March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The App Squad: SLJ’s advisors weigh in on kids’ book apps

Photos by Robert London

Photos by Robert London

As SLJ formally begins reviewing kids’ book apps, we decided, heck, we could use some help. So we assembled a diverse group of advisors at our Soho office in New York to talk apps—what we like, what we should look for in discerning the best for kids and teens, and where this all might be headed.

What elements make a successful app?

Lisa Von Drasek: Fast loading. Fast loading is my number one issue. It’s been downloaded, and now I’m clicking on this app and three days later I’m pushing on the stupid…

Betsy Bird: And every time you open it, you’ve got five minutes of “here’s who presented it.”

Matt Bassett: So many people are rushing to the marketplace. They’re not testing. Things are crashing. No app should crash. A lot of stuff isn’t very deep. You spend two minutes with it and you’re done. They’re not testing apps from a technological standpoint or with kids or parents.

So what are we looking for?

Bassett: Quality. We want to have quality writing, quality illustrations, quality content with depth. Content that you can spend more than five minutes with.

Pam Abrams: My 16-year-old son recently asked to organize the apps on my iPad. And when I came back it was very neat and sorted into two big folders, one called “games” and the other “educational.”

I planned to look at this app that I had downloaded called Motion Math. He had put it in “games,” not “educational.” And I thought, well, that’s the sign of a good app, that he didn’t consider this math thing educational. He considered it a game. So that was one of my “notes to self” on this.

Bassett: You want an app to have replayability. My son, for example, goes back to a math app because he gets to build and shoot rockets, and while the rocket’s in space, he’s doing problems and learning math. That play is really important.

Linda Braun: I think the audience and purpose can get lost. Who are you creating the app for? Are you creating it for the kids, the parents? Sometimes I think they try to do too much and wow us all. The other piece that I’m always talking to librarians about is what makes this different from the physical experience?

Bird: I think of the separation between apps that are just games and apps that are adapted books. Though when a kid’s reading a book, I like the interactive features of an app. But if there are too many games, then kids completely get off the story line. They’re not even reading it. They’re just playing the games. So I think that there’s a balance that has to be made between the two.

Von Drasek: The bells and whistles have to have a reason. As with the physical book after the first read, the child feels no need to be linear about it. Preparing for this meeting, I downloaded a lot of adapted picture books from different companies and the most annoying is the one that’s linear. It’s like, why can’t I skip to the purple car? Why can’t I skip to this if I want to?

Bird: That’s why I like the Peter Rabbit app so much because there’s that little pull down where you can go to any page in the book.

Laura Pearle: It’s also important to be able to turn off that so that you get the linear experience, particularly with books for older kids. Because if you’re reading a story, you get distracted if there’s too much going on. A lot of my students have real problems with Patrick Carman’s Skeleton Creek, because they went online and looked at the video, and three hours later it’s like, “Where was I in the book?” They struggle to get back into that narrative flow. If they could only turn off the extra content.

Warren Buckleitner: A good story makes a good experience. It’s like you can’t make a good salad out of soggy lettuce. Sometimes I see a lot of interactivity applied, bad graphics, and cheesy sound effects.

So I think this should to an extent be reassuring to anyone who’s coming at this from a bookcentric perspective. You probably know a lot more about this space than you think, because it’s about quality. Bringing the best to children.

I also see the book as a script for everything else. So when J. K. Rowling sat down to do Harry Potter, she wasn’t thinking about a Universal theme park. She’s writing a good story. An app is just another manifestation of that original idea.

Abrams: I would agree, you should trust your instincts as reviewers and not be scared of the technology. You’re looking at a book. You’re looking at material that you’re familiar with, and you guys know kids really well. To the extent that you can have kids as reviewers with you, I think I would go for that. They’re not afraid of this at all. They will teach you in a minute whether it’s any good or not.

Bird: Is it a world they want to explore?

Abrams: Right. And that’s true of a good book as well. Is it one they want to take off the shelf again?

What advantages do apps provide to learning?

Pearle: Not everyone learns the same way. I’m a very linear person, so I respond really well to a print book or an ebook where it’s very linear, without a lot of distraction. So for those of us for whom the traditional book really works, I’m like, well, why mess with that? But for people for whom it doesn’t work, who need more audio, or a more visual experience, apps can be wonderful ways to get them reading and engaged with literature.

Abram: Whether the content is curriculum or learning aligned is another thing to look for.

Braun: The tablet also allows for viewing by more than one person at a time. So you can have a few kids, teens, looking at the same book and experiencing it and talking about it, which you can’t do with a physical book.

Von Drasek: The bottom line for me is am I responsibly spending money on something that supports development in young ones and educational materials for older kids? Someone here had recommended Virtual History–Rome, so I downloaded that. It was very interesting, but a little static.

Jennifer Hubert Swan: My husband, a social work librarian and history buff, was just gaga over Virtual History–Rome because this is something a book doesn’t do. You can pull up the images and turn them around. Did you turn the ships around?

