The XX Factor

This Is Not Your Mother’s Book-of-the-Month Club

JibJab, the company best known for the political satire “This Land” and for developing OfficeMax’s justifiablly popular ElfYourself Christmas promotion, wants you to read to your child.

Not surprisingly, JibJab has something rather specific in mind: its own new children’s picture story offering, The Biggest Pizza Ever. With this free download from the iTunes App store, you paste your own child’s face into the space provided, specify name, gender, and skin tone, and are instantly presented with a series of JibJab’s patently clever Photoshop-style animations: your child in the role of the merry pizza chef whose pizza creation is so large and ambitious that it threatens to take over the whole town. Each page of rhyming text includes an active illustration of the child-chef, rolling, kneading, using a helicopter to scatter the increasingly ridiculous toppings. It’s a simple story, fun, a little bit derivative—even my children instantly recognized echoes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Giant Jam Sandwich. But it doesn’t matter. 

Because that’s your child there, under the chef’s hat! Your child’s name right there in the text, in the right font and everything! And that child is going to be thrilled. Thrilled, I tell you. So thrilled that he or she will want The Biggest Pizza Ever over and over again. But will you be thrilled, when you reach the end and it’s very clear to your child that there is another story—in fact two more stories—that do the same thing? And they are available for $7.99 or, if you join JibJab’s monthly e-book club, $3.99, with another $3.99 charged to your iTunes account if you choose to buy each month’s offering.

Apparently plenty of parents are thrilled; JibJab’s Gregg Spiridellis says the book-of-the-month option is outselling the “a la carte” option, and the app was in the top ten grossing apps for iPad books last week. If you do read to your child from your iPad, The Biggest Pizza ever and its companion volumes will surely be frequently enjoyed additions to your “collection.” (And as a business idea, the book-of-the-month option is a brilliant example of taking the old and making it new again.)

But do you really want to read to your child from your iPad?

To its credit, JibJabJr.’s e-books are, as they themselves say in their press release, “not hyper-clickable toys.” You or your child must read the words if they are to be read; the app does not talk or play an annoyingly repetitive ditty while it runs. The figures do what they do on the screen; they don’t interact, and a poke or a swipe will not change the story or the experience. There’s no question that this is an e-book, and not a game, even with its (very entertaining) gimmick.

But it’s still an e-book, not a book. The Biggest Pizza Ever exists only within your iPad’s screen; your child can not carry it in the stroller or turn its pages under the swingset, unless you are a far more tolerant iPad owner than most. And even if your $499 (minimum) gadget is fair game and freely available to sticky fingers at every moment, it probably won’t be brought to school for sharing time (and what a disaster that would be in any case). It won’t create in your child’s mind the association of bedtime with a book, that disconnected, singular experience with a magic that lies, at least in part, in ithe fact that you alter it only by the way you experience it.  The problem lies not in the story but in the medium. No matter how quietly we’re reading on it, my children know the iPad for what it is: a portal to a world of videos, games, and endless entertainment. Its very presence changes the tenor of the moment. It’s nice that it morphs into something like a book once in a while, but it can really never do more than mimic the book experience.

So while the JibJab app is more than welcome on my iPad, it won’t find its virtual way into the basket of books by the couch where we do our nightly reading. It’s a very cool app. But in my book, an app is still an app.