Pop-up books: for better or worse?

During my last weekly-but-increasingly-frequent Waterstones visit, I spotted a title I’ve had my eye on for quite some time: Playbook Farm, published by Nosy Crow.

Playbook Farm, Nosy Crow

Playbook Farm

In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a ‘pop-up book and play mat in one’ that was published in September of last year. So, it essentially works in the same way as a board or picture book but also folds out into a 3D model that children can use to play with on the floor.

I’ve always been amazed by the intricacies of pop-up books. I remember trying my hand at making my own pop-up cards as a child (usually Blue Peter-style!) where the characters would all stand up in front of a painted background as you open the card, creating a little model. Even as adults, there’s no doubt that seeing something transform in front of your eyes is just as amazing as it is for children. The only difference is that us adults might tend to have a ‘wow’ moment and a secondary ‘how did they do that?!’ moment, whereas children probably hold on to that ‘wow’ moment for that little bit longer…

guess-how-much-i-love-you-1

So now, seeing the excellent types of 3-D masterpieces that can be created from layers of paper, complex mechanics and repetitions of images (just look at some of the images by Playbook Farm’s creator on this post!) not only amazes me but makes me wonder about the whole ‘how did they do that?!’ bit and – in a publishing mind-set – leads me to also wonder about the role of such masterpieces.

Crossing the boundary

When it comes to the first ‘how do they do that?!’ question, I won’t go into detail, but simply point out the long, complex processes involved in creating all pop-up books  – each one needing to be printed by specialist printers and assembled by hand. As pointed out by the paper engineer Andrew Barton: ‘the result is one of the last hand-made, mass-produced, complex products that you can buy today.’

Playbook Farm is just one example of what can be achieved by this term ‘paper engineering’. Here we see the idea of a picture/board book being transformed into something fully immersive and – dare I say it – crossing the boundary into the realm of toys (although, I did wonder when I first saw Playbook Farm how durable the ‘play mat’ concept would be beneath the feet of young children – even the recommended 36 months plus….). Such an innovative title hints at the ways publishers could think creatively to give books that upper-hand if ‘competing’ with the interactive element that digital apps might be able to offer – even for such publishers as Nosy Crow themselves, who also develop their own digital book apps. Yet, one might conversely think that the interactive element of the pop-up book could itself be compared to the ‘bells and whistles’ of the digital book apps that publishers have received so critically in the first place…

Giraffes Can't Dance

On the one hand, many pop-up books – similarly to digital book apps – could draw reluctant readers to pick up such a book due to their incongruity and surprise elements. But when it comes to anything more than looking at the pretty pictures, the idea of them promoting any hands-on learning or enticement to really get into reading has been debatable for quite some time. This is not just in the case of non-fiction pop-up titles, but for pop-up picture book titles aimed at early years, where they might be trying to teach basic morals or such simple concepts as ‘a cow goes moo’. Yes, they might see something in 3D, but are they associating what is going on with what it represents? With the emphasis being on the pop-up elements, might what is going on in the text be completely missed?

The science-y bit

A few researchers have in fact looked into this in the past. Most notably, a series of experiments determined that when children ‘have been encouraged to manipulate and play’ with something, they find it harder to understand that what they are playing with is actually a symbol of something else – known as ‘dual representation’. Furthermore, the cognitive effort it takes to manipulate the flaps and pop-up elements of the book can make it harder for them to additionally process what is being said by an adult or the book itself. Overall, they suggested that to get information across to children, ‘less is more’.*

Lost and Found

So it makes you wonder, are the pop-up elements worthwhile if what is going on in the text of a book might be missed as a result? And what about the titles that were originally straightforward picture books and are re-released to become pop-up books? We’ve seen how complex a production process each book has to go through – why go through that all if it is at the expense of the overall story or the message of a book?

The New York Times put it well:

“Why mess around with an established picture-book favorite – one that seems to land on every newborn’s bookshelf? Because the pop-up version isn’t a mess-up, but rather a beautifully produced, restrained amplification of the original” [sic]

In my personal opinion, similarly with digital book apps, it’s all about variation and knowing when to use different formats. If you’re really trying to teach a child what a duck is, perhaps you’re best off showing them a simple picture book about ducks. But if you want to amaze and entertain your child, then pop-up books are a fantastic novelty to do just that.

i-am-not-sleepy-1

Playbook Farm itself was engineered by Corina Fletcher, who has also produced some intricate pop-up versions of such well-known titles as Giraffes Can’t Dance and Guess How Much I Love You for many different publishers. Personally, I see the art in all her work and want to buy her work for myself, just as much as I would for a child!

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* It’s probably worth pointing out that it’s of course a completely different scenario if you’re working with pop-up non-fiction titles for older children and adults.  Some of the earliest moveable books were aimed solely at adults and used in the medical profession to illustrate the anatomy of the human body – clearly the 3D element has its use when you are cognitively developed enough to automatically understand ‘dual representation’.