Von Drasek: I didn’t!

Hubert Swan: Rome is amazing! If I had a DK book on Rome, I couldn’t pull the centurion out, turn him around, and look at all of his armor. It was all named, and then when you touched the name, it told you what it was. I mean, I was astonished. You can’t do this with a book.

SLJ’s lucky that our reviewers are all in public or school libraries. So you can involve kids in the review process if you want to.

Bassett: Yeah, watch a kid with an iPad. They don’t read instructions. They just jump right in and figure it out.

Buckleitner: One of the problems, though, is the app-browsing phenomenon. You’ve got one Angry Bird icon mixed in with your ebooks, and within 10 seconds the kids are on that slingshot for the rest of their lives. It’s interesting when all these things are all living together.

John Peters: It’s a common misconception that kids are going to sit down and figure out how all of this interactive stuff works. We all have the impression that kids know all about how to use the Internet to do research because they look so confident with their machines—until you start working with them and discover that they’re abysmally ignorant.

Bassett: The problem is there aren’t yet standards for how to use a tablet for effective storytelling. Everyone knows how to pick up a book and read through a linear story. Butapp creators are changing the interface and the navigation. So every time you open an app, you have to figure it out. I don’t know how it’s going to all shake out in the end, but five years down the road, there will be things that are more successful than others, with some proven to be more relevant for learning.

It’s really interesting that people are doing nonlinear books, mixing game play and a story. So I don’t think we can be too critical because it’s sort of an experimental phase right now. But I think some of the issues around navigation through books are problematic.

Buckleitner: I’m going to say this as a tweet: It’s never been so easy to look stupid as a reviewer with apps.

Bassett: Oh, yeah. For the longest time I didn’t know there was a two-finger scroll.

Buckleitner: Like I said, it’s a big mess. I’m also seeing evil publishing practices. So it’s really important for reviewers to spot the evil and flag it for users.

Abrams: Does everybody know the Smurfberry story? With the Smurfberry app, you accumulated points, but every time you clicked on a snowflake, you were actually charging your parents’ account. This is something that has to be looked at. Kids get around passwords and some developers are making that very easy.

Getting back to web access, this is obviously problematic in schools. Can anyone speak to that?

Hubert Swan: With our seventh grade moving to a one-to-one iPad program next year, we have so many things to think about, and that’s one of them. How can we turn things off, can we turn things off? What apps will go on those iPads? What writing is going to live there?

Buckleitner: Well, there are three things that you should do tomorrow if you’re using an iPad with kids. One is go to preferences, where you can turn off in-app sales and Internet access. You can turn off the ability to move the icons. Apple’s made it very easy to lock this thing down, and I hope that’s a model that Android follows.

Second is geolocation. I actually lost my iPad in Utah. I was at a restaurant and freaked out. Where’s my iPad? I used location and saw it pinpointed on a Google Map—back in my hotel room. You can also lock the device remotely or send a message: “please return to…”

The third piece is folders. With iOS 4.2 and up, you can create ones for ebooks, games, education—any category you want. And that’s kind of handy because kids will graze. So if I’d tried going to Smurfberry with this thing locked, it wouldn’t let me.

How are you discovering apps, and what is the value that SLJ could bring to that discovery process?

Von Drasek: Discovery for us comes from crowdsourcing. We have two iPads that are shared by 30 teachers and our principal lets us do whatever we want, buy apps, evaluate them, recommend them to peers.

Abrams: Commonsense Media does a good job for parents, as does Warren’s Children’s Technology Review. There’s Parent’s Choice Awards. And a developer site that I really like now called “Moms with Apps.”

It’s not just about the expert reviewers saying here’s what you should like, but we’re in a world now where we all have an opinion.

Peters: If you’d like just a raw list of new apps, there’s, which has RSS feeds that you can customize.

Bird: For librarians, Kirkus assesses apps along with the book reviews.

Bassett: The App Store is a mess, like a big disorganized dollar store. And don’t even get me started on Android. It will get better, but discoverability right now is a huge issue. We go to the technology bloggers, and the moms and dads who blog.

Von Drasek: The iTunes Store does a great job [of tracking updates and bug fixes]. I think SLJ’s responsibility is identifying the “crap factor.” For example, you can have gorgeous Eric Carle art, but the app is…

Buckleitner: Crap.

How are you using apps in the library?

Pearle: I work at a private school. I see kids coming in with their own iPads. They’ve got their Touches. So I see my role more as saying, hey, this is a great app. Let’s face it, if you can afford $30,000-plus a year for tuition, you can afford $5 for an app.

Bird: We don’t have the money to buy and circulate iPads. And we certainly don’t have a budget for apps. Maybe that will change. But at the moment, I don’t see iPads circulating anytime soon.

Hubert Swan: But what if a public library started with two iPads in the teen division and they could be checked out for half an hour, and they were loaded with apps that the librarians had read about in SLJ, and if there was some sort of voting process where teenagers could submit forms and say “I love this app, could the library get it?”

