apps

Cultural Competence in the Digital Realm: #WeNeedDiverseApps!

At the recent ALA Annual in Las Vegas, I was part of a panel named “Whet Your Appetite: Rapid Reviews of Apps for Children from Preschool to Tweens” along with Paige Bentley-Flannery, Cen Campbell, and Claire Moore. Our session provided rapid reviews of an assortment of apps, and my portion was on multicultural apps for young people. Based on the ever-growing number of book apps for young readers available in the iTunes store, I wanted to learn more about multicultural book app offerings. Limiting our search to Apple products for the sake of convenience (since I am an iPad user), my graduate assistant Rebecca Price and I combed through the iTunes store, various review sites including Kirkus, School Library Journal, Hornbook, Publishers Weekly, many of the blogger sites that cover apps, such as Carisa Cluver’s Digital Storytime and Cen Campbell’s Little eLit. Frankly, we had a terrible time finding quality apps that reflected diversity. And of those that were available, many were flawed.

One such book app, A Song for Miles, by Tiffany Simpkins Russell, Ph.D., with illustrations by Raheli Scarborough, features beautiful illustrations that look like oil or acrylic on canvas, but there is no explanatory note about the art. The app has very limited interactivity, and is subsequently more of an enhanced book rather than a book app.  The text is about a father educating his young son about the music that inspires him, and he describes songs by artists from Earth, Wind, & Fire to Stevie Wonder, but unfortunately, none of this music is included in the app. In order to hear the music, on the last page, there is a list of the music described, and readers can “Tap on the song titles below to view artist catalog in iTunes.” I imagine that the author and illustrator may not have realized the licensing roadblock their story posed, and they may have had other intentions at the outset, but unfortunately, in the end, this book ends up being little more than a commercial of songs available for purchase.

The Story of Kalkalilh, by Bramble Berry Tales, developed by Loud Crow Interactive, is a book app based on an oral story told by the Squamish people of southwestern British Columbia. According to the developer’s site: “With Bramble Berry Tales we saw a need to bring three oral histories incredibly dear to the Squamish, Sto:lo, and Cree Nations to life”. In addition to English, French, and Spanish, the app can be played in Squamish. The app received a starred review from Kirkus and was included on the 2013 Kirkus list of Best Book Apps. Unfortunately, while this app featured easy navigation throughout and a nice feature of being able to click on icons to hear Squamish words pronounced and get background information on terms such as Potlach (Tl’enk) and Longhouse (Lam’), which are specifically relevant to the setting of the story, I am not able to judge the cultural authenticity of this app, nor could I find reviews that spoke to the app’s cultural accuracy.

The New York Times recently published articles by the late Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher about the lack of diverse books in the US. Christopher Myers cited a study by the Cooperative Children’s book center at the University of Wisconsin which found that Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 92 featured an African American character. As a result of these articles, writer Ellen Oh created the Twitter hastag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

As our roles shift and we increasingly are tasked with providing digital resources for our patrons, it is important that we seek out, collect, and provide access to balanced digital collections, just as we do with print resources. We need diverse book apps indeed. But we must maintain a critical perspective as we evaluate those, and separate blatantly commercial products from quality ones worth sharing with our communities.

Title: The Story of Kalkalilh

Title: A Song for Miles

Marianne Martens is Assistant Professor at Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science and a member of ALSC’s Children and Technology Committee. You can read more about her work at mariannemartens.org, and she can be reached at mmarten3@kent.edu.

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