A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Back to Basics

After venturing into the world of digital books, it’s time (for me, anyway) to veer back to basics: my all-time favorite cardboard book. In keeping with the focus of this blog, that beloved book happens to have been written by a Dane who worked for Bonniers, the eminent Swedish publisher, before moving to the U.S.

Spoiler warning for friends and relatives: I nearly always give this book as a baby present. Every time I go to purchase one, I’m afraid it will be out of print, so I buy several. Amazingly, this little gem has been in print since 1963, when it was first published by Golden Books.

And the title is...non-electronic drum roll, please...I am a Bunny, written by Ole Risom and illustrated by Richard Scarry.

Why do I love it so? Because both the text and art are a perfect combination of simplicity, detail, and imagination. The story is simple, a series of one-sentence descriptions of Nicholas the bunny’s activities through the seasons. But who can resist a narrative that begins like this:

I am a bunny.
My name is Nicholas.
I live in a hollow tree.

The words are direct and to the point, yet when read aloud they sound lyrical. While the words resonate, we are looking at Nicholas, who is looking straight at us, with his adorable Richard Scarry bunny face, long pink ears, and red overalls. Next we notice a mother robin in his tree, feeding her three hungry chicks a worm.

Cardboard books don’t always get the attention they deserve. Because they are inexpensive, less effort is sometimes put into their production. These days, many are simply resized versions of successful picture books for older children. But cardboard books are a young child’s first, nearly indestructible, introduction to written stories. They should be age-appropriate and include the best work writers, illustrators, and publishers can muster – even in the mass-market trade.

Ole Risom understood that during his long career making books for children, from 1952 to 1972 at Golden Books Western Press and 1972 to 1990 at Random House. During that time he worked with Stan and Jan Berenstain (known for their Berenstain Bears series), Marc Brown (famous for his Arthur books and TV series), Laurent de Brunhoff (the Babar books), Jim Henson (of Sesame Street fame), Leo Lionni (author/illustrator of Inch by Inch, Swimmy, A Color Of His Own and many others), Charles M. Schulz (creator of Charlie Brown) and Dr. Seuss, as well as Richard Scarry.

Risom died at the age of 80 in 2000. He had a daughter, Camilla; a son, Christopher; and another son named...Nicholas.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Guess What? Kids Are Still Reading Books

Digital apps and e-books may be getting most of the buzz these days but a recent survey shows some reassuring results for those of us who love children’s books (the paper kind).

According to the findings of this survey, commissioned by Bowker/PubTrack and the Association of Booksellers for Children, books are still the top media for children ages 0-6, even in households that can afford the toys of technology. More good news: even tech-busy teens like reading books for fun, rating it third on their lists. So far, they’re reading print books; less than 20% read e-books.

Good news for libraries, too: young children get most of their books from public and school libraries. Librarians already knew that – but it’s good to have some data to confirm it.

Another non-surprise is that women purchase 70% of books for children.

At the same time, Amazon just announced that sales of digital books through their site have exceeded sales of paperback books. Last July purchases of e-books surpassed hardcovers.

No doubt about it -- we live in interesting times.


Publishers Weekly. Winter Institute: Children’s Books in a Digital Age. Announces Fourth Quarter Sales up 36% to $12.95 Billion

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!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Story Apps for Kids, Part 2

Anyone who knows me knows that I love books. I love all types and genres of books, but particularly novels and children’s books -- especially picture books. To me, a flawless story matched with wonderful art is as near to perfected creation as humans come.

Predictably, I’ve dreaded the encroachment of e-books into children’s picture books. And yet...I am coming around, so much so that I am simply amazed to find myself excited about iPad stories.

Granted, I haven’t seen many of them yet – though I’m working on it while still holding out for the next iPad edition. But what I’ve seen is both encouraging and engaging. To begin with, the iPad screen is large enough to make viewing pleasurable and inviting, rather than a strain.

Ruckus Media, which I mentioned earlier, has a charming story app called Present for Milo for preschoolers to beginning readers. The content was created for the iPad, not retrofitted from an existing book. Colorful art, uncluttered design, playful animation, funny sounds, and simple interactive responses move the straightforward story line along to a sweetly surprising conclusion. More than 125 animations and 80 interactive objects will keep children engaged as they discover new actions. The vocabulary is easy enough for beginning readers, with the text clearly displayed and narrated. The animation, sound, and interactivity meet my personal criteria of enhancing, not detracting from, the story.

I’ll be looking at more stories and app developers this week. Stay tuned!

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

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year, New Media

Thanks to the P.T.A., I spent part of my Christmas vacation investigating Iphones and Ipads.

Though my own children are grown, as a school librarian I belong to the P.T.A. and sometimes attend their meetings. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the toddlers sitting in their parents' laps during meetings are playing with one of two things: key rings or mobile phones.

Apps are being developed like crazy for smart phones. Some of these apps designed for children are meant to be educational. Some are touted as a new format for stories and reading with young children.

Then there are e-books. Picture book publishers have been waiting – and in increasing numbers, preparing -- for the sophistication of the Ipad and the color Nook so that they, too, might enter into the brave new world of digital book publishing.

My initial reaction to the idea of young children being introduced to the world of stories and literature – to literacy itself -- through apps on a smart phone was something akin to horror. But I kept coming back to those two-year-olds playing with their parents’ phones. If that’s the new fall-back for pacifying restless kiddos, we’d better start creating some good content.

In the next posts I’ll let you know what I found.