Books are interactive objects. They require effort and input from their readers. In return, they offer information, empathetic experiences, and countless other pleasures. This information will come as no surprise to kids and adults, whether they’re avid or reluctant readers.
But younger children, relatively new to books or even encountering them for the first time, don’t always know what to make of these flat, colorful things that people keep handing to them. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are only just learning their way around language, just getting a sense for what books are and what they can do.
Over the past few years, a handful of children’s books have addressed their own interactive nature head on, some even going so far as to make their interactivity central to their stories. There’s Hervé Tullet’s Press Here and more-recent Mix It Up!, both of which invite readers to touch or tap or rub their pages and illustrations. In fact, Tullet’s books insist so strongly on the reader’s participation that, without it, the narrative stalls and refuses to move along.
And now, a new entry into this delightful little tradition: Richard Byrne’s This book just ate my dog! In Byrne’s book, its own gutter (the inner spine, where the pages meet) begins swallowing up its characters. Like all brilliant ideas, this one seems so simple and obvious that, the instant you realize what’s going on, you curse yourself and wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
As in Tullet’s books, This book just ate my dog! requires the active, physical participation of its readers. The narrative gets stuck (just like the story’s characters are stuck in the book’s gutter), and the only way to get it moving again is for the reader to grab ahold of the thing and – well, I don’t want to ruin it for you. You’ll just have to go out and get the book to see for yourself.
Byrne’s book, like Tullet’s, both revels in and relies on its own interactive nature. It makes reading a fun, physical experience, serving as a sort of sensory precursor to the more complicated, imaginative narrative-engagement that kids can take part in once they’re a bit older.
Given time, children can learn about the properties and powers of books by themselves. But it can’t hurt to show them early on, and even adults – and maybe especially adults – can always use the fun, exciting reminder that the books above provide. Because hidden within their seemingly simple, straightforward stories is a big, important message: books, these books declare, are living things, objects to be felt and wrestled with – and this in both a physical and a metaphorical sense. Books, in other words, exist so that they can be truly, intensely, wholeheartedly read.