Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Forget your troubles, c’mon get appy

For many lovers of neighborhood bookstores, the digital frontier can be a little guilt inducing. How do you shop locally when you want to download electronically? How do you support your beloved local bookseller when you want to read a whole mess of books on a vacation on your tablet?

Well, the answer is simple. As with everything else, we turn to Google.

Google eBooks is a relatively new feature that allows indie bookstores to sell electronic books for a variety of reading devices. Go on a buying bender, and don't worry your pretty little head about where you'll save all those digital files. Google eBooks will store your library in the cloud. All you need is an Internet connection.

What else does it mean for storage in the cloud? You’ll never run out of shelf space since “the cloud” gives you unlimited room. You don’t lose your entire library if you leave your tablet in the seat back in front of you on that American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Chicago. (It happens!) And if you change devices, eBooks allows you to pick up where you left off: Bookmark positions are saved across devices, so you can move from phone to iPad to laptop without losing your place.

To test Google eBooks out, I went to the website of my local indie bookstore, 57th Street Books in Chicago. They featured the Google eBooks tool prominently on their homepage, and the steps I needed to follow were clearly laid out.

I queued up the Newbery Honor winner Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye for my daughter and a few books on Irish history for me. We have an iPad, so once I made my online purchase from 57th Street Books, I downloaded the Google Books app for free. Nice. When the book opened up, it looked great and was simple to use. I was off and reading.

Most e-readers (Sony Reader, the Nook) will be able to go this route, with the exception of Amazon’s Kindle. For a list of devices that support Google ebooks, check out this site.

A few hiccups to keep in mind:

You’ll have to use a Google email account, so if you already use Gmail, you’re golden. If you do not, setting up a Gmail account is free and easy. But it’s another password to remember. Also, the publishing world is still catching up with the technology, so I had to search long and hard to find titles to download.

Obviously, that’s going to change.

For a list of participating bookstores, check out Indiebound’s website.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Northwestern scholar weighs in on apps, reading, and 'joint media engagement'

We’ve been hearing from app producers about the new publishing landscape and what these electronic devices mean for young readers. I thought in might be interesting to talk with a media specialist about the changes we’re seeing and how they might be affecting children. So I reached out to Ellen Wartella, a professor of communication studies, of psychology, and of human development at Northwestern University. She is a leading scholar on the role of media in children’s development and has a dozen books to her credit and well over 100 book chapters, research articles, and other writing on children and media.

Wartella currently is working on a five-year research project on the influence of digital media on very young children, funded by the National Science Foundation.

She sounded somewhat qualified to talk with, don’t you think?

DotMomming: As my three young children engage with books, the experiences of my fifth-grade daughter are already somewhat quaint when compared with my kindergartner. She learned to read in the traditional way with paper books and crayons on a page. My little guy, on the other hand, accesses digital books and enjoys "read to me" features available in popular picture book apps.

Can you address these experiences and whether one is more valuable than another in terms of early literacy?

Ellen Wartella: Well, it’s clear that we haven't a track record to know what differences there will be. But theoretically, we can draw on [pioneering psychologist] Vygotsky, who said that cognitive development is influenced by the tools children have available to them.

Some things are the same, of course: learning to decipher letters, learning to put letters together as words and words into sentences, having the social experiences with people and things to give a worldly context to communicative texts. Those developmental tasks are the same whatever the "tools" for reading. Whether those are more important than the affordances? I like to think so.

DM: I have heard some parents voice concern over their children learning to read on a Kindle or iPad instead of the way most of us grown-ups learned. What do you have to say to these moms and dads?

EW: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Their children still have to learn to read, so give them books as well as e-books. Reading is what is important.

DM: My kindergartener loves video games, and I can see that he's motivated to use his reading skills to master things in his games. However, I cannot justify gaming time when I think he should be
reading. What do you see as the merits to video gaming for young children?

EW: Well, it depends on the game. There is some evidence that gaming, depending on the intellectual tasks involved, can aid in children's mathematical reasoning and other cognitive activities. So I would be more concerned that my child do a variety of activities, and that he/she engage with content I approve of, whatever the media platform. Balance, reasonableness and appropriateness for the child's age is what's needed.

DM: The iPad has opened up the floodgates for digital books, and many parents let their children run free in this new and exciting land. But as with everything when kids are involved, parental monitoring is still crucial. If left alone, my rascally kindergartner jumps from the
book apps to the games. What's the best way parents can make good use of these new technologies?

EW:Joint media engagement” [meaning co-participation between a child and a parent, sibling, teacher, friend, etc. as a support for learning with digital media] is the new buzzword – where you can and when you can. And secondly, setting clearly defined rules about all media and content now, then working to ensure that your child follows them. Not an easy task. [Check out the Wall Street Journal on gaming with your kids.]

