Tag Archives: kids

Apps I Like: Middle School Confidential-Real Friends vs. the Other Kind

Are adults the only ones who have to deal with ‘frenemies’? Unfortunately, the skill of navigating the stormy waters of relationships is needed pretty early. Middle School Confidential: Real Friends vs. the Other Kind is the second app in the award winning series by Electric Eggplant, and stands out as a resource for helping kids in their tween years work through friendships.

I reviewed the first app in this series last year, and the same team (Annie and David Fox) is behind this new offering as well. Annie says that the topic of friendships is the most common issue she sees in the emails she receives from kids this age, and this story came out of her desire to “empower tweens and teens to change the way they deal with feelings and situations–to show them that they are the key to creating the kind of relationships they want.”

Middle School Confidential App

This app is similar to the first one in that it contains several stories about a group of kids (the same characters from the first in the series) in an appealing comic book format. Each story focuses on a different scenario and character, and these seemed believable to me. There are quizzes sprinkled throughout, which I think kids will enjoy. There is also a handy character ‘cheat sheet’, which gives the reader insight into each of the kids and their behaviors.

Annie Fox handles common middle-school relationship issues with wisdom and sensitivity. I especially liked the way a bit of background was revealed on one of the troubled characters–a great lesson for kids, and helps them see that if someone is behaving unkindly, there’s often bigger issues lurking below the surface.

The Middle School Confidential apps are some of the very few apps designed for teens and tweens. Luckily for them, the apps feature professional writing and artwork, appropriate themes and high-quality production values. I love where this series is headed, and I’m glad kids this age have Annie Fox and Electric Eggplant on their side. I wish all story apps for kids contained this level of thoughtful attention and mindfulness of the target audience.

I notice this app has been optimized for the new iPad’s retina display, and it’s only $2.99 in the Apple App Store.

(Full disclosure: I received a copy of this app for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: The Artifacts

Some of my favorite stories create not only an interesting plot and compelling characters, but also a real sense of mood and place–and they incorporate details that make me want to revisit it again and again. Unlike most of the picture book apps I have, The Artifacts (a recent storybook app by the independent team Slap Happy Larry) succeeds mightily in accomplishing all of the above.

This app appears to be aimed at the older school-aged kids (8-11 or so). It’s about a kid who collects stuff–all kinds of junk from his neighbors’ trash. His parents don’t understand his need to collect, and the story is about what happens when the family moves away.

The Artifacts

The app does a wonderful job of creating a rather haunting, but irresistable mood.

I love the illustrations and the color palette the artist chose, as well as the gentle story, which would be wonderful in printed form. However, the interactive features do a fantastic job of taking full advantage of the iPad’s touchscreen and gyroscope capabilities, elevating enjoyment of the story to a whole new level. Most of the pages feature objects or words that appear when the screen is tapped, but others use the swiping/coloring technique to reveal new illustrations underneath, and a couple of them allow the reader to tilt the screen to move objects in ways that further the ideas in the story. It all makes for a very immersive, and very entertaining, experience.

While my kids are aged 6 and 7, we were all completely charmed by The Artifacts, and I bet you will be too. It’s a real steal at only $1.99 in the Apple App Store, and is a universal app which will work on any iOS device. Go git it!

Print Books vs. Ebooks

IKEA Library

Dream library, IKEA version

As long as I can remember, I’ve had the dream of one day owning a house big enough to hold a room with a dedicated library of all my books, complete with one of those rolling ladders to allow me to reach the high shelves. This dream personal library has a velvet chaise lounge with a beautiful bronze floor lamp next to it, and a fireplace, bear rug, the whole luxurious nine yards.

I made a startling realization the other day: if we abandon the fantasy of the chaise lounge/floor lamp/fireplace, I’ve already got the dream library, since I have more than 600 books in my Amazon Kindle Cloud Drive and more than 200 iOS apps, half of them book apps.

Dream library, Kindle version

I write this post today because I’ve been hearing the following statement lately, from a variety of people:

“I like ebooks and all, but I prefer the feel of a real book in my hands.”

While I don’t really care if these folks hold on to their dead tree books as long as they like, I think they’ll eventually change their minds. Here’s why.

