Making and Rating Digital Storybooks

  • covermar

    Four Little Corners by DADA Media (Spain)

    NOTE: This article forms the theoretical foundation of what we’ll explore during this year’s Dust or Magic Retreat at the Highlights Foundation to be held April 24-26, 2016 at the Highlights Foundation.

    Price, travel and schedule details to come.

    Children’s storytellers have a long history of tapping into state-of-the-art technology.

    Whether it was achieved with charcoal drawings and shadows from a torch, or the three color ink in the case of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit; the goal of a children’s storyteller is always the same: to delight, and perhaps even educate, a child.

    Today’s state-of-the-art technology comes in the form of a slim glass tablet with day-long batteries, multi-touch screens and the ability to access the Internet. Gone are keyboards, wires and complexity.

    A 21st century child can have two kinds of bookshelves: one with traditional printed books, another consisting of a virtual bookshelf “in the cloud” where titles (or “apps”) are managed by iTunes, Google Play or, or perhaps in one of many content accrual services that are popping up.

    These stores reach across borders, permitting a storyteller’s ideas to flow around the world at the speed of light, often in your choice of language. For both publishers and consumers, these are exciting times.  But how do you keep up with such rapid change?

    The BolognaRagazzi Digital Award was established  in 2012 to identify best practice in this emerging category of commercial products on a global scale. But the prize initiative digs up a lot more than a list. The 2013 winners can serve as guideposts to help you see through the fog of change. As we  (the jurors) made our journey through this year’s entries, we made some notes on what worked or didn’t work for us.

    If you’re in the digital storytelling business you can learn from someone else’s mistakes, or so we hope. We also made a video to capture some of our findings, at Our hope is that we can help others make, and tell better, more engaging digital stories and we can discover them next year.

    eBook, Defined: “Narrative Driven Interactive Media”

    An “eBook” can be many things to different people, so for the purposes of this article it shall be “narrative driven interactive media” or an interactive work based around some sort of story. How many of these types of products are there?  For the 2013 edition of the BolognaRagazzi Prize, there were 234 entries from 32 countries. All were trying for ten finalist spots.

    Why a Product Didn’t Win

    In many contests, it is common to end by issuing a press release and some trophies, and then start thinking about next year. Not with this one. We are equally interested in understanding these fascinating products from an objective vantage point. We want to know — and share — what’s working and what’s not. So we want to be just as clear about what types or products didn’t win.  In that spirit, here are some common attributes of non-winning products.

    • Sprinkled with hot spots, as in “it’s been sprinkled” with animated hot spots that may not support to the story. Said Chris Meade “there were a lot of things being trotted out that were nothing more than some illustrations for you to jab.” THE LESSON: Make sure the interactivity “does work” for the narrative.
    • Static graphics. Worse from a child’s point of view, are items on the screen that look like they should do something, inviting a child’s curious touch, but responding with stillness. THE LESSON: If you put a balloon in an illustration, make sure you can pop it.
    • Page flippers is a term that came up more than once in the juror meeting, as in “it’s just another page flipper.” It came to stand for old thinking in a new age. Page flippers were very common in this year’s entries. Sometimes they even had their own paper rustling sound. Such a navigation choice is an instant flag that says “not very innovative.”  THE LESSON: Think outside the page.
    • Free. Free products were treated with a healthy dose of suspicion. We’d ask “what’s the catch?” Some free products act like a spring-loaded snake, reading to jump at you with an offer or a distracting web page. THE LESSON: If you have a “free trial” version, keep the in-app purchases away from young children.
    • Noisy. Achieving a psychological balance between screen and child initiation is an art that is instantly violated when sound can’t be controlled. Jurors noted many apps that start like a three-ring circus, throwing music, sound effects and moving graphics, and removing a child’s ability to control the experience. THE LESSON: Make sure you have a mute button.
    • Anonymous. Sometimes it was hard to find out who made the app. THE LESSON: Make the answer to the question “who made this app” easy to answer.
    • Nothing new. Many ebooks blend together into a collective mush of medium 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. THE LESSON: try to stay a step ahead on the innovation wave. It’s far easier to get noticed.
    • No help for the emerging reader. How does the ebook help a child who can’t read? We were impressed by labeling strategies, closed captioning options, and touch and hear techniques to help a child build a bridge (or a scaffold) toward becoming a reader. THE LESSON: create hooks for success for all developmental levels.


