Monday, May 6, 2013

Part 4 – Book apps written only for the iPad – Or – Is it a good book just because it is an app?

Guest blogger - Janet Hutchinson

Janet has recently taken on learning about instructional technologies for the classroom.  Part of her time has been learning about iPads, their usefulness as a classroom tool and related apps.  We've gotten into a few discussions about some of the questions that arise when looking at some of these 'educational tools.'  Do these apps add anything to the reading experience?  Are they educational, entertaining, distracting or altogether off-putting? Do they replace the physical book?  What is lost without the physical book if anything? and so on.   

It will be interesting to see how this particular area of digital-only books develops.

The 4th type of app that I have been looking at is those books that are written only digitally and only as apps.  In other words, there is no hard cover book that can be bought to go with it. I can’t help wondering if this is the digital version of self-publishing (if such a thing would exist) and so I naturally wonder about the quality of books written as such and how they stand up to a more critical eye than mine.  I appreciate that publishers are going to create in what they perceive as the ‘go-to’ medium – and that there are authors for whom the drawing together of words and images in a digital format holds great appeal. I guess part of my struggle with this is the fact that where you can go to a bookstore and leaf through a physical book to survey and preview the content before plunking down your credit card – that’s not a choice (for the most part) with an app. You only get to see once you have paid. Granted, it is usually quite a bit less than what one would pay for a hardcopy picture book – and usually, even less than a trade paperback, but when you can’t preview, how do you know that the story is appropriate for the person you are buying it for? (And I won’t even go to the fact that you cannot lend these books, unless you lend the device.)

I have added only one of these books to our app collection so far. I say one for two reasons – the story description of the one I added intrigued me. And only one because I have yet to read a journal review or on-line review for any others that speak strongly enough to me that I want to purchase them sight unseen.

The one that I added is by Slap Happy Larry, a company that makes apps for touch screen Apple devices. This appears to be the first book app that they have released and it is called The Artifacts. Their press release identifies the book as one intended for “middle-grade” readers – their expressed point is that there is no need to abandon picture books, once a child has moved to chapter book reading. Picture books enhance and develop visual literacy and one could argue that this skill is one that will be heavily used as the digital medium grows and changes.

The Artifacts tells the story of a young boy who collects things – all sorts of things, from treasured antiques to stuff that others throw away. His family “does not appreciate his passions.” One day, while he is out, his parents get rid of his treasures. They move to a new house, where he is instructed not to have any more collections. So Asaf becomes a collector of thoughts, sounds smells and ideas, until, one day, he leaves home, with “two small suitcases and one large mind”.

This is a beautifully enriched app in very many ways. The drawings are well done, the add-ins are really neat and the transition from page to page is intuitive. It feels like the message is intended for older children, and parts of the book are dark and just a little creepy (not that little kids don’t like that) – but the format feels more child-like. It is a strong message to absorb, however, and I would be interested in seeing it in use with a class of students (both early grades and older) to more thoroughly understand its appeal.  It also took me several read-throughs to realize that as you touched the walls, floors, sidewalks etc. on each page, objects relevant to the story and the message appeared.  And maybe this is one of the differences between being a digital immigrant and a digital native. If this was the medium that I used to read all the time, then perhaps the appearance of the objects and the movement throughout the story would be a natural expectation for any book and I would know enough to explore the entire app more thoroughly. 

I am interested in looking at Slap Happy’s next production Midnight Feast – in part, to see how the story unfolds digitally, but to also see what age group they direct it to. In the meantime, I would be interested in hearing about other picture books translated into the iPad medium or written expressly for the iPad. If this is truly the way books are going, then I need to immerse myself in the medium and figure out what works – and what is better left in a physical format.


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