Ebooks Are Convenient

Between all my gadgets (Android phone, two iOS devices and a Kindle Touch) I have access to hundreds of books (many obtained free, or at discount prices) in my favorite genres. I send cookbooks, craft books and other how-to or multimedia books to the Kindle Reader on my iPad; mysteries, business books, chick lit and other text-based books I want to read soon to the Kindle Touch, and the rest (books I may want to read someday) to the Kindle Cloud Reader, which effectively stores them in the cloud for free. I use the Kindle Reader on my phone when I don’t have access to one of my other reading devices and I’m unexpectedly caught with an extra few minutes in my day. I like having my library accessible anytime, anywhere–I don’t have to be on the velvet chaise lounge after all.

Page turns are managed with a single touch to the right-hand side of the screen, and I can get to any place in the book easily, within a couple of touches.

Ebooks Enhance the Experience of Reading

I love the ability to touch a word I don’t know and get the definition instantly. I love that the Kindle system keeps my place no matter which device I’m using. I also love the way many of the book apps I have for my kids not only hold their interest but encourage literacy and retention through interactive features (one company that does this especially well is Oceanhouse Media with word highlighting and the ability to hear a word aloud when it’s pressed in their storybook apps).

Ebooks Are Lighter and Easier to Maneuver

I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Because I am a cheapskate, I decided to read the third book (A Clash of Swords) in paperback, since I found it at my local used bookstore and purchased it with store credit. This book, in mass market paperback form, is heavier and bulkier than my Kindle Touch and won’t stay open without my propping it with a heavy object, so it’s difficult to hold with just one hand. I like the fact that I can store all the ebook versions of the others in the series (and hundreds of other books) on a single device that weighs less than the small-format paperback.

Ebooks Are Less Wasteful

Lately when I hold a print book, especially a hardcover, I’m hit with the overwhelming feeling of wastefulness. There’s something pretty unpleasant about the fact that the book I hold in my hands is a real, tangible slice of what used to be a living thing, processed and assembled for the sole purpose of my entertainment or learning. I offset this as much as I can by taking physical books I don’t want anymore to my local used bookstore, then offering the ones they don’t want on PaperbackSwap.com, but the fact is: printed books use up resources (paper, ink, glue and more) that no longer need to be expended for the same entertainment or educational value.

Ebooks Can be Updated Much Faster, and at Less Cost

Non-fiction books in print form eventually become outdated. Information changes and evolves as humans gain more knowledge about a topic, or when materials or ways of doing things are improved. But let’s be honest: most non-fiction print books will be truly useful for only a fraction of their lives. After that, the next edition replaces it–at significant cost. Textbook publishers have profited from this with great success for many years–at the expense of both teachers and students.

It’s time for ebooks to become the preferred way to distribute educational materials and other non-fiction content, which can be updated quickly and redistributed almost instantly, to all users of the material, with no expending of the tangible resources needed to print a new edition.

However, Ebooks Aren’t Perfect

For me, the five reasons above are pretty compelling for the shift to digital. But there are some things about ebooks I don’t like as well. These shortcomings aren’t enough to send me back to paper, but they are worth mentioning:

  • The Kindle ‘Farthest Page Read’ Feature Needs a Reset Button. The ability of Amazon’s Kindle devices to keep my place is great, but occasionally I accidentally make my way to a later page that doesn’t actually reflect where I am in the book. When this happens, keeping my place manually becomes a pain in the neck. I’d love to see a way to reset this, but I imagine it won’t happen, since the addition of this feature would make it much easier for spouses and other family members to share books on the same family of devices. But since I let my kids and spouse share my print books, I’d sort of like to share my ebooks with them too, in a hassle-free way. Come on, Amazon!
  • Prices of Ebooks from the Big Publishers are Too Expensive. Books coming from the big 6 publishers are priced according to their artificial and rapidly-crumbling world of print scarcity and their hardback-to-trade-paperback-to-mass-market-paperback release schedule. This is archaic and needs to change. Why should the ebook version of a title ever cost more than the mass market paperback would? It all comes down to greed, and an over-reliance of the old way of doing things. Eventually these outdated practices will put many of these publishers and retailers (remember Borders?) out of business.
  • Ebook Lending Needs to Be Improved. It’s nice that I can lend one of my Kindle books to someone else (if the publisher allows it), but I can only do it once. After that, the book can’t be lent again. I don’t mind the restrictions of one-person-at-a-time and my own inaccessibility during the lending period (since these are in force for my print books too) but let’s remove the artificial restriction of once only, and let me lend a book I’m finished with over and over if I choose.
  • Ebook Devices Aren’t Durable or Affordable Enough. When iOS devices and other ebook readers are able to withstand normal wear and tear by school-aged children (i.e. being dropped on the floor) and are cheaper than $50, we will see a true revolution. Until then, they aren’t practical enough to replace most of the printed books in my house, which are now children’s books. Plus an entire segment of the population (the lower middle classes and below) have little to no access yet.

