Monday, July 25, 2011

6 Great New ePicture Book Apps: My latest review

I have written a number of previous posts on ePicture book apps for the iPad (listed at the end of the post). In this post I look at 6 recent examples, which I believe have merit. Overall, I have been disappointed by the quality of many ePicture books. While there have been many new apps released onto the market in recent times, most fail to realize the potential that electronic devices like the iPad have for adding value to children's experience of picture books. In a previous post (here) that was motivated by 'Alice for the iPad' I concluded:
It remains to be seen if developers can create interactive picture books that are more than just novelties. If they do, I'm sure that they will help to get some children more excited about reading and literature. 
Since that post I've continued to look for good new apps for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices. I continue to test them with some children aged 3-10 years. Many of the apps tested have been very disappointing. My major criticisms are:

  • Many developers have spent their time developing the app with fun interactive elements with little regard for the story.
  • Once developers have a programmed app they tend to re-use the code many times (for obvious and unavoidable commercial reasons) with different titles.
  • Many of the interactive elements divert reader attention away from the words and story to the 'gadgets'.
  • The interactive elements often add little to the reading of the story.
  • The quality of the illustrations and text quality are often poor, few leading writers and illustrators are as yet contributing material for ePicture books (I'm sure this will change).
  • Many developers have failed to use the potential of multimodality to engage and enrich readers.

In short, the apps continue to fall short of their full potential. Having said this, I believe that there is enormous potential to use sound, video, text, illustration, related texts, and reader initiated interactions that relate to the story. The following examples are some of the best that I have seen recently and offer some hope that developers might eventually understand what is required to enhance the picture books, not simply trivialise narrative.

As with previous posts I will give ratings from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent) in terms of a) Fun & interactivity, b) Useability, c) Benefit for learning, d) Story quality, e) Image quality, f) Value for money. I will also calculate the total score for each. I should stress once again that my assessments are about more than just whether children find them fun to use.
6 Excellent apps

1. 'The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross' by Jacqueline O. Rogers (Moving Tales) 

'Moving Tales' is a developer responsible for a series of ePicture book apps that present traditional tales in new ways. The organization states that its purpose is to present imaginative interpretations and adaptations, "...inspired by age-old folk tales, archetypal yarns and legends from around the world." In my view they have succeeded in doing this.  They have released four stories to date; each is presented in the same format and with similar stylistic illustrations. I will review just one of the stories. The other titles are 'This too shall pass', 'The unwanted guest' and 'Twas the night before Christmas' (see them here).

The 'Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross' is inspired by the age-old tale of a man who becomes rich through a dream. There are varied older versions of the story with origins in Persia, Israel and Ireland.  The story describes the journey of a poor pedlar woman who, guided by the shifting line between the real and the unreal, discovers a surprising and wonderful treasure.

As with all ePicture books you can read it yourself or have it read to you. The reader can also record their own reading if they wish. The storyteller provided has a wonderful Irish accent that works well with the traditional tale.  The background music also adds to the haunting nature of the reading of this story. The illustrations are monochrome, with touches of colour and partial animation on each page. It is available in English, Spanish and French.

The interactive elements are used sparingly (something that I like) with the most obvious gadget being the dissolving text on each page. This is cute and isn't too intrusive as it occurs only when the page is turned. The strength of these four excellent apps is the quality of the text, rich language, the understated but effective illustrations, the reader and the haunting nature of the tales.  It is wonderful to see an emphasis on the narrative in this app, not the gadgets.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - The book has less gadgets than many apps, but this is a case of less being more!

b) Useability (4) - Very easy to use, with a touch scroll at the bottom of the screen allowing the reader to move back and forth easily. 

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (5) - A complex story which children will find engaging. The language will stretch readers with wonderful words like 'detritus' and 'ineffable' being used.

d)  Story quality (4) - It is an excellent version of this old folk tale.

e) Image quality (4) - The monochrome and partial colour works well.

f) Value (4) -At $US 6.99 the story is reasonable value.

Total Score = 25/30 (The higher the better)

2. 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' by William Joyce (Moonbot Studios)

Moonbot suggests that the book was inspired in equal measures, by Hurricane Katrina, Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz, and a love for books. It is a story about people who devote their lives to books and how books in turn enrich our lives. It is a poignant, humorous allegory about the power of story. It uses a variety of illustrative and animation techniques to create a moving story.  It is presented in a style that offers echoes of the great silent films of the past. As the developers suggest, “Morris Lessmore” is old-fashioned and cutting edge at the same time.

