That bunny is a total evangelist, right? That app actually does things that the book can't do, and that is a book that does things that most books can't do. Pat the Bunny is the app that turns arms-crossed, grumbly librarians into wide-eyed murmury librarians. Bobo Explores Light (reviewed earlier) does that too.
But Mary Ann Scheuer (Great Kid Books), Betsy Bird (Fuse #8) and I used the trailer for Three Little Pigs and the Secrets of a Popup Book to open our presentation on ebook apps at KidLitCon in Seattle last month. It's so clever, so boingy. And it shows the hands making the thing work.
That's an important thing. It's one thing to show people a batch of screen shots, or even project the iPad's screen, but it's not the content of an iPad app that's the coolest part of it - it's the way the user interacts with the screen elements.
We talked about leading off with the trailer for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, but the three of us were a bit divided on that app - Betsy and I felt like the story bogged down a little in the middle, while Mary Ann appreciated the gentle pace. All three of us kept expecting the app to "do more." This is not necessarily a minus: Morris Lessmore has been described as a good "bedtime app," I think because it maintains a restrained tone and doesn't pack each screen with touchables and doables.
How to demo stuff on an iPad:
See? Seeing the hands make the thing do its thing makes all the difference. Luckily, for our presentation, Mary Ann had gotten ahold of a digital document camera. The camera plugged into a laptop's USB port, and the laptop plugged into the data projector. We positioned an iPad under the camera in order to show with our hands what we were talking about with our mouths. And in my case, with my hands. I've never been able to explain anything without trying to draw boxes in the air.
Ten factors to consider when evaluating book apps for children:
- How well is the art integrated with the text? When we’re working with picture books that question’s a natural. So why should it be any different with apps?
- How well does the narrator convey the story?
- Can you skip to different parts of the book with ease?
- Can you turn off the narration? More important in some cases than in others.
- How deep is the content: what does the app provide that a simple lapsit with a print book and an adult does not?
- How is this app best used?
- Pouvez-vous choisir des langues différentes? (Can you select different languages?)
- Would a kid read it again? Would a kid read it again and again and again?
- How much does it cost? A $1.99 app doesn't have to be one for the ages; but you look for greatness in an app that costs $13.99.
- Does the developer have a history of maintaining and updating their apps?
Not all apps, of course, need to succeed in all of these areas: a reference app on volcanoes, for example, need not be an effective lap share. Nor do we look for an exhaustive depth of content in Pat the Bunny (well, Betsy says that she does, but that's Betsy!). Like any book, an app needs to consider its audience first and foremost.
So - what apps did we show off? We only had an hour or so, and all three of us have iPads loaded with goodies. We picked apps that exemplified the things we want to see in an iPad app; good vs. bad integration of interactive elements; the different ways of structuring content; apps for younger and for older kids.
How Rocket Learned to Read. Mary Ann called this a "perfect adaptation of a wonderful book for the app world - interactive features perfectly geared to young audience, engaging but not overwhelming". This app never loses its book-like flow: finding an activity or an animation doesn't take the reader off the page.
Red Apple. Jillions of languages! Okay, ten. Let me tell you how EASY it is to localize a piece of software. I worked for a company that published database software in at least eight languages, including Russian and Korean. And I am APPALLED when people who make kids apps don't do it.
There are so many fun and educational ways to use language options - make the app speak Spanish and see if any words look like their English counterparts; make the app speak Polish and try to guess the story; and, of course, share the story with non-English-speaking friends and relatives.
Teddy’s Day Out. We poked at this app to show the opposite of the seamlessness of How Rocket Learned to Read. At several points in the program, the narrative stops dead, is interrupted, or takes you to a dead end. Reviewers at a variety of outlets have praised this app - which is I think and example of book reviewers needing to develop new muscles for reviewing apps. We're not used to analyzing flow and structure yet.
Gems and Jewels. Organized like an encyclopedia, packed with content (the entirety of the book Gems and Gemstones: Timeless Natural Beauty of the Mineral World). 360-degree photos by the team that brought you the similarly gorgeous and comprehensive The Elements (book by Theo Gray, app by TouchPress). Web links to detailed scientific information. 3-D views for those of us who can freakishly half-cross our eyes, and for people who have a cheap pair of stereo viewer specs. I reviewed it for Touch and Go, the SLJ app blog.
