Just this week, several Oceanhouse Media titles, from their popular Dr. Seuss collection, including Green Eggs and Ham, have added recordable narration and additional settings that include page guides for easier navigation. This is an exceptional step and not an easy programming effort on the part of a major developer of book apps. It is also a change I am deeply grateful for as a parent, educator and reviewer of digital children’s books. I look forward to seeing more popular titles include these types of updates. They are free for anyone who has previously purchased the book apps, but not inexpensive on the part of the developer, so a thank you is in order. Other major developers, like Auryn Apps, iStorytime and even Disney Digital Books, should also be commended for having so many flexible settings for audio and navigation. These settings are sometimes an afterthought in the process of creating a book app, but they shouldn’t be … the story is truly at the center of the process, but an app’s settings in the book category can make or break a great read.
I get a lot of requests for advice from developers of book apps and digital books for children, as well as lots of suggestions from readers, including parents, librarians and educators, who find the current book app market both exciting and frustrating (at times). Rather than having these conversations individually, as I have been doing over the past two years, this post is my attempt to share two of the most common things I get questions about from developers (and suggestions for changes from readers), regarding book apps in general.
These two features have really stood out in my mind as I review and read digital books with my child. One of them is something digital can do that print cannot. It is the thing that can make digital more valuable than print and often a literacy game-changer for many young readers. That thing is highlighting text word-by-word, to match the narration. For more insights about this, check out the reports coming out of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.
The second feature is something that print does beautifully but digital doesn’t do naturally. Developers need to add this feature, not as an afterthought, but as a standard setting by putting a simple visual and numbered page guide. As a reader, I grudgingly overlook the absence of a page guide in a picture book of less than 10 pages. Yet, so many book apps have no way to properly navigate beyond linear reading, even when they are over 100 pages long. As a result, the reader is left with no way to gauge the length of a title in app form nor a way return to a favorite page easily.
The most consistent request I get from parents & educators about features for book apps and ebooks (like iBooks) in general for their kids, even older readers, is highlighting. I didn’t think it was all that vital when I started reviewing book apps, but it is literally the most important feature a book can add that people who buy digital books for their kids seem to want. Narration is so essential, in and of itself, that I feel there is no debate left there … a digital picture book must narrate its text, if it plans to have any spot on the digital bookshelf.
I still remember talking to a friend who was an elementary school teacher, in the months before my site launched in late 2010, and being surprised at how adamant she was that I be sure and include information about which books had highlighting along with narration. “This is why I’m excited about digital,” she said to me. The basic message is: why skimp on something you can do for kids struggling to read if it can be done relatively easily?
Ideally highlighting and narration should allow for an ‘on/off’ setting in all digital books for kids. PicPocket Books does a nice job with this, despite otherwise having simple production values for their top notch titles, often based on out-of-print picture books. But I should note that users (like myself) often feel highlighting with narration is an ‘easy-add’ to a digital format. This is simply not true, at least from my recent experience in developer forums and being married to my own personal ‘tech guy’. Adding word-for-word narration is actually one of those ‘harder said than done’ aspects of digital books. The programming required to carefully match word to text, as it is narrated, is complex and not always an efficient use of resources when coding a book app. But this is one of those few areas of high tech effort I consider very valuable. If you can drop a few other ‘bells and whistles’ from your app’s animation and interaction and put that time into proper word-for-word highlighting, I’d say that’s a much better use of resources for a book app development team.
Digital Page Numbers & Guides:
Page guides, or a visual set of ‘thumbnail’ images to represent each page, are the other major feature that deserves more attention by book app developers. So many long picture book apps have failed to include page guides (or even page numbers) that, as a thorough reviewer of books in digital, it makes me a little crazy. I literally count the pages of every book, which means swiping pages, sometimes over 100 of them, to get an accurate page count. And then, should I want to return to a specific page to quote something interesting, it is nearly impossible to do in a book over 20 pages. But not only reviewers care about this … my child often wants to find a specific page in a favorite book app but is unable to, since there is no page guide. And what if a teacher would like to highlight a specific passage as part of a writing assignment or other project?
So I beg of you, as developers of book apps … please, please … follow the lead of one of the biggest and best producers of children’s book apps, Oceanhouse Media, and add page guides to your digital books. The rule is this, if your app has ‘pages’ then it needs a page guide. Period. My hats off to the talented people who have created so many wonderful picture books and continue to be committed to improving them for our young readers. I look forward to more updates soon, to all my favorite Seuss titles (and many other popular OmBook titles). It will make reading not just fun, but also a little less frustrating!
What other features would you like book app developers to consider standard?