The various interactive elements in this app are complex and yet they relate well to the story.  The reader can repair books, descend deep into a great storm, learn the piano, become 'lost in a book', and fly through a magical world of words. I could have done without some of the games sprinkled through the reading, but kids will love them. There is a surprise on each page of this app. The sophisticated CG animation, excellent original music, and quality illustrations work well to support the narrative. While I felt that there was just a little too much gadgetry, I don't think children would agree, this is a wonderful app. But I would still prefer developers to 'hold back' on the gadgets so that they don't distract too much from the reading of the text. When I tested the app with one group of children they spent ages making sentences out of the alphabet cereal. While it is a clever writing activity, it did little to maintain the continuity of the children's reading of the text.

Above: Image showing Morris discovering where the books were 'nesting'

a) Fun & Interactivity (5) -This app sets new standards for interaction.

b) Useability (4) - Very easy to use.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (5) - The book teaches, entertains and enriches. The language of the text is rich, e.g. the flying lady was pulled along by a 'festive squadron of flying books'.

d)  Story quality (4) - The story is excellent. While the story app felt a little contrived and there were some great narrative leaps in comparison with the film, this was probably due to the faster pace of the book than the video on which it is based.

e) Image quality (5) - Brilliant illustrations.

f) Value (5) - The app is excellent value at just $US 4.99

Total Score = 28/30 (The higher the better)

3. 'Timo and the Magical Picture Book' by Rian Visser and illustrated by Klaas Verplancke (Books2download)

'Timo and the Magical Picture Book' was written by well-known Dutch author Rian Visser and is illustrated by Klaas Verplancke, one of Belgium's most celebrated illustrators. It is a story app for younger readers (3-7 years).  It is about a little boy called Timo who receives an unusual birthday gift, a magical picture book from his uncle. A parcel that was not to be shaken, but... When Timo begins reading his new book he finds himself and his family mixed up into the story. As Timo enters the book, the app reader is able to interact with the illustrations, shaking and touching the images to elaborate on the story.

While the app doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the Morris Lessmore, it is an appealing picture book that has just enough interactivity to support the narrative. There are a few design ideas that I'm not keen on, for example, the font was a bad choice and didn't work that well over the illustrations. The animation also lacks a little of the sophistication of apps like Morris Lessmore, but it works well enough for readers that I've shared the app with. For me, this app does a good job balancing the interactive elements and story. The app plays English or Dutch language and the reader's voice is warm and friendly, although at times the reading is a little staccato.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - The interaction between Timo, the book and the app reader is quite clever.

b) Useability (3) - A simple app although the access to previous pages is a little clunky

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (3) - This is a basic story but the language is appropriate and the story structure clear.

d)  Story quality (4) - This is an excellent story that younger readers enjoy.

e) Image quality (4) - Simple illustrations and animation, yet appealing and appropriate.

f) Value (4) - At $US 3.99 it is excellent value.

Total Score = 22/30 (The higher the better)

4. 'The Three Pandas' by Valerie Min (See Here Studios)

I have reviewed another 'See Here' app in a previous post, 'The Wrong Side of the Bed' a 3D app, and I have just discovered 'Twinkle, Twinkle'. What I like about the work of this developer is the desire to put as much effort into the story and illustrations as the interactive elements.  'The Three Pandas' is based on the traditional story of 'The Three Bears' with an Asian twist.  It will appeal to younger readers aged 3-7 years.

Reading 'The Wrong Side of the Bed' with 3D glasses
The story is set in a bamboo forest, where a little girl (Mei Mei) enters the house of three pandas. As you would predict, she eats their porridge, sits on their chairs, and sleeps in their beds.  But unlike the traditional tale there is a slight twist at the end. The story has been developed in association with 'Pandas International' and so the app provides additional facts about pandas and an external link that enables you to learn more about the Giant Panda. A portion of all proceeds goes toward Panda conservation efforts. The animation is delightful. You can tickle the pandas on each screen shot and be surprised by their responses.  As with most apps you have a choice of languages (English or Chinese).

