Looking back over 2012 in book apps and interactive e-books as I’ve compiled my lists of the best has been, as always instructive. Not even three years after the launch of tablet technology in the consumer marketplace, what constitutes a great children’s-book app looks very different now from the way it did two years ago, when Kirkus first started reviewing them.
Within the realm of apps and e-books for children, the most momentous change is in where the best stories are coming from. Of our top 10 apps of 2010, seven were electronic adaptations of printed books. Our list of the best apps of 2011 was about evenly divided between adaptations from print and stories that were organic to the iPad. This year, “books” that are native to the tablet dominate overwhelmingly. This does not mean that electronic adaptations of printed books are going away—just that the people who are making apps from the ground up, with narrative or presentation of information conceived from the get-go as part of an interactive environment, are getting better and better at it.
This makes perfect sense. The printed book, particularly the picture book, is a perfect technology unto itself. Centuries of being confined by a particular format has made variations and experimentation within that format nearly infinite (and you can see all those variations at work in our list of the best picture books of 2012). Like a sonnet or a haiku, a 32-page picture book makes its magic within its form. But breaking it out of the codex and placing it in a tablet environment makes readers all too aware of the limitations that feel invisible in the physical original. There is only so much even the most inventive developer can do with an already-finished product.
But when the developer is part of the building of the book from the ground up, that’s when the real tablet excitement happens. The boundaries of page and screen become permeable, and storytelling begins to look new and different. It doesn’t even take much: We were thrilled by Bats: Furry Fliers of the Night, by Mary Kay Carson and developed by Bookerella and Story Worldwide, which on the face of it does not look very much different from a traditional book. It delivers rock-solid informational content with text and illustrations that would be perfectly at home in a codex form. But when readers go to turn the page, they don’t do the usual swipe-to-the-side, they scroll up, in a brilliant emulation of flight. Little Fox Music Box, by Heidi Wittlinger and developed by Shape Minds and Moving Images GmbH, is a collection of children’s songs that could easily have been a book-and-CD set. But in the interactive environment, we found that its “creativity… [couldn’t] even fit on the screen,” reviewing new delights when children move beyond its boundaries.
The very best apps apply interactions to the story or information presented in a way that creates a perfect gestalt. Dragon Brush, by Andy Hullinger, illustrated by John Solimine and developed by Small Planet Digital, is a perfectly charming story about a young Chinese rabbit who uses a magical paintbrush to thwart the rapacious emperor. It shares its magic with children by using a now-tried-and-true tablet interaction—“finger-painting”—to allow them to bring the rabbit’s paintings to life. Readers can take part in The Voyage of Ulysses, by Elastico srl, blowing his boat hither and yon and causing volcanoes to erupt. As we wrote in our review, “That’s engagement.”
All this makes me both worried and hopeful. I am worried, because making great apps is expensive. Truly inventive tablet storytelling requires custom-built code as well as great storytelling, art and sound. That’s a lot of human genius to apply to a product that typically does not cost very much. How many units need to move, to use the inelegant language of commerce, to make this kind of creation sustainable?
I remain hopeful, however, because even as those of us who watch the publishing industry wring our hands at its travails, it’s clear that the creative drive is alive and well. Humans need stories—to tell them and to hear them—and tablet storytelling has made a place for itself alongside the more-established modes to thrill, entertain and inform. Please enjoy the best of 2012 along with me.