Youth Literature in the Digital Realm – Q&A with Kent State MLIS Students

| March 31, 2014 | 2 Comments

Last month I was invited by Dr. Marianne Martens to speak to her class at Kent State University. The students are getting their MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) degrees and the course is called “Youth Literature in the Digital Realm.” We pre-recorded a short presentation for the students and then invited them to submit questions for me to answer via email. Here are their questions and my answers. What a sharp and thoughtful group of students!

You mentioned the app developers are trying create apps that can be sold Worldwide. Have you seen a lot of these and do you think they will be successful enough to justify the cost?

Not only have I seen a lot of developers trying to create apps that will be marketable worldwide, but almost all apps are available for sale in every country’s app store for their chosen format(s). It’s just a matter of checking a box when publishing to Google-Play & Apple to include the whole world now, even if the app info is only available in the native language. Since people move all over the world, this allows expats to buy apps from their home countries so much more easily than finding a good book in a foreign language when living abroad. Spending the money to translate even the app name, description, etc. can be expensive if done well, but many children’s apps with little or no language (spoken or text) can do really well with a global audience. The best example I know of this phenomena are the Toca Boca apps. Picture books, with their regional themes and cultural messages, in addition to the text and voice-over costs to do good interpretations (rather than straight translations) are harder to import all over the world, but many developers are trying. I have seen apps with beautiful, lyrical translations that capture the spirit of the original language when translated into English but much more often I have seen very poor cultural and linguistic translations (or even worse, use of google translate).

The real distinction for deciding on cost for localization is whether the developer is from outside the U.S. market or if they are inside the U.S. The cost is justified in nearly every case for regionalization, translation, etc. for non-English apps translated/interpreted for a U.S. consumer, in particular. For apps created originally for a U.S. market, it can be worth it to localize for just a few countries or languages, depending on the content of the app. Japan has a big market share and Spanish, French & German are popular languages to consider. Here’s an interesting article from ( on app distribution, note the graphic for Revenue distribution by country and platform in August 2013.

With the recent adoption of the New Common Core standards, library professionals have seen a rather rapid influx of new non-fiction titles for school-aged children. Has this trend extended to the digital realm? Do you notice many new apps/ebooks in development that are seeking to target educators with promises of tie-in’s to new curriculum standards? What is a good source for finding nonfiction book apps?

Developers of children’s content in app form, especially for digital books, have been very interested in the U.S. school system and its new emphasis on common core state standards (CCSS). A quick search on google brought up over 250K hits, many with curated lists for different grade levels, special needs and specific subjects.

Most of these resources feature apps that are CCSS aligned, but there are also a lot of general uses of the iPad for CCSS hot spots like mind-mapping, note-taking, content creation and more. Many authors have begun to add CCSS alignment information and teacher’s guides, in addition to parent suggestions, inside their book apps. Since apps are often updated, these simple text pages can be included in apps at a relatively low cost to the content creators. One app developer, a former teacher, has even begun to help other developers properly align their apps with the existing standards.

Slide from Keynote Presentation to Authors & Illustrators – SCBWI Oct. 2013

From my experience over the past four years in the book app space, I have seen an explosion of interest in non-fiction picture book apps and apps for older readers. When I spoke in October 2013 at a regional Writer’s Day for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I heard a lot about an increase in non-fiction contracts for authors and illustrators being offered by traditional publishers, too. Content creators in the digital realm can act even faster than their traditional and print counter-parts, and the amount of non-fiction content in the book category of the Apple app store has grown enormously in my experience as a reviewer.

In my presentation, I mentioned several new (and exciting) trends I’ve seen, in addition to non-fiction and common core. These include book apps with non-linear storytelling, trans-media titles, apps for reluctant readers, special needs, multi-cultural titles and generally a trend toward older readers. So much of the early content in the app store for kids was aimed at pre-readers and early literacy that anything for fluent readers in 4th grade (US) or above is very popular, and non-fiction and CCSS are predominant requests from teachers in particular.

