Thursday, September 22, 2011

Evaluating Book Apps for Children: a mini-series (part 1)

Lex + iPadI’m a school librarian, passionate about bringing stories and information to children in ways that will engage them and want them to read more. When we got our iPad in the spring of 2010, I was a bit sceptical - how were we going to use it? But I was quickly surprised how each one of us in our family started finding ways they really loved it. I’ve been amazed how iPad book apps can engage children with stories they knew, but adding and integrating new content, encouraging children to interact with stories, and enabling young children to read stories by themselves.

Over the next week, I would like to take a break from reviewing specific books and take some time to start reflecting on what makes a Book App for children successful. Above all, I'd like to think about how books created in this new medium can engage children, can help them get excited about reading, can make books and information more accessible.

This discussion came as a result of a presentation I led at last weekend's KidLitCon, and could not be possible without the immense creative help and thoughts of Paula Willey (PinkMe) and Betsy Bird (Fuse #8), my amazing, dynamic co-presenters. Below are my thoughts, but are shaped in huge part by both of their thinking on this subject.
(from the left) Paula Willey, me and Betsy Bird at KidLitCon
Two things fascinate me: how much does the medium shape our expectations? or are children really just interested in whether the story pulls them into the experience? When we read a book, we come to expect certain things. We turn the pages, we wait at each page and think a moment. Or we know we can flip the pages back and forth. When we open a webpage, we expect to be able to drag the scroll bar up and down, click our mouse on hyperlinks, and use the back button to take us back to where we started. So what are children expecting as they turn on an iPad? How do these expectations - usually developed, quite honestly, with games like Angry Birds - shape their reaction to Book Apps? You expect to poke something and have it respond to your actions. You expect it to change and move.

Book apps are interactive computer programs based on books; specifically here, I am talking about apps sold for the iPad and iPhone through the Apple iTunes app market. There are also apps sold through the Android market for other tablets and smart phones, but because the Apple market is the largest (and the iPad is what I have), that’s what I’ll be talking about here. These are not ebooks, which are essentially reprinting of the text and pictures. They are interactive books, which means that you can poke or press different parts and they respond to your actions.

What do you think are key features for a Book App that is geared toward children? How can these interactive programs engage our children and develop literacy skills? What are some examples of the best apps you've encountered?

Stay tuned, as I explore these questions and more. Below are links to the series as it develops:

To search out reviews I've done on Book Apps, click the
"ebook" label on the right side of the blog (or click here).

(note: photo is from Flickr, Creative Commons, by Alec Couros)

©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.


  1. Great post! Look forward to more thoughts.

  2. This is definitely a series of posts I'm looking forward to, so thank you for bringing it up!

    As for what features I think are key...I'd absolutely say interactivity, obviously, but more specifically a way to make it interactive with the words. The first apps that come to mind are the Oceanhouse media apps for the Dr. Suess books. With Hop on Pop and the ABC stories the words pop out/highlight showing children the actual formation of words with letters. This is huge and I've even caught my son reading aloud with the words without the sound because of it.

    As far as capturing the audience, but still keeping it about the story...I'd recommend Nosy Crow. Their book apps are brilliant, engaging and still have a wonderful story that gets kids thinking.

    Both are wonderful, but obviously not the only two. I'll be interested to see what else you bring up during the week!

  3. Is that your son? And is that bed... made? I mean, er, I will be reading these posts avidly of course! But a made bed, wow we haven't seen one of those around here... ever!

    Had an interesting conversation with Rachel Chou from Open Road at SLJ yesterday, it may be that the standalone book app will go the way of the CD-ROM once the rest of the platforms begin to look more like tablets. HMMM!

  4. The1stDaughter - I agree, that interactive features are important, but they need to keep you in the story and not distract you from the flow of what's going on.

    YNL - no, it's not my son (or a made bed!), but a photo from Flickr shared through Creative Commons license.
    Interesting thoughts about how the development of the platforms will affect standalone apps. What I'm really interested in, is what makes an effective app - regardless of the platform. What features are important for those of us working with literacy development to encourage software developers to pay attention to?

    Hope you find the series interesting - please, keep sharing comments!

  5. Nice series, Mary Ann! I posted links to all 3 parts at E is for Book. After creating static books for so long, it has been mind-bending to incorporate motion, audio, and the other options in my thought process when it comes to authoring an app. One thing I'm finding out…it's not easy (not that regular books are, for that matter!)

  6. Mary Ann, Mark Mitchell alerted me to this series...great stuff. Thanks! Great basics for writers who consider their work for apps.

    1. Thanks so much - hope you get a chance to see this more recent post:
      and this article:
      Mary Ann