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Bologna Children's Book Fair

Breaking Boundaries: The State of Children’s Apps in 2015

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Breaking Boundaries: The State of Children’s Apps in 2015

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.” 

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What Makes a Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award Winner?

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On the evening of my Bologna Children’s Book Fair launch of Time Traveler Tours & Tales, I had the great fortune of being present for the 2014 Bologna Ragazzi Award celebration and prosecco toast. This was only the 3rd year for the digital category of the Ragazzi Award. To date, it is the closest thing the digital book world yet has to the Caldecott or Newberry.

It's a unique contest in that it's free to enter, there are no gimmicks, and both entrants as well as judging panel are international. What's more, the judges are particularly interested in discovering unknown talent.

The annual Digital Ragazzi Award shortlist has become my go-to source for all things cutting-edge in story-based interactive media for kids. As soon as the lucky 20 shortlisted titles are announced, I run straight to the appropriate distribution channel – the app store, iBookstore, etc. – to download the winners, mentions, and finalists in both fiction and non-fiction categories.

I play with them. I study them. I try to glean everything I can from these standard bearers in the digital publishing space. I pluck from them every trick, tidbit, and tantalizing technique that might inform the look and feel of the future Time Traveler Tours & Tales media library.

I most appreciate the cross-cultural perspective the Digital Ragazzi Award collection provides. This year’s candidates included 258 products from 37 countries. As the judging panel is also multicultural, it is particularly interesting to discover what resonates within such international diversity.

But, lucky me!, this year I didn’t have to guess how the winning titles made it through the judges’ screening process to rise above the rest. Because on the eve of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I joined an intensive master class sponsored by the Dust or Magic community and facilitated by Bologna Digital Ragazzi Award judge Warren Buckleitner (USA), supported by Klaas Verplanke (Belgium) and Cristina Mussinelli (Italy). Only Chris Meade (UK) appeared to be missing.

Master class participants and speakers comprised Ragazzi Award finalists, including Touch Press, represented by John Cromie, and Nosy Crow's Kate Wilson. Together along with the judges and honorees, we studied what constitutes best practice (Magic) and worst (Dust) in today’s interactive media for kids.


First, the winners. This year’s top prizes went to the following six titles:


  • Pierre et le loup, Camera Lucida, Paris, France

  • ABC Actions, Peapod Labs, LLC, Chicago, USA

  • Double Double, And Then Story Designers, USA/Venezuela


  • Love, The App, Niño Studio, Caba, Argentina

  • Midnight Feast, Slap Happy Larry, Murrumbateman, Australia

  • Jack and the Beanstalk, Nosy Crow, London, UK


What made the judges' feel they were in the presence of Magic?
The judges placed heavy importance on interactive innovations. These did not have to be numerous or even necessarily advanced (see Double Double). But they did need to suit the age and developmental stage of the target audience. They also needed to be seamlessly integrated within the narrative and visual content. In short, they needed to make sophisticated tech look easy by not being noticeable at all.

With the exception of Shaun Tan's, Rules of Summer, the judges tended to prefer works developed specifically for the digital environment, as opposed to digitized duplicates of print publications. Despite cultural differences between the judges as well as personal preferences for illustration versus narration, all four judges agreed without reservation on this singular point:

Digital media offer new ways for children and youth to access and experience content, and learn from it. Digital formats demand, therefore, that developers go beyond the limits of print and explore with their new media publications the boundaries that come with each and every format.

Other features that caused magical titles to shine through the crowd were:

  • Innovation, products that did something new or did something new with older tech

  • A new story, so many ideas are recycled

  • Quality in all product elements, from illustration to narration to audio to technical craftsmanship

  • Multi-touch technology used naturally to tell a story

  • Seamless integration of tech and storytelling assets

  • Responsive to touch

  • Intuitive to use

  • Scaffolds learning for the user

What broke apart and crumbled to Dust in the judges' hands?
In addition to mere digitized print content, other things that constituted Dust for the judges were:

  • Buggy products that crashed or took too long to load

  • Clumsy or obviously templated design

  • Art that doesn’t do anything

  • Good illustration with bad narrative, or vice versa, good narrative with bad illustration

  • Clunky mechanics, ex. pages turn accidentally, interactive elements in for sport, slow to load, not responsive to touch

  • Stuff already seen before, lacking any new innovation or surprising uses of older innovation

  • “Jabby” products, i.e., sprinkled with hotspots that don’t serve the content

  • “Flippy” products, i.e., when page advancement mimics a print book

  • “Evil” products: i.e., cash traps or peppered with links to web content

  • Wordy, especially egregious in products for non- or emerging readers

  • Background music that loops over and over and can’t be controlled by user

  • Content containing ethnic stereotypes

  • Endings that makes no sense

  • No credits – left the judges asking, who made this?