The story is simple and delightfully understated. The illustrations would be a hit in any form of picture book.  The animation of Mei Mei and the pandas is photographic in nature while the backgrounds are a mix of drawn and real objects. All in all, the images are wonderful.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) -There is enough interest in the interactive elements with the 'tickle' function.

b) Useability (3) - This is a simple app but an easier way to be able to navigate back and forward would be helpful.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (4) - While the story is a simple tale based on a well-known fairy tale, the Chinese setting, changes to the plot and additional background information means that there are additional learning experiences for the reader. 

d)  Story quality (4) - A well-written simple story that younger readers enjoy.

e) Image quality (5) -Beautifully illustrated.

f) Value (5) - Excellent value for money at $US 2.99

Total Score = 25/30 (The higher the better)

5. 'The Wonkey Donkey' by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley (Scholastic)

This app is based on Craig Smith's wonderful book by the same name. The original picture book came with an audio recording of the song. This app can be read or followed as it is sung.  It is a funny, predictable and cumulative song, that uses rhyme to great effect. Each page tells something new about the three-legged, one-eyed donkey, who walks down the road. He ends up being a lanky, honkey tonkey, winky, wonky, cranky, stinky dinky, spunky, hanky panky donkey. No child or adult can use this app without smiling! There is much fun to be had by listening to the song and trying to predict the new word for each clue given!

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - There are a small number of interactive elements that children can activate by touching the illustrations. But the song itself is wonderful, who needs extra effects?

b) Useability (3) - Quite easy to use. The reader can also check their reading by touching the text but unfortunately is word-by-word only. There is a record function that is a lot of fun.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (4) - The book is a great way to introduce young readers to rhyme, rhythm and word play. These are all very important with readers under six years. 

d)  Story quality (4) - This is a wonderful predictable book. 

e) Image quality (4) - Simple, but excellent images.

f) Value (2) -At $8.49 this app is a bit expensive.

Total Score = 21/30 (The higher the better)

6. 'What was that Noise?' by Iain Anderson

"What Was That Noise?" is a simple, original, illustrated, interactive children's storybook. It's a rhyming, noisy book (each page has a sound effect!) that kids will love to read and play with. You can read to your child, or use the "read-aloud" feature to let them read on their own. It has to be the simplest app on the market and is perfect for pre-school children. You can touch the text and it reads the complete phrase or touch the picture to hear the noise that the text describes.  The illustrations are beautiful and yet very simple pen and wash. Young children will love this app; it is a good first app for 2-4 year olds.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - Perfect for the age group.

b) Useability (4) - Couldn't be easier.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (3) - Uses rhythm, some rhyme and excellent illustrations to introduce children to concepts of print and story. It offers an enjoyable experience of books and language.

d)  Story quality (4) - Excellent for its type

e) Image quality (5) - Beautiful.

f) Value (5) -At $0.99 it is incredible value

Total Score = 25/30 (The higher the better)

My previous posts on story apps

'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)

'Literacy and the iPad: A review of some popular apps' (HERE)

'Literacy and the iPad: A second review of children's apps' (HERE)

'eBooks, not what they're cracked up to be?' (HERE)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Digital Storytelling: Multimodal Approaches

What is Digital Storytelling?

I wrote on Digital Storytelling a year ago, but thought I'd do a similar post as I see great opportunities with this approach. Digital Storytelling is a relatively new term that has varied meanings. It began as a way for people to tell their personal stories and family histories. They combine relatively simple texts with images and sometimes videos that the author has often created along with the texts. Their purpose was initially to inform, as therapy, as creative expression, as part of local histories, and so on.

They are usually short, taking just 2-5 minutes to view, read and listen to. They are real stories told in your words and usually using your own voice. Here is just one example (there are others at the end of the post).

Above: The story of 'Intelligence and Luck' is an excellent example of how well written text supported by the most simple of sketches can be very meaningful.

But as the idea has been embraced it has been adapted to suit varied purposes and creators. The common elements are:
  • It is a form of storytelling
  • They are authentic creations
  • They use images in association with print and sound
  • They are published digitally
Just like the illustrations in a good picture book or graphic novel, the digital resources used in association with words are very important in a digital story and include:
  • Still photos
  • Scanned images and documents
  • Short videos
  • Music
  • Sound effects
How are they made?

Essentially, digital stories are short movies produced on inexpensive and readily available equipment:
  • Home computer
  • Computer video programs like iMovie (Macintosh) or MovieMaker (Windows)
  • Digital recorder
  • Hand held video camera or phone with built-in video
  • Digital camera
  • Digital scanner

Of course, you don't need all of the above, you could get started with a digital camera or video and a computer.

Once completed the digital stories can be uploaded to websites, blogs, burned onto DVDs and shared with others, projected onto a television screen, or viewed on your computer, viewed in a school hall by large audiences, presented on a Smart Board for the class to share, or given to parents and other interested audiences.

What are the advantages of Digital Storytelling?

