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Cen Campbell is a children's librarian for the Santa Clara County Library District. She has developed an archetypal early literacy program, Tablet Tales, that incorporates digital media into traditional storytelling. Cen is an advocate for a librarian's use of digital media (apps + eBooks) to enhance existing literacy learning programs. She believes children's librarians should become industry leaders in evaluating, curating and recommending interactive, tablet-based technology to parents and children in their communities. You can also find Cen on her early literacy blog Little eLit.

8 Questions with Cen Campbell:

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You have quite a progressive perspective of digital media – ebooks and apps – and the positive impact it can have on literacy learning. Why do feel digital media can be so impactful to a young child’s literacy development?



CC: My progressive perspective has more to do with the children’s librarian's role in the evaluation, dissemination and constructive use of digital media for young children than the media itself. While some research is beginning to emerge on the use of interactive, tablet-based media with young children, there are still no definitive guidelines for the consumption of this kind of media, and very few positive role models to show parents what a healthy media diet looks like. Our children live in a media-saturated environment; it is time for librarians to step and offer some guidance on the quality and quantity of digital media consumed by families in our communities.

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What tips do you have for how best to blend digital media and traditional books to get the most out of storytime with young children (ages: 2-5)?



CC: The biggest “tip” I can give is actually stated in your question: blend digital media and traditional books. Apps and eBooks are not a replacement for paper books in storytime any more than a puppet or an egg shaker is a replacement for a paper book.  An iPad is an incredibly useful tool which can facilitate parent education, offer reader’s advisory for high-quality apps and eBooks, showcase the library’s digital collection, and project felt boards, draw and tell stories and digital books onto a large screen so everyone in the room can see them.

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What would you recommend to parents who aren’t sure how much screen time is most appropriate for their child at this stage of development?


CC: The AAP recommends no screen time under the age of 2 and only limited exposure after the age of 2, while the NAEYC’s position statement states “When the integration of technology and interactive media in early childhood programs is built upon solid developmental foundations, and early childhood professionals are aware of both the challenges and the opportunities, educators are positioned to improve program quality by intentionally leveraging the potential of technology and media for the benefit of every child.”

What parents need to understand is that not all screens are created equal, and that it is up to them to be actively involved in their children’s media consumption. Sometimes “screen time” can consist of a parent and child sitting together, reading a copy of an award winning picture book on an iPad (try Olivia!) with no interactivity or animation. Sometimes “screen time” is the child sitting passively by themselves watching Dora or other commercial media while their caretaker is busy. When it comes to consuming digital media, I’d say do the former whenever you can, and minimize how much you do the latter.

I try to be realistic about the world we live in; sometimes parents (me included!) need a few minutes to get something important done, and the occasional stint with passive media is unavoidable. In my house there is no time-based rule about media, only quality-based rules. Book-based media always comes first, and I try to be as present as possible whenever my son is interacting with a mobile device. 

Parents need to use their judgement, find only the best quality media to share with their children, avoid commercialized content, and watch their children’s reactions to that content. 

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One of the difficulties for parents these days is in sifting through the hundreds of thousands of apps/eBooks that are out there. What qualities should they look for in a good educational app for early childhood?


CC:
A lot of the work of finding high quality apps has been done for us already; check out some of these of review sources: Digital StorytimeCommon Sense MediaKindertownAppiticKirkusthe Horn Bookthe Cybils and School Library Journal. If any of these websites give an app a good review, you can usually trust it.

Beyond that, look for interactivity that moves the story along, avoid in-app purchases and apps with ads, avoid controls at the bottom of the screen (too easy for little hands to hit accidentally), and look for apps that allow various options for sound and text.

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For the Santa Clara County Libraries, you’ve developed a program called Tablet Tales. Tell us a little bit about the program.


CC: Tablet Tales was my first foray into digital storytelling. When I began this initiative, few other library systems had begun experimenting with iPads in storytime, and as far as I knew, there had been no formalized pilot project deployed across an entire system. I took my experience performing traditional storytimes in libraries and translated various storytelling techniques into the digital realm.  I think when some librarians hear about this project they envision children slack-jawed while a computer reads a book to them; the reality is quite the opposite.  I find that the mix of singing, movement, musical instruments, puppets, paper books, digital books and digital felt boards supports more learning styles than most traditional programming and lets parents know they can ask librarians for advice on what kind of high-quality digital media to share with their children.

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Are there activities or takeaways that can be gleaned from Tablet Tales and applied in the home environment?