So, what I’m saying is: in spite of the drawbacks, ebooks have become just as ‘real’ to me as print books are. I love them both, but I’m not buying many print books anymore. And eventually (probably within the next five years or so) most of the rest of you will be saying the same thing.

Apps I Like: Doodlecast by Tickle Tap Apps

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

Such is the case with Doodlecast, a new offering from Tickle Tap Apps. The idea behind this is simple indeed, but the app opens the door wide open to a world of kids’ creativity.

Doodlecast is nothing more than a tool which allows kids to capture the process of creating a drawing–in video form, with their own narration. Kids can choose from several ideas to get the creative juices flowing, or they can start with (my favorite) a blank canvas. There are several colors to draw with, and once a background/idea is selected, the video recording process automatically begins. Simply speak while drawing to record a voiceover for your video, if desired. Press ‘Done’ when finished…playback the video and press Save, and voila! Your video is ready to be shared on your device. Use the Photos app (included with every iOS device) to view, email, or upload to YouTube.

Watch the above video to see how my 6 year-old daughter used Doodlecast to create a short clip about playing in the park. Note: I found this in the camera roll on my iPad a few days after my daughter created it, which is a testament to how easy the app is to use. She did it all on her own with no help or prompting from me. Pretty neat, eh?

Here’s the official app trailer for Doodlecast. This is a fun toy that encourages free expression, and is a great deal in the iTunes App Store at $1.99.

(Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this app for review purposes.)

Best Kids Apps Reviews I Don’t Like Pink!

One of my favorite new app review sites (Best Kids Apps) has reviewed my storybook app I Don’t Like Pink! They even put together a teaser video–wow! Here’s some of what was mentioned in the review:

“This is a wonderful book app that is loaded with lessons. The author, as well as the illustrator, Brooks Jones is a natural born teacher…A great gift for Christmas time and interacting with many friends and family members. This app is a great addition to your kid’s toolbox for life!”

Check out the entire review here.

Apps I Like: My Little Pony by Ruckus Media

I have to come clean here. As a parent of two young girls, I am often on the lookout for stories that provide strong female characters and feature empowering, not stereotypical situations. Therefore I frown on, but do not forbid, traditional pink/princess/fluffy stuff like Barbie, the Disney princesses and (gulp) My Little Pony. However, I know both my girls love My Little Pony, and I thought the new app from Ruckus Media deserved a chance at my house. Could it take advantage of the format and provide an experience beyond simple entertainment?

My Little Pony by Ruckus Media

My Little Pony - Twilight Sparkle: Teacher for a Day by Ruckus Media

The app is centered around a My Little Pony story called Twilight Sparkle: Teacher for a Day which I suspect comes from the television show. The story is straightforward enough, and features Twilight Sparkle’s adventure after she is asked by Princess Celestia to share a history lesson with the Cheerilee students about Equestria.

My Little Pony story

The story features all the ponies your child knows from the show and the toy figures.

Word highlighting is included when the ‘Read to Me’ option is selected on the main screen. I think this is a must-have feature for a storybook app and I’m glad to see it here.

There are also little short videos that pop up between pages here and there that follow the story, as well as little bits of hot spot animation that are fun the first few run-throughs but don’t add a whole lot to the experience.

Sprinkled throughout the story are optional activities like mazes and spot-the-difference panels. Completing these correctly wins the reader words, which can be used to fill in the blanks in Twilight Sparkle’s diary. Best of all, there are several of the randomly-generated activities, so kids don’t get bored when going back to try to earn all the words.