Magic School Bus: Oceans. Mary Ann loooves this app. The dialogue and captions of the Magic School Bus page design come to bubbling life on the iPad, making the reader's consumption of the content an active, fun experience. Navigation is by means of a scrubber bar, (thumbnails of each page), which is a great option for kids, allowing them to skip back and forth without needing to internalize the page order. Magic School Bus + interactivity = a natural match.
Journey Into the Deep. Now here's an example of an NF book app with a structure that informs our understanding of the content: each section of the book and app proceeds deeper and deeper into the ocean, until we are meeting the creatures of the crushing depths and exploring the floor of the deepest places on earth.
I loved this book, and so I might have wished for the links to the researchers and projects cited to be more up-front in the text; I also wish there were more videos and animations. But there is no doubt this is an excellent adaptation of an already-excellent book. Look at those classy, understated little icons in the screenshot cluing us to poke for more info.
Fiction for middle grade readers:
Nancy Drew Shadow Ranch. Mary Ann had a moment of panic when I told her that this app had its genesis as a computer game. She's running the judging for the Cybils Awards brand-new app category, and she's had to come up with a hard-and-fast definition of what is a book app and what is not - so that she can make fair judgments about what apps are eligible to be nominated for the award. Her decision was to use the categories in the iTunes App Store: if an app is in the Books category there, it's eligible for a Cybils Award.
(HAVE YOU NOMINATED YOUR FAVORITE KID & YA BOOKS FOR CYBILS AWARDS YET? WELL GO DO IT!!!)
Lucky for Nancy's chances for a Cybil (and when is Nancy not lucky?), Apple thinks she's a book. Betsy walked us through some of the features of this app, noting that it combines a classic chapter book with choose your own ending features, simple games (find the objects), and features that highlight clues as you read along. I've reviewed this Nancy app too, and I will testify that, even after several months, my kids will pull it up every now and then, even though they've each been through the whole book at least once.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Mary Ann called this a "fascinating integration of animation and picture book," but noted that the plot slows in places. In this case, the story takes clear precedence over any game features, and the whole experience "blurs the line between book and movie."
War of the Worlds. I think we didn't get to this one, but I think it's notable. The entire novel is presented - an antique-paper background and old-fashioned styling slow the reader down to appreciate the language and slow-mounting tension of this science fiction classic. It's rather staid, though. Wonderful, creepy, vicious animated illustrations - oh, maybe a dozen of them - unfortunately motivate readers (myself included) to flip through the pages until they get to the part where you can make the Martian tripod incinerate innocent British rubberneckers.
Still better than the Tom Cruise movie, though.
We reach some conclusions:
Betsy - Parents, teachers, librarians, and reviewers have always been the gatekeepers of children’s literature. And their importance increases when there are new forms of literacy development produced. Because of the sheer swath of apps produced every day, somebody needs to look at, consider, and rate these items. And increasingly that job is going to fall not on just professional journals like Horn Book and SLJ but on bloggers like us. The Cybils Awards have already added an “App” category and it’s not going to be long before other already existing award organizations follow suit.
Paula - In the end, it may be that evaluating apps like the ones we’ve shown you is an end in itself. We get to stretch our abilities, we get to learn and in some cases create a new vocabulary, and we - we reviewers - get to test what we think we know about kids and the way that they respond to story, and art, and things that go tick tick boom and fly across the page.
As for the future, it’s hard to make any kind of general or prognosticative statements about book apps, because the medium is changing so rapidly, and because our environments are in such flux. On the one hand, we are seeing more tablet computers and ereaders being introduced into school libraries, but on the other hand, an iPad is a precious, breakable object, and not likely to be available in the majority of public libraries any time soon, particularly in an age when buying books is difficult in and of itself. We know how to evaluate book apps - sort of - using the criteria we’ve laid out here, but it’s a little difficult to figure out who we’re evaluating them for.
Mary Ann - What we’re asking you to do is to jump in and try some of these apps out. We’re amazed, simply amazed, by how many parents we know who haven’t tried these - even though they have kids in the target range, have an iPad, and even spend money on books and apps. As people who spread the love of reading throughout our communities, I hope we all explore this new world. And as we each explore, we’ll obtain a greater sense of what we think works well for different audiences. Bloggers have a chance to be at the forefront of this new way of learning, and the best thing you can do is to try it out and not be afraid of what you might find.