In looking at the year in apps and trying to decide which were among its best, I found it impossible to ignore the fundamental question: Just what makes a book app great?
Read more of 2011's Best Book Apps for Kids.
First and foremost, it has to succeed on its own terms as a "book" (using the term advisedly in this electronic environment). Apps that started as books, such as Big Little Brother, by Kevin Kling, illustrated by Chris Monroe and developed by Mighty Media, have a distinct leg up in this department. The story, of a little boy whose baby brother grows taller than he is, is an appealing one in its own right, charming on paper. A nonstarter of a story can't wow as an app, no matter how fabulous its bells and whistles.
Those bells and whistles are mighty important, mind you—otherwise, what's the use of the app? When applied to the already-successful paper story, the Wild About Books app, by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Marc Brown and developed by Random House Digital, soars. The scorpion’s dialogue-balloon "stinging review" is static, on the page in the paper book; in the app, when a child taps the scorpion, its verdict is delivered in stentorian tones: "Pretentious." Perhaps most beguiling overall is the way the book "opens" on the iPad's screen, each page's scenery "popping up" to give a 3-D effect and literally beckoning readers in.
The interactions need to make sense within the framework of the story or book, too. Simply making characters wiggle when tapped isn't enough. One stellar book for older children (and adults) is Richard Dawkins' The Magic of Reality, illustrated by Dave McKean and developed by Random House UK. This app version of the 272-page traditional book not only animates McKean's illustrations and includes video clips of Dawkins, but it incorporates interactive "experiments" that further the book's argument. One particularly enjoyable one involves the selective breeding of short-legged and long-legged frogs in little electronic petri dishes. Whatever you think of Dawkins, it's an enormously effective enhancement of his book.
The developmental appropriateness of interactions cannot be stressed enough. Lots of extraneous features on an app for very young children are wasted at best and actively confusing to toddlers and young preschoolers at worst. Bronwyn Callander's daffy Frubeez apps, Treetop Ted and Hannah Habeebee McHats, demonstrate a keen understanding of this principle, delivering peppy rhyming texts, high-contrast illustrations and simple interactions that seem to channel a 3-year-old's delight in silliness.
When an app incorporates multimedia elements such as video, it needs to do so in a way that makes it more than just a movie watched on an iPad (or, worse, just stills from a movie). William Joyce's The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, developed by Moonbot Studios from his wordless animated short subject, combines traditional text with clips from the film and touch-activated features that involve children directly in this paean to printed books.
Above all, a great app needs to take advantage of its medium to surprise and delight. Atomic Antelope, which stunned tablet users with its Alice for the iPad in 2010, challenged itself to do more than repeat its success with its 2011 sequel, Alice in New York. Rather than simply applying its treatment to Through the Looking Glass, the developer chose to relocate the action of the classic in New York City, a simple textual change that, combined with the interactive enhancements, helps readers see an old book in an entirely new way.
A great app, like a great book, needs to understand its format. Loud Crow, which wowed us with its PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit last year wisely continued working with source material that is optimally sized for the iPad. Their collaboration with Sandra Boynton on her Moo Media apps capitalizes on the happy congruence between the size of the iPad screen and that of an opened board book, retaining the "book-ness" of the experience even as it adds interactions.
There are more and more storybook or nonfiction apps that are organic to the iPad, built expressly to take advantage of the technology to deliver stories or information. Bobo Explores Light, by Craig Fusco, illustrated by Dean MacAdam and developed by Game Collage, is a terrific example of this, smoothly incorporating pull downs, interactions, narrative and illustrations to give readers an introduction to the science of light. They're not all great, mind you, but when everything is working right, it's tremendously exciting.
Watching creators grapple with the possibilities and limitations (there are some) of the iPad over the past year has been one of the most exciting parts of my job. They have shown me things I would never, ever have dreamed of, and I can't wait for 2012.
Vicky Smith is the Children's and Teen Editor at Kirkus.