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RESEARCH | G&M :: On Books as Alien Devices

26 Dec

Another article (link below) from The New York TImes about kids’ books and technology presented the view that many parents prefer the tactility of books over ereaders. Ivor Tossell of The Globe and Mail suggests that some children prefer the tactility of a tilting iPad. What do you think?

Illustration for The Globe and Mail by Graham Roumieu

PUBLISHING

For some kids, a book is just an iPad that doesn’t work

IVOR TOSSELL

18 November 2011

At the age of 2, Calvin Wang’s son seems to have learned a truism that is already ricocheting around the Internet: A book is an iPad that doesn’t work.

Wang designs interactive storybooks for the iPad. He was inspired, he says, by watching his daughter interact with a movable cardboard book. Since then, Loud Crow, his Vancouver-based firm, has turned an array of children’s picture books that take the pop-up concept into the digital age. Books such as Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit now respond to touch by moving, twirling, speaking and noise-making.

Having experienced the app, he says, his son is puzzled by the fact that creatures in the original cardboard books don’t move. “When he opens the book, the first thing he does is start tapping the creature in the book.”

Turning children’s literature into iPad apps is a new and potentially lucrative business; successful creators have seen products fly off the virtual shelves, and venture capitalists are showing interest. But traditional publishers face challenges entering this market: Interactive applications are expensive to make, difficult to perfect and tough to market in the App Store environment. And even children’s authors are asking: Does a product that blurs the line between a book and a game destroy the joy of reading? And is one more screen what young children need in their lives?

Adaptations of kids books have been around almost as long as the iPad itself, a device so entrenched in the public consciousness that it seems as though it has always been a fixture on the landscape even though it has been on the market only since April, 2010, a mere 19 months. The first to make a splash was an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, simply called Alice. The creation of a laid-off journalist and a former financial-sector programmer, the $8.99 app took Lewis Carroll’s text and the iconic original illustrations from John Tenniel – both of which have passed into the public domain – and used the iPad’s innovative capabilities to turn them into tactile experiences.

When the iPad is flipped, Alice grows or shrinks. When the device is tipped, the queen’s crown teeters, or even falls off its pillow. Because the iPad can sense acceleration, developers could endow objects on-screen with realistic physics – the kind that young users find especially intuitive.

Chris Stevens, the app’s co-creator, says it hardly sold at all for the first couple of days. Then, he says, he released a YouTube video of the app, went to bed and woke up the next morning to see that 500,000 had seen it: This new medium’s potential had caught the public imagination. The app would later turn up in The New York Times and on Oprah.

“It was the right market to get some attention,” he recalls. “There was some excitement about the idea that the iPad might be the future of publishing.”

The Alice app would be the first of a bumper crop, mostly coming from the heady world of new-media app developers. It was one of the inspirations for works that followed, including Wang’s growing business in Vancouver. (This week, Loud Crow announced that it had snagged the rights to adaptPeanuts TV specials, including iconic entries such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, into the app format.)

But for all the hubbub, traditional children’s publishers are approaching the emerging market with caution.

One challenge is economics: Flashy, full-colour, animated interactive projects that run on high-end tablets are a different creature from eBooks, which typically aren’t interactive and can be read on a variety of devices, such as simple black-and-white Kindle or Kobo readers. The eBooks adhere to popular standards, making them relatively simple to make, whereas each children’s app is a unique creation that requires attention from authors, designers and programmers.

However, publishers can typically charge more for eBooks than they can for apps, which consumers are used to buying for less than $10. For instance, Loud Crow’s Peter Rabbit books cost $3.99 in the App Store.

“The interactive apps cost a lot of money, need to be updated frequently and the price point is incredibly low,” says Barbara Howson, vice-president of sales at House of Anansi and Groundwood books. All the same, Groundwood is currently working on an interactive adaptation of one title, Cybèle Young’s A Few Blocks.

“I think we’re in early days for kids books, in terms of demand and technology,” says Denise Anderson, director of marketing and publicity for Scholastic Canada. The publisher has embraced eBooks, with 400-odd titles already available in the format. As for interactive apps, few are currently available from the publisher, but she expects that to change within a year.

“Our mandate is to get books into the hands of children, however they’re delivered.”

So far, many of the interactive apps that have appeared in the marketplace have been adapted from books that are already cross-platform properties, such as Stella and Sam, a series of children’s books by Montreal author Marie-Louise Gay, which has been turned into a successful animated TV show.

For Gay, it’s important to distinguish between books and games – and the app, she says, is primarily a game. Where it comes to replacing books themselves with apps, she worries that the immersiveness of the technology can break up the shared experience of a child learning to read with a parent.

“You could actually put an iPad in a baby’s crib, and the pages will turn by themselves,” she says. Apps that read stories aloud and present interactive widgets threaten children’s ability to explore pages at their own pace, turning a social experience into an isolated pursuit, she says.

“That’s something that’s dangerous, because it’s like putting a child in front of a TV.”

That is a sentiment that has some support, even within the app world. The best interactive kids apps are the ones that actively depart from the source material, says Jason Krogh, the founder of Zinc Roe, the Toronto developer behind the Stella and Sam app, among others.

