glass of water onto Press Here and watch the liquid bead up and slide right off the glossy cover and pages. Books, Tullet reminds us, are delightfully sturdy; their lack of reactivity is a virtue.

And yet, even as Tullet celebrates how the inertness of books enables longevity and makes room for make-believe, he also resists the impulse to erect a hierarchy that subordinates one mode of engagement to the other. Rather than anxiously stress the superiority of books over computers, stories over games, he cheerfully blurs the lines between them, happily exploiting old and new techniques of capturing our attention. When we tilt Press Here to the right and then see, on the next page, that the dots have drifted in that direction, it reminds us of how electronic tablets work. Press Here is clearly a product of our time. Yet unlike the other books discussed here, it is so gloriously free of fear about the future of physical books that it seems like a picture book from another planet, one where no one worries that button-pushing will displace page-turning. When we observe how easily Tullet’s robust little volume catches the fancy of readers of all ages, it is easy to believe that this planet could be ours.

Picture Books for Page-Turning, Button-Pushing Children and Adults:

Aliki, How a Book is Made (HarperTrophy, 1986)
Aliki, Push Button (Greenwillow Books, 2010)
Istvan Banyai, Zoom (Puffin Books, 1998)
Jan Brett, Hedgie Blasts Off! (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006)
Raúl Colón, Orson Blasts Off! (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2004)
Kelly DiPucchio and Matthew Myers, Clink (Balzer + Bray, 2011)
Ame Dyckman and Dan Yaccarino, Boy + Bot (Knopf, 2012)
Brian Floca, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11
(Atheneum, 2009)
Mark Kelly and C. F. Payne, Mousetronaut (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Timothy Knapman and Adam Stower, Mungo and the Spiders from Space (Dial Books, 2009)
Barbara Lehman, The Red Book (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
Bruce McCall, Marveltown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Meghan McCarthy, Astronaut Handbook (Knopf, 2008)

Featured image: Goodnight Nooks/And digital books/Goodnight Eminem/Goodnight Facebook friend