The Dust or Magic masterclass, called Generation Remix, concluded with facilitators restating that quality in all areas is paramount. This validated my mantra that storyapp craft is a team effort. It requires the combined efforts of storytellers, visual designers, interactive user design gurus, and dynamic coders, and let's not forget savvy marketing professionals, to make magical Interactive media for kids.

You can’t make a good salad with bad lettuce. Exceptional quality never goes out of style.
— Warren Buckleitner

Great products can be simple, as some of this year's winners are. But they must be beautiful and well conceived. Indeed, it's the best ones that make it look easy.


How do you know if your product is Dust or Magic? Put it in the hands of kids. They’ll show you, or "home" you. Every time.

But don't take my word for it. Take a look at the video below to hear from the 2014 Digital Ragazzi Award judges themselves.

Stay tuned for my next blog post -- an Interview with Pablo Conti, developer of Love, The App.



Bologna Sneak Peek: Time Traveler Tours & Tales Are Now Open for Author Submissions

I am thrilled to announce that on 24 March 2014, at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I will throw open the virtual doors of my burgeoning twin digital imprints, Time Traveler Tours & Tales, for author submissions.

Thanks to the editorial and programming firepower I have now assembled in Team TTT&T, Time Traveler Tours & Tales aims to produce a full suite of digital publications: storyapps, interactive books, eBooks, print on demand paperback books, and curriculum guides dedicated to bringing history to life through story and games. We now seek authors of creative nonfiction and historical fiction interested in publishing across the formats and in being a part of a promising start-up now positioning itself to scale worldwide.

If you’re coming to the Fair and want to hear more, I will be officially launching the endeavor at the SCBWI Stand (Pavilion 26, Booth A/66) from 1:00-2:00pm.

Now, I can almost hear you saying, Sarah, What the What? Why in the world would you want to become a digital publisher? Are you mad? I’ve certainly asked that plenty of time myself.

I will be recounting the story of Why? at the Fair. So for those of you planning to attend my talk and launch announcement, go on and bounce. We all have plenty to read in cyberspace. Go read someone else’s blog and I’ll see you at the Fair.

But, for those of you who can’t be with me in Bologna, please read on. I want you to know my story, for it is also the story of the digital revolution…


I launch my debut bilingual storyapp tour, Beware Madame La Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, to rave reviews and numerous accolades.

But you know that part of the story, ‘cause it’s the only part of the story I’ve ever told. What you don’t know is that there’s been a dark underbelly to my story, too. A truly gloomy, sometimes sinister side. So allow me to skip right to that, to tell what was really happening behind all my happy-go-lucky bluster…

Chapter One
Despite the critical success of Beware Mme la Guillotine (BMLG), I was forced to halt production of any further storyapp iTineraries in the spring of 2012. The pre-production plan with my then-development partner had been that BMLG would provide a structure onto which all future TTT storyapps could be constructed. The model would be: one build, many apps. From an economical standpoint, BMLG would be the most expensive app to produce, with all others coming in at a fraction of that cost.

I bought into this plan, heavily considering I was using personal savings to support it. I entrusted my dev partner to the task. But no sooner had BMLG gone live in its fully realized bilingual form when my now ex-dev partner would change his tune completely.

All apps going forward, he informed me, will cost just as much to produce as BMLG.


Chapter Two
I couldn’t afford to go on. It wasn’t economically viable for me to do so, for the mathematical reality faced – then as now – by the app developer is this:

Apps are expensive to build
nearly impossible to find in the increasingly noisy AppStore
the culture of the AppStore pushes prices down.

Anything over $2.99 is considered expensive. And I was hoping to get $7.99 for BMLG. But the only time the app ever really moved was during promotional events with Moms With Apps or the Educational App Store when I set it to free or 99 cents. Then, downloads would shoot to between 500-1000. But no one, NO ONE, was thanking me with a review.

