Storybook Apps: An Assessment and a Few Suggestions

What is a storybook app? Will they ever replace picture books? Are they just a passing phase? I answer all of these questions and suggest methods of improvement for the media! Could it get better? Read on!

The digital revolution is changing the face of the literary market. As iPads, iPods, Kindles, Android phones, tablets, and other devices with ereading capacities become increasingly ubiquitous, users clamor for new developments with progressive fervor. The prevailing opinion is that children don’t own, or much use mobile devices with ereading capabilities due to their price, however, studies disagree: 93% of 6 to 9 year olds live in a home with a cell phone, 50% of this age group also have their own video game player, 30% have their own cell phone, and 20% have their own digital music player, (Schuler). In fact, studies indicate that these numbers are on the rise: the number of children ages 4-14 that own mobile technology has seen double digit growth since 2005 and it is estimated that 54% of 8-12 year olds will have cell phones within the next three years, (Schuler). Demand for digital literature tailored to children’s needs expands in step with the growing youthful consumer base.

Fortunately, several digital production companies have stepped up within the last year and a half to accommodate this growing need with the emerging storybook app market. Unlike many ebooks, a storybook app’s illustrations will dominate the screen, providing an experience similar to reading a paper based picture book. In fact, many storybook apps are direct translations of preexisting picture books, incorporating static illustrations into various degrees of animation and interactivity.

Although there is much diversity in this emerging genre, storybook apps can be classified in two categories: static apps and interactive apps. The first is more or less a direct digital translation of a picture book, Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat app released by Oceanhouse Media is a prime example. The typical app of this category will generally feature an optional narration, (in some cases highlighting the text as it is read), and accompanying music. Some apps will offer the option to record a narration. Touching a word, or often an image, in those with prerecorded narrations will voice the word, helping emergent readers with identification by sight.

These features often hold true for apps in the interactive category, however they populate a spectrum of both interactivity and animation. On the lowest end of this spectrum are apps where a sound will issue from a picture when tapped, sans any animation. Those inhabiting the middle areas of the spectrum feature: ‘mini-games’, (a puzzle, coloring page or matching game), fully animated clips, (but not interactive), touch to activate animations, back ground music, 3D options, (glasses required), and false perspective, (a popup book format in which you tilt the screen to shift perspective, lending a 3D effect, i.e. Random House’s Wild About Books app).

The most critically acclaimed interactive app is PopOut! Peter Rabbit released by LoudCrow Interactive, which incorporates music, narration and sounds into a popup book format. Readers can tap on falling leaves to enlarge them as they fall, characters that jiggle and make communicative noises, and ‘pull’ on tabs that mobilize the illustration as in a typical paper based popup book. Much of this app’s charm comes from its aesthetic loyalty to traditional popups, (down to the metal grommet joins), complimented by the continuity of style in music and in narration.

Considering the youth of this storytelling medium, it is not surprising to see that  these apps have yet to exploit a wide range of possibilities for media integration. In other words, rarely does an app excel at utilizing more than one element, i.e. ear-catching narration, interesting story, level of interactivity, compelling animations, etc. Storybook apps will never be able to claim a legitimate place in the children’s media cannon, until they fully integrate these elements into the storytelling.

All forms of new media begin at this level of integration and eventually grow to maturity. For example, a parallel can be drawn to the development of musical theatre. In its infancy, the musical started as minstrel and variety shows, each act, or scene, a separate medium: generally comedy, specialty act, song, dance or drama. As the genre progressed, plays that would feature song and dance started to develop. However, in these pieces the story would pause in order for the musical or dance number to occur.  A completely different set of performers were hired to perform each medium, rather than having the characters preforming the numbers themselves: dance companies were hired to perform dance, choruses were hired to sing, etc. In other words, the musical numbers were not used as storytelling elements, but rather as tangential bonus features. It wasn’t until Showboat debuted in 1927 that music was integrated into character development and plot exposition, illustrating specific moments of story progression. Dance wasn’t fully integrated into the storytelling process until Oklahoma! in 1943, where a dream sequence told through ballet expresses the main character’s inner struggle over the choice between love and a forced marriage. Oklahoma! heralded what is known as the “Golden Age” of musicals, legitimizing the medium for audiences to come. Similar patterns of integrational progression can be traced in a variety of media, as they reached their maturity, ie. film, comedy, graphic novels, video games, etc.

As storybook apps are less than two years old, it is evident that they are in the early stages of this progression. Animations and interactions are generally minimal and inconsequential to the plot. In many cases, the reader is forced to stop experiencing the story altogether to activate them, as the accompanying sounds conflict with the automatic narration. The mere digitization of a picture book and the incorporation of any interactive media elements will suffice for the present to interest consumers. Yet, many adjustments to storybook app structure will have to be introduced before the genre can be considered to have reached its maturity, and for any app of this nature to have longevity of interest.