CC: Absolutely! One of the main reasons for librarians to incorporate digital media into their early literacy programming is to model healthy media behaviors.  Librarians sometimes joke that storytime is not really for the kids; it’s for the parents! We demonstrate how you can support the development of the 6 early literacy skills (Vocabulary, Print Motivation, Letter Awareness, Print Awareness, Narrative Skills and Phonological Awareness) with easy techniques like playing with funny rhymes, pointing out words, singing instead of saying, asking the child to finish sentences etc; these activities and techniques remain the same in the digital realm, but many parents may assume that because an iPad is already “interactive” that they no longer need to provide that kind of stimulation. The reality is quite the opposite; there are MORE opportunities for parents and children to learn together through using interactive media!

I try to remind parents (and my colleagues) that apps and ebooks are not a replacement for paper books; they are to be used alongside paper books, and can sometimes be more appropriate than paper books (ie on a long plane ride, in a room full of 100 people etc). Tablet Tales has taught me how powerful a motivator interactive technology can be for this new generation of kids; parents can take advantage of that and consider digital books a legitimate reading choice that can be shared by the whole family.

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In addition to being a librarian, you write an early literacy blog called Little eLit. Tell us about your blog.


CC: I began LittleeLit.com because there were no other librarians developing best practices for incorporating this new technology into traditional library services for kids. I collect resources and success stories, provide consulting services and training workshops, and I’m always looking for partners to share their experiences with projects that have to do with literacy, kids and technology. It’s hard to find support when you’re developing a program that includes cutting edge technology; my aim is to create a community of knowledge and share my experiences so my colleagues don’t have to re-invent this particular wheel.

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Who is your favorite Letter Buddies character?

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CC: Chatty C loves cake. So I think I love Chatty C.



A special thanks to Cen Campbell for taking the time to participate in our KidTech interview series! Librarians have always been an important part of early childhood literacy in communities all over this country and Cen is continuing that good work in this digital era!


K + Y
 
As educational book publishers, browsing the children's section of a bookstore is more of a perk than a hardship of the job. While all of our publishing to date has focused strictly on creating literacy-specific materials for school classrooms rather than picture books that mom and dad read at story time, it doesn't mean we don't look to the latter for inspiration (read more here about Getting the Most Out of Story Time). In fact, we love discovering fun, new pictures books and add to the list of all-timers from authors like Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boynton whenever we can. 

We discovered some great children's books in 2012 and here are a few of our most favorite. So, if you're looking for a holiday gift, or just something you can read with your little one before bedtime, these are the best children's picture books discovered in 2012:

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The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?
by Mo Willems


The next installment in the always-fun, humor-filled 'Pigeon' Series by writer & illustrator Mo Willems. All of Mo's books are wonderfully cute, funny and smile-inducing... The Duck Gets a Cookie is no different. His unique art style and expressive characters add so much charm to a very simple, off-beat tale that we're confident you and your child will enjoy! We love THE PIGEON!

In fact, we are such an admirer of Mo's characters and chalky line art that it inspired the artwork for our newest app - Letter Buddies Alphabet Discovery - see it here

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Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always by Tao Nyeu

Tao Nyeu's illustrations are simply magical and in her third book, Squid & Octopus - Friends for Always, she brings to life a series of four sweet stories (The Quarrel, The Dream, The Hat, The Fortune Cookie) that detail the adventures of two great friends: a Squid and an Octopus, of course! Lessons are learned. Laughs are had. Friendship is celebrated. And, the whimsical, colorful artwork will surely stimulate and engage the imagination of your little one!



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Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman with illustrations by Dan Yaccarino

Look at the cover and you're immediately drawn in  Our first impression was that this could be a great book for our twin nephews... and we weren't disappointed. What's not to like about a Boy and a Robot? Ame crafts a heart-warming story about friendship and how differences can bring people together to have fun and share good times. And, Dan Yaccarino brings the characters to life with his wonderful illustrations. 

We just interviewed author Ame Dyckman, as part of our KidTech Series, to discuss Boy + Bot as well as her thoughts on storybook apps, becoming a published author, and what's next - read it here.



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The Lonesome Puppy
by Yoshitomo Nara




The Lonesome Puppy was first published in Japan in 1999 and translated for the U.S. market in 2008. But, we just discovered it, and feel compelled to include it on our 2012 list since we absolutely LOVE Yoshitomo Nara's work (we have to of his prints in The Dragon's nursery even - see here). His illustrations have such a unique edge that is simultaneously playful and odd; we have become such big fans since we first laid eyes on his drawings years ago... This book is about a puppy who is so large that no one even notices him until a little girl climbs up his leg to discover a dog. Folly ensues. Friends are born! The girl is one of our favorite Nara characters, and the story he has crafted around her in The Lonesome Puppy is fittingly adorable and fun! 