DM: Screens are here to stay, and this generation of new readers are true digital natives. Can you talk about the merits of having technology savvy kids?

EW: Well, for one, they are partaking in a dress rehearsal for the adult professional world, which is immersed in technology. Clearly, technology in work, home, and school is here to stay. Children who have technology experiences early may (and I say may because it is still only a hypothesis and not one tested) may be better prepared for that world. Clearly, the whole argument about the digital divide between rich and poor children and their access to technology assumes that being connected is better for a child than not having access or being connected.

DM: We're screen friendly in our house, but I am wary of it encroaching on free play time. So I set aside time for my kids to sit down with their toys or art supplies and tap their imaginations. Can you talk about the need for balance in our technology-intense world?

EW: Yes, balance is terribly important. And not just balance in terms of play materials but outdoor play, being with other kids and other adults. A well-rounded set of experiences is most important for healthy development.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Loud Crow's Calvin Wang on Apps, Kirkus Stars, and the Digital Frontier

Loud Crow Interactive, the digital book publisher based out of Vancouver, British Columbia, has just three apps under its belt, but already it's one to watch. Founded by a group of former video game developers with more than 30 years of experience in interactive media, it brings the most engaging elements of gaming to electronic books. And its collaboration with Sandra Boynton to bring her beloved stories to life for the iPad, iPhone, and iTouch guarantees Loud Crow will be regulars in the No. 1 spot at the App Store.

DotMomming checked in with Loud Crow's CEO and Founder Calvin Wang about apps, kids books, and the shape of things to come. But before we get started, we had to find out what's up with the crows: Loud Crow, U.K. publisher Nosy Crow, literary agency Upstart Crow.

"We get asked this quite a bit," said Wang. "Personally, I've always had a fascination with these black birds and there are lots of them where we live. It seemed like an apt name given that crows have also been part of children's storytelling throughout history. In fact, our first offering was originally going to be Aesop's Thirsty Crow fable."

DotMomming: Loud Crow recently announced a partnership with board book superstar Sandra Boynton for a new line of digital books. Will those follow the PopOut! design of your previous titles, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Night Before Christmas?

Loud Crow: It would be straightforward to take the interactivity from PopOut! and apply them to Sandy's board books. But her books are wonderfully special in their own way and as such, they deserve their own treatment. So we created an interactive style for Sandy's books which includes familiar elements from PopOut! as well as new elements that are unique to her line of books.

DM: Sandra Boynton is a prolific author. How many of her books will you publish in app format? And which titles are already in the pipeline? And how do you think they will be received?

LC: It's been an absolute joy to collaborate with Sandra and her team, and we would love to bring all of her books to the digital realm. With over 50 books to her name, Sandy gives us a deep and diverse collection to work with, and we are extremely excited about the creative possibilities. We launched The Going to Bed Book in March, and it was chosen as iPad App of the Week in a few countries, which was great. And we just completed Moo Baa La, La, La! which is slated for release later in April.

DM: Loud Crow's beautifully designed PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit earned a starred review from Kirkus in January. Now The Going to Bed Book does in April. As one of the most highly respected review journals in children's publishing, what do those Kirkus stars mean to you?

LC: It's always nice to receive that extra recognition, but being awarded the coveted Kirkus star was definitely a special moment. Kirkus Reviews has been critiquing books for almost 80 years, and the award helped to validate our approach with interactive books. It's great to see Kirkus embrace digital books the way they have.

DM: Could you talk in specifics about the making of the Peter Rabbit app? When I read it with my kindergartner, I pretend that lovely narration is Emma Thompson's voice. Do you hire celebrities to narrate your books the way, say, a Ruckus Media does?

LC: Some of our fans thought the narrator for Peter Rabbit was Renée Zellweger, who played Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter. I don't think it's necessary to use celebrities, although it can be a nice touch when there is a good fit. For example, The Going to Bed Book is narrated by British Invasion singer Billy J. Kramer, who was perfect for the role.

DM: For many parents who loathe picture book apps with too many whistles and bells, Peter Rabbit hits just the right balance. The digital lift-a-flap features are adorable and nod to traditional pop-up books. My son could not get enough of the blackberries and leaves that enlarge when tapped. How do you decide on the right balance of tricks and text?

LC: The amount of  interactivity to include is something we scrutinize with each and every page of a book. It's not always easy to know when you've achieved that balance but having a strong vision about the user experience definitely helps. When we designed Peter Rabbit, one of our creative filters was authenticity, and we worked hard to ensure the original reading experience was preserved as much as possible.

