Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Space Dog's Treasure Island an Adventure

As I read Space Dog Books' Treasure Island app, I kept thinking of one of the many wonderful lines that Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), utters on Downton Abbey: "Electricity in the kitchen? Whatever for?"

Treasure Island, the Robert Louis Stevenson's classic published in 1883, seems to have done pretty well for itself left all alone in its paper form. And app producers have to tread carefully when enhancing classic books in the public domain -- readers can choose to download the no-frills option for free or pay for the updated one, which in this case retails for $7.99 in the App Store.

So an enhanced Treasure Island for the iPad at first begs the same question, "Whatever for?" Well the answer, simply put, is for the sake of young readers.

Artist Matthew Cruickshank's illustrations are superb and immediately draw readers in with their playful, sly style and vivid colors. They are sophisticated without being adult, yet there is no whiff of kindergarten either. The look and feel of this Treasure Island is solidly for the independent readers.

So why an app and not just a well-illustrated e-book? There are many reasons why this version of Treasure Island is so appealing. The story has obviously stood the test of time, and this abridged version is no exception. But what has changed is the reader.

I am not saying that kids these days must have whistles and bells to hold their attention. And this Treasure Island does not pander to that notion -- there are no games imbedded in the story, no links readers can follow that take them away from the narrative. There are few gimmicks here, and kids expecting to find an escape hatch might be disappointed.

Treasure Island's interactivity is amusing and meant to provide a pause in the 34-chapters of action. And frankly, who wouldn't want to hear a pirate sing, "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. . ."? A lush illustration accompanies the start of almost every chapter, sometimes providing opportunities for readers to swipe or tap the image to move a character or hear a bit of dialogue, other times just as  animations that beautifully capture the scene. When interacting with the animations, readers will hear sound effects like chirping birds, clip-clopping horse hooves, snarling pirates, and occasional dramatic music. And since this is a book clearly geared for boys, there are burps. Many burps. In glorious variety.

Small illustrations within chapters offer simple interactivity like tilting the iPad and seeing the rum inside a corked bottle slosh around, sliding a key into a lock and clicking it open, and flicking the tiny ship at sea and having it bob in the ocean. And gorgeous full-page animations capture big scenes in clever detail.

Reading is clearly the emphasis with Space Dog's Treasure Island, and while there are no "read-to-me" options as with picture book apps for a younger audience, there are still tools to help navigate the book. A pull-down ribbon lets readers return to the beginning, jump to another chapter, and see how to interact with an animation. And while there is no tool for adjusting type size, I found the text clear and easy to read and no different from a traditional book page.

I don't think young readers are too different from the grownup kind. Sometimes they want to stretch out on the couch with a good book and few distractions. With this digital updating of a wonderful children's classic, Space Dog's gorgeous Treasure Island provides just that.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Author-Artist Shanahan Debuts With Auryn

There's no denying that the way children read books and "experience" stories -- whether through gaming, downloading digital books, watching YouTube, recording videos of their stories themselves -- is changing. And storytelling is transforming right along with it. For authors and illustrators of children's books, picture book apps offer an exciting new frontier.

Sue Shanahan is one such author-illustrator who has ventured into app-land. A longtime artist focused on children, she decided to give it a go and see her work produced in digital form rather than book. Working with top-notch app producer Auryn, whose Teddy's Day, Teddy's Night, and Miko series have earned rave reviews, she has created the adorable Love You to the Moon and Back for the iPad. We asked Sue to share how she broke into the picture book app market.

dotMomming: How long have you been illustrating for children. Is the Love You to the Moon and Back app your first digital book?

Sue Shanahan: My career illustrating for children began over 30 years ago. I've been fascinated with the human form for as long as I can remember. On top of that, I'm crazy about kids. So illustrating for children was a natural fit. Love You to the Moon and Back is my first digital book. It was made from pre-existing art that I own the copyright to. With the help of a couple of SCBWI members, I wrote the poem the art illustrates. Right now I’m working on finishing up the illustrations for another picture book app for Auryn. This is a full-fledged story that’s been milling around in my brain for a years. I am very excited about finally bringing it to fruition. I have my fingers crossed that Auryn will produce it into a premium app like Teddy's Day.

DM: Was it hard to break into the app market? Have you knocked on a lot of doors, or was Auryn your first?

SS: Actually, Auryn was my first. I was surprised how quickly they called after my submission. They liked my work, but it also was extremely important that I owned the copyright to everything.