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Kitten's First Full Moon 
by Kevin Henkes


This book (published in 2004) was a gift for The Dragon's Full Moon Celebration this summer and though the story has nothing to do with a traditional Chinese Full Moon, which celebrates a child's one month birthday, Kevin Henkes' story about Kitten's first full moon is sweet and entertaining nonetheless. It's a tale about perseverance, adventure and like most good stories... there's a happy ending too!

We hope that you like the short list of children's picture books we discovered in 2012. With unique artwork and creative storytelling, we're confident that your budding readers will enjoy these books almost as much as you will... if you're going to read a book over-and-over again, at least let it be something you can be amused by too:)! 

For other children's books we love - click here.

Cheers,

- Kevin + Yun
 

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Ame Dyckman is the author and creative mind behind one of the best children's picture book's of the year – Boy + Bot – with illustrations by Dan Yaccarino. Boy + Bot is the charming story about the unlikely friendship that develops between a little boy and a robot who serendipitously discover their differences and realize they can be great friends anyway. We first saw Ame's book at a wonderful, little kid's shop in Silver Lake called Yolk. The cute cover drew us in immediately with its simplicity, and we immediately knew that our 3-year old twin nephews would love the story, and love it they do. As book publishers, we always have our eye out for fun children's books and Boy + Boy has become one of our favorites. We recommend it all the time now, and it has a coveted spot on The Dragon's bookshelf too. 

You can find Ame on her website, Facebook, and entertaining twitter feed. And, you can purchase Boy + Bot here.  Read our interview with Ame below.



8 Questions with Ame Dyckman:

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1. What was the inspiration for this charming story about a friendship between a boy and a robot? 

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Awww, thanks!  (I’m blushing red as Bot!)  I’ve always loved “friendship despite differences” stories like FROG AND TOAD and GEORGE and MARTHA.  And I’ve always loved robots.  So when I sat down to write my own friendship story, I thought, “Why not a kid… and a robot?  Lots of differences there!”  But as I was writing the story, I realized Boy and Bot are really only different on the outside.  Inside, these two friends are very much alike!



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2. What do you think about how children today are interacting with “machines” like the iPhone and iPad?

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As long as it doesn’t interfere with one-on-one interaction with family, friends—including robot friends!—schoolwork or outside time, I love that today’s children have so many ways they can learn and brain-play!    



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3. As a storybook author what is your feeling about storybook apps vs. actual books? Any plans to develop a mobile app for Boy + Bot?

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Reading is good!  I feel anything that gets kids to read (books, storybook apps, comics, cereal boxes, Snapple caps, whatever) is good, too. I personally like to write actual picture books because it’s the medium I grew up with, study, collect, and adore.  But when it comes to reading, it’s all
              good! And while we don’t have any immediate plans for one that I know of, I
              think a mobile app for BOY + BOT could be really fun!  


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4. How did you get started as an author? Any tips for children’s book authors hoping to have their stories published?

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I got started thanks to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and my wonderful public library system!  I knew I wanted to write picture books, but I didn’t know how.  (My first manuscripts broke every picture book rule, and they were terrible!)  

               I Googled “writing for children” and found SCBWI.  I joined the NJ chapter of
               SCBWI and went to all the events I could.  (I still do!)  I met lots of industry
               professionals—and made lots of friends—and got fantastic advice.  The very
               best advice was, “Know your genre!”  So I went to my local library (Lawrence
               Headquarters Branch, Mercer County Library System) and read mountains
               of picture books. I requested mountains more, and my amazing librarians
               transferred them in for me.  (They still do!)  My writing improved, and I wrote
               the first draft of BOY + BOT.  Then I polished it… forever!  Finally, I brought it
               to the Agent Pitch Session at a NJ SCBWI conference, where I met my
               Super Agent, Scott Treimel of S©ott Treimel NY.  And in a very short while,
               Scott found BOY + BOT the perfect home at Random House’s Knopf imprint!
               I’d definitely encourage anyone who wants to be a kidlit author to join their
               local SCBWI  chapter and utilize their local library!



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5. What has been the best part of becoming a recognized author and having your first book published?

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Getting fan mail from children who love BOY + BOT is the best!  I keep and love every letter and drawing!


