Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age: Picture Book App Trends

| October 9, 2014 | 0 Comments

Last week at the Bookseller’s Annual Children’s Conference, one bit of commentary on the picture book app sent dozens of messages to my assorted in-boxes. The critic, Nicolette Jones (a children’s book reviewer for London’s Sunday Times) was reported as saying,

“What I have more reservations about, although I see some publishers working very hard at it, are the kind of apps that replace a book. Picture book apps. I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.”

First of all, I wasn’t there nor have I spoken to Ms. Jones directly. I always assume comments like this might have some additional context. I’ve been misquoted out-of-context many times and cannot help but empathize with the challenging role she fills as a cultural critic. However, I also have heard very similar and wrong-headed assertions from many people who think they understand every aspect of the picture book and are satisfied with this format as it is, thank you very much. I say this with conviction, as someone who has personally reviewed nearly 1000 picture book apps over the past four years (and previewing over 10,000 apps in order to select books to review at, which I founded in 2010).

A very wise mentor told me when I was first working in research that it is not the right answers that matter so much, but knowing how and when to ask the right questions. In this case, in my humble opinion, we are asking ourselves the wrong question when we look at a book app through only the lens of reading on paper. The natural question implied in every one of these discussions that pit paper books against digital is, “Which is better?” But book apps aren’t direct replacements for paper picture books and shouldn’t be expected to compete head-to-head with them, especially not this soon after the technology has been introduced. Digital is just one of many tools for reading, teaching, learning and entertainment. It is not always the best tool.

But then again … sometimes it is the most engaging experience a child has ever had, connecting auditory, visual and print storytelling. It wows us and it scares us simultaneously as parents, teachers and librarians. We want children to fall in love with reading, but is this the same, we ask ourselves? Or are they falling in love with something so foreign (and perhaps dangerous or unhealthy) that they will never be able to read like a ‘normal’ person?

But what is a ‘normal’ reader? In the context of the 21st century, a normal reader needs strong digital literacy, not just an appreciation for the beautifully self-paced and mostly silent focus of reading on paper. This does not detract from what paper books can do; they are a vital part of early literacy development, storytelling, art and our evolving culture.

But just because printing press technology developed into such a solid format doesn’t mean it’s a good place to stop when we care about real literacy for our children in 2014 and beyond. And as the technology evolves, as we master the art and science of it over a lot more time (decades, not years), I suspect we will find many ways that digital books can be a better choice in cultural spaces where paper books were once dominant. But this won’t happen overnight, nor can attempts to do it now be judged as failures when they are simply premature, not impossible ideas.

5 Trends in Digital-Storytelling for Children:

  1. The flood of independently produced content is a blessing AND curse. There is still no clear idea of how to handle this commercially. A popular concept has emerged that curation efforts will save us from the lack of commercial and traditional gatekeepers, but there is still no clear route for consumers to get through the sea of content efficiently. We also have a dismal lack of transparent and/or accessible data to help consumers and producers of content, at this point. It’s like a maze with the consumer ‘mouse’ hunting for the desired content or ‘cheese’. Sometimes the mouse gets confused by format, OS and device segmentation and can’t find the cheese at all. The mouse gives up or settles for some other less tasty morsel that’s more accessible. Contrast this to the point-of-sale and marketing process for books on a bookseller’s shelf (or even in an on-line store like Amazon) and we have one of the main reasons for dismal sales – not any difficulty with the actual content.
  2. Book apps and other digital eBook formats for illustrated & interactive/animated content for children is a format/medium that is truly in its infancy. The industry, content creators, marketers, and even sellers of digital books are at best, still embryonic in development. Basic standards about essential things like navigation are just now emerging. This means we should also take comments about the industry with a grain of salt. It’s simply not possible for anyone alive today to do more than give their (hopefully thoughtful) opinion; comments like Nicolette Jone’s and mine, too, are great food for thought and an excellent start to meaningful dialogue.
  3. Storytelling isn’t about format. It’s been an essential part of being human since before recorded history, before written language and certainly before the modern era of publishing. It has co-evolved alongside written and oral language traditions and is going to find a way to be expressed, meaningfully, for us as a species. However, making money, finding commercial success or “secrets” for financial return and ROI (Return on Investment) in the picture book space is not guaranteed for anyone, or any format … and it may be unlikely in the digital space in the short-term for many talented content creators who are truly doing everything right. The social-currency of publishing a book, eBook or app also cannot be underestimated right now, especially given 21st century social media influences. I suspect authors, illustrators and other creative content creators may speak more of their ‘author platform‘ or body of work rather than expect direct ROI in the future. My own extensive writing in the past four years is all ‘revenue neutral’ but not remotely neutral in building my ‘platform’ – in other words, building an audience or a name for yourself – things that may provide opportunities for other revenue in the future.
  4. Digital Storytelling (like all storytelling mediums) is an art AND a science. Exceptional use of the enhanced storytelling tools will be no different in digital than the use of tools in any other medium, like paper books. These skills and tools take time to develop, time to evolve and become more polished and sophisticated. The technology is improving alongside the ability of both artists and critics to manipulate and judge – we cannot assume our current assessment of this ecosystem will be the same in 5, 10, 15 or even 150 years in the future.
  5. Reading as a basic practice is changing – for everyone, but especially for new readers. Whether we like it or not, many people are already lamenting about their inability to stay focused on longer texts and a terrible tendency to abandon books without finishing them. Yet they also often have the ability to read more overall, but often on screens and in much shorter bursts of text. Discussion and observations like these are very valuable. But we have to wait a lot longer for any real research about how this shift will impact young people and reading in the future.

That a shift is happening, though, should not be in dispute. Perhaps paper publishers will not able to make the transition, but in 100 years, will anyone care? This a HUGE cultural shift and we’re either part of the process (as parents, teachers librarians, booksellers, publishers, authors/illustrators, developers) or we will be left behind. Period.

Many, many people have weighed in on Ms. Jones’ comments and the Bookseller conference – as well as the lead up to the annual Frankfurt Book Fair this week.

For further reading, consider:

Think outside the box!


Category: All About Apps, iPads in Education

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.