23 Aug 2015
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to read bedtime stories to my goddaughter, Jane. I sprawled on the floor in front of her crammed bookshelf, reveling in the assortment of completely unfamiliar picture books. (The last book I read aloud to my kids was most likely a dystopian YA novel.) I grabbed a few that looked promising and climbed into her bed.
After I read my two picks, a very giggly Jane handed me a book, saying, “You have to read this to me, Auntie Dana, ok? I get to pick a book, too.”
The book was B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures.” Cue internal eye-rolling.
I have an unseemly hatred for celebrity-written children’s books, born around the time Madonna penned “The English Roses” and fed by a growing list of authors that fill me with a stomach-churning mix of contempt and envy. Perez Hilton? Tori Spelling? Sharon Osbourne?
“Those people aren’t writers. They’re just famous, so they get book contracts. And write stupid books.”
So, even though my favorite podcasters at Pop Culture Happy Hour mentioned “The Book With No Pictures” favorably, I chalked it up to a momentary lapse of reason and continued on with my life. Normally, if they recommend something, I’ll at least check it out, but in this case, my bias was too strong. Until Jane thrust the book into my hands and demanded that I read it.
Although I started begrudgingly, it only took a few pages for me to realize that BJ Novak had nailed it — that thing that makes kids ask for the same book over and over. Or at least one of them. In this case, it’s the joy of hearing a grown up say absurd, vaguely naughty, and possibly forbidden words out loud. That’s the book’s genius premise: when you’re reading out loud you have to read every word on the page, no exceptions.
By the time I finished reading, Jane had laughed herself off the bed and onto the floor.
And that got me thinking about user experience. This book was more than just its content, the black words on the white pages. It was about the interaction between those words and me. And from Jane’s participation as a listener, hearing me read them. It came from our preconceptions, that grown ups don’t or shouldn’t say the word “butt.” And the thrill of breaking that rule. Whatever flaws I could find in the writing, they were trumped by the experience Jane and I shared when I read the book out loud.
Did I love the book? Not really. Lines like, “I am reading you this book with my monkey mouth in my monkey voice...and my head is made of blueberry pizza,” don’t seem all that inspired to me.
However, it was clear that Jane loved it. And seeing her joy made me happy, too.