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Dust or Magic

A New App Journey Begins: Come with Us to Renaissance Florence


A New App Journey Begins: Come with Us to Renaissance Florence

Ciao! Buongiorno! This week I write to you from Florence, Italy, where I'm busy hunting for traces of Michelangelo for our coming Kickstarter Campaign video. I'm gathering some lovely donation rewards as well ;).

I began my Italian sojourn at the 2015 Bologna Children's Book Fair, soaking up all there is to be learned from my Dust or Magic colleagues and friends.

As evidenced by the top five Digital Ragazzi Award winners, 2014 will go down in history as the year children's apps broke forth from the boundaries imposed by the page. But 2015 finds the form still searching for how best to incorporate narrative...



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 #5-6


The 5th Magic-Making factor of this series has the user making decisions about how to interact with the media product at their fingertips. And this, dear readers, was perhaps the most profound learning of all learnings at the 2013 Annual Dust or Magic Institute: That we've returned to the most early essentials of game play with the best of today's interactive digital media.

Let me paint you a picture with LEGOS.

Once upon a time, a parent purchased a big box of multicolored LEGO bricks of varying sizes. The lucky recipient tore open the box and spilled the many pieces onto the floor. Then alone or in the company of others, he or she set about to build something from the imagination: a town, an imaginary animal, a flying car. When done, the creation was broken apart and the process of creation began all over again.

Over the years, LEGOS became increasingly linked to blockbuster movies and televised content. The result being that what you can create now with a particular boxed set of bricks is more often than not predetermined by the manufacturer. Instead of throwing caution to the wind and letting creativity dictate the story in the bricks, the user is now obligated to follow an instruction booklet to build something specific. Upon completion, the creation earns pride of place on a shelf where it commences to collect dust until the next theme-driven box of LEGOS arrives home to replace it.

In today's most successful interactive children's media, however, choice is returned to the user, who is empowered to interact with the product in creative ways. Whether in games, online meeting places, interactive story books, educational websites, or products targeted to learning environments, the user/reader/gamer/player/learner has the power to decide once again.

Take Minecraft as an example. It's LEGOS on the screen, people! LEGOS on steroids! The environment just goes and goes and goes. The choices you can make are infinite. Within specific conditions and under game-determined potential threats, YOU get decide what you want to build, what you can build it out of, where you should build it, etc., depending on the aspect of the gaming world you venture into.

What's more, as with the original LEGOS, Minecraft can be played alone and socially. And because it's online, you don't have to be in the same room to scratch that social itch anymore.

Because here's Magic-Making Factor #6: We are social animals. Always have been. Always will be. We are social animals that love, and need, to play.

Play is something we humans do to learn and to be in community with others, and, of course, to relax. It's an essential part of growing up, but it's something we never really grow out of, if we're lucky. Our games may change as we age, and our tools may change as we develop as a species, but our need to play with others and the pleasure we derive from it never ever goes away.

Returning to Minecraft and why it Is so important as a model for interactive product developers: Minecraft is popular because it can be played socially. But it's addictive because it's empowering, and not just within the game.

"Minecrafters" can take Minecraft code, which is open-source, and create their own versions of the game. This spurs true engagement, tapped by intrinsic motivation. Users learn through play in the very best sense of the expression. Because they want to.

Serious Minecrafters are not just enjoying a little down time with friends. And they're certainly not "wasting" time in front of a screen. They are figuring out, on a technical level, such things as gaming mechanics, 3D modeling, APIs, protocol analysis, and environment integration -- all the stuff of a degree in software engineering. They're solving engineering questions by brainstorming solutions to real world questions and applying them to an imaginary world of their making. On a human level, they are gaining confidence in themselves and learning how to collaborate with others. They are tapping the foundations of the creative process, every time they play, by experimenting, testing, failing, trying again, and eventually succeeding before moving on to the next challenge.

They are constructing, one pixelated block at a time, an internal world of knowing that they will carry with them into the future.

And that is pure magic. What we should all be striving for in our tools and products.

Now, I'm off to re-think the Time Traveler Tours and Time Traveler Tales' models. I think it's about time I Level-Up!

Not convinced? Check out the video documentary above. Then let me know what you think.

If you liked this post, you might also like:
Magic-Making Factor #4
Magic-Making Factor #1-3



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.



The 13th Annual Dust or Magic Institute: Magic-Making Factors #1-3

For 14 years, researchers, reviewers, and thought leaders in the world of interactive media for kids convene at Dust or Magic events to discuss, dissect, discern, and determine where the magic lies – and where it doesn’t – in digital products for youth.

They are helping to chart the way forward for our field, while providing tried-and-true advice to developers as to what constitutes developmentally appropriate learning tools for young people.

I was thrilled to be a part of the Institute for the first time this year.

The overarching goal of the Dust or Magic Institute, I quickly learned, is to define the factors that contribute to making child-focused interactive digital media – whether apps, games, TV, web-based tools and programs, eBooks or toys – worthy of our esteem or otherwise, that is: Magic or Dust.

Products are demoed, analyzed, and critiqued through the lens of childhood development, learning theory, and what can be considered educational play.

At Dust or Magic, the judgments aimed at today’s offerings are binary. But that’s not to say it's all clear-cut. For the world of children’s interactive media is in its infancy – the equivalent of the silent picture show days in the evolution of film – and what makes something “best in class” is changing all the time.

Factors that made magic even five years ago may tend toward dust today. As the devices (hardware) evolve, so must the software, and with it the content. As we learn more about what we can do with our tools, so too expand the myriad options that suggest what we can do with pictures, stories, words, and games to engage and educate young people and lay the foundation for lifelong learning.

Magic-Making Factors #1, #2, & #3

One conclusion we reached this year is that the earliest digital products sought to create one-to-one relationships with users, mirroring the experiences one might have with a book. Also like the book, these products tended to be linear.

Today, however, the strongest products succeed in bursting linear boundaries. They also encourage group experiences and empower users to jump off the screen and relate to each other and their environment.

This can be seen in the many offerings of Toca Boca that inspire creative parallel play among the pre-school set, the screen being their starting point. In Tinybops’ brilliant interactive exploration of the human body, aimed at an older audience, navigating through the app is anything but linear. The same can be said for most of the apps coming out of Touch Press, including their latest: Disney Animated. And Time Traveler Tours’ own innovative approach to educational tourism, in which the screen and story launch users into an exploration of their physical surroundings, was also validated.

The video above shows me demoing not just Beware Madame la Guillotine, but the Time Traveler Tours & Tales concept in general. We came out with a strong 7 out of 10. Pretty good for a first-timer at the Dust or Magic institute, don't you think?

I hope you’ll take a look at it and give us your rating.

Do you have any questions about Dust or Magic? Ask them in the comments. I’ll be happy to address them in future posts. Meantime, stay tuned. More #DustorMagic musings to come!

All best, Sarah