Children's Books Apps: What's Next?
Three years after we started reviewing children's book apps and e-books, we take a look at the developments that have taken place in digital publishing for children
When we first started our annual list of the best children’s book apps, children’s publishing was buzzing with a sense of possibility. Although there was some anxiety about the impact that digital technology might have on printed books, there was excitement about the ways that children’s books – and picture books in particular – might be brought to life as apps on devices like the iPad, offering new, innovative, interactive ways to tell stories.
Since then, we’ve enjoyed exploring a wealth of great children’s books apps, from those that reinterpret favourite picture books as interactive digital stories, like HarperCollins’ beautiful The Heart and the Bottle, to stories created specifically for these platforms, like Nosy Crow’s delightful Cinderella and The Three Little Pigs. But three years on, how has the landscape changed?
Looking at our list of our favourite new children’s book apps and e-books published during the last year, it’s clear that most of the apps being produced continue to focus on well-known brands and familiar characters, such as Paddington, Elmer, Spot and the Moomins. Alternatively they might offer a new take on a much-loved favourite book, like Dear Zoo or Sir Charlie Stinky Socks. Whilst some apps, such as Princess Poppy, Who’s in the Loo? or Made in Me’s innovative Me Books continue to focus on offering young readers a relatively traditional reading experience, many of these apps are increasingly moving away from the idea of telling a story towards prioritising game-like elements, as in Usborne's popular Sticker Dolly Dressing apps, or Nosy Crow’s recent Pip and Posy, based on Axel Scheffler’s books.
At the same time, there are still many children’s publishers who choose not to develop apps – perhaps because of the continuing high cost of development, the challenge of marketing them to customers, or simply because the use of iPads and iPhones in the home amongst families is still not widespread enough to make the investment worth it. There’s also the question of the success a publisher can reasonably expect to have with a children’s book app – writing in the Guardian in the autumn, app expert Stuart Dredge suggested that ‘two of the only proven success stories (as in actual figures) for children’s book apps are Oceanhouse Media's 1m paid sales of Dr. Seuss book-apps, and P2 Games' 600k paid sales of games based on brands like Peppa Pig, Postman Pat and Bob the Builder.’
But whilst the initial buzz around picture book apps may have died down, the digital landscape for children’s books has undoubtedly shifted in the last three years. In a presentation at the most recent Bookseller Children’s Conference, the e-book company Kobo said that their e-book publishing for children was up 369% year-on-year, and indicated there was steep growth in this area.
We’ve noticed some changes too: for starters, greater numbers of apps and enhanced e-books are now being published for older readers, as well as for the picture book market. Whether apps based on bestsellers like Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse or iBook versions of new titles, like Sally Gardner’s acclaimed Maggot Moon, these digital books can offer a huge amount of additional content for readers to explore and discover, and make wonderful tools for classroom use. Meanwhile, Nosy Crow have begun to investigate the possibilities that apps can also offer for narrative non-fiction with their engaging Rounds series, including Franklin Frog.
Moving away from apps for iPad and iPhone, many children’s publishers have chosen to develop more digital content for the web instead - Scholastic’s fun web app Tom Gates' Brilliant World of Doodles, inspired by Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates series being just one of numerous examples. Increasingly, publishers are also exploring the collaborative and interactive opportunities offered by digital publishing, through projects like Winged Chariot’s StoryCloud web app in partnership with the Discover Centre, which allows children to read and listen to a series of 12 new stories online, then to discover challenges and tasks to enable them to write a story of their own in response.
What’s also noticeable is how frequently we now see content moving not merely from print to digital, but from digital to print – for example, Canongate’s iF Poems app which proved so popular with readers that it also became a beautiful hardback poetry anthology. Digital brands such as Club Penguin, Miniclip and Minecraft are making the transition from online games to print books for children, with some such as Moshi Monsters now dominating the children’s book charts. Meanwhile, especially for the young adult market, more and more books are being published as e-books before they are released in print – two notable recent examples being Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes or The Vincent Boys by Abbi Glines.
But what further digital developments might the next 12 months bring for children’s publishing? What might our list of the best new apps and e-books look like in a year’s time? Will we see closer connections between gaming and storytelling, or more children reading on devices such as Kindle?
We’d love to hear your predictions and ideas in the comments below about what changes we might be noticing this time next year.
Read our lists of the best children's book apps