At one point a couple weeks ago, I had 84 kidlit-related apps on my iPad, because I was a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards in the apps category. I have been involved with the Cybils for a few years now, previously serving as a judge in the graphic novels and nonfiction picture books categories, and every year I love it. The best is getting to know the other critics on the panels. Lalitha, Carisa, Cathy, and Mary Ann, it was a privilege and I learned so much!
These are the finalists that we chose (it was tough!):
Bats: Furry Fliers of the Night - A terrific nonfiction app, with beautiful sharp photos and animations that enhance understanding of the subject. Cathy Potter wrote our panel's synopsis of this app, saying, “The vivid animation of bats flying in the night sky coupled with sound effects from nature (bat wings flapping, wind howling, water babbling, and bats screeching) give readers the sense they are watching live bats in the wild.”
Dragon Brush - It's "just" a iPad-ized picture book, which is to say a page-by-page story with minor animations and a little interactivity, but there's something about this one. The story is sharp, the main character is smart and honorable, the color palette and illustration style slightly groovy but not obnoxious... even the narrator's voice is exceptional, in an unaffected, friendly way. (It's actually the lead singer from The National. Based on his work in this app, I'd say that Matt Berninger could have a fruitful second career as an audiobook narrator. I for one would listen to him read almost anything.)
My kids go back to this again and again, pretty much just because it's charming. They like rubbing the drawings made with the magic brush into life.
Many book apps have a feature or activity that is outside the book, and in this case it's a drawing studio. The user spots magic ink pots while reading the story, and then uses them to draw pictures. The ink pots are a little unusual in that they contain patterns rather than color - my kids let the patterns inspire their pictures a little bit.
Rounds: Franklin Frog - The life cycle of the common pond frog, for young children. This one really kind of grows on you - because it's so tame, you may not fall in love at first sight. I didn't - it took sharing it with a five-year-old friend for me to fully appreciate it. But the calm mood, the animated art made out of simple geometric shapes, and the abundance of sweet little details won our judging panel over.
This app is by Nosy Crow, a British independent publisher that has really pushed forward into apps in a way that no large publisher that I can think of has done. Their apps are about 50:50 with me, but that is largely due to the source content - a vapid picture book will generally turn into a vapid app (exceptions exist, see below).
Nosy Crow's committment to developing their content, prodding it until it moves and speaks and actively solicits engagement with the reader, is what I'd like to see for the future of kid book app development - this company combines technical expertise with children's publishing expertise, instead of just saying, "Let's make an app out of this," and farming out the code. Or conversely, being a developer that decides to make something for the kid market and getting Christ-knows-who to scribble up a little rhyming text. You wouldn't believe some of the klutzy, ham-handed kid book apps out there.
The Voyage of Ulysses - Here's the one that I am an evangelist for this year. Because... oh my god listen to how high-horsey I can get: any vector by which people can learn about and appreciate the canonical works of art that resonate through our culture deserves attention. There's a graphic novel adaptation of the Ramayana that everyone should see. But also, this means that I will endure nearly any adaptation of Shakespeare, from Throne of Blood to 10 Things I Hate About You. I was a Classics major in college, and sometimes IT SHOWS.
Luckily, The Voyage of Ulysses is not high-horsey at all. Rather, it is full of charm and atmosphere, with nifty little interactions, informative sidebars, art that recalls Picasso's Blue Period, and serene background music and sound effects.
You may enjoy setting Troy on fire, mixing potions in Circe's workshop, scattering the dandelions in Calypso's beautiful meadow, or making Penelope's shroud weave and then unravel as the sun rises and then sets. Me, I loved spinning the whirlpool Charybdis until the text was sucked to the bottom of the Aegean. After all, I had to translate this book from ancient Greek - I may admire it, but I still have ISSUES.
Where do Balloons Go? - Confession: I find the picture books of Jamie Lee Curtis to be insufferably inane. The rhymes trudge along in service to premises so labored they groan. In the one-time intro to this app, Baroness Haden-Guest explains the genesis of the story - she was at a kid's birthday party and a balloon escaped into the sky, and a little kid asked, "Mommy where do balloons go?" upon hearing which she reports that "my head exploded" and she had to rush home and write this book. Careful around Jamie Lee Curtis, guys - she seems to be easily boggled.
ON THE OTHER HAND, I find the illustrations of Laura Cornell to be vibrant and inventive. Her particular genius is the ability to suggest that Curtis's vaguely patronizing, frequently clunky rhyming text contains more wit than it does. This app adaptation plucks every strand of Cornell's already-lively art and makes it giggle, dance, drift, shimmy, and wiggle. Lights turn on and off, balloons bump and shuffle... I mean the thing is just packed with sparkle.
The two sides to this app would cancel each other out if it weren't for the app's Balloon Theater. Kids (and ok, grownups) make balloon-face characters out of costume elements, even using the iPad's camera to personalize the characters. Then they can manipulate the characters and record little plays. We had MORE FUN with this. I was only sad that I couldn't export the little videos to share.
Even once my part in the process is done, I always keep tabs on the Cybils - the shortlists in each category are great guides to the best in kidlit every year. The big winner will be announced on Valentine's Day. Awww - love!