There are many good things about digital storytelling that relate to the creators and the community of interest in which they are shared. Creators are able to:
Use word, image and sound to communicate powerful and effective stories.
Publish their digital stories to wider audiences that can have access anywhere around the world.
Extend their network of relationships as they share their work with others and cooperate with others on joint projects.
Learn to comprehend and use images as well as words to communicate.
Learns new things whether the creators, collaborators or the audiences for the digital stories.
Nine Simple Ideas for Digital Storytelling

You might try one of the following ideas for digital storytelling:

a) Have students choose a person and simply tell their story in 10 pictures and with 10 associate text segments. This can be a famous person, or someone known to them.

b) Interview someone about something and take photos to support the story.

c) Have the students choose three people to talk about the same incident or experience, for example, a recent climatic event like a storm or fire, a sporting event, or the childhood memories of play for a sibling or fellow student, their mother or father and a grandparent.

d) Create a series of drawings, pictures or collages and use these as the visuals for a story that they tell in spoken and/or written word.

e) Do a web search and capture images that relate to a significant event (e.g. an environmental disaster or an historical event) then retell the event in words and images.

f) Have children collect a sample of photographs that sample their life span and tell their own story.

g) Retell a well-known picture book with a twist in the plot, a change in characters, a shift in time or setting and their own illustrations to support their text.

Above: These storyboards were created by individual students then put together by the teacher into a digital story

h) Use modelling clay, play dough or even Lego or other construction toys to create a series of characters to support a story - use and manipulate the 3D models and photograph them or video them to help tell the story.

i) Create a group or class digital story that is based on a common narrative storyline that is then told using story boards that different children make. These are photographed or used with video technology to present the story in image, word & sound.

j) As well the above story-based ideas some teachers have been using the same concept of the storyboard for science, social science, history, in fact any school subject, as a tool for learning and communication. 

Further Examples of Digital Storytelling

Because Digital Storytelling is a relatively new activity, there are few good examples available with younger children because the earliest work in this genre has been with adults and high school children.  However, the following additional examples should give some sense of the possibilities.

Above: 'Mongolia for Mongolians' is an excellent example from senior High School students of an account of their experience of Mongolia

Above: This is an excellent video that tells how one 3rd Grade teacher taught her children to make digital stories

Hopefully, some of these examples will get you started if you haven't already attempted digital storytelling. Have a look at the resources below. There are a couple of good kids examples on the site promoting Lisa Miller's new book (link below).

Useful Resources

The 'Center for Digital Storytelling' has been a key resource for ideas on digital storytelling (HERE)
Lisa Miller has written a very practical book that has just been released 'Make Me a Story' (HERE)
Edutopia has a helpful online piece- 'How to use Digital Storytelling in the Classroom' (HERE)
The 'Digitales' site offers a lot of good technical advice (HERE)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Power of Story: Address to ALEA 2011

I spoke today at the 2011 Australian Literacy Educators' Association in Melbourne. My talk was centred on the importance of words, story and literature. In an age where images, film, gaming and digital forms of meaning are more important, I wanted to remind people of the foundational importance of words and language. While I value visual literacy (see HERE), I've been worried at the loss of emphasis that literature and story receives.

I started a little controversially by suggesting that the statement “…a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not accurate. While a picture can be more effective than a 1,000 poorly written words, the words of literature are economical and powerful. They offend us (‘old baldy’), amuse us ('Frobscottle'), rebuke us (‘get out’!), malign and vilify us (‘liar’), frighten us (‘an evil act’), inform us (‘Danger!’), sadden us (‘She’s dead’), disempower us (‘bloody wog’), hurt us (‘I hate you’), persuade us (‘it’s a bargain’), give us hope (‘she’s conscious’) and so on.

When words form stories they have power to do extraordinary things. Here are examples of just some of my favourite lead sentences from children's and adult books:

Late one night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud at the bottom of Berkley’s Creek, (Jenny Wagner, illustrations Ron Brooks,' ‘The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek’)

'All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' (Leo Tolstoy, 'Anna Karenina').

'Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.' (Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’)

'Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.' (J.K. Rowling, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’)

It was the night before the Fund-raising Effort that the devils came.’ (Robert Westall, ‘The Scarecrows’).

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' (Jane Austen, 'Pride and Prejudice').

Jackson was thin, small and ugly, and stank like a drain.’ (Leon Garfield, ‘Fair’s Fair’)

Deep in the still cold shadows the last Theefyspray looked out from her lonely lair’ (Paul Jennings, illustrated by Jane Tanner, ‘The Fisherman and the Theefyspray’).

Each of the authors who wrote these words agonised over the choice and order of every word. The agony was due to their desire to engage their readers, to transport us in time and space, to enrich us through their stories.

The importance of story (narrative)

Harold Rosen once suggested that 'Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation'.