    Attributes of Winners

    Each other juror might have his or her own list of winning attributes; these are mine.

    • Innovative. Thinks outside the page; ideas haven’t been done before. Said André “Imagination and authenticity count for a lot.”
    • Narrative. The value of a good story can’t be understated.
    • Pulls the child into the narrative. There are many ways to pull a child’s ideas into the experience, using the camera, for example.
    • Beautiful. Today’s tablets have clear, bright screens that are good vehicles for delivering high quality experiences.
    • Technically sound. No bugs, snags, crashes or delivery worries.
    • Social. There are opportunities for more than one player to participate, simultaneously.
    • Made by a real person. Good apps make it possible to learn more about the people behind the work. See, for example Identikat.
    • Well crafted. The animation and sounds dance with the story. In The Voyage of Ulysses by Elastico (Italy) for example, you’ll find page effects that are both high in reader control, and that work to support the main idea on the page.
    • Text scaffolding. Helping readers of all levels participate with the language by decoding the print. See We are Alaska.
    • Works on various screen sizes. We saw some titles like the Nutcracker that were designed with small or large screens in mind.
    • Ethical. Priced reasonably, with commercial links and/or prompts for additional content kept behind a firewall to protect children from frustration and wasted playtime. Sadly, we noticed too many titles that blur the line between informing and selling.
    • Scary. See iPoe.

    The Winners for 2013

    At the end of the contest, the jurors were required to identify the products that they thought deserved the honor of the 2013 BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize. Per the Bolognafiere’s requirement, we were allowed two winners (one fiction, one nonfiction), four mentions (two fiction, two nonfiction) and four additional titles, to make up the list of ten finalists (five fiction, five nonfiction). Here are the results with the juror’s comments.

    Comments from the Judging Form

    Here were some of the notes I jotted down as I reviewed the entries. Not all were deal breakers, but they were marks against making to the winner’s list.

    • Clumsy design: e.g., pages flip in the wrong direction.
    • Not responsive.
    • I’ve seen this before. This design was clearly influenced by Toca Tea Party with no attribution.
    • Good story, amazing graphics, but it is hard to operate the catapult.
    • Instructions are confusing and unnecessary.
    • Loads too slow.
    • Background music loops, over and over and over again.
    • Crashed.
    • Starts with a wordy introduction.
    • Contains ethnic stereotypes.
    • Evil. This is a “free” catalog designed to tease children, and trick them into an in-app sale.
    • Contains links to web content in the main menu.
    • Note bad, but it feels like a template, with sprinkled hotspots
    • Not reversible.
    • Asks you to rate this app before you play it.
    • Pages get turned accidentally.
    • Lots of beautiful looking art that just sits there.
    • Yet another page-flipper.
    • Clunky mechanics get in the way of the narrative.
    • Horrible narration.
    • Ending makes no sense.
    • Who made this? The author/illustrator/publisher are not clearly identified.


    Original citation:  Buckleitner, W 2013. The Art and the Science of the Children’s eBook. Children’s Technology Review, March 2013, pp. 7-9. Download as a PDF.




  1. Pingback : notes & things | Hi there, here are three links

  2. Lesley Taylor May 16, 2013

    Excellent overview of Do's and Don'ts of developing an ebook. I will definitely share it with others.

  3. Pingback : How Does a Product Get a 5 Star Rating? | Children's Technology Review

  4. Pingback : How *Not* to Design a Children’s eBook | Children's Technology Review

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