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Dust or Magic


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.



The 13th Annual Dust or Magic Institute: Magic-Making Factor #4

Technology + Learning Theory + Play Theory = Magic.

A major focus of the Dust or Magic Institute is to bring educators and technologists together in the same space, and to provide the latter with a crash course in Childhood Development. Why? So that they may create age- and developmentally-appropriate products for kids, steeped in sound educational theory. The most important one being that all of us, kids and adults alike, learn best through play.

As a teacher of 20+ years, I was gratified to discover educational theory being applied to children’s interactive media in this way.

However, lacking in the above equation, I felt, was the time-honored lesson to be drawn from the world of children’s publishing: that the visual element serves a valuable role too, and one often neglected in today's interactive media for kids.

As a children’s author and a connoisseur of picture book art, I was shocked by the low visual quality of some of the media products we studied at Dust or Magic. Many of them, I’m sorry to say, were just plain ugly, with illustrations that looked little better than clip art.

Anyone working on behalf of children must appreciate the role that great illustration plays in communicating with and teaching children. In illustrated books, the story and images weave seamlessly together to create something better than the sum of their parts. Indeed, great illustrations tell at least 50% of the story and can make an already great text shine even brighter.

Yet, this is not often the case in today’s digital products.

Not all children’s digital media will contain story. They don’t all have too. But digital media are nothing if not visual. It is imperative, therefore, that we developers make our products visually appealing. To make them works of art.

Beware Madame la Guillotine, for example, is illustrated with great period masterpieces as well as propaganda and popular lithographs dating to the French Revolution. While we place an emphasis on the history as revealed by the story and accompanying treasure hunts, and not on the art per se, the app is also a subtle lesson in Art History. And we trust that this will be understood on some level by each of our user/readers. 

Our kids deserve the total package. It’s not enough to be age appropriate and steeped in sound educational theory. Our products must also be beautiful.

Nosy Crow and Touch Press set the standard in this regard, as do the apps by OCG Studios, illustrated by Roxie Munro. Their products combine great storytelling with gorgeous illustrations, topped off with interactive gaming elements that enhance the narrative and extend learning.

At the Dust or Magic Institute, participants rate demoed products on a scale of one to ten – one being “dust” and ten being “magic”. Judging criteria are not provided, so it’s hard to know what’s behind each participant’s decision. But I'll admit to aiming my laser beam low (see video above for explanation) for any product – even the most educationally sound – if it did not deliver a quality visual experience as well.  

As a children’s author, app developer, educator, and burgeoning digital publisher, I feel most days as if I am contorted on a Twister board, struggling to maintain a viable position; or drifting the northern seas with each of my two feet and hands clinging to a different iceberg, each ice floe representing one the four elements -- educational theory, great story content, and compelling visuals -- I hope to bring together in my ambition to produce quality interactive product for kids.

But it can, and must, be done. As Warren Buckleitner, himself, beseeched us at the close of the 2013 Institute: “Go forth and do right by the kids!”

It is my hope that developers of children's interactive digital media will take a minute to hire a proper illustrator for their future projects. Following on that, I hope that the opening equation of Dust or Magic 2014 be modified as well to read Technology + Learning Theory + Play Theory + High Quality Visual Art = Magic.

What do you think? Should digital media for kids honor a visual aesthetic? Please leave a comment and tell us what you think.

To Learn about Magic-Making Factors #1-3, Click Here.



Tools of Change at Dust or Magic

It's conference time again and I'm off! This time to...

...the annual Institute of designers, researchers, and reviewers of interactive media (IM) for children and youth.

So stay tuned for blog posts from historic Lambertville, New Jersey, including:

  • updates on the latest product releases and their use in schools;

  • observations on the intersection between child development theory and emerging interactive teaching-and-learning tools;

  • highlights on what's new in interactive design; and

  • interviews with others who are passionate about the potential of interactive media for children

Meanwhile, I invite you to check out my blog post in O'Reilly's Tools of Change for Publishing about the 3rd, and last, TOC Bologna Conference, where I met many of the fine folks who are the magic behind Dust or Magic.

Your comments welcome!