My Little Pony maze

Finishing the activities earns you words, which you use later on to complete several pages of Twilight Sparkle's diary.

The diary is my favorite feature of this app, because it could be used to help kids hone reading comprehension skills. The reader uses the words collected along the way to fill in the blanks in the diary. Tapping on a single word reads it to you, and once you’ve placed all the words in their proper spots you have the option to read the entire diary.

My Little Pony diary

Use the words earned by doing the activities to complete Twilight Sparkle's diary.

Of course, you can place any word in any blank you wish–which provides a fun Mad Libs-style wacky reading, if you desire. I admit I felt a little rebellious doing this!

The main theme of the story (friendship and working together leads to great things) is hard to miss, but I liked the secondary theme even better (it’s OK if you’re not great at everything–ask a friend to help you out). And for my youngest daughter who loves all things girly, I’m happy anytime she chooses to interact with an app that aids literacy, even if pink princess pony parties are involved.

Bottom Line: Great production values and familiar characters add up to a solid, if unsurprising, app experience. If your kids like My Little Pony, they will love this app. Reasonably priced in the App Store at $3.99, and the app is universal (designed for both the iPhone and iPad).

(Full disclosure: I received  a free copy of this app for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: JibJab Jr.

Remember Elf Yourself? This was a holiday promotion by OfficeMax from a few years back. Just upload head shots of you and your family (or co-workers, or frenemies), position the eyes correctly, then watch as your group dances and sings in a hilarious customized holiday card that begs to be shared. I helped crash the OfficeMax website the year it debuted.

Or perhaps you recall the side-splitting “This Land” cartoon that went viral during the 2004 presidential campaign. I still can’t watch this animated duel between George W. Bush and John Kerry without giggling uncontrollably.

As it turns out, an outfit called JibJab was behind both projects (and many others). The people on the JibJab team are masters of funny animation, especially photos of human heads superimposed on delightfully ridiculous bodies, doing silly things and dancing along to hilarious original music.

Their new initiative is an iPad app called JibJab Jr., which contains a series of childrens’ books and allows you to make your child the center of each story. This sounded like a fantastic idea to me–so I was eager to try it out.

The set up is easy enough. After downloading the app, just insert your kid’s face (choose a photo already on your iPad, or take a new one)–elegant and intuitive controls let you position the photo (rotate, resize, move) for best effect. Next enter said child’s name and gender, choose a matching skin tone, and you’re ready to explore the customized story–starring YOUR KID!

The free app includes one story–The Biggest Pizza Ever. I think all kids love pizza (and so do I) so this story hooked me from the very first page. Full of over-the-top superlatives, silly but artful animation and well-designed pages and typography, I adored this story. My kids and I all had to try it out with our own customization, and each reading of the story generated giggles all around. The Biggest Pizza Ever seems to have the same spirit as the Elf Yourself and other classic JibJab offerings–which is a Very Good Thing.

JibJab Jr. Pizza Story

I also downloaded and tried out the Ocean Commotion story, which is beautiful and just as well-done as The Biggest Pizza Ever, but seems to lack the trademark JibJab silliness. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing though–it may be more appropriate for quiet times (like bedtime).

JibJab Jr. Ocean Story

The JibJab team states that they don’t want to be part of the deluge of ‘hyper-clickable toys’–they are more interested in ‘enhancing the special wind-down time you spend with your child sharing stories at bedtime.’ Hear, hear! I’m glad there are no buttons to press, just cute, engaging, personalized stories.

However, the books contain no audio–no voiceover narration, no music and no sound effects. I think this is taking the move away from interactivity a bit too far. After all, the original songs and e-cards JibJab is known for would be nothing without audio. I believe the careful and thoughtful addition of sound effects and parent-recorded narration would make the JibJab Jr. books near-perfect.

Bottom line: you and your kids will love JibJab Jr. And (based on information from their recent customer newsletter) it looks as though they will be adding audio to their books soon. The app and the pizza book are free. The other books are a bit pricey at $7.99 each, but you can save some cash by signing up for the monthly book subscription (each month you get a new book for $3.99). Not bad! Get yours here.

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the Ocean Commotion book for review purposes.)