Narrative is central to how our minds order experience, whether real or virtual, human minds order experience in the mode of story. Jerome Bruner and others have taught us that narrative is 'a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds.'

Literature is important in the classroom

Literature is an important part of any school curriculum. Language and story are foundational to what it is to be human, and literature is the pinnacle of narrative development. Literature is where story demonstrates its richness and complexity. It is here that we see the best possible words in the best possible order, used to the best possible effect. It is where the craft of representing ideas, giving information, challenging ideologies and views of the world, sharing history, sustaining and reinventing culture is at its peak.

In short, words and story matter and so we need to create classrooms that value literature and enable it to impact on children as readers. The use of literature in such classrooms has six key elements:

a) Independent reading – you need books and you need time (15-20 mins a day).

b) Shared literature is important – we need to read books out loud and share them in groups. Being able to read the same books as other class members is important, so some should be shared.

c) Talk about books – Talk about books is important and can take many forms, including individual conferences, literature circles and roving conferences. But the best talk is often that initiated by members of the class, born from the excitement of story.

d) Some deep study of meaning – Reading of literature needs to be 'deep' at times. Readers should tackle longer texts, read many books by same author, read harder material, engage in sustained reading, develop reading stamina, do word study & explore languages, and learn new things through reading

e) Literature is connected to other ways of meanings – Story always has a relationship to other modes of learning and meaning making – drawing, video, film, sound, drama, firsthand experiences.

f) Reader Response – response is important to the reading of literature, and can involve planned activities, spontaneous talk or even silence, writing, drama, craft and so on.

My colleague Professor Claire Woods said many years ago:
Children’s response to literature is often unpredictable. We as teachers should learn to expect the unexpected.” 
We need to avoid preconceived notions of how children should respond.

All 6 elements above are related to one another. In classrooms where the teacher shares books, children will want to read books. When children are given a chance to talk about books, they will encourage one another to read, they’ll share books, stories will find their way into conversations, playground games for younger children and so on. Our aim as teachers should be to create learning communities in our classrooms in which literature has an important place.

Such communities develop ‘underground’ communication systems, notes are passes, messages sent, ideas are shared about things that matter (e.g. jokes, images, bits they like). As well, ‘literary grapevines’ emerge as kids pass around a book with unusual features (e.g. ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, a funny or ‘rude’ bit), and ‘secret codes’ are invented known only to people who have read the book.

Summing up

If literature is to be effective, and have an enriching and transforming effect on readers, it must be embedded within authentic communities of readers and writers. It is in the interactions, relationships and shared knowledge that are connected with literature that learning and change occurs. The key to a successful literature classroom is one in which story is important and is part of the glue that binds the classroom community together.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Forgotten Dr Seuss Stories to be Published

At the time of his death on September 24, 1991, Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss and sometimes Theo LeSieg) had written and illustrated 44 children's books, including such all-time favourites as 'Green Eggs and Ham', 'The Cat in the Hat', 'Oh, the Places You'll Go', 'Fox in Socks', and one of my favourites, 'I Wish that I had Duck Feet'.  But twenty years after his death we are going to see a new Dr Seuss book published.

Dr. Seuss's art director Cathy Goldsmith announced recently that there were some long-lost stories by Dr Seuss that had never been published in book form.  The stories were apparently found being offered on eBay. She knew almost immediately that being able to acquire them and then republishing them would be a wonderful idea.

In September this year, some ten years after discovering them, Random House will publish the strories. The volume will be called 'The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories' (Random, 2011), and will be a collection of stories that were written and published as magazine pieces early in Theodor Seuss Geisel's career. 

Cathy Goldsmith has indicated that the new book will have seven stories, 'The Bear, the Rabbit, and the Zinniga-Zanniga', 'Gustav the Goldfish', 'Tadd and Todd', 'Steak for Supper', 'The Great Henry McBride', 'The Strange Shirt Spot' and 'The Bippolo Seed'. The book will be slightly smaller than quarto size (8 x 11 inches), a format that is similar to the classic 'Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories' (Random, 1958). Goldsmith indicates that the stories and illustrations are true to Dr Seuss's later work:

"The stories are really very, very good and anyone of them could be a book in itself. If ever there's persistence of memory, then Ted had certain fixated ideas. Ted's books all look alike. His rabbits, bears, and fish look alike. You could make an argument that some of these are an early genesis of other stories. The one story in here that feels like a real predecessor is The Strange Shirt Spot, which is similar to The Cat in The Hat Comes Back" (Random, 1957)

Other reading

You can read a full interview with Cathy Goldsmith about the new book HERE.
You can read my previous post 'Author Focus: Dr Seuss' HERE