What We're Reading: Oct 2011

I love my iPad 2. Her name is Sharla. We share so many wonderful moments together. She keeps me up to date on world events, she manages my busy schedule, and I'm blogging with her at this very moment. But Sharla's most positive influence on me is that I'm reading like never before. Bookshop owners will curse me, but it is so convenient to peruse and download e-book samples from the iBooks store in the middle of the night on my couch. My iBooks library is filled with titles cued up and ready for reading.

The iPad also offers a wide range of "book-ish" experiences for the kids. It was definitely nice to download Magic Treehouse #21 for Nate one rainy afternoon. But that's an e-book. We were just reading the text on a screen instead of paper. At the other end of the spectrum are book apps. Colorful, electronic book/game hybrids that provide a more interactive experience. Some skew toward being enhanced books with highlighted text, audio narration and a few subtle moving parts. Others are more like digital playgrounds with a loose story, but more gadgets and games to play. When you want quiet, uninterrupted reading with a kid, nothing can quite replace the experience of exploring a real book. (Maybe I'll get some cred back from the brick & mortar folks now.) But there can also be a time and place for e-books, gaming and eye-popping interactivity, and my kids know exactly which apps are their favorites...

by Shape Minds and Moving Images GmbH
With concept and illustrations by Heidi Wittlinger, Nighty Night is a soothing, entrancing, beautifully designed bedtime app. The concept is simple. All the animals at the farm are tired and ready for bed. They just need you to turn off the lights. So, we go one by one, quietly flipping switches so the cow, the dog, the duck and all the others can go to sleep. Once all the lights are out, it's time for us to turn off our own lights. Because it's such a quiet and calming app, Nighty Night works as an appropriate bedtime experience. I wouldn't consider it a book, though. There is no text or story to follow. Only the opening and closing narration encouraging us to turn out the lights. Not surprisingly, Nighty Night seems to have some replay value. The kids have yet to grow tired of flipping off the lights, night after nighty night.

by Octopus Kite
Within the variety of book-ish game apps and game-ish book apps, Bartleby's Book of Buttons falls somewhere in the middle. On one hand, this adventure story plays out as a series of simple mini-puzzles filled with enticing buttons, switches and knobs. But, unlike Nighty Night, each interactive page includes a couple paragraphs of text. Bartleby loves collecting buttons, so he journeys off to a strange island to find a rare button for his book. The kids tolerated my reading the story the first couple times through, but now they just want to press the buttons over and over without my interfering. Okay, fine. Just be careful with Sharla, please. Due to popular demand, a sequel app, Bartleby's Book of Buttons Volume 2, was recently released. Coming to a tablet near you.

by Oliver Jeffers and Penguin Group USA
Oliver Jeffers' books, especially The Great Paper Caper, are a family favorite at our house. I'm a big fan of his work, so I was very intrigued to discover that he had adapted one of his existing picture books into app form. The Heart and the Bottle is a beautiful, haunting book with rich imagery, so the idea of interacting with the story was an exciting prospect. Topped off with narration by Helena Bonham Carter, it's a pretty unique and engaging app. The story was already beautifully told, and now the characters and environments come to life right on the screen. You even get the tactile pleasure of manually "grabbing" the corner and swiping the pages. There are plenty of picture books that have been converted to static ebook formats. This app goes a step further, allowing us to dive in and play with Jeffers' whimsical collage art. However, the novelty's drawback is that in becoming so engrossed by the interactivity, the flow of the storytelling suffers a bit. It would be nice to have the option of disabling the bells and whistles so the tale can unfold more naturally. Or, what the heck, you could just go read the actual book.