The Last Taboo: What Interactive Print Says About the Digital Revolution by Elizabeth Bird

There was a time, oh best beloved, when picture books could be considered ‘edgy’ simply by breaking down the ‘fourth wall’ in some manner. Grover did it in The Monster at the End of This Book and it rocketed the book above and beyond the usual media tie-ins. Later the jaw-dropping success of Mo Willems’s Pigeon series

and Herve Tullet’s dots in need of pressing (Press Here) would spur all kinds of meta-imitators.


We like these books and perhaps have even uploaded their apps onto our iPads, feeling only the vaguest twinges of guilt as we did so. Yet what are we to make of a publishing industry that has now found ways to encourage something that gives many a children’s librarian reoccurring nightmares? Thanks to the internet, books have never been more interactive. And thanks to a current boom in interactive print, neither have physical books.

The twenty-first-century children’s librarian has to put up with a lot of sticky notes. Parents and teachers stuff full the pages of the picture books they borrow with multicolored stickies often failing to remove them before returning the books to the libraries. And though we grumble as we pull them off by the handful, honestly we’re grateful. A sticky note is a painless way to mark up a book. We’ve certainly all encountered books that may have written on their pages a kind of running commentary or stage directions from an oblivious adult. There are no excuses for this, adults should know better. As for the children, they’re prone to making mistakes but they’re still learning. It’s not as if books have been actively inviting little hands to write in them. Well, until now.

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett (illustrated by Matthew Myers) is specifically designed to shock. The essential premise is that a well-meaning grandmother has purchased an innocuous picture book for her grandson on his birthday. The book ‘The Birthday Bunny’ tells the all-too familiar story of a furry woodland creature distraught after it thinks all its friends have forgotten its ‘special day’. What the grandmother doesn’t know (one hopes) is that Alex, her grandson, has taken great pains to improve upon this story. The book appears to have been extensively drawn over, transforming its saccharine storyline into one of war, carnage, and world domination. The final result is ‘The Battle Bunny’, a book that has the potential to be accidentally discarded by libraries nationwide when well-meaning library employees mistake it for a book that has been heavily edited by a child’s hand.


It could well be that this is where the picture books that toy with the nature of the ‘fourth wall’ lose a bit of their subversive power. Where books by Willems and Tullet offer the thrill of giving the reader the faux sense that he or she has some kind of direct influence on a book’s storyline, stories like Battle Bunny by Scieszka and Barnett go one step further. After all, sticky fingers touching a book and sticky fingers actually drawing in a book are two entirely different things. They’re toying with a deeply forbidden lure: at the end of the day it still comes down to books and what’s seen as the ultimate taboo of drawing in them.


Not that the idea of a child drawing in the very book you are reading is necessarily new. Still in print since its publication in 1995, Chris Van Allsburg’s Bad Day at Riverbend tells the tale of cowboys facing an unspeakable enemy. As the story progresses, it becomes increasing clear that our heroes are all coloring-book characters coming to terms with their scribbly fate. The final shots in the book are in Van Allsburg’s realistic style, where a child is seen exiting the room, leaving her ‘Cowboy Coloring Book’ behind. And while not all reviewers were duly impressed (the School Library Journal said, “this effort is pretty much a one-trick pony that most libraries can easily skip”) most took it as a clever step in a new direction.

Kirkus Reviews said that, “Van Allsburg demonstrates in a self-conscious — and tempered — way what happens when two different drawing styles (coloring-book outlines, generally created by adults, and children’s doodles) overlap, and when two genres (an entertaining Western adventure and a coloring book) meet. It’s a book that starts with one point of view and steps into another. The average bildungsroman accomplishes this kind of transition in several hundred pages; Van Allsburg does it in 32, and leaves the flower of children’s bookmaking blooming in the desert town of Riverbend.”

So no, I’m not particularly surprised when I see Battle Bunny on my shelf. What does surprise me is when I look around and realize that by daring to bring up the notion of coloring and drawing in books, it may well be part of a larger trend.

While children have always personalized their books with their pens, they’ve rarely been encouraged to do so. Now we have a generation that is not only being given permission but is also being encouraged by the publishers themselves to indulge in a direct interaction with the text like never before. How else to explain the recent rise in activity books featuring popular children’s literary characters, drawn by their own creators? When Mo Willems published Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book in 2012, I could not have been the only librarian agog at what I was seeing. Here we had a book intended to be drawn in from start to finish but which also contained an original Mo Willems story involving his beloved characters, Pigeon and Duckling.

Yet even before Willems was denying libraries the latest Pigeon tale, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid sparked an activity book revolution of its own when its first Do-It-Yourself Book was published in 2008. Resembling other Wimpy Kid books in form and design, the book revealed itself to be an activity book actively inviting to be drawn and written in. How many library systems dutifully purchased vast quantities of the title only to find that, horror of horrors, the book was written with the express purpose of allowing children to write in it. In the past ephemera (as we call such materials) were easy to spot and easier to avoid. Now I find myself scrutinizing every single Big Nate, Origami Yoda, and Dork Diary published in the hopes of nipping such purchases in the bud.

Considering the plethora of titles encouraging kids to draw and color in them, it wasn’t a surprise when Britain’s Templar Publishing announced that they were launching a new imprint of coloring books called Pictura, and these wouldn’t be just any old coloring books either. Great authors and illustrators would contribute, including Shaun Tan, Sophie Blackall, Tomislav Tomic, Helen Ward, The Hobbit concept artist John Howe, and many more. Interestingly, Pictura did not feel the need to go digital and none of their titles are available as e-books. Amanda Wood, Templar’s creative director, commented, “We all need to get our hands dirty again and really engage with that practical aspect in the creation of art. A lot of things have moved over to digital, [but] I see a bit of a swing back.”

Perhaps Wood has hit on something here. It could well be that this increase in real, physical books starring our favorite characters that can be written in is a kind of unconscious backlash against the virtual world, where everyone is trying to go electronic. When Bexar County, Texas opened up an all-digital public library, NPR interviewed Sarah Houghton, who directs the San Rafael Public Library in California, who said: “it will take more than 100 years before all libraries are paperless. But in fact, ten to twenty percent of libraries could go bookless in the next decade.”

That prospect dangles before us, and has been dangling before us since the first ebook made its debut. Yet even though children are reading ebooks, they’re changeable, flipping between print and digital mediums without much thought. For all that they love ebooks, and they do, they also naturally gravitate to the books that allow them to pick up a crayon or a pencil and really dig in. The thrill of potentially doing something naughty along the way is almost impossible to replicate virtually and there’s also the undeniable satisfaction to be found in the physical pages of a book. Maybe printed books will indeed be a relic of the past in a hundred years, but the awesome power and privilege of paper just begs to be defaced. And that, crazy as it may sound, could be what saves it in the end.

Elizabeth Bird. 

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