The iPad of Babel
Tablet apps for kids make what once were books into something interactive, mind-bending—and not necessarily better.
Now, physical books don’t always hold a toddler’s few-minute-long attention span either. Khalil will often hand me a book, then walk away to get another one just as I’m getting into the meat of the story. Other times he’ll protest my linearity—he likes the part of Bear Snores On where the bear wakes up with a thunderous sneeze, so if I start at the beginning, he’ll usually pull the book away and correct me. Yet even when he loses interest in the content of a book, Khalil is still fascinated by the book as an object. Give him any book and he’ll be captivated by the way the pages feel and how they turn to reveal new stuff.
I suspect that this is an important advantage books have over booklike apps. To a kid, a physical book is much more versatile, and ironically more interactive, than a tablet—you can open it to any page, you can drop it or bang on it or step on it, you can draw on it, you can rip out a page and tear it and crumple it up. In this way, a shelf of books can be endlessly fun—by which I mean at least many minutes of fun. On an iPad, meanwhile, a shelf of books represent just a few apps out of thousands, none of them as compelling as warping your own face in Photo Booth.
Perhaps that explains why designers tart up these apps with so many multimedia baubles—the talking characters, the interactive puzzles, the animation. But I’m deeply suspicious of this flashy approach. The point of getting young children interested in books—of reading to and along with them—is to encourage them to think of books, and by extension reading, as a source of wonder. To the extent that these apps achieve that, it’s only through trickery—the trick of taking a video game or a cartoon and pretending it’s a book just because it’s surrounded by “pages.” Yet those insistent design elements (like page-turning animations) meant to mimic physical books all serve to remind me how unbooklike the app really is.
They are also deceptive to children, and they don’t advance the goal of reading. I have nothing against video games or TV, but I do want Khalil to be able to distinguish those visually dynamic media as being distinct from text. It’s possible such divisions won’t be necessary in the future—maybe when Khalil is my age all books will be a combination of text and puzzles and animation, god help us all. For the foreseeable future, though, books and video games are different, and they’re supposed to be different. I don’t see any reason to conflate the two in Khalil’s mind, especially when he’s so perfectly happy reading good old static books.
Now, you might argue that if Khalil is using his print books as hats or projectiles or cudgels with which to beat his stuffed animals, he’s not getting much out of them, either. But I’m more optimistic. If “reading” for Khalil involves three minutes of pushing through the narrative reading punctuated by two minutes of using the book for peekaboo, I’m willing to accept that. It’s better than a book that functions as a hybrid between a video game and a TV show, and which forgets about imagination and the virtues of textual narrative in the process. Plus, even though I always end up sounding like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Khalil prefers my Grover voice to the real thing.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.