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6. Will we be reading more about these two friends – Boy + Bot – in the future? Any plans for to make it a series?

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I hope so!  I’d love to see more of their adventures. 

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7. Your next book, Tea Party Rules, is coming out next year. Is there a release date? Anything you can share about it?

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TEA PARTY RULES is scheduled for release from Penguin’s Viking imprint in Fall, 2013, and is illustrated by the fabulous K.G. Campbell (LESTER’S DREADFUL SWEATERS and the forthcoming THE ILLUMINATED ADVENTURES OF FLORA AND ULYSSES by Kate DiCamillo).  It’s a funny
              eventual friendship story between a rule-obsessed little girl and a tea party-
              crashing bear cub who really wants cookies.  



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8. Who is your favorite Letter Buddies Character?

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My favorite Letter Buddies Character is Unique U.  I love that U’s not afraid to be different—right down to the mismatched shoes!  (I do that, too!)


A special thanks to Ame Dyckman for taking the time to participate in our KidTech interview series! For those of you interested in buying a copy of Boy + Bot, you can purchase it by clicking here.

- Kevin + Yun


KidTech is our new a monthly series of interviews with key "Influencers" in children's technology & early childhood education. From authors of our favorite children's booksto influential minds in children's digital media, we endeavor to discuss what's happening in technology, and how the digital revolution is affecting our children and their education.
 
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When we first learned about Kickstarter two years ago it was because of this watch project (featured right) posted by Scott Wilson + MINIMAL. The prototype that Wilson wanted to build into a full consumer product was slick and very innovative, and he was seeking $15K but nearly raised $1M! What piqued our interest beyond the watch itself was the concept behind Kickstarter of crowd-funding projects. What a great idea and something perfect for entrepreneurs like us! The website affords individuals and businesses the opportunity to market test their ideas, – be it product, artwork, song, almost anything creative – potentially gain traction for the projects the community supports, and raise some funds from individuals before going into full production for a mass market. For individuals willing to pledge a modest amount (most bids average $50) to support projects that they like, they will receive rewards in return, which are often products at a discount or fun intangible things like naming rights for a clothing company's new tie line. A true win-win situation.

After many years of being a Kickstarter fan, we have decided to launch our own project today, The Grunion Run Kickstarter Project, in an effort to raise awareness and funds for The Grunion Run's new 2013 line of products – ties + pocket squares. We're hopeful that our project will be fully funded as it would be further proof that we're on the right track and reinforces the positive feedback that we've received for the company so far. If nothing else, it will be an interesting process to follow and an experience that we've been seeking for sometime. Check out the Kickstarter Project here and let us know what you think.

– Kevin
 
I just watched this interesting 60 Minutes piece about scientists who are actually trying to determine whether we, as humans, are predisposed to being good or evil. Or, do we learn our good and bad habits from our environment. I found it pretty interesting and as a new dad, it gave me a little more insight into how The Dragon might be viewing the world around her. Check it out if you have a few minutes
- Kevin
 

As a company trying to be lean and mean in these tumultuous economic times we have had to be pretty creative in finding ways to perform many of the functions that for larger companies are simply handled by someone on the payroll. Using companies like Elance.com to hire help, usually at a fractional cost, from far off corners of the world has allowed us to remain productive while keeping budgets in check. While the economic benefits of using freelancers, especially from overseas, are obvious, they often come at a cost. For example, employing an in-house designer means expectations for such things as quality, delivery and adherence to our companies overall style are already understood, so a new project can be created with a just simple conversation and minimal hassle. In contrast, hiring a freelance designer means all of those efficiencies and the continuity from working together day-after-day are no longer present. Hard dollars are saved but something that is just as valuable is often spent in exchange: your time. That said, we've had some success hiring freelance designers, illustrators, programmers and musicians. We've hired companies and individuals from India, China, Argentina, and right here in the USA. While we think using freelancers is an important way for small, start-up companies like ours to survive and access a universe of talented people, we know it can be daunting to trust your next project to a faceless company thousands of miles away. We have a few tips that will help those of you looking to hire freelancers, especially those companies overseas. Much of what we've learned has been the hard way... through trial and error so we hope this can help save you time (and money):


1. Plan. Plan. Plan. And then Plan some more! With employees it can be easy to change gears midstream after having started a project. When you hire a freelancer, it's much more difficult. We've learned it's a must to take your time, go through the planning process very carefully, and make sure you have included everything you think you're going to want or need into the project description before posting a job. While freelancers we've used are fine removing things from