So BMLG very quickly fell out of Apple’s sights. Though she began her life with two whole weeks as an Apple New & Noteworthy App, and many months in What’s Hot, once she fell out of view, there was no getting her back. She was no longer “discoverable.” 

The only way to realize ROI (return on investment) in the AppStore is to sell cheap, in massive volume, and to engineer into your app structure the need for users to purchase additional bits and pieces. This works very well in the gaming world – think: Angry Birds.

But for storyapps with a limited audience like mine – kids in Paris with an iPhone or iPod Touch – as well as legal and ethical restrictions on exploiting youth with in-app purchases, the model of bespoke app development simply doesn’t work.


Chapter Three
I was loathe to give up. I had already come so far. My concept – to bring history to life through story and games by harnessing the latest in interactive technology – had proven itself with BMLG.

So I took my source code and set out to find another developer, one who would buy into my concept and help me achieve my original goal of developing an app publishing platform.

My search was arduous, Sisyphean even. No one wanted to work with my first guy’s code: in part, because developers (it turns out) are mostly prima donnas; in part, because (it turned out) the code was a big, fat mess.

I would have to start all over. And I was all out of money.

When I finally gave up searching, that’s when things really started to happen.


Chapter Four
Apple launched iBooks Author, and I spent a few weeks setting BMLG up for that environment. Why not? I had all the creative assets and image permissions. iBA is a free download, so no dev costs if you do it yourself. And while not as interactive as the App, the BMLG iBook looks and feels great.

What’s more, teachers and librarians love it.

But I could spend 25-hour days marketing the thing and still not sell enough to warrant my time investment. Plus, all the marketing was interfering with my ability to produce new work.

That’s when it dawned on me that it would be easier to sell in collaboration. The key: Cross-Promotion.

Currently, when you land on my Apple preview page you see one lonely book. It’s beautiful, to be sure, and it may be just what you need. But who wants to party with a wallflower?

Now imagine that page filled with titles by many authors. Suddenly you have a rockin’ party. As a consumer, you feel immediately more confidant about joining the dance. Just look at all that social proof!

Chapter Five
So I decided to produce for the tablet environment instead and to invite others to join me: A coalition of quality creative nonfiction authors writing under a single brand: Time Traveler Tales.

I teamed up with star Editor & Publishing Consultant, Emma D. Dryden. Together we envisioned a library full of interactive stories that bring history to life across devices and markets, written by ace authors of creative nonfiction and historical fiction with also have active online presences.

We brought Beth Lower, Art Designer for the BMLG storyapp, back into the picture and set out to build a new website and image. Then Marcie Colleen leapt in to produce professional curriculum guides to go along with out stories. Caitlin Hoffman and Sebastian Hallum-Clarke also climbed on board as Community Manager and In-House Tech Guru, respectively.

I was writing again, producing my next interactive title with Emma’s able guidance. And the team was working to “define” the Time Traveler Tales brand.


Chapter Six
Meanwhile, BMLG, the storyapp, sat languishing in the AppStore, dying a slow death with each new iOS update. I was doing nothing to save her, merely counting the days when I’d have to pull her off the Store.

Then, into my life re-walked the team at Bluespark Labs. Their Founder, Michael Tucker, had been one of the original beta-testers of the BMLG tour. He’d loved the concept then and is in a position now, having built his own creative digital development agency, to help reignite the Time Traveler Tours vision.

And so Team TTT&T was born. Blending our respective talents, we will now unite the very best in interactive storytelling with the latest in mobile technology to revolutionize the discovery of history by digital natives on mobile and tablet formats – we’re even throwing in POD editions, because we can.

Chapter Seven
So, at long last, I am thrilled to announce that my twin digital imprints, Time Traveler Tours & Tales, are now open for author submissions.

Accepted authors will become part of the TTT&T Author Atelier, an online forum offering ongoing editorial support for all works in development.

Stories will first be produced as tablet iTales, eTales, and POD paperback books. Common Core aligned curriculum guides will be produced to support their use in schools.

Stories will then be adapted and expanded for the mobile environment and republished as interactive iTineraries.

Royalties to authors will be generous.


Time Traveler Tours & Tales bring history to life at the tips of your fingers.
Consider joining us. Let’s make history together!