Things I Have Learnt After Making Two Interactive Book Apps


1. What looks very impressive and difficult to program is often very simple for a programmer. What looks simple is difficult. Only programmers know which is which, and sometimes not until after they try.

2. Art looks better on a retina iPad. Unless the artwork isn’t all that good, in which case it looks worse.

3. When you get a fancy Wacom tablet, spend a good few hours setting it up. Otherwise you might use it for an entire year without making use of its full sensitivity.

4. Forums are great. Art forums, app forums, literature forums… On the Internet you’ll find someone who can help with your random question. Unless you’re a programmer and you want to know about blend modes in Cocos 2D. Good luck finding anyone who’ll part with information about that.

5. Book apps are not subject to the same limits on page number as a printed book. But you’ll find your audience is subconsciously accustomed to picturebooks of 32 pages. (Picturebooks tend to be exactly 32 pages for these reasons.) Anything less and they’ll think it’s short. Anything longer and they’ll feel like it’s long.

6. If you make two book apps that makes you a Knowledgeable Person about book apps.

7. The story app world is very small. You’ll meet the same people everywhere you go on the Internet. The following day you’ll visit the app store and see a whole heap of book apps you’d never heard of and change your mind about that. You won’t be able to make up your mind about whether this is a very small world or a super massive one.

8. When it comes to content in picturebooks, Americans are very conservative. Europeans not so much. Australians, somewhere in the middle.

9. The Australian market for iOS apps is bigger than you might think given the modest sized population.

10. People who download your apps when they are free have the harshest criticisms. People who pay for storybook apps are among the most literary people, and literary people are overwhelmingly very nice.

11. The educational discount program that some schools are a part of is a nightmare for those trying to use it. Apparently.

12. If someone emails you because the sound isn’t working on your app, it’s almost always because their iPad is muted. Either that or they haven’t turned their device off in months and need to reset it.

13. Every reviewer has a different favourite page, and these don’t line up with mine.

14. But everyone remembers the one page I considered taking out because testers said it was very weird. Weird = original and memorable. Don’t be afraid to be quirky.

15. Don’t just back-up every ten minutes. SAVE AS.

16. A storyapp expands to fit the time and money you’re prepared to sink into it. It’s reassuring to realise that it’s not about the 3D, the parallax or the animation — it’s still about the story, and always will be.

17. The most gratifying sale isn’t actually a bulk educational sale — the ones that feel the best are ‘gift’ apps.

18. Even once an app is out there, it’s never really finished. Apps are like plants — they need regular attention and updates.

19. Inspiration and learning comes from unexpected places, not just from print picturebooks and other apps but also from film, theatre, comic books, advertising material…

20. Everybody always wants to know how much money you’re making. (All true, but see number four here.)



For anyone wanting to produce a book app with a service provider to help with the code and marketing etc, see this list of publishers/tools.

Books For Grown-ups With Illustrations

Christopher Howse at The Telegraph asks why books for grownups don’t have illustrations anymore, and says some very interesting things about the work of Julia Donaldson, but offers no answer about lack of illustrations in adult literature. Instead, commenters offer up a variety of books for adults which are indeed illustrated. To save you wading through a comments section full of literary snobbery (from which I always derive great pleasure), here they are:

  1. Scott Westerfeld’s excellent ‘LEVIATHAN’ trilogy has great illustrations by Keith Thompson.
  2. Doctor Marbles Freedom From Anxiety
  3. Adult literature with illustrations?Aren’t they known as comics?
  4. I have an old Aubrey Beardsley illustrated book that I like and some fiction novels with cigarette advertising plates.
  5. My brother Neil recently produced an illustrated version of The Odyssey with the children’s writer Gillian Cross.
  6. Evelyn Waugh used illustrate some of his books.
  7. Alasdair Gray illustrates his books.
  8. The Folio Society sells beautifully illustrated books… They reissue the classics and contemporary titles with either the original illustrations or newly commissioned artwork.

To that I would add Audrey Niffenegger’s Raven Girl and all the wonderful graphic novels that don’t have the readership they deserve.

Raven Girl

To me it seems obvious why most novels for adults are not illustrated. It took a few hours to write Midnight Feast — with continual modifications along the way, of course — and it took over a year to complete just 44 pages of illustrations.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.


Tough Boys Read and Write (In Private)

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t read a novel all the way through until after high school. Blasphemy, I know. I’m an author now. Books and words are my world. But back then I was too caught up in playing ball and running with the fellas. Guys who read books — especially for pleasure — were soft. Sensitive. And if there was one thing a guy couldn’t be in my machista, Mexican family, it was sensitive. My old man didn’t play that. Neither did my uncles or cousins or basketball teammates. And I did a good job fitting myself into the formula.

But there was something missing.

– Matt de la Peña writes about the shame of reading and creative writing for boys in a hyper-masculine subculture


I’d just like to point out that when it comes to boys and reading, it’s not the books that are the problem. There are already plenty of books out there that boys would like, and authors don’t need to start making all of their protagonists a certain type of boy in order for boys to read them. The problem is not the books; the problem is the culture.



Some interesting info: This is very reminiscent of the Baby X experiments, in which it was discovered that people reacted differently to a baby’s behavior depending on whether or not they believed the baby to be male or female.  People were asked to watch a video of a baby reacting to a startling image (a Jack-in-the-box popping up), and describe the baby’s emotional state.  When people believed the baby to be female, they described the baby as being scared and upset; when they thought the baby was male, they perceived the baby to be angry.  This was very telling, as it showed that literally identical behavior could be construed differently based on the perceived gender of the subject.

Now imagine a lifetime of gender specific socialization- male anger is par for the course while the same emotion in a woman is personal weakness. Ha oh sorry don’t have to imagine THAT’S REALITY 

Which Comes First: Words Or Pictures?