“The least successful examples take the book, put it on the screen, and they make hot spots so that when you press it, something happens,” he says. That’s why his firm is pushing interactive children’s technology in a new direction: letting kids tell their own stories. A new app called DoodleCast encourages kids to draw on the iPad screen, while making a real-time recording of what they’re saying aloud. After all, a child’s scribblings can be visually indecipherable, but its meaning comes clear as they explain it aloud.

“If you’ve ever drawn with a four-year-old, there’s always a narrative. They’re telling you about their day,” he says.

Kids books have gone through the looking glass, indeed.

Ivor Tossell is The Globe and Mail’s technology culture columnist.

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RESEARCH | NYT :: On eBooks for Children

27 Nov

It’s nice to think that some things remain “sacred.”

For Their Children, Many E-Book Fans Insist on Paper

By MATT RICHTEL and JULIE BOSMAN
Published: November 20, 2011

Print books may be under siege from the rise of e-books, but they have a tenacious hold on a particular group: children and toddlers. Their parents are insisting this next generation of readers spend their early years with old-fashioned books.

Before nap time, Ari and Sharon Wallach read books to their twin daughters Ruby (in yellow shirt, left) and Eliana.

This is the case even with parents who themselves are die-hard downloaders of books onto Kindles, iPads, laptops and phones. They freely acknowledge their digital double standard, saying they want their children to be surrounded by print books, to experience turning physical pages as they learn about shapes, colors and animals.

Parents also say they like cuddling up with their child and a book, and fear that a shiny gadget might get all the attention. Also, if little Joey is going to spit up, a book may be easier to clean than a tablet computer.

“It’s intimacy, the intimacy of reading and touching the world. It’s the wonderment of her reaching for a page with me,” said Leslie Van Every, 41, a loyal Kindle user in San Francisco whose husband, Eric, reads on his iPhone. But for their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Georgia, dead-tree books, stacked and strewn around the house, are the lone option.

“She reads only print books,” Ms. Van Every said, adding with a laugh that she works for a digital company, CBS Interactive. “Oh, the shame.”

As the adult book world turns digital at a faster rate than publishers expected, sales of e-books for titles aimed at children under 8 have barely budged. They represent less than 5 percent of total annual sales of children’s books, several publishers estimated, compared with more than 25 percent in some categories of adult books.

Many print books are also bought as gifts, since the delights of an Amazon gift card are lost on most 6-year-olds.

Children’s books are also a bright spot for brick-and-mortar bookstores, since parents often want to flip through an entire book before buying it, something they usually cannot do with e-book browsing. A study commissioned by HarperCollins in 2010 found that books bought for 3- to 7-year-olds were frequently discovered at a local bookstore — 38 percent of the time.

And here is a question for a digital-era debate: is anything lost by taking a picture book and converting it to an e-book? Junko Yokota, a professor and director of the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books at National Louis University in Chicago, thinks the answer is yes, because the shape and size of the book are often part of the reading experience. Wider pages might be used to convey broad landscapes, or a taller format might be chosen for stories about skyscrapers.

Size and shape “become part of the emotional experience, the intellectual experience. There’s a lot you can’t standardize and stick into an electronic format,” said Ms. Yokota, who has lectured on how to decide when a child’s book is best suited for digital or print format.

Publishers say they are gradually increasing the number of print picture books that they are converting to digital format, even though it is time-consuming and expensive, and developers have been busy creating interactive children’s book apps.

While the entry of new tablet devices from Barnes & Noble and Amazon this fall is expected to increase the demand for children’s e-books, several publishers said they suspected that many parents would still prefer the print versions.

“There’s definitely a predisposition to print,” said Jon Yaged, president and publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, which released “The Pout-Pout Fish” by Deborah Diesen and “On the Night You Were Born” by Nancy Tillman.

“And the parents are the same folks who will have no qualms about buying an e-book for themselves,” he added.

That is the case in the home of Ari Wallach, a tech-obsessed New York entrepreneur who helps companies update their technology. He himself reads on Kindle, iPad and iPhone, but the room of his twin girls is packed with only print books.

“I know I’m a Luddite on this, but there’s something very personal about a book and not one of one thousand files on an iPad, something that’s connected and emotional, something I grew up with and that I want them to grow up with,” he said.

“I recognize that when they are my age, it’ll be difficult to find a ‘dead-tree book,’ ” he added. “That being said, I feel that learning with books is as important a rite of passage as learning to eat with utensils and being potty-trained.”

Some parents do not want to make the switch for even their school-age children. Alexandra Tyler and her husband read on Kindles, but for their son Wolfie, 7, it is print all the way.

“Somehow, I think it’s different,” she said. “When you read a book, a proper kid’s book, it engages all the senses. It’s teaching them to turn the page properly. You get the smell of paper, the touch.”

There are many software programs that profess to help children learn to read by, for example, saying aloud a highlighted word or picture. Not all parents buy in; Matthew Thomson, 38, an executive at Klout, a social media site, has tried such software for Finn, his 5-year-old. But he believes his son will learn to read faster from print. Plus the bells and whistles of an iPad become a distraction.

“When we go to bed and he knows it’s reading time, he says, ‘Let’s play Angry Birds a little bit,’ ” Mr. Thomson said. “If he’s going to pick up the iPad, he’s not going to read, he’s going to want to play a game. So reading concentration goes out the window.”

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