Dan Yaccarino has an aficionado’s old-fashioned regard for picture-book artistry and a techno-geek’s new-fangled fascination with screen-based storytelling. He has illustrated more than thirty children’s books and is the creator of the Nick Jr. television series Oswald and the Emmy Award–winning Willa’s Wild Life, which currently airs on NBC and Qubo. Having recently played an advisory role in the book–to–e-book adaptation of his board book Five Little Pumpkins, Yaccarino is thinking hard and fast about new technologies, where they may lead, and where traditional picture books fit into the equation.
LEONARD S. MARCUS: How involved were you in designing the interactive e-book based on your board book, Five Little Pumpkins?
DAN YACCARINO: I would get the latest version and give the developers suggestions about the sound effects, music, and the “functionality” of the character—what the character can be made to do.
LSM: Who are these developers? What is their background?
DY: They are a combination of people who have come from publishing, film, TV, and games. I’ve worked in books for twenty years and in TV for at least a dozen years. It’s a convergence of all these media, and the result will be something that is greater than the sum of their parts.
LSM: Among your own picture books, are there those you think would make good e-books and others that would not make the transition especially well?
DY: There are definitely some books that should not become e-books! In general, they are the ones that tell a linear story, like Unlovable. When kids get older, they want to sit down and delve into a story. So there might be no good reason to introduce functionality—and you might end up with gratuitous moments when something moves or makes a sound simply because it can be made to do so, rather than because doing so moves your character forward. On the other hand, picture book e-books seem to work very well for books for younger kids—for concept books or early read-alouds like Five Little Pumpkins. An example of another kind of book that would be right for an interactive e-book is Go, Go America: 50 States of Fun. It’s a book of facts about the United States. I see a lot of opportunities to play around and make connections. Also remember: right now, we’re in the beginning stage when lots of pre-existing books are being retrofitted as e-books. In five years, e-books won’t look anything like the ones being made now. But we have to go through these first steps now.
LSM: Is there anything to be said for the tactile experience that traditional books offer, and that electronic devices, even if they are “hand-held,” don’t?
DY: I still love print books. I love the weight of the book in my hand and the paper. I just started my next book, and I try to do at least two books a year. The whole “e-book thing” is coming, but it’s not here yet. But I look at the talk about the superiority of printed books to books on screens as almost a fetish. When Gutenberg came along, people probably said the same thing about scrolls. Or even earlier: “I just miss the weight of that clay tablet in my lap!” Storytelling has been given a new form, and someone in my position is going to be excited about that.
LSM: Why, from this standpoint, even bother with a book?
DY: Because it’s a good vehicle for showcasing a character’s personality. But if the character Curious George were being developed today, I don’t know if I would lead with the book. Maybe I would start with a game.
LSM: Can you be more specific about how you as an illustrator might go about creating dramatic interest in an e-book as compared to a print picture book?
DY: Let’s say that you want your character to be surprised. In the traditional book form, it’s a page turn. You know, he’s walking down the road, and what does he see?…You turn the page and it’s a giant monster or whatever. The page-turn is as high tech as we get with books. In television or film, you might have a quick cut, and frame the scene so that it looks overwhelming to this tiny character. In interactive e-books…I don’t know yet what the equivalent technique would be. That’s the exciting thing. Maybe you tap the character and it grows. Or you tap it and the frame moves. We’re still inventing that language. In a picture book, you can do gatefolds. You can do pop-ups. You can do pull-tabs. We’ve pushed all that to the limit. With e-books, we’re just at the point where filmmakers were more than 100 years ago. It’s exciting to be part of that new beginning.
LSM: Pop-ups are an old way to make images actually move on the page. Do you think that pop-up books in particular will pale—and date—especially rapidly in contrast to the new media, in which animation is a given?
DY: I can’t imagine Robert Sabuda’s work ever looking quaint. It’s so beautiful and intelligent. But there will be fewer “average” pop-up books. Books in general will continue to exist, but they will become more special. They’re going to become beautiful objects, less utilitarian than they are now.
LSM: Granted that e-Book Land is fascinating new territory, is anything lost by relying so heavily on technology for storytelling for children?
DY: The main thing is that we have more options now. My daughter, who is thirteen, just saw the film Hugo and is now reading the book it is based on, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. On Sundays in our house we have a rule: no screens. That applies to me too, unfortunately! We have a big family dinner and spend a lot of the day at home. It’s a release from technology. As a parent you need to put limits on the devices.
Think of a three-year-old and Five Little Pumpkins. There is going to be interactivity with the e-book: trying out the functions, listening to the music and narration, and scrolling. The text is an old rhyme, and if the child is sitting on the parent’s lap and is saying the rhyme too, there is the interactivity of reciting the words with the person who’s reading the book. So, there are different kinds of interactivity and I don’t think that one is better than the other. If kids stare blankly at a screen, that’s not the device’s fault. I don’t see parents sharing interactive e-books with their children. It tends to be more of a solitary activity. But that could happen. And as I say, as a parent you can always turn off the narrator and just read the story.