Have a watch of this, it’s the most visually impressive tablet book at the moment: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by Moonbot Studios.

Amazing, wouldn’t you say?  Certainly there are no shortage of people reaching for the hyperboles.  Here’s Ben Machell in The Times:

“It is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, a short children’s story called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore will be regarded as one of the most influential titles of the early 21st century.”

That’s quite some claim.

I’m going to have to start by mentioning the elephant in the room here.  As a story, and assuming that it’s a story aimed at children, this is a load of hokey old arse. I’m going to do a separate post later to talk more about that, as the problems here shed wider light on tablet books as a whole. I do recognise that the user review section on iTunes is full of gushing 5-star reviews and I’m not trying to be deliberately contrary, but the disconnect between audience and storyteller does need to be looked at.

So, that significant problem aside, what have we got? It’s a short story, one with 27 “pages” that takes about 15 minutes to go through, so a good length for a bedtime story.  Each page has a few lines of text, which by default are read aloud to you, and an animated picture that you can interact with to produce a surprising result.

What this is, essentially, is the ‘lift-the-flap book’ model of tablet books.  You read a page, and then look around the picture for something to ‘do’, and once that’s done you move on to the next page.  It’s a good model to work to; lift-the-flap books are always a hit with pre-schoolers, who like both the element of surprise as to what they will find, plus the element of control in that it was they who lifted the flap and caused the picture to change.  And here is a model that allows tablet books to be an improvement on physical books, as triggering an animation can be far more spectacular and page-changing that going from one image to the image hidden underneath.

So how does this work in practice?  There’s an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ feel to the interactive elements.  On most of the pages, you blindly stab about at parts of the image to see if they will do anything.  On some pages, the parts that will trigger an event glow briefly to highlight what to touch, but this isn’t consistent throughout. There are many times you find yourself accidentally turning to the previous or next page as you attempt to trigger actions in the part of the screen reserved for page turns.  Some items just need to be touched, others need specific swipe motions. Some images ‘reset’ after the triggered animation, others don’t. It doesn’t have that consistent logic that pleases preschoolers, especially boys. Having watch a number of people try it out, there is definitely a ‘stumbling blindly’ problem with the interaction.

Then there are triggerable events that are more like ‘mini games’ – a book opens to reveal a ripped picture that you must reassemble, a tune needs to be played on a piano, you can fly Morris around the page by tilting the pad and so on. There’s an admirable sense of trying everything out here, although by and large they do seem unconnected to the story – random diversions rather than necessary progressions.  The triggered animations are the same every time, incidentally.

The music, as you can hear in the clip above, it fantastic.  The voiceover made me cringe, although this may just be cultural, and it can be turned off.  (The issue of tablet books that read themselves to you will need to be a separate post, incidentally.  It is by-and-large the norm for children’s tablet books, but I wonder if it is has a negative impact on the experience.)  The app seems sensibly priced, at £2.99.

And it is beautiful.  The craft on display is unarguable (even if cruel-hearted animation folk like myself will take a certain pleasure in pointing out when it is less than perfect, such as when Morris’ arm glitches as he leaves the room of books – I know, I know.  We can’t help ourselves).  Visually there is a strong echo of 1930s Hollywood, of a romanticised, simpler world devoid of such modern horrors as iPads and tablet books. The visuals keep the ‘chuck everything in’ approach of the interactive stuff, and mix CG, models, and hand-drawn animation, but they all hang together very well.  The visual side is led by William Joyce, and it is a wonderful thing that artists of his calibre are working in this genre. It promises great things for the future.

The result is one of those ‘buy to show people’ apps, one which you use to show off your new iPad rather than read for pleasure. The Medium overwhelms the Message, but it does have the air of something new emerging, of something that will trouble the dreams of more conservative publishers.  In many ways The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a triumph but, unfortunately, not in every aspect, and arguably not in the most important aspects.  Which I will talk about soon in a new post.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.


What are ‘Tablet Books’?

Lady With iPadOn starting this blog, I suddenly realised that there wasn’t actually a name for what I would be talking about.

Or rather, there were many names.  Enhanced ebooks.  Animated Books.  Interactive Books.  iStories.  Book Apps.  Different examples tended to have different names, ones that worked okay for themselves but didn’t quite stretch to cover all of what I wanted to talk about.

So after a bit of thought I decided on the term ‘Tablet Books’, and this is what I’ll use for the purpose of this blog.  I’ll try and define exactly what I mean by tablet books.

I am not talking about ebooks, such as those that you’d read on a Kindle.  Ebooks are basically books in a more convenient form. The experience of reading an ebook is essentially the same – or at least, it should be – as reading a paper book.  A tablet book, on the other hand, is or should be a different experience, in the same way that a comic is a different experience to prose book because it involves both the literary and visual parts of the brain.

So, the experience is different. But if these things are to have a future, the experience also needs to be better.

But when I say ‘tablet books’, I am talking about a form related to books, to long-form prose narrative, rather than games or toys.  There will be much cross-pollination between books, games and toys, of course, and we’ll probably think a lot about that.  But games and toys are quite happy to remain games and toys; it is books that are having a bit of an identity crisis and that is our focus here.

And finally, when I say ‘tablet’ it is because that is what they will experienced on.  These things are too media-rich for e-ink readers such as the Kindle. They may include video, animation, interactive programmes and Internet links.  They can be read on normal PCs and laptops, sure, but the issues of portability and even the time for booting up make touch tablets like the iPad far more suitable.  They will exist on smartphones as well, but we’ll consider them mini-tablets with tiny screens.

Currently, tablets like the iPad are expensive, luxury items.  Where I live, in Brighton, you sometimes see toddlers playing with them as they are pushed along in buggies.  This, of course, is far from the norm.  However my belief is they will gradually become more and more commonplace, just in the way that mobile phones went from stockbroker status symbols in the 80s to the cheap ubiquitous necessities of today. This belief is based in part on the sheer addictiveness of the buggers, and the difference the touch interface makes to the Internet experience.

The question, I guess, is whether those growing up with these addictive tablets will have the same love of long-form prose narratives, and whether the evolution of tablet books will be sufficient to keep the form healthy and important.

So then – Tablet Books.  Admitedly I’m not aware of anyone else using that term, and Googling for it does tend to take you to the book review section of Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Still, I’ll stick with it – unless you know of a better name?

(Creative Commons image by CEA)