Oliver Jeffers says in this Vimeo clip that he is often asked which comes first: Words or illustrations?

I have been asked that too, and I’m the same as Jeffers: They both happen at once.

With interactive stories there’s another thing which comes at the same time, and that’s the extra dimension of story which is conveyed by the interactivity.

So for me, three things happen at once.


Text Highlighting In Storybook Apps

…the vast majority of picturebooks are created for children. If we wish to be clearer about the nature of the picturebook should we attend to what children make of them or will our own close reading of individual texts be sufficient? And how relevant is it to our attempts to understand picturebooks that they are often used for teaching children to read?

– from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text by David Lewis

As children we relate to our picture books in a holistic fashion, merging sensations of the eye and the ear (for first we are read to), which marries the image and the sound of the words, and later, as we learn to read, the look of the words.

How Picturebooks Work, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott

It’s not surprising that research on a new medium happens only after the new medium comes into existence and gains a foothold in culture. Since interactive storybook apps are so new, there is still relatively little research that has been done, and when making development decisions, developers are instead reliant upon our own commonsense, and inevitably, our own experience of literature and reading.

One of the assumptions to have arisen about the nature of ‘good’ storybook apps is that they include word or phrase highlighting synchronous with narration. The assumption: that word highlighting is beneficial for emergent readers.

At this point, the beneficial nature of text highlighting is an assumption. It may be of benefit. It may not be. And it is also possible that word highlighting actually does more harm than good to an emergent reader.

Why this assumption in the first place? I think word highlighting is often considered the digital equivalent to pointing at words with a finger, and many are under the impression (rightly or wrongly) that when a caring adult co-reader points to words as they read, that the child will pick up reading — as part of a much wider program to teach reading skills, of course.

So before focusing on the topic of word highlighting, I would first like to look a little harder at the finger-pointing assumption.

From an article in the Telegraph titled ‘Pointing to words helps children read in later years‘:

Researchers claim this is the first time a study has shown a link between referencing during reading and literary achievement in later life.

So, if there have been many good studies on the effect of pointing to words on emergent readers, they haven’t been widely published.

Let’s go with that and trust our parental instincts: that occasionally pointing to words in books, and drawing children’s attention to various technical aspects of reading does improve literacy. I’m not going to argue with that because I intuit this is the case.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, because there seem to be many app developers who intuit that pointing to words by a trained or careful adult can be emulated electronically in a storybook app.

This, I’m not so confident about. Pointing to words may be really quite different from animating individual words in digital stories:

  1. When pointing, the finger does not obscure the actual word. Instead, effective pointers would  surely place their fingers BELOW the word in question, not over it.
  2. Also when pointing, the fingers are not making those jerky movements reminiscent of colours flashing on a screen. The hand glides across the page unobtrusively. Emergent readers may well be less distracted by a hand than by digital animation of words.
  3. Fluent readers do not read by looking at one word at a time. We take in three words at once. While it’s clear that early readers need to learn words one by one, when it comes to training the eyes to move across the page, is it really that helpful to highlight words individually, especially when the narrator is reading fluently themselves? I wonder about what we are modelling when app developers choose to individually highlight words.
  4. It’s possible that some ways of highlighting words are better than others. We need more research into this. It’s not enough to simply assume that ‘apps with word highlighting are good’ while ‘apps without word highlighting are lacking’.
Here are some various ways of word highlighting that you’ll see in some popular storybook apps right now.


Sir Charly Stinkysocks and the really BIG Adventure

This is a storybook app produced by a large publishing house. The words ‘jump’ off the page as they are read. But when a word is jumping, it’s moving, and therefore not able to be read. All the emergent reader can see is where in the paragraph the narrator is up to; they can’t see the word itself. Not unless their own reading is actually out of sync with the highlighting.

Here is another app which makes use of the same technique:

Logan and the upside-down sea



Perhaps to avoid the choppiness which results from highlighting words individually, this app developer decided to make the word highlighting last slightly longer than the narration itself. The colour that appears around the words fades out slowly, so you end up with an ‘approximate’ highlighting of words. It certainly works to avoid that choppy feeling that happens when words jump.

But if the highlighting isn’t 100% accurate, leaving the reader perhaps one word behind the ballgame, might this be worse than no highlighting at all? We don’t know this yet.


Cozmo’s Day Off

I prefer this method of word highlighting, where phrases are highlighted rather than individual words. This emulates the way we read as fluent readers – not just by taking in a single word at a time, but by encouraging us to take in several. This may aid reading fluency, and fluency aids comprehension.

I suspect this book has it right. If words are to be highlighted, this is how I’d like to see it done. I like that the words themselves don’t move. Instead, a blue outline appears around the words. This doesn’t prevent the reader from actually reading them.

Temporary Conclusion:

  • I suspect that the highlighting of individual words is useful in word games in which emergent literacy skills are the target.
  • I suspect story app developers should stay away from individual word highlighting, and consumers should be wary of expecting it by default.
  • Just because something is possible with the digital format doesn’t mean it’s an improvement on non-digital versions of a story.
  • For now, app developers who use word highlighting as a selling point are making money based on something which doesn’t have good research behind it.
  • The option to turn off word highlighting should be an option, just as it’s an option to turn off narration.

I’m prepared to change my mind on this. The issue of word highlighting in storybook apps desperately needs research. But we can’t assume that highlighting equals finger pointing. It may not.

50 Best iPad Apps for Reading Disabilities from Teachers With Apps

Nutting It Out

No stage of the writing process — not the editor’s first response to the manuscript, not the review gauntlet — is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty: that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve found the key to the novel in our heads, though maybe, probably, definitely not.

– from The Opinionator