A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Story Apps for Kids, Part 1

Before I get started, I need to confess: I own neither a smart phone nor an iPad. My mobile phone is ancient (in digital terms) and I’m too frugal (okay, cheap) to buy a new one, although I’m thinking about it. I’ve been waiting to buy an e-reader because I want one that has the bugs worked out and will gracefully accommodate picture book stories, as well as adult books.

Nonetheless, I’ve been reading about the development of kid-oriented story apps for both formats for some time. Apparently, “apps” can mean anything from a simple game to a fully illustrated story, including animation, audio, video, and in some cases, the entire movie version.

I prevailed upon my daughter to download several story apps from Ruckus Media to her iPhone. One, Andrew Answers by Alan Katz, is based on word play. Andrew answers his teacher and various other authority figures correctly but gets into trouble because his answers are perceived as impertinent (wherein lies the wordplay). The story line is simple, the graphics are clear but uncomplicated (making them easier to see on a small screen), and the story is narrated. At several points in the story the reader/listener has the option of tilting the screen to navigate Andrew to his next destination.

Ruckus Media also has acquired a number of stories from Rabbit Ears Entertainment, a company long known for its quality productions of classic tales in video, audio and book formats. Think of Meryl Streep telling The Night Before Christmas, accompanied by professionally recorded Christmas carols, or Denzel Washington reading John Henry with music by B.B. King. Rabbit Ears stories can be read as a book, watched as a movie, and recorded with your own voice.

So what did I think? Honestly?

I think a smart-phone app is a poor substitute for a book, especially an illustrated book, simply because the screen is so small. The screen size diminishes a viewer’s ability to enter into the experience of the story. (Not to mention, the eye strain. If young children start spending much time viewing content on small screens, we’ll have a generation with expensive vision problems!) The more detailed the illustrations, the more frustrating the viewing.

Additionally, I find it annoying to be forced in the middle of a story to make a decision: do I want to play a maze game to move my character down the hall, or do I want to move on with the story? But I'm an old-school grown-up, not a kid. I can think of six-year-olds who might like that.

Criticisms noted, I think there is a place for stories in this format. But creators and producers of these stories must keep in mind their intended audience and the purpose of the story. That means...

• Keep the visuals interesting but uncluttered, particularly for young children.
• Include animation and audio that complements and enhances the story but doesn’t interrupt the story or detract from the telling.
• Interactivity with a story is great, as long as it invites participation and imagination, not distraction.
• Interactive components, like art and text, should be age-appropriate.
• Include simple instructions, which can also be turned off.
• The option to record is a fun and creative interactive tool for storytelling.

Most important of all, I hope these apps will be used to augment, not replace, the core experience of reading with children, one on one. A nice pile of “static” books can supply more than entertainment and literacy skills. The simplicity of the technology – paper pages bound together along one edge, which must be physically manipulated, yet are capable of displaying sophisticated visual images – lends itself to focus, rather than distractedness. A book, especially a picture book, invites thought and contemplation.

It also facilitates bonding. Through sharing a book, parent and child take time for reflection and self-directed interaction -- between child and story, as well as child and parent. That’s too priceless to give up.

Next: Picture Books and the iPad


  1. Thanks for the information. I'm in the process of building an app for a short children's story (7,000 words). Don' know what I'm doing, but learning fast. Your comments are especially helpful.


  2. Great article, and I agree there's nothing wrong with limited time on iPhone or iPad for kids, within reason. More importantly, I would further agree that apps that work to strengthen and develop a child's imagination are where the real strengths of the technology can be found, as opposed to simply consuming still more media.

    Our app Build a Story for iPad lets kids create design and WRITE their own, multi-page Storybook, from hundreds of Themes & Characters. We believe this app and others like it are great new ways to foster creativity, imaginative play and even help enable expression of emotion in kids. We also strongly encourage parents to use the app WITH their children... not merely hand it to them as another electronic babysitter.

    Thanks again for the informative post.


  3. Ben, I'd like to hear more about how you're going about "building an app." What does that mean? Are you putting your story into an epub file or something else? Will you have illustrations?

    John, Build a Story sounds interesting. I've played around a bit with some online story-making programs for kids but they had limited characters. It sounds fun. Do you have a website? I'm all for fostering creativity and parental involvement, whatever the format.