DM: Author-illustrators are particularly attractive to publishers, both in the digital realm and the printed page. Do you feel you're at an advantage compared with other writers and artists trying to catch an editor's eye?

SS: Definitely. I have a feeling with new apps, Auryn only is interested in picture book author/illustrators. They have been producing apps from pre-existing picture books but only if the book company no longer owns the rights.

DM: The Love You app merges beautiful illustrations with gentle interactivity that reinforces reading. While it can be read alone, it offers great engagement opportunities for parents to record their voices and share the message of unconditional love. Are you happy with the results of your work when you see it on the iPad.

SS: It is a wonderful feeling to read my book on the iPad. The illumination from behind brings my art to life unlike being reproduced on the printed page.

DM: Publishing in the iTunes store is a different experience than in the bookstore down the street. Love You is priced at $0.99. How have sales been so far? Would you do it all again?

SS: The app sales are moving along steadily. I was told not to worry about the sales at this point. It takes awhile for them to gain a momentum. I do appreciate the wonderful reviews customers are giving it in iTunes. Yes, I would do it again. I think this is where books are going. It's exciting to be in on the ground floor.

DM: I liked the inclusiveness of your illustrations -- children are features from all walks of life, including a little girl with Down's syndrome. This is so rare to see in a mainstream picture book. How has the book been received so far?

SS: My art has always reflected the beauty of all kinds of kids. Long ago, I was miffed when an art director insisted I stylize my art like the "Gerber Baby." I stubbornly refused to. My thought was, “How is a child supposed to feel good about herself if there are no images of her in the world?” Who decides what's beautiful anyway? One of my heroes is Norman Rockwell. I figured if capturing real people worked for him it could work for me too. Today people respond to the diversity in my art. Truly, what's different about us is what makes us beautiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Grover Takes Home Cybils for Best Book App

The Cybils were announced today, and I am delighted to see The Monster at the End of this Book as the winner in the brand-new Best Book App category. Sesame Workshop and Callaway DigitalArts get it right with this effort, engaging young readers in the truest sense through highlighted text, hilarious narration, and a fun storyline. While often we see kids zone out with digital devices, Monster leaves no room for passive observing: Grover spends all his time trying to keep the reader from turning the page and getting to the end of the book. It is an app they'll go back to again and again.

Judging for the Cybils was an honor and a thrill because this new medium is still so wide open. And our expectations for what picture book apps can and should be are so varied. Looking at the finalists, you can see the range of styles: Hildegard Sings stays true to its picture book roots with traditional presentation of text and adorable interactivity. For young readers, it feels like a natural extension of a book, with a great deal of fun added in. Click on thought bubbles to see what characters have in mind, tap on a plate of food to feed our hungry hippo, throw tomatoes at the stage after a performance. Hildegard is a great example of an "enhanced" book, taking something that worked great in the paper world and making it interactive and fun for the digital one.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bobo Explores Light, which is a completely original book that takes the game to a whole new level. Top-notch illustration, animation, and -- get this -- education. I felt like this was the definition of digital learning, and I see it as the future of books. If you buy anything off this list, go right this second to the iTunes Store and purchase this app. I was blown away by how much information is right there at, well, your fingertips.

Bobo is a nonfiction effort to introduce kids to scientific concepts, and it covers a lot of turf: lasers, telescopes, lightning, reflection, bio-luminescence, and sunlight. Readers are accompanied on their journey by an adorable robot named Bobo. While Bobo communicates and helps the reader navigate the page, Bobo does not narrate. So kids have to do the work of reading, and there is a lot of material. But they are rewarded throughout by pulldown screens that show videos, games using lasers and mirrors, and so much more.

Bobo is for an older audience, so it was a challenge to compare an app like this against the adorable ones for the pre-reading set. Perhaps next year we'll see a variety of Cybils app categories to even the playing field. It felt odd comparing Harold and the Purple Crayon against Middle-School Confidential, a book about self-image for tweens.

And the visually dazzling Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore prompted some great discussion. Part book and part movie, this William Joyce effort is a stunning ode to books and storytelling -- and as if proving their point, you can also get Morris Lessmore as a paper book and see the short film, which has been nominated for an Oscar. While I loved this beautiful app, it felt more like a movie-watching experience than a reading one. Again, a passive experience vs. an active one. Great app to buy right this second to see for yourself and test-drive with the kids in your life.