The content in the app store is not sortable by fiction vs non-fiction, however and a lot of hybrid titles with narrative non-fiction (also know as Creative Nonfiction) have emerged. For independently produced non-fiction content, it is imperative to evaluate not just the app ‘as is’ but to do diligent research on the source of the content, along with some basic fact-checking. Many of the top titles in this genre are being produced by non-profit organizations that specialize in the topic being presented, like the phenomenal titles from San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Many of these non-profit inspired titles are also free. Finding non-fiction isn’t easy, but my review site,, has over 100 category lists, including one for non-fiction titles:

Do you have any experience with or suggestions for teaching parents how to choose quality apps?  You gave very helpful guidelines for librarians and I am wondering how to communicate it in a way that would be well-received by parents.

This is a fabulous question! I love that teachers, librarians, therapists and parent-advocates in many fields are asking me this question a lot more lately. As a former social worker, I spent a lot of time with young families in many settings, including hundreds of home visits over my decade in practice. I think the most important thing to keep in mind if you want to be both well-received by parents and helpful to them in a way they can actually implement, is to support them as their child’s “first and best teacher”. By emphasizing the importance of that role, we can empower parents by asking them about their child, family situation and especially which device/format they have access to when choosing apps or other educational content in the digital realm.

I try to reframe questions about finding an app by asking who, what, where, when and how type questions about the ‘app need’. Who is using the app – what age + ability/disability? If it’s a child, then with or without a parent? What does the parent hope to get out of an app? An educational goal, entertainment, parent-child interaction (aka, joint media engagement)? Where and when will the app be used (context) and for how long?

Once I know a bit more about the app need, I can usually direct people to a good resource, even when I don’t have any specific app recommendations. Teaching parents how to evaluate the apps their kids use, once they’ve downloaded something, is a lot harder, in my experience. I usually suggest parents preview most apps (especially if they contain unfamiliar content, not merely a digital version of a print classic like Dr. Seuss) before their children see them, a task less needed in the pre-digital age. Then, even if the app is intended for use alone, I encourage parents to evaluate how well the app works for their individual child by observing or using the app together the first time. Parents are unlikely to use a formal rubric to evaluate an app, but it can be useful for them to have one or two goals in mind for each app to look for when testing and observing a child using the app. To find good apps, beyond the limited curation of the app store, I recommend that parents find one or more reliable review resources. I have a suggested list on the side-bar of this blog. (pasted below for your convenience)

Recommended Review Sites
A Matter of App
App Friday
Apps for Homeschooling
Children’s Technology Review
Fun, Educational Apps
Great Kid Books
Horn Book – App Reviews
Kirkus Reviews
The iMum
The iPhone Mom
There’s A Book
Touch and Go

Often, parents aren’t sure what questions to even ask about educational software, but they are increasingly anxious about their child being left out or left behind. Parents often ask for apps in such a general way that it can be difficult to point them in the right direction, so I find it’s useful to first ask them about their child’s age, grade level or interests. I always ask, even if they’ve started with a request for an ‘app recommendation’ about what device(s), if any, they already own.

Many parents are not aware that you can’t download the iPad apps I review onto a PC or Mac computer, for instance. Other parents will buy an Android tablet or a Kindle Fire tablet under the misunderstanding that apps are universal, not device & format dependent. While there are many wonderful apps on the Android platform for kids, the selection still pales in comparison to what is available for the iPad/iPhone market. This creates a “digital divide” for families that cannot afford the device in the first place, so I always have handy a list of great websites with educational kids content for those who have computer and internet access but no tablet device.

Do you have a “best of” picture book app list that children’s librarians could use to get started or “worst of” list to know what to avoid? Thank you!