Braun: People are already doing that. Some day we’ll see app circulation, like we’re finally getting with ebooks. And librarians I’ve talked to are already making app recommendations to parents, kids, and teens. I’m amazed that librarians aren’t creating app gift lists, like what app should you be buying your kids or teens for the holidays? They could post this once a month on their blogs and Facebook.

Von Drasek: A lot of parents email me for recommendations for books to read, or, for example, “The teacher said my kid has trouble with phonemes. What does that mean?” And I say, “You know there’s an app for that!”

Brian Kenney, SLJ’s editor-in-chief: I can’t imagine a better way to boost the sales of good apps than to circulate them. But I don’t think this is something that producers will particularly buy into.

Peters: I heard a conversation like this 10 years ago when websites became big. New York Public and other libraries devised recommended lists of websites, and nobody used them. And they’re still sitting there in lonely splendor. So I’m wondering, what makes apps different?

Buckleitner: It’s a social responsibility of a public library to create free public access to content in all forms, even if it’s on a Playstation 3. There’s a big culture gap, and all kids should have access to the discourse, to the culture that comes with this media.

Peters: Definitely. But we have to go beyond just having them sitting there.

Pearle: In this economy, where are they going to get the money to do this? They may not even have the money to buy new books.

Bird: Yeah, so why buy new technology that could be outdated in five years?

Buckleitner: More like eight months.

Bird: When they could be buying books that will last at least five years.

Braun: It’s a real issue, but I think that we get stuck on the money thing. It’s the public library’s role to have this stuff, and we find ways to do it. I know it’s difficult, but what if we looked at how we spend our money. We buy these books that sit on the shelf and nobody’s checking them out. What if we took that money and did something else with it?

So what’s the future of apps? Where’s the technology, the market, and the content going?

Abrams: It’s going mobile. The Cooney Center has done really good, quantitative research about who owns mobile devices, where, and at what age. Overall, we’re finding that mobile is the future of all of this stuff, for very young children, too.

But what about cell phone access in schools?

Hubert Swan: We’ve started to let kids use their phones in class. We used to tell them you can’t use cell phones. Now, because they’re doing so much on their phones, their whole schedule and calendar is on their device. That’s where they’re recording their homework and checking the teacher’s blog. So we had to open it up.

Bassett: In terms of the market, I’m surprised Apple hasn’t done what they used to do with education and offer deals. Somebody will and they’re going to be huge. Motorola, HP, whoever, they’ll offer deals to schools and libraries.

Buckleitner: Yes, the field’s going to be very competitive and we need to make sure that we’re not Apple-centric. Android’s coming. It’s really critical for us to keep the standards high as we go into this new space—the media’s got to do its work. Good information is lubrication for change.

Braun: You really do talk in tweets.

Buckleitner: We just lived through one of the most exciting periods of time. I did a search on the kids’ tag in the iTunes store. I’ve reviewed software since 1981, about 12,000 products. My retinas are square if you look at them. And since 2007 when the iTunes launched, it’s offered 13,000 kids’ apps. So my first 27 years of reviewing is equivalent to the last four in terms of digital content. So it’s just this huge tsunami of content.

The good news is there are some stellar examples there. But I’m looking ahead. What’s the future of this space? It’s really interesting if you’re an author right now, where you can say I’ve got more tools in my toolkit to tell my story than ever before.

Hubert Swan: As a librarian, that kind of makes me tired because I feel like at the beginning of my career when I was surveying print books, I could keep a decent handle. I didn’t read everything, but through reviews I could keep a handle on what was being published. Now, so many print books are coming out, I can’t even keep up with that. And then having to start looking at apps? Oh, my stars!

Buckleitner: OK, group hug.

Kenney: But that’s our job, to find ways to make it easier for you. To make them searchable, to pull out stars, to keep running “best of” lists.

Buckleitner: I do have to say, though, that Jennifer’s right. I’ve been watching this space for a long time and it’s overwhelming. So we need to work together on this.


1. Linda Braun, project manager for the consulting firm Librarians & Educators Online.

2. Matt Bassett, executive producer at One Hundred Robots, a creator of children’s book apps.

3. Laura Pearle, librarian at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY.

4. John Peters, former supervising librarian at the New York Public Library’s Children’s Center at 42nd Street.

5. Jennifer Hubert Swan, author of the blog “Reading Rants,” library dept. chair and middle school librarian at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York, NY.

6. Betsy Bird, children’s librarian at the New York Public Library’s Children’s Center at 42nd Street and author of the blog “A Fuse #8 Production.”

7. Lisa Von Drasek, coordinator of school services and children’s librarian at New York’s Bank Street College of Education School for Children who blogs at EarlyWord.

8. Warren Buckleitner, founding editor of Children’s Technology Review and a contributor to the New York Times Gadgetwise blog.

9. Pam Abrams, director of partnership development and strategy at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Kathy Ishizuka About Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka ( on Twitter) is the Executive Editor of  School Library Journal.