And that brings us to the seventh and final nominee, which was Pat the Bunny. I loved how this app brings us full circle. It is based on Dorothy Kunhardt's cutting-edge "touch and feel" children's book published in 1940, which introduced generations of babies to books by letting them pat the bunny's soft fur and sniff the sweet-smelling flowers. Revolutionary! With this app, pre-readers are once again engaged in creative ways through playing peek-a-boo, finding where the bunny is hiding, catching butterflies, and much more.

If you're curious about the potential picture book apps have for early literacy, these books are great examples of the best that you can find. They are definitely worth checking out. Congratulations to all the finalists.

And if you want to get involved in some of the conversations, visit the blogs of my fellow panel of Cybils judges, such as Mary Ann Scheuer's terrific Great Kid Books, as well as Alyson Beecher's KidLitFrenzy, Elizabeth LeBris' LeBrisary, and Dan Santat's website

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Keeping Research on Digital Learning and Children's Digital Literature Alive

Back in the summer, dotMomming featured a series of interviews with Patrick Cox of the Childhood Studies Program at Rutgers University. Patrick was teaching classes on learning to read in the digital age, and we believe the work he and his colleagues are doing is important to understanding how digital books impact early literacy development for today's generation of children. But that research might be coming to a halt, and what follows is a special guest post from Patrick about how you can help keep programs like his alive.

From "Merry Conceits and Whimsical Rhymes."
Published by Routledge & Sons, New York, 1883. 
Awhile back, I did an interview on dot.Momming about an undergraduate course I teach at Rutgers on Children’s Digital Literacies. Since that time I’ve been including this blog in my course as a resource students can use to learn about still more digital texts for children beyond what we can cover in class. Kate has been kind enough to let me come back to tell you about a threat that has befallen this course.

My course is part of the Department of Childhood Studies, a one-of-a-kind program on the Camden campus of Rutgers University, offering the only Childhood Studies Ph.D. in North America. Recently, a plan has emerged in New Jersey to shut down the Rutgers-Camden campus and absorb it into a much smaller and less prepared college that lacks both the research focus and the child focus of the Camden campus of Rutgers.

This Rutgers campus is home to leading research and instruction in children’s digital literature. Students and faculty here study and teach digital texts created for children, stories written by children using new digital media, children using online virtual spaces, and how “the digital age” impacts literacy, learning, family interactions, and children’s daily lives. In my course students, many of whom are aspiring teachers, learn about digital literature and its potential for enriching use in classrooms and in homes. This campus is also home to the Center for Children and Childhood Studies that provides much needed assistance, programming, tutoring, and more to the children of the city of Camden.

All of this has been possible with the support and recognition that comes with being a first-rate university like Rutgers. If these programs are moved to a smaller, lesser known facility 20 miles outside of the city, they will most likely wither and die -- faculty and students will leave, and the work we have done will come to an end.

Students, faculty, alumni, and community members have been fighting hard to protect what we have. Kate has kindly allowed me to ask you to help maintain the work we are doing with and for children, and our field-leading work on the developing area of children’s digital literature. Here is a link to a petition started by a Rutgers undergraduate student to Stop the Merger. The petition has collected over 8,000 signatures in just two weeks, and I hope you’ll add yours. I won’t deluge you with links here but will point out that the student behind the webpage has loaded it with links to more information, news articles, etc., as well as other ways you can help if you so desire.

Patrick Cox
Department of Childhood Studies
Rutgers University-Camden

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Happy Digital Learning Day!

Today marks the first ever national celebration of Digital Learning Day, which is an orchestrated effort to promote the innovative use of technology in America's classrooms. What does that mean and who is behind it?

Digital Learning Day is meant to encourage teachers, parents, and students to try something new using technology. This means showcasing success such as students' Scratch programs, kicking off project-based learning by letting students present video book reports, or simply sitting down with digital books and observing how young readers interact with the stories. The New York Times blogs about its 40-odd years covering technology and education, and encourages everyone to try three new things involving digital learning today.

There will be webcasts. There will be virtual town hall meetings. There will be Facebook-ing and Twitter-ing and all sorts of conversations going on about engaging technology for learning. And there will be heavy hitters, as the Alliance for Excellent Education has partnered with Google, USA Today, Intel, and other major players like Kaplan, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Parents and teachers can make good use of toolkits and contests to motivate and engage their kids.

So why all the hoopla? Because so many questions surrounding the good use of technology remain:  how schools can first of all access digital technology and then harness it. How we can move our kids from the addictive fun of Plants vs Zombies and into engaged online learning that taps their creativity and opens the doors to real mastery and student success.

Because technology, while influencing our lives on a day-to-day basis at home and work, too often stops short of the classroom door.