Ahhh … finally an easy question. 🙂 Yes, I have oodles of lists of great picture book apps, including a ‘best of’ list for each year since 2011 (published late summer, so not for 2014 yet). These lists are based on‘s over 800 reviews. I also have a number of ‘best of’ lists from 2011-2013 for specific qualities in our rubric, including best for: Interactivity, Animation, Educational Value, Originality, and more. All of the ‘best of’ lists live in this blog, not on my review site and can be found here:

I don’t have any “worst of” lists to share, although I initially did give apps as low as 1 star. Many of the things to avoid are common to print picture books – like a stylized font that may be hard for young readers to discern. Or simply poorly written, edited or otherwise unpolished digital books. Without the vetting process of traditional publishing, consumers can sometimes feel like they have to sort through the ‘slush pile’ themselves.

Another big issue I warn against, when I speak to developers, is interactivity that interferes with the narration. If you tap something on the screen while the book app is in ‘read to me’ mode, two audio tracks play simultaneously. This happens more often than you would expect in book apps I’ve reviewed. Also avoid books with interactivity that is completely unrelated to the plot, characters or storyline. A great video to watch is by Sarah Towle, a book app developer and author. See YouTube: “A Brief History of StoryApps & Interactivity“.

You mention some apps having benefits for children under the age of 3 that are reviewed with parents.  Do you have any articles or research that you would recommend for reading that have demonstrated developmental benefits for specific apps for babies?  Thanks!  🙂 – Resources for Librarians

Great question. I don’t know of any research yet out about specific apps for babies. Research on children under the age of three takes a long time to make its way out of the ivory towers of academia and into the hands of practitioners, plus the barriers for human subjects approval for studies on young children can be daunting. There are, however, many good resources and research reports coming out about the use of media with young children, with a strong recommendation for co-viewing or joint-media engagement.

I created a handout for my first presentation to librarians last spring (2013) that might be useful: The LittleeLit blog also has a list (updated regularly) of good research reports about young children and new media:

Does the level of interactivity in an app change with the age group? To be more specific- would an app appropriate for upper elementary (grades 6-8) contain more reading and less action/touch items?

I think the level of interactivity does need to change in apps, depending both on the age, subject and goals of the app. Generally speaking, more interactivity, not less, is present in apps for older readers when it comes to apps, even book apps. Apps for young children, in fact, need to be less ‘busy’ and tend to feature much more limited and linear interactive elements. A great post on what makes a good picture book app to read is this one from Horn Book:

2 Ways Digital Books Benefit Kids, Research Shows

Ideally these elements should support the narrative indirectly or directly for improved reading comprehension. This is also true of apps for older readers, but much more interactivity can be included without losing them to the ‘bells & whistles’ that many interactive books feature. Whether all this interactivity is a good idea, is another matter altogether. Alas the research is embryonic on this topic, so we are applying the best of our knowledge from earlier technologies. So far, it looks like digital books can be great tools, as long as the interactivity supports children in their learning of new material, engagement, motivation to read, comprehension and retention. The inclusion of highlighting word for word with narration is one of the only features that I’ve seen early research on, showing that it is beneficial for young readers. See:

For older readers in particular, it is important to remember that there are digital alternatives to apps in the form of eBooks with little or no interactivity. These formats include iBooks, Kindle & Nook eBooks and other .pdf formats for text-heavy titles, many of which are nearly identical to their non-digital versions. Interactivity itself hasn’t really been well defined yet, either. I’ve met people who consider the addition of active links within a digital text to be ‘interactivity’, while others only consider more elaborate interactive ‘hot spots’ with animation or sound. Within a classroom setting, and for many non-fiction topics, older readers may be reading the less enhanced digital formats like eBooks, over the more interactive & animated storybook apps, for instance.

End of Q&A

Marianne Martens is currently Assistant Professor at Kent State University’s School of Library & Information Science.Her interdisciplinary research, grounded in Library & Information Science and Media Studies, converges at the intersection of books and technology in new literary formats — from picture book apps to multi-platform books. For more information about Dr. Martens work:

Category: All About Apps, iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift

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.