A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

iPad Stories Worth Reading (and Playing With)

Kirkus Reviews, a respected book reviewer from the library world, has started reviewing iPad storytelling apps. Librarian that I am, I began my own inquiry into the world of iPad stories with five titles recommended on their “Best of Children's Book iPad Apps 2010.” (Who wants to download and sort through a bunch of clinkers to get to the good stuff?) If you're looking for good apps, you might want to start with these or others on the Kirkus list.

PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and developed by Loud Crow Interactive, Inc., combines the traditional look of Potter’s work with the feel of a pop-out/lift-the-tab book – except the manipulation is digital. Layers give a 3-D effect, with wriggling, spring-loaded bunnies, free-floating leaves and berries, and digital tabs that slide the characters around to create movement. Classical music and twittering birds help set the scene for the tale, which can be read silently or narrated. Words are highlighted as they are read aloud, making it easier to follow along. It’s great fun to slide Peter under the fence with a moveable tab, with the added plus that this tab will never bend and break. A bookmark tab on every page pulls down a thumbnail storyboard for selecting pages, a handy navigation feature. My only quibble with the app is this: with narration on, the sounds that busy fingers can initiate by touching characters compete with the telling. I would prefer them to pause until the text is read, or chatter more quietly. In all other aspects, it’s a lovely production that honors and extends the original. For ages 2+. (Also available for iPhone.)

Teddy’s Day is based on a 1994 story by Bruno Hächler and illustrator Birte Müller. App developer Auryn, Inc. has transformed a sweet, imaginative story into a sweet, imaginative story chockfull of creative surprises and interactive opportunities. Narration by a young girl sets the child’s-view tone of the tale. I love the pacing of the story and interactions. If you try to move through too quickly, you’ll miss the fun. Instead, after the text is spoken, on-screen highlights briefly shimmer, indicating opportunities for further exploration. These interactions lead you deeper into the story world. Another great feature is the chance to digitally paint pictures, which are then incorporated into the illustration. A spot-on story, interactions that enhance the telling, interesting perspectives, and opportunities to be part of the creative process combine wonderfully to tickle the imagination. For ages 3-7.

Alice – yes, the Alice of Wonderland fame by Lewis Carroll – combines the classic illustrations by Sir John Tenniel with pop-up style in this app from Atomic Antelope. Lush colors are set against a background I think of as “ye olde manuscript”: yellowed pages, brownish around the edges from years of wear. Everything about the design, from text fonts and sizes, to layout, to animations is interesting without being wearying and suits the dreamy oddness of the tale. Both an abridged version, with all the interactive components, and full text are available. Mushrooms, hookah smoke, a “Drink-Me” bottle, and more float through the pages, where they can be manipulated by moving the iPad. The developers chose not to include narration, perhaps to keep enhancements from becoming a distraction in a story that requires attention. Not a bad choice, considering that Alice is a mature story, best enjoyed by children old enough to read it on their own or shared with younger children by reading aloud with an adult. For ages 5+.

Bartleby’s Book of Buttons, Volume 1: the Faraway Island by Henrik and Denise Van Ryzin (illustrated by Henrik) and developed by Monster Costume, approaches storytelling as a puzzle or game: the reader/player moves through a simple story by solving the puzzles presented on each page. Buttons must be pressed, keys turned, gadgets fiddled with in order to progress to the next page. Mr. Bartleby is a retro-looking guy, who reminds me of the Duplo people my kids played with (back in the day, before they got limbs, hair, and molded facial features).  His defining characteristic is his enthusiasm for buttons, switches, and dials. Future English majors may be frustrated by the problem-solving requirements of this story (though it's not that hard and I’m sure it is good for them); analytical and mechanical types will love it. For ages 4-10.

Can we ever tire of Green Eggs and Ham? Certainly not in this version by Oceanhouse Media of the Dr. Seuss classic. The app is developed perfectly for its audience: beginning readers. In “Read to Me” mode, words light up as they are narrated and can be repeated if touched. Poke any object (sky, hat, bush, house, Sam-I-Am, etc.) and the word for it will appear. If the narration for that page is finished, the word will also be pronounced. Small sound effects, like squeaking mice, unobtrusively add humor to the story. In “Read It Myself” mode, background music (only slightly annoying) takes the place of narration, with the same highlighting and pronunciation features. “Auto Play” is similar to “Read to Me,” plus automatic page turns. All in all, it’s a great design that satisfies the needs of children at several levels: an entertaining story for preschoolers; an introduction to words and meanings for those just beginning to decipher words; and a confidence-building experience for children learning to read on their own. For ages 2-8. (Also available for iPhone and iPod Touch.)

To me, the most interesting aspect of these five iPad story apps is how each takes a different, but successful, approach to storytelling. While I still hope that paper books will continue to exist – just as I still love to listen to a good, old-fashioned oral story -- I can’t help being excited by the potential for new and creative ways of digital storytelling.

P.S. Thanks, Marianne and Steve, for letting me borrow your iPads!


  1. Hi Ann,
    Since I don't have an iPad, I wouldn't have a chance to learn about the apps that you describe. Thanks for bringing me up-to-date. :-)
    The story formats sound very entertaining for children, and I can see how they might hook even the most reluctant reader into the enjoyment of books. I just wonder if children will come to expect this kind of visual stimulation when they read, similar to what they experience with video games. Hopefully not. There's still so much to be said for sitting down quietly with a book. It's all about enjoying the variety and finding balance.

  2. I'd love to hear from parents of young children about how their children respond to the different media. Quietly reading one-on-one with a child is so precious, both in terms of the child's development and the child-parent relationship. Though reading a book and an iPad app share similarities, I don't think they are going to be exactly the same. Like I said on your blog, I do worry about the distractability that seems to come with electronic media. I think that keeping the focus on storytelling, whatever the medium, is the way to go.