DM: Many of the titles we're seeing hit the app store are simply digitized versions of well-loved books by established authors. But there are many authors and illustrators itching to break into this market. Does Loud Crow have any plans to open its doors to original submissions from new authors and illustrators?

LC: Absolutely. Working with established authors and titles means better recognition, but it isn't a prerequisite for great content. We definitely have plans to support new authors, and I wouldn't be surprised to see us release some original content in the coming months.

DM: One of the issues with picture book apps is quality control. While traditional publishing houses have directors for editorial content as well as artistic content, many app publishers do not. What is the team like at Loud Crow? Obviously you have talented designers, but what about editorial concerns?

LC: That's a great question. At Loud Crow, we don't have an editorial department, per se, but this will change as we tackle more original content. At the same time, with digital books, the notion of quality becomes multifaceted; it can span many disciplines including writing, illustrations, interactive content, and programming. As a result, I think the notion of an editorial department will also evolve to reflect the characteristics that embody a digital book product.

DM: For many parents and publishers, digital isn't only the shape of things to come, it's the here and now. How do you think iPad and the wave of e-readers are changing children's experiences with the book? And what do you see as Loud Crow's role in it?

LC: We're extremely excited about the digital frontier as it relates to children's literature. The burgeoning market of mobile and tablet devices like the iPad means new possibilities for content and interactivity that never existed before. As a leader in the interactive digital book space, Loud Crow is going to continue to leverage what the various platforms have to offer in order to raise the bar both in terms of innovation and quality.

DM: Got any predictions for the next two to three years in kids lit?

LC: I don't think physical books are going to disappear anytime soon. But there will an increasing amount of children's literature consumed digitally, whether it's in the form of apps, e-books, or even Web content. Digital books is still a relatively nascent phenomenon, and I expect we'll continue to see a proliferation of platforms and formats before the market settles into a more stable state with fewer digital book formats and standards.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Kindergartner and His Brother Check Out Nosy Crow's Three Little Pigs App

Nosy Crow, the year-old publisher out of the U.K. headed by Gruffalo editor Kate Wilson, has produced a lovely little app of the Three Little Pigs. I took it for a test-drive and found it delightful. So I decided to sit down with my kindergartner, Gabriel, to see if he agreed with my assessment.

"You can flip the wolf's van! Awesome!"

Not only did he enjoy it, but his eight-year-old brother couldn't help but horn in on the action as well. Despite being "too old" for picture books, big brother Nolan couldn't get enough of the Pigs.

The first thing I noticed about this app was the lush illustration by Edward Bryan. The colors are bold and bright without being overwhelming. The pigs are cute and childlike, each with a distinct visual personality that is reinforced through the text and sound effects. And the hairy, toothy Big Bad Wolf presents just the right amount of sinister.

This app is more in line with traditional picture books in its look and feel, rather than its more cartoonish cousins in the app store.

But enough from me. What did the kindergartner think? "I liked when the wolf's van chased them on the road and you could slow the wolf down. That was hilarious."

His favorite part of the app was flicking, tapping, and otherwise sproinging whatever he could find onscreen. "I liked that when you tap things and move things, they would actually move. And I liked when you lift the haystack and there's the bunny guy hiding."

This is the great advantage apps have over traditional books, and for many kids, it's a thrill. There's the joy of discovery and surprise. What happens if I tap that quiet spider tucked in the top corner over there? Watch it drop down out of the tree. What if I touch the whirligig on the roof? See it spin quietly in the wind. Nosy Crow shows restraint, adding little rewards here and there without letting young readers get too distracted from the story.

The Three Little Pigs is familiar ground even for preschoolers. But Nosy Crow gives it a fresh telling with a contemporary setting. Mama Pig is running the vacuum when the three little porcine siblings head out. And piggie No. 3 builds a terrific townhouse that would fit into my neighborhood.

Big brother Nolan commented a few times on the illustrations, trying to explain what made them special without knowing this app had "3D" in the title. I think the crispness of the images appealed to him. "The characters stood out, they sort of popped out. There was the background, and there was each figure. They looked like puppets in a theater -- like they could be on sticks or something."

Gabriel, the kindergartener, who is more the audience for an app like this than the third-grader, liked the sound effects and the use of children's voices for the narrator and characters. "It sounded cool when they speak. It wasn't usual grown-up voices."

And as a parent, what I enjoyed most was that my little guy would follow the text bubbles that popped up with different characters when tapped. He loved reading the dialogue aloud. And that, to me, is what it's all about. Simple features like these can be easily dismissed. But they are the building blocks to understanding the structure of a story. And for emerging readers, this is enormous. Not to mention what makes reading an app so much fun.