Book Apps That Get You Talking

by Moms With Apps on February 16, 2011

Our second feature this week is written by Amos Latteier, an independent artist, programmer, new Dad, and developer of The Strange and Wonderful World of Ants. While many are discussing how to publish on the iPad, Amos is already innovating book apps of a particular educational style. He focuses on what it takes to get us to talk to each other, WHILE we have technology in our hands. This conversant sentiment is one of our core themes here at Moms With Apps – so thanks Amos for sharing your thoughts with us!

Soon after my daughter was born people started sending us books. Some of the books were nice, but many seemed underwhelming to me. They were poorly illustrated and their subject matter lacked vigour and originality. I was surprised. My daughter was pretty young, but she daily demonstrated plenty of curiosity and inventiveness. Could the people who put out these dull books not be aware of how interesting real children are? I felt that I should try to do better.

Now after working on it for about a year later I understand a lot more about how hard it is to make a good kid’s book. I released “The Strange & Wonderful World of Ants” iPad book app about two months ago and I’m preparing a new release right now. I’ve learned quite a bit and have received enormous help from other parents, teachers, and kids. While I still have a lot to learn, at this point I’ve accumulated a few things that I think are worth sharing.

I decided to build my book to run on the iPad. Why the iPad and not a phone or computer? The iPad has some problems (i.e., too heavy for me to hold with one hand like a book, and somewhat difficult to type on), but one thing I think it really gets right is device sharing. You can easily share an iPad between two people. It’s big enough for both people to see. It fits comfortably between you. Both people can touch it at the same time. This was important to me because I see children’s books as opportunities for children and parents to share ideas. My parents read to me and my sister for many years. It was a highlight of my youth. I love reading to my daughter. We explore books together and talk about them.

For me, this is true “interactivity” — two people having a thoughtful conversation. Not one person alone pushing a button and watching a canned animation. I have nothing against buttons and animations. They have lots of important uses. But what I wanted to do was build an electronic book that would provide an opportunity for parents and children to have conversations with each other.

How do you make an book app that speaks to both parents and children?

Often I think we see technology as a way to occupy our kids. I know as a dad I’m often very busy and need something to keep my daughter busy for a few minutes while I attend to something else. I didn’t want my book to be used in this way.

My solution had a couple parts. One was to create an app that uses a visual vocabulary that is more “adult” than a normal kid’s app. I wanted adults to enjoy the experience of using the app with their kids. Adults should find the app attractive and feel that it’s for them too.

I also tried to make the app communicate on multiple levels. I wanted the book to address ideas in a way that was accessible but also had substance. I used a couple tricks. One was an adjustable reading level. This allows you to change the text of the book at any time between easy, medium, and advanced reading levels. I wanted to allow kids to be able to experiment and choose the reading level that works best for them. But I also wanted to show that there was more depth behind the simple ideas presented at the easy level.

Another element of multi-level communication was provided by “E. O. the ant”. E. O. (named after E. O. Wilson, the famous ant biologist) is a character in the book that provides a voice that differs from the main text. She responds to the main text from a smart aleck ant’s point of view.

A final strategy that I used was to juxtapose ant and human societies in the book. On one level the book is a nonfiction exploration of ant life. Everything is the book is factual. But the book also asks you to compare ant societies to human ones and indirectly poses questions about human society. How should society operate? Should people work for their own good or for the good of society? What is a natural society? The app doesn’t ask these questions directly, but I hope that they can emerge between parent and child as they discuss the strange details of ant societies.

Of course, I realize now that I made some mistakes. I’ve gotten great feedback from teachers, parents, and kids. The text wasn’t as easy to read as it could have been. I was missing a glossary. The book needed to provide ways to learn more about ants. It should have sound. I’m learning from the feedback and am trying to make improvements in the next release of the app.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pragmatic Mom February 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm

My favorite ebook iPhone/iPad apps are the Dr. Seuss ones by OceanHouseMedia. They understand how to increase literacy by making the book interactive. The words light up as the narrator reads them AND the user can point to any object and the words floats to to that object. I post A LOT on them at: http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?p=6607

MtnMom February 16, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Great article! After reading this, I see new and different ways to use this book. I love the ability to adjust the reading level. As you read at the child’s level, you can quickly move to a higher level to learn more facts and details for yourself. I look forward to seeing new book apps that pose discussion questions for parents and children to get them talking even more!

Douglas Campbell February 16, 2011 at 8:59 pm

I really agree with the approach Mr. Latteier has taken with his app for children. The iPad is the first portable tablet that seems just right for sharing between two people, and I hope that this is how it will get used between parents and children. I intended my own first effort at an interactive story, “Loris and the Runaway Ball”, to foster a similarly collaborative experience between toddler and adult.

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/loris-and-the-runaway-ball/id412719724?mt=8

It doesn’t read out loud because I want the parent to encourage some “cuddleware” time, where the parent reads to the child, and works through the story together.

I shared “The Strange and Wonderful World of Ants” app with my two kids–aged 8 and 11–and enjoyed exploring the different texts and learning more about ants than you get watching a movie. I look forward to more apps like it.

Carisa Kluver February 18, 2011 at 3:22 am

I loved “The Strange & Wonderful World of Ants” and while I do look forward to the things mentioned in the update, this ebook is one of my very favorites – and I just completed my 100th book app review, so that says something about it’s quality, even before the developer considered an update.

Reading Amos’ post I realize suddenly that E.O. is a female ant, of course! I had to fix it in the review to give her proper credit. :)
My Review: http://www.digital-storytime.com/review.php?id=70

Chris Riley February 22, 2011 at 4:52 am

I really like how Amos has taken into account the “reading for two” aspect that a lot of story app creators tend to look over. Multiple reading levels is awesome as well. Look forward to his update!

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