Winner of 2015 BolognaRagazzi Digital Award: My Very Hungry Caterpillar, by StoryToys.

Winner of 2015 BolognaRagazzi Digital Award: My Very Hungry Caterpillar, by StoryToys.

At this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair (29 Mar – 4 Apr), I had the pleasure of experiencing the top five BolognaRagazzi Digital Award winning apps before they were announced to the public. All beautiful works developed specifically for the screen, they prove that 2014 was the year children’s apps truly broke from the boundaries imposed by the page.

The five are all beautifully rendered, technologically innovative, and intuitively engineered. They are all developmentally appropriate to their target age.

What's more, they get extra kudos for putting the power of choice and exploration at the tip of the child user’s finger. But the operative word here is “user,” not “reader.” Indeed, all the gab around these titles at the Fair used the verb “play,” not “read.” 

I’m looking forward to submitting to the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award one day. But this year’s award winners all targeted pre-readers. Only two of the fifteen shortlisted titles were meant for older kids.

David Wiesner's Spot, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, USA, uses pinch and grow functionality to explore worlds within worlds.

David Wiesner's Spot, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, USA, uses pinch and grow functionality to explore worlds within worlds.

I asked a couple of the judges why more examples of interactive mobile media for older kids, specifically teens and tweens, didn’t make it through to the shortlist. Cristina Mussinelli suggested the format doesn’t really suit older children. Once they’ve cracked the code and learned to read, the interactive elements tend to get in the way, she said.

It’s also more complicated and costly to “localize” language content: that is, to make it accessible to audiences worldwide.

So 2015 finds us still struggling with how to incorporate story into interactive children’s media in a manner that is both meaningful and cost-effective.

I believe our approach at Time Traveler Tours & Tales highlights narrative on the digital device in a way that is both age appropriate and engaging for youth. We’re not trying to simulate the book. Rather, we harness the power of the touchscreen device to apply storytelling to a context it’s never been found in before: educational and cultural tourism.

We keep the story, not the device, at the center of all editorial and development decisions. For us, the device serves both to deliver the story as well as to compel reader/users to interact with their surroundings. We believe that interactivity is not limited to the reaction you can provoke with your finger; it’s also about what’s around you and who you’re with, and your collective experience of learning something new, together.

We view the touchscreen device as a portal to the past. Our narrators are your tour guides through time. Their stories take you back to important historical moments in the company of the colorful characters that lived through them. They turn places into living museums.

Technical features native to the device serve to enhance the experience of the story. For example,

  • Embedded in each story are hunts for existing artifacts verified using image recognition.

  • Geolocation serves to alert you when you’ve arrived at your goal or destination.

  • Period artwork, posters, maps, and propaganda illustrate the story and history as well, in some cases using augmented reality to give you a view of yesterday, today.

  • Hotspot and drag-and-drop programming fuel extension activities and games that ask user/readers to think beyond the story to the history itself.

  • Optional audio and text screens offer choices as to how you might like to consume the content: as a user or a reader, or both, depending on whether you’re on location with the story, or back at home.

  • And the ability to toggle between English and the language of the story location make our tales great resources for language learners as well as educational travelers.

Illustration from Stone Giant, copyright © 2014 by John Shelley Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. 85 Main Street, Watertown, MA 02472, (617) 926-0329. All rights reserved. www.charlesbridge.com.

Illustration from Stone Giant, copyright © 2014 by John Shelley Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. 85 Main Street, Watertown, MA 02472, (617) 926-0329. All rights reserved. www.charlesbridge.com.

None of the above examples of interactivity was possible before the age of mobile technology. But we recognize that technical bells and whistles can never take the place of a really great tale.

For us, the story remains paramount. Story is humankind’s oldest artform. No one can resist the power of a good yarn. We use technology to the advantage of the story. Our mantra: The tech must serve the tale. We keep the story at the center all things. We start, and end, with story.

That’s how we Turn History On.

Our next title suite, IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GIANTS by Mary Hoffman, is an interactive quest through Renaissance Florence. Imagine walking in the footsteps of Michelangelo with the model for the statue of David as he sends you off in search of treasures dating to the era of the de’Medici.

Itching to know more about Mary's tale?
Worry Not! There's more to come next week!

Did you have a favorite children's app in 2014? Please tell us in the comments.

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