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What makes a great e-book for kids?

The BolognaRagazzi Digital Award, given annually, helps to draw attention to the best in digital books and apps for kids. I’ve found the coverage of the award over the past couple of years to be a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration for anyone looking to create something in this space—and particularly helpful for those who are entirely new to the endeavor.

The award was established in 2011 “to identify best practices in this emerging category of commercial products, on a global scale,” so the winners can be from anywhere, which is part of the fun.

LaunchKids 2015, a conference on digital books for kids, shared a list of insights into what did or didn’t work with that year’s BolognaRagazzi winners, and the lessons learned can serve as a roadmap for creating digital books and apps. (I haven’t seen a similar analysis for 2016 or 2017, but I think the lessons are still relevant.)

So, what makes a great e-book, and a not-so-great ebook? Here are a few pointers that caught my eye, as I begin to toss around ideas of what’s possible:

  1. Interactivity: If you’ve got items on the screen that look like they should respond to a touch, make sure they do! Don’t invite the touch of a curious child, only to have no payoff. Look at "Oh!" by Anouck Boisrobert & Louis Rigaud, a 2017 BolognaRagazzi winner.
  2. Interactivity, 2.0: Make sure interactivity advances a narrative. Don’t simply toss in illustrations and hot spots to jab.
  3. Kid-controlled: Make sure you have a mute button that enables a child to control the experience. You’re looking for a psychological balance between screen and child initiation.
  4. JackandtheBeanstalk-726x726Innovation: This is probably the Holy Grail—easier said than done. Try to stay a step ahead on the innovation wave, and do something new. Don’t just offer up a “collective mush of mediocre quality stories with limited features and perhaps a jigsaw puzzle, a coloring page or a game of concentration. There’s so much more the medium can do.” Don’t create what the judges referred to as just another “page flipper.” As an example, check out Nosy Crow's "Jack and the Beanstalk". At 9:03, the child mends a broken mirror with an image of his or her own self. This is something that had never been done before, and won the app a 2014 BolognaRagazzi mention.
  5. Teaching moments: Help the emerging reader. Labeling strategies, closed captioning options, and touch and hear techniques to help a child build a bridge toward becoming a reader—all these won points.
  6. LoopimalThe human touch: Don't focus on technical fireworks at the expense of great quality sound, and good old fashioned warmth and humor. Apps needn't dazzle and overwhelm. The simplest of apps can engage and delight. An example is Loopimal by Yatatoy, which won a 2016 BolognaRagazzi mention.


More useful links:
LaunchKids 2015 full downloadable report
BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, 2015
BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, 2016
BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, 2017

Why is electronic literature different than traditional print?

As an ebook avoider who is more likely to thumb through an auto parts catalogue than actually look at an ebook, I realized that the first thing I had to do in exploring the world of digital literature was to get straight on what I’m talking about. I needed some definitions, because I had a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot more out there to be curious about than just electronic books.  What exactly are the new forms that we’re seeing today?

I came across a 2013 Library of Congress program entitled “The Electronic Literature Showcase”, 3 days designed to raise awareness of the growing field of digital literary expression, which included the exhibit, “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms.”

The curatorial statement for the exhibit defines electronic literature as a “digital born” literary work, or something created on a computer and usually meant to be read on a computer.

Which, honestly, makes me kind of start snoring a little bit.

But, hang on. Read through an overview of the exhibit, and it gets more interesting. Electronic literature, by this definition, is special because it takes advantage of what’s unique and different about computers and devices. It builds upon, experiments with, and extends what we’re already doing with print, but goes beyond it, in ways that print can’t.

The overview goes on to say:

Words dance across computer screens while games become poems become puzzles, or readers choose their own path through multi-layered hypertext narrative or use hand-held devices to view works that are location-aware.

It makes sense to me (especially after taking a look at some of the latest, best offerings, which I’ll share in a later post) that there really are new emerging forms of narrative that are their own animal. Think about the early days of television. People in the industry would have had to figure out that you couldn’t just slap a head-on stage production on TV – they had to figure out a whole new form, with cuts and camera angles and all the endless touches and techniques that differentiate screen from stage.

The exhibit’s notes also make the point that electronic literature is an artistic medium, just like any other medium. “Give an artist something, anything, to create with––air, animal skin, paper, computer screen––and she or he will find a way to use it for making art.” 

The takeaway: there’s a whole experimental form called “electronic literature”, which is so much more than just ebooks.

Ebook Enhancements? Start Thinking As You're Writing


Most writers have heard the classic writing advice: “Butt in chair.” Being a writer is about sitting alone in a room and staying there until the book is written.  


But I’ve been wondering – now that a book can be enhanced with music, sound effects, embedded content, and graphics – how do you create that kind of a book? Not by working alone, I’ll bet.


Deskology, honest edition


Do you have to team up first with web designers and digital artists? Or do you pitch the idea to an agent or  publisher, who then puts the team together?


I looked at Andi Buchanan’s process of writing Gift (an interactive digital YA novel released in March 2012 by Open Road). When Buchanan started writing Gift a couple of years ago, she was just beginning to read ebooks on a tablet. Wouldn’t it be great, she thought, to take advantage of the “shape-shifting, dynamic” aspects of the technology? And wouldn’t her book be a perfect fit?


Publisher’s Weekly talks about Buchanan’s process, from which we can learn a few lessons:

 1.      Think about potential ebook enhancements as you’re writing, and be open to where the new universe of possibilities takes your writing.


  2.     Know something about interactive design.  (Um... Methinks I see a future post. After I’ve learned something about, you know, interactive design.)


3.     Look for a music collaborator in the obvious places, like YouTube. Buchanan saw FreddeGredde’s performance there, liked it, and asked him to do the soundtrack for the book.


4.     Stay true to the story. “I wanted to respect the reader and not just have wacky enhancements because we could,” says Buchanan.


5.     Even as you’re staying committed to storytelling, have a vision for how the book might be on a tablet. Like Buchanan, come to your publisher with “a ton of crazy ideas.”


Thanks: Mary Kole’s post, “Digital Inspires Collaboration” (at inspired this one.