Happliy, app makers have the advantage of historical hindsight and can learn from other media’s coming of age progressions. In the same way that dance and music were eventually integrated into plot and character development, every media element introduced in a storybook app should be streamlined in this manner. Ideally, the reader’s interactions should motivate the forwarding of the action and each animation should communicate the events being described. Although one might think that allowing reader’s input to play a role in the storytelling would change the story itself, (as in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book), there are several ways to tell a traditionally structured story with allowances for interaction. If you are interested in a detailed description of how an app like this might be structured and you want to give me a job, please feel free to contact me!

This level of integration requires no additional technology beyond what is already being displayed in the current market. If introduced, it would largely remove storybook apps from the danger of being imminently outdated by new technological advances. An excellent illustration of this point is the movie Jurassic Park: it was one of the first movies to incorporate Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI, in 1993. To a modern audience’s more sophisticated eye the special effects may seem antiquated, but this movie is still lauded as one of the best movies of its genre. This is solely because exhibiting the new media element is not the focus of the movie, the CGI is treated as a tool to more effectively and convincingly tell the story.

With the popularity of role playing video games, or RPGs, much like The Sims or Final Fantasy, consumers are obviously aching to be further engrossed into the storytelling process. In fact, studies have shown that children demonstrate higher levels of comprehension when interacting with a story. Sandra L. Calvert, Psychology Department Chair at Georgetown University and Director of the Children’ Digital Media Center discusses the interactive elements of Nickelodeon’s popular television show Dora the Explorer: “Not only do children respond to Dora, the more they engage in actions with her, … the better they understand the story content. By contrast, children learn less story content when her questions to the audience are removed from the presentation.” (Calvert). Interactivity is the new educational buzzword, and for well documented reasons. Not just reflected in children’s popular media, but educators are already attempting to make their lesson plans more interactively based, rather than lecture based. Field trips, both virtual and physical, are being integrated into curriculum now more than ever. Literacy educators and parents are ever seeking better ways to lead reluctant and beginning readers to see words’ inherent meanings. Interactive storybook apps have a great potential for quenching this thirst that is just waiting to be actualized.

Until this media learns to better weave available technologies into the fabric of the story, however, storybook apps will continue to be relegated to the realm of novelty. As today’s children grow up in a world dominated by screens, literature is forced to find new digital means of expression. In doing so, picture books can find an outlet better suited to filling the needs of the children of tomorrow. With the story as a compass, fully integrated storybook apps can begin to test the waters of timelessness.

Bibliography

-Bird, Elizabeth. “Planet app: Kids’ book apps are everywhere. But are they any good?”. School Library Journal. Jan 2001. http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/888450-312/planet_app_kids_book_apps.html.csp

-Vallez, Mike. Crazy Mike’s Apps. 2011. http://www.crazymikesapps.com/category/iphone-ipad-android-apps/books/

-Kluver, Carissa. Digital Storytime. 2011. http://www.digital-storytime.com/index.php

-Norman, Jonathan “Red”. “Review: The Odyssey for iPad”. The iPad Fan: News, App Reviews and Gossip. Feb. 2011. http://www.theipadfan.com/review-odyssey-ipad/

-Lewis, Peter. “A Wish List for iPad App Developers”. Kirkus Reviews. Feb 2011. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/blog/childrens/wish-list-ipadpp-developers/

-Calvert, Sandra L. “Early Media Exposure: Implications for Learning”. Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University. PDF file from cdmc.georgetown.edu

-Shuler, Carly. “Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning”. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Jan. 2009. http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/Reports-23.html

-”Show Boat”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show_Boat

-”Oklahoma!”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_musical

-”Jurassic Park (film)”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurassic_Park_film

iPad Apps:

-Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. “PopOut Peter”. Loud Crow Interactive Inc. 2010

-Hills, Tad. How Rocket Learned to Read. “Rocket Reads”. Random House Children’s Books. 2011

-Sierra, Judy, illus. Brown, Marc. “Wild About Books”. Random House Children’s Books and Smashing Ideas Inc. 2010

-Hachler, Bruno. Muller, Birte. What Does My Teddy Bear Do All Day?. “Teddy’s Day”. Auryn Inc. 2010

-Melenhorst, Glenn. Food Fight! – An Interactive Book. “Food Fight”. Jelly Biscuits. 2010

-Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol for iPad. “Christmas Carol”. PadWorx Digital Media Inc. 2010

-Caroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. “Alice for the iPad”. Atomic Antelope. 2010

-Crews, Donald. Freight Train. HarperCollins Publisher. 2010

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