It is such an honor to write this post for Armchair BEA – An extension of the Book Expo America and the Book Blogger Convention in New York this May 2011. I’ll admit, a year ago I had not even heard of Armchair BEA. In fact, I had not heard of BEA itself. I was a lover of books, certainly, but I was not a book blogger. In fact, I would have laughed out loud at anyone who said I would blog about any topic at all.
My journey to book blogging/reviewing has been part of a larger cultural shift. When I began downloading ‘picture book’ apps to share with my child, I discovered a whole new world. With my new book app love affair came a lot of parental protectiveness. It was like I had discovered an amazing playground strangely devoid of adult supervision. So I began reviewing these apps, in part to pass on some of what I have learned to other parents who shared my bewilderment.
It was all happening so fast that even my local librarian had never heard of the books my child was reading. It’s the speed of this revolution that has taken most of us by surprise – from readers, to authors/illustrators and publishers. I often feel as if I have been swept up by the app revolution, right along with the books themselves. The only ones that seem to be taking it in stride are the children themselves.
But why a revolution now, and why so fast, when books have been ‘going digital’ for years? I think the iPad is just the right device at the right time, bringing a book-sized intuitive interface to millions of households with kids overnight. Within just months of getting an iPad, my child & I began reading nearly 50% of all our kid’s books in the form of iPad apps.
This revolution is also fueled by the unique quality of ‘apps’ themselves. These small, discrete bits of software can be downloaded from anywhere in the world, then deleted and ‘stored’ in the ‘cloud’ for re-downloading anytime, like a library at your fingertips. They even ‘update’ for free most of the time, staying compatible with the latest OS. It also doesn’t hurt that ‘apps’ are hip. And the prices are remarkable, compared to new print picture books, making them extremely accessible (although the price-point of the device itself will likely remain a barrier to true accessibility for some time).
It’s been less than a year since I began reviewing digital book apps, and the growth has been remarkable. The entry into this market by major publishers also signals that this is a serious transition, not a mere fad. In just the past six months alone, this market has exploded, making it possible to have hundreds of good children’s books in app form.
So what does this revolution mean for books, readers and people who create picture books for children?
1. Books can be more portable, increasing the opportunities to read. No need to pack books or anticipate opportunities to read with your child. If you have your iPad/iPhone/iPod with you, those extra minutes waiting in line at the store or for the Dr. can become times when children & parents share a favorite book app.
2. Books can be more than just ‘books’ becoming a transmedia experience that can offer extended learning, extra help for struggling readers and even games or other ‘edutainment’. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. For the first time, books can take back some of the hours the average child spends in front of the television, offering an experience that children find just as appealing as cartoons on Saturday morning. But it can also turn reading into ‘screen time’ – meaning parents need to be more mindful about not just what kids are reading, but how that reading is happening (if at all).
3. Self-Publishing can become just another kind of publishing, on nearly equal footing with big publishers and well-branded characters. This brings more opportunities for new authors, illustrators and other independent publishers to create dynamic children’s books for young readers. It also means the market is more diverse, including a wider diversity in quality. This can be a challenge, meaning parents need to screen books for not only appropriateness but also for qualities like proper translation, articulated narration and even the most basic proof-reading and editing.
4. Curation of books has become vital. Ways to discover good picture book apps is still in flux. Sites like Digital Storytime and other review sites for kids book apps are therefore much more important than they would be for print titles. Book bloggers, reviewers and social media buzz have also become much more important to the success of a kid’s book (app). This is because there is no central clearing house for finding quality digital book apps (beyond the app store). Without even ISBN numbers, catalogues or library databases (or even knowledgeable librarians) to consult, these on-line resources have gotten a big bump in importance. A digital book needs a digital source for discoverability, too, especially when there aren’t prominent spots on bookstore shelves to vie for visibility.
And what will the future bring? My hope is that the quality of books will continue to improve, with more publishers focusing on the core qualities of a good book. I look forward to seeing even more engaging, age-appropriate stories with well-integrated interactive elements. I also hope the access to this renaissance is not limited to only those with means – either through increased involvement by public institutions like schools and libraries and/or greater accessibility to the tablet devices themselves. Because this is truly a renaissance … a wonderful time to be involved with children’s books, whether you’re an author, illustrator, publisher, book blogger, reviewer or the all-important reader.
Carisa Kluver is the co-founder with her husband, an app developer, of Digital-Storytime.com, a book app review site for children’s picture books. The site features 200+ book app reviews, daily deals on kids apps and a blog, The Digital Media Diet. Before book blogging, she was a health educator working with children, youth & families for 2 decades. She resides in the Pacific Northwest, but her heart can often be found in sunny California where she grew up reading.