The King’s Ears, a whimsical retelling of the Serbian folktale The Goat’s Ears of the Emperor Trojan, is a Canadian-made storybook app by Rascal Media Inc and the brainchild of award-winning children’s author and illustrator, Cynthia Nugent.
The King’s Ears is the story of a king’s path to self-acceptance when–after a lifetime of hiding from everyone that he has goat ears–his big secret comes out.
Narrated by Terry Jones, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the pages in this colourful app feature mixed-media illustrations that include little touches of reality– not only through cleverly placed details within the images themselves, but also in the true-to-life sound effects.
Interactive features hidden throughout the pages encourage exploration, reinforce key messaging, and provide additional insight. Many emotions – including worry, joy, surprise, anger, uncertainty, and relief – are explored in a manner that is oftentimes comical, and highly relatable.
An interview with Cynthia Nugent, designer of The King’s Ears
Jenn Gill: What is it about the book The King has Goat Ears, written by fellow Canadian author Katarina Jovanovic, that inspired you to turn it into an interactive picture book app?
Cynthia Nugent: I had been researching fairy tales for an interactive art exhibit at the Burnaby Art Gallery when I came across a story I really liked called Czar Trojan’s Ears. I started working on illustrations with the idea of retelling it as a picture book. By coincidence, Tradewind Books approached me around the same time to illustrate the very same story as retold by Katarina Jovanovic. I wasn’t able to illustrate it in their time frame, but it all turned out for the best because Philippe Béhà is an amazing illustrator of nearly 200 books. The book came out in 2008 under the title of The King Has Goat Ears and won the BC Book Prize for best picture book.
In 2010 I enrolled in the MA program in Children’s Literature at UBC and one of my courses was on children’s digital media. For my term project, I decided to design an app (on paper) and asked Tradewind Books if I could use The King Has Goat Ears. I enjoyed designing the app so much, I decided to go ahead and make one for the iPad.
Many people view “screen time” activities, such as watching tv and playing on an iPad, as hobbies that can negatively impact a child’s cognitive development. How does reading storybook apps, like The King’s Ears, support children’s learning?
Screen time is now part of all our lives. While we all like trashy novels and TV, it’s important to also feed our brains quality cultural products which stretch and inform our thinking and enable our growth as human beings. The same is doubly important for children. In 2016, the American Association of Pediatrics came out with a statement on screen time for children. Basically, they recommend that what children watch and interact with is of good quality, that they watch for short periods of time, and that parents talk with children about the content in order to enrich the experience and develop vocabulary. It is also generally recognized by educators that digital literacy is now part of the definition of what it means to be literate and that children need to use digital tools as part of their education.
The King’s Ears is a quality picture book app for the following reasons:
- The text is based on an award-winning picture book written by an early childhood development specialist, a retelling of a tale which dates back to ancient Greece
- Philippe Béhà has won many awards for his brilliant children’s illustration, and his lovely mixed media, collage work here is no exception
- Narrator Terry Jones is an actor, author of children’s books, and director of international repute
- The designer (me) won the Time to Read: BC Achievement Foundation Award for Early Literacy and numerous other prizes and recognitions. My MA thesis was on picture book scholarship applied to the design of picture book apps informed the design of The King’s Ears app.
- The app has been tested in the classroom, and while it engaged all the children, it was exciting to discover how engaged children with reading challenges were.
- All the modes: words, pictures, sounds, animations, interactions combine to tell the story. Very little of this multimodal experience is ornamental. When shared with a parent or teacher the app prompts discussion, reflection, and repeated viewing to talk about story analysis, feelings, social interaction, self-esteem, empathy, and the literary practice of retelling ancient stories for each new generation.
While reading and exploring The King’s Ears, I noticed that there are very few visual prompts or written instructions pointing out the interactive features hidden within the pages. Why is that?
Picture book scholarship tells us that children will carefully explore pictures and will see things that adults and more fluent readers miss. My testing with children showed me that, unlike adults, children touched everything on the screen and speculated on what would be interactive. I realized that while adults needed hints, children didn’t. Placing hints everywhere deprived them of them of the pleasure of close inspection, puzzling, problem-solving, and understanding how the modes on each screen combined to give them information about the story and the characters.
What part of the creation process did you find to be the most challenging when taking this still picture book and turning it into an interactive storybook app?
The main challenge was to design each mode to be meaningful narratologically and to avoid redundancy by having each mode say something the other modes didn’t. For 3 years, I never stopped thinking about how to say something with sound or interaction and what I could cut so I wasn’t saying the same thing in 2 or more modes.
One example can be found on the first screen:
In addition to the words and pictures which tell us that the king is unhappily enclosed in a tight space and never leaves the palace while the bird is free, the modes of interaction, animation and sound add to the story through enhancement and alternation. Dragging the bird allows the player to experience the happy freedom of flying which is heightened by its juxtaposition with the trapped king. Tapping the king to start the tears encourages empathy and adds depth and nuance to the picture’s depiction of the king’s unhappy face—it tells us he’s sad as well as mad. The sound of the tears splashing tells us that he has cried so much that a puddle has formed below the screen. When the player later reflects on or revisits this screen, which as Lawrence Sipe tells us is likely because picture book reading is “reflexive and recursive” (“How Picturebooks Work” 101), new information from the rest of the book will add further depth to the modes of this screen. The player realizes the king is imprisoned by his own fears of being laughed at, and the bird acts as a constant foil—carefree about her appearance and therefore free to go anywhere she wants.
The 2nd most challenging thing was working with the two programmers. I had to learn how to write specifications in a language that they would understand for every single thing that happened and to give precise coordinates and times for all events and objects. If an interaction I wanted to do was too awkward to program or took up too much memory, we had to discuss how it could be redone.
And the most rewarding?
The single most rewarding thing was when we went into the classroom and I saw and heard children finding all the interactions, laughing at the funny bits, and spontaneously discussing what interactions meant. I realized that the app I’d designed over 3 1/2 years was speaking to them.
The King’s Ears is currently only available for purchase in the Apple iTunes Store. Can Android users look forward to finding your app in the Google Play store in the future?
I learned a lot about the technical aspects of creating an app with this first project. We used an open source game engine called cocos2d. Unfortunately to make a King’s Ears for Android would mean completely rebuilding it. Now that I know more, my next project will be made with Unity, a game engine which allows you to export your app in many different formats. My next app will be a new story that will come out as a book and an app for multiple platforms simultaneously. Perhaps after having worked with Unity, I can redo The King’s Ears for more platforms.
However, the next update of The King’s Ears will be in Spanish and English.