Reviews 2016

Digital Literature for Children: Texts, Readers and Educational Practices

Digital Literature for Children: Texts, Readers and Educational Practices. Ed. Mireia Manresa and Neus Real. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2015. 236 pages. $49.95 (paperback).

Tablets have revolutionized the field of children’s literature bringing to a portable and ergonomic device all the possibilities of the digital medium. This change results not only in different ways of reading and sharing "traditional" literature through digital formats, but also in the emergence of new hybrid forms of digital literature that incorporate the participation of readers in various ways. Digital Literature for Children is the first book-size publication, post-iPad revolution, to address digital fiction in children’s literature scholarship. The collection is the result of a 3-year project from the GRETEL research group at the Universitat Auntónoma de Barcelona, Spain, which has explored digital children’s literature available for the iPad in Spain during the years 2012-2014. The project involved the analysis of a textual corpus of apps and of children’s reception in educational and home contexts.

The book is divided into five parts. Part I reflects on the context of digital children’s literature and on building a theoretical framework. In the first chapter, Laura Borràs discusses the extremely mediatized life of contemporary children and young adults and the impact it has on their reading experience. Chapter 2, by Lucas Ramada Prieto, is a consistent and interdisciplinary review of the different theories that inform our understanding of hybrid digital texts, culminating in a definition of e-lit: it is "a programmed computer product that is capable of coding multiple semiotic substances in order to construct its discourse and, in addition, allows for the inclusion of the reader as an active participant in the discursive structure" (50).

Part II is dedicated to the features of digital literature for children and young adults. It starts with Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer’s presentation of the diverse ways in which children’s literature has been affected by the phenomenon of new media, both in terms of its content – e.g., YA novels that depict the problems of a digitised society or the depiction of technology in picturebooks – and in terms of narrative formats, including the emergence of apps and cell phone novels, transmedia storytelling and fan fiction.

In Chapter 4, Junko Yokota compares some of the possibilities and limitations of the codex format with that of apps, suggesting that different types of contents might benefit differently from their unique affordances. For instance, she proposes that non-fiction can benefit from constant updates and access to dictionary and multimedia contents, while digital picturebooks, although losing the potential of the material features of the codex, offer a possibility for the development of new forms of storytelling that incorporate the distinctive conventions and non-linearity characteristics of the digital medium.

Célia Turrión Penelas’s Chapter 5 proposes an interdisciplinary framework for the analysis of story apps that considers four key aspects of this format: the mechanics of entertainment and educational industries (type of adaptation and genre choices); interactivity (type and degree of participation, integration and balance of the different forms of interactivity within the narrative); complexity of narrative features (narrative structure, composition, point of view and types of interpretive complexity); and finally the variations of the proposed fictional experience (organization of the information on the interface, dominant mode, and type of fictional pact).

Part III focuses on the experiences of young readers with digital literature. In Chapter 6, Mireia Manresa explores the responses of groups of 9-15-years-olds engaging with different kinds of electronic literature, from picturebooks and illustrated short stories presented in the app format to web-based multimedia interactive literature. The children’s responses to these texts indicate that their interactive and multimodal features generate a deep sense of immersion, situating the reader within the fictional world, "living" and "acting" like (the) characters.

Lucas Ramana Prieto and Lara Reyes López (Chapter 7) analyse four cases of 11-12-year-olds’ reading literary apps at school. Each reader presents a different "reading profile" according to their reading fluency and their appraisal or rejection of the technology. The authors suggest that the reading experience with digital literature was more ludic and exploratory than with traditional reading and that children transferred their previous readings skills to make sense of digital literature, with the more competent readers engaging more deeply and making more informed comments about the texts.

Concluding this part, in Chapter 8, Martina Fittipaldi, Anna Juan and Mireia Manresa analyse group discussions to compare 15-year-olds’ interpretations of an Edgar Allan Poe short story, read in print (writing-only) version and as an app edition, which includes, in addition to the complete written text, sound, illustrations and other multimodal features. They conclude that, within their small sample, the participants that read the print book seemed to achieve a deeper interpretation and a better understanding of the key literary features of the story than those who read the app. Yet, I would argue that this is more likely to have happened due to the questionable quality of the multimodal adaptation than to the to the fact that it was a digital version of the story.

The exploration of young readers’ experience with digital literature continues in Part IV. However, here the focus of analysis lies in home and school educational practices around digital literature, with the emphasis on apps. Cristina Aliagas and Ana M. Margallo (Chapter 9) present ethnographic case studies conducted with pre-school girls aged 1-5. Here, they rely on the notions of home literacies and funds of knowledge to reflect on children’s techno-literacies when reading on the iPad with their parents at home. In contrast to print picturebook joint-reading (usually at bedtime), the reading of apps happened mostly during the day, and in social spaces such as the living-room. In addition, literary apps appear side by side with children’s other media experiences, creating a trans-media narrative experience that includes watching videos and playing.

Real and Correro (Chapter 10) compared pre-schoolers (2-5-year-olds) app preferences in home and kindergarten settings for a period of two years. At home, children leaned towards apps in which play was prominent. However, with the availability of other apps and resources, most children preferred games and videos to engaging with literary apps. At school, where these other options were unavailable, the free reading sessions were non-linear and somewhat chaotic, with some children dominating the device and others taking a spectator role, while the guided sessions were linear and similar to traditional picturebook shared reading. These findings suggest that young children, on their own, whether in home or school environments, focus on the ludic aspects of apps and adult mediation is needed if the aim is to focus on the linguistic and literary features of these texts.

In Chapter 11, Teresa Colomer and Karla Fernández de Gamboa Vázquez present an exploratory study at a school library during which year 6 children (11-12-year-olds) were given access to a collection of literary apps on iPads, in addition to the print collection, for their daily independent reading. The findings indicate that the children integrated digital reading into their habits but still maintained their interest and spent more time on print reading. They also seemed to apply reading strategies typical of print literature, such as linear readings and selected use of interactivity, even when they had access to apps that promoted highly interactive and non-linear reading experiences.

Part V completes the volume, bringing with it the perspective of the creators. First, Kate Pullinger, the author of the web-based digital fiction series Inanimate Alice, presents a narrative of the development of the project over the years, from its start as part of a marketing campaign for a feature film, to its independent life as one of the most successful works of digital children’s literature, earning several awards, being translated into multiple languages and being used in schools all over the globe. The volume ends with a reflection from illustrator and animator Arnal Ballester, who claims that the possibility of the input from readers is the essence of the poetics of e-lit and profoundly changes the notion of authorship, which now must be shared between what are traditionally called "authors" and "readers."

Undoubtedly, Digital Literature for Children: Texts, Readers and Educational Practices contains interesting insights into several of the facets of digital children’s literature, both from theoretical and empirical perspectives. Many chapters suggest that literary and picturebook theory might be insufficient for understanding digital literature, claiming the need for a multidisciplinary framework that includes, for instance, game and audio-visual theories. Similarly, while most children in the studies usually drew on their literary competence to make sense of digital texts, several chapters convincingly argue that traditional literary education does not seem to be adequate to equip them with all the skills necessary to fully interpret and discuss these texts, foregrounding the role of the adult mediator and the need for a careful selection of texts.

The quality of the chapters varied from one to another, as is common in collective volumes. Chapters 2 and 9 stood out by bringing an analytical stance to the mostly descriptive approach of some of the other chapters, making strong links with various theories to suggest innovative forms of understanding the current state of digital children’s literature. Finally, the contribution from international scholars is a plus, expanding the scope of the book beyond the corpus of story apps to include other forms of digital children’s literature.

Aline Frederico
University of Cambridge, UK