All photos © Corina Fletcher: http://www.corinaandco.com/

Themes and dragons

Just a brief post to mention that the Reading Agency have decided on their theme for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge – ‘Creepy House’, with illustrations by the well-known author Chris Riddell.The Reading Mission

As with each and every Reading Challenge, there will be various levels to explore – this time The Awful Upstairs, The Gruesome Ground Floor and The Spine-tingling Cellar…

I never fail to be impressed by the theme ideas that The Reading Agency come up with year-on-year – from Circus Stars to The Reading Mission, to Space Hop and many more since 1999. As they say – they always ensure that they suit both genders and cover a wide age range, to entice as many children as possible to take part.

Circus Stars

The themes allow libraries and schools to get creative with displays and events to make The Challenge the centre of attention at libraries during the summer weeks, so that children really feel they’re a part in something big. When I worked at a Bristol library, I remember the effort we would make to promote The Challenge and make it as exciting as possible for every child. Take this big dragon, below, that I made one evening for the Quest Seekers theme! Now that was a lot of cutting and gluing…

“The annual Summer Reading Challenge helps gets three quarters of a million children into libraries to keep up their reading skills and confidence. Because everything changes when we read.”

– The Reading Agency
Quest Seekers

And the Winners Are…

The winners of the Red House Children’s Book Awards for 2013 were announced last night at an awards ceremony at London’s Southbank Centre. And the winners are:

Overall Winner: Spooky, Spooky House by Andrew Weale (Younger Children category)

Spooky Spooky House by Andrew Weale

Younger Readers category: Gangsta Granny by David Walliams

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams

Older Readers: The Medusa Project: Hit Squad by Sophie McKenzie

The Medusa Project: Hit Squad by Sophie McKenzie

The Where’s Wally? fun run for the National Literacy Trust

I’m about to sign up to do the Where’s Wally fun run, which takes place on March 23rd, 2013. It’s a 5k or 10k run (depending on how fit you feel) to raise money for the National Literacy Trust. With such shocking revelations as the fact that one in six people in the UK have poor literacy, it’s a worthy cause…

Where's Wally?The NLT run community projects, provide support to schools and practitioners and fund extensive research projects to do with literacy. Having used many of their research sources for my dissertation last year, I’m aware of just how much a contribution the NLT make to understanding literacy problems and working out the best ways to tackle them.  And who can resist the lure of a free Where’s Wally? costume?

It’s a £20 registration fee and you’re then asked to aim to raise a target of £100 in sponsorship. For more details, visit the National Literacy Trust website.

It’s the little things…

I came across a collection of Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books in Waterstones the other day, which brought a smile to my face – as they manage to do every time I see them. Seeing the classics there on the shelf next to The Wind and the Willows and beautifully bound copies of Peter Pan made me wonder about what made these books so successful.

Alfie by © Shirley HughesI remember being so captivated by Alfie Gets in First as a child, and to this day have held on to my copy of Alfie’s Feet and another of Shirley Hughes’ titles – Lucy and Tom’s Christmas – which still sit proudly on my bookshelf. But the success of a book wasn’t something I was aware of at that age. I didn’t read and re-read them over and over again because they were so popular – neither was I likely to know whether or not my friends a few doors down from me were enjoying having the same books read to them at night. All I knew is that there was something magical about opening those books and following the words and illustrations through to the end, until I was able to do so all on my own.

Of course, my parents might have known about the success of the books and picked up the copies after hearing good things about them; they might have been urged to buy them through some clever marketing strategy, or they might simply have liked the look of them on the shop shelf – there are many reasons for choosing a title for your child. But it’s what made me so attached to them after they first landed on my lap that mesmerises me. What is it about these books…?

I hardly know the answer – if a straightforward formula existed for ensuring the success of a picture book then the publishing industry would be a very different place. But I thought this article on the Guardian website, from as far back as 2005, got quite close.

In the article, Jane Richards considers not only why her children might enjoy the books so much, but also why she herself still enjoys reading them. As she puts it, Shirley Hughes seems to have ‘an instinctive understanding of the mind of the pre-schooler’:

‘It’s all about the “little things” that dominate their lives. It’s about realising your new wellies are the wrong way round when you’re out splashing in puddles; it’s about getting locked out of the house with your mum when you’ve been shopping and are tired and hungry; it’s about hearing a dripping from the attic that turns out to be a burst pipe when Mrs MacNally’s Maureen from over the road is babysitting for you; and it’s about going to a birthday party for the first time without your mum.’

IMG_20160614_160026I couldn’t have worded it better. Books are there to not only inspire, teach and nurture a child’s imagination, but also to help them understand the world immediately around them. And I think the latter is what Hughes does best. As I grew older, I held on to those books, and they were always there to remind me of the ‘little things’, even when I thought I understood everything so well.

Thinking about it got me wondering about the pressure put on publishers to compete with the distraction of new technology nowadays. At a time where the industry is adapting and experimenting, it might be more important than ever not to lose sight of the fact that the simplest stories are sometimes the most memorable.