When it comes to physical books and materials, librarians are confident reviewers and collectors. We can distinguish between a so-so beginning reader and a truly excellent one. We know what makes a particular work of middle grade fiction absolute shelf candy versus a hard sell. We can appreciate what goes into the creation of a brilliantly designed picture book. The good news is that many of the same critical skills used to evaluate physical media are transferable when evaluating digital media. Ebooks and apps, however, do present new challenges as well as new possibilities. It can be helpful to go in armed with a simple set of criteria for evaluation.
The following is a rough checklist for evaluating book-based apps and enchanced ebooks, compiled from expert advice on the SLJ Touch and Go blog*, leading children’s app developers, and my own trials and tribulations navigating this brave new digital world:
1. Does it expand and enhance the traditional reading experience?
There’s not much point in offering an ebook or app if it is simply a page-by-page replication of the physical book. A great app or ebook should be interactive and encourage creative thinking and problem solving. It should take the characters, the setting, the themes, or the world of the book and allow the reader to explore them in new ways.
2. Does it allow a linear reading experience?
While cool games and interactive features can distinguish a good app or ebook, it can also be its weakest attribute. As Michel Kripalani, CEO and founder of Oceanhouse Media Inc., a leading children’s app developer, explains, “it is important that the games and additional features have purpose and do not diminish the reading experience.” Kripalani recently related the story of a friend who had a rather disappointing experience while sharing a book-based app with his daughter at bedtime: The app interrupted the story so many times with games and activities that the little girl and her dad were never able to fully enter into the narrative. The magic of that shared reading experience was lost. A well-designed app should strike a balance between opportunities for exploration outside of the narrative as well as opportunities to lose oneself in the story alone.
3. Does it engage multiple literacies and learning styles?
An excellent book-based app or ebook should offer the user a dynamic experience that engages the senses and allows for interaction in a variety of ways. For example, many apps are geared, by their very nature, towards visual learners. What about an app that also engages auditory or kinesthetic learning styles?
4. It is intelligently designed? Is it intuitive, flexible and customizable?
Just as a well-designed picture book achieves a fine balance between tension and surprise, and expertly employs the “turn of the page” as a means of creating drama, an intelligently designed app or ebook can maximize (and individualize) the unique relationship that exists between screen and user. Above all, a good app will be user friendly and easy for children to navigate. Beyond that, a great app may offer customizable features such as the ability to alter the settings (easy/medium/hard) and accessibility options (such as font size or narration speed.)
5. Does it have legs (i.e., longevity)?
As far as whether or not any particular ebook or app will be technically compatible with future devices and services is hard to say. That depends a lot on the vendor, the device(s) currently used, and how libraries wind up negotiating and reimagining terms of service contracts with publishers, developers, and service providers. Be that as it may, it is still useful to look at the overall shelflife of any particular app or ebook.
We know this to be true when it comes to physical media. You’ve seen those hilarious books that have you LOLing after that first read. After the third or fourth, however….not so much. These “one trick ponies” exist in the digital world as well. A great app has, as executive producer of children’s apps at One Hundred Robots, Matt Bassett, explains, “replayability.” A good app or ebook should entice children to enjoy and explore them again and again- just as a good book invites multiple readings.
*Last month, School Library Journal launched the Touch and Go blog dedicated to evaluating and reviewing book-based apps and enhanced ebooks for children and teens. It is a terrific resource for discovering great new apps and staying in-the-know about the latest buzz in the app/ebook world.