For the second consecutive year, we saw more nonfiction apps, from introductory surveys to rich, immersive products providing hours of engagement for a range of ages. Whether that’s because of a trend or the tablet’s capacity to provide a nonlinear approach and deep content, the result has been works of unquestionable educational value.
These productions allow students to jump into content where they will, to follow their interests, and to make discoveries, all while providing hands-on experimentation or interactivity that enhances understanding and clarifies concepts. It’s a fluid, multimedia approach to subjects, enabling meaningful and inspired connections between ideas and concepts. The approach is also responsive to today’s educational goals. You’ll find a few of these nonfiction apps on the list (and more great ones in our weekly online columns), as well as titles featuring work by some of our favorite authors and illustrators.
To every best app list we add the caveat: the titles were selected from those reviewed over the last 12 months in SLJ’s “Touch and Go” column. It’s a subjective list, intended to represent the variety of material available to both children and their educators.
Traditional tales with a twist are Nosy Crow’s (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood) forte, and in Jack and the Beanstalk (PreS-Gr 1), the innovative British developer has added gaming and concept-building to this retelling of a classic story. As they help Jack, kids will have a chance to practice their reading skills, learn about narrative structure, and use their knowledge of counting and patterning as they tilt and swipe their way through nine doors to outwit the boy’s nemesis. Loads of challenges, an exhilarating chase, and a chance to fell a formidable foe—to an audio track of clever quips and piano melodies—what more could thrill-seekers ask for?
In Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life (HarperCollins/William Collins; Gr 4 Up), the renowned physicist-cum-BBC host and Andrew Cohen take viewers around the world on an awe-inspiring trip to locations both forbidding and exotic while delving into the origins and mysteries of life on Earth. The app’s illuminating text and commentary, 1,000-plus high-resolution photos, numerous 3-D images, and hours of video clips will leave viewers with a profound respect for and curiosity about the diverse life forms and environs found on our planet, and inspire a desire to protect them. Up-close footage of numerous species is guaranteed to produce lots of “ooohhh…” moments.
For those lucky children who have the opportunity to attend musical performances, Sergueï Prokofiev’s beloved story of the boy named Peter who bests a wolf is often their first introduction to the orchestra. Now Pierre et le Loup (Camera Lucida/Radio France/France Télévisions; Gr 1 Up), a delightful production of that tale, can be enjoyed by those miles away from a concert hall. Superb storytelling through music, film, animation, graphics, and humor will wow viewers, as will the cool Mativision technology. An occasional word is spoken in French, but in context, easily understood by all. Magnifique!
“High-octane” and “fun” are the words that best describe Endless Alphabet (Originator, Inc; PreS-Gr 1), a playful, letter-matching, speech-developing app. It’s hosted by an animated horned blue monster and a bevy of boisterous creatures who stand at the ready to provide prompts and encouragements, enunciate letters and words, and frolic and cheer when a word is completed. Visual and audio definitions plus a regularly replenished list of terms make this app a winner.
“Math is Beautiful,” states the introduction to Ian Stewart’s Incredible Numbers (Touch Press/Profile Books; Gr 7 Up), and the app delivers an “elegant proof” of that claim. From pi to polygons and factorials to infinity, this interactive exploration of mathematical concepts and their applications in nature, music, and cryptology, will appeal to a range of users, including those who may not yet have the vocabulary for all of the topics addressed. Illuminating visuals and activities will help students grasp concepts. A dictionary, brief bios, and puzzles to solve make this an essential resource for high schools that teach advanced mathematics.
Abundant archival visuals, more than 20 compelling videos, and outstanding writing tell the story of the historic August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Terry Golway’s moving and powerful His Dream, Our Stories (MetroDigi/Comcast NBCUniversal, Gr 6 Up). Jesse Jackson, Peter Yarrow, and Andrew Young are a few of the individuals who gathered on the Mall that day, and here they share their stories about that and other milestone events of the civil rights movement. Not to be missed: an interview with event organizers Roy Wilkins and King just days prior to the march.
Incorporating video clips and archival photos from 25 of his feature-length films and documentaries, Ken Burns (Ken Burns LLC/Big Spaceship/Red Glass; Gr 9 Up) provides students with a time line of American history from 1619 to the present. Cogent commentary and curated playlists offer viewers an opportunity to explore individual productions and/or trace the threads of “Innovation,” “Race,” “Leadership” and other themes as connections and patterns emerge across time. An engrossing glimpse into the panorama of our nation’s history and one filmmaker’s oeuvre.
In 2012, The Barefoot World Atlas (Barefoot Books/Touch Press; K- Gr 5) made our best list, cited for its delightful animations, captivating cartoon art, clear color photos, informative narration, and access to real-time data. With the same attention to detail and graphics, this year the developers have enhanced this app, adding “packs” of information on topics ranging from “Great Cities” and “International Soccer” to “World Art” and “North America.” Hang onto your armchair, traveling has never been more fun.
While it wouldn’t be difficult to convince adults that Monument Valley (ustwo; Gr 4 Up) contains lessons in spatial awareness and problem-solving, we wouldn’t want to deny the app’s pure pleasure value. In maze-like settings featuring pastel colors, players must advance a diminutive princess up ladders and stairs and through shifting structures that defy both gravity and logic. With no instructions, it’s up to appsters to use their smarts to bring their heroine through to the final chapter of this captivating, addictive narrative and game.
Apps can provide readers with occasions to spend time with their favorite characters, and fans of Julie Donaldson’s Gruffalo will be delighted to encounter that creature in the Gruffalo: Games (Stormcloud Games Ltd./Magic Light Pictures Ltd; PreS-Gr 2), a series of interactive activities that will have kids honing fine-motor, color-, letter-, and number-recognition skills. Axel Scheffler’s cheery illustrations manage to make this goofy fellow with “terrible claws, and terrible tusks in its terrible jaws” look friendly.
For additional app reviews all year long, visit our Touch and Go webpage.