Her distinctive silhouette is recognised around the world. The classic children's books about her have sold tens of millions of copies and in the Netherlands she has her own museum. But as Miffy the rabbit joins the digital age with the launch of her first app on Wednesday, her 84-year old Dutch creator Dick Bruna says children should start with old-fashioned board and paper books before they move on to tablets.
"I think babies and toddlers need to get used to books first, feeling the covers and turning the pages, this is part of their learning," he said. "I wouldn't want too much interactivity – something to do on every page for instance – as I think that would make it too complicated for a young child."
He said children get attached to their favourite books and he is often asked to sign chewed and battered copies kept for years. "I don't think you would get the same feelings after playing with an app on a computer. Maybe that is a very old-fashioned view. I hope not."
The Miffy's Garden app for iPad, for age two and up, lets readers join in with digging, raking and watering, and record their own voices telling the story. Annemiek van Bakel, digital publisher at Sanoma, the Dutch media company that produced it, says "they are not very fast-moving books so the app is not fast-moving either. We really wanted an interactivity that fits with the style of Miffy."
Miffy is not the first pre-school celebrity to appear in an app for toddlers. Eric Hill's puppy Spot launched in app form 18 months ago, while other picture-book based applications include Dr Seuss and fairytales by British digital specialists NosyCrow.
But the market is new enough that every launch feels like an experiment, and both Dick Bruna and Sanoma say they are waiting to see what happens with Miffy.
The question for all publishers is when to what extent ebooks and book-based digital applications will replace printed books. NosyCrow founder Kate Wilson cites research showing a four-month-old baby using an iPad to support her conviction that publishers and authors have no choice but to engage with technology. The alternative is irrelevance, as a generation of children brought up on touchscreen interactivity ditch imaginative literature altogether in favour of games.
But Dick Bruna is not the first author to worry that too much visual stimulation could overwhelm the storytelling and language-learning aspect of books for the very young. Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson vetoed an app based on her classic story because she thinks moving images and games are a distraction.
Children's librarian Ferelith Hordon, who has twice judged the Carnegie Medal, says "I think the problem will come if apps are seen as a replacement for books. I think the crucial thing as with all things aimed at very young children is the interaction with the adult."
If an app is used as a way of getting a child to sit in the corner and play by itself that is a problem. Of course that can happen with anything, but an app might keep them quiet for slightly longer."
Sanoma's Annemiek van Bakel does not think her app will mean the end for Miffy on paper. She says "there are moments for different media. I feel you would use an iPad with your kids in the afternoon. At bedtime you take a book and tell a story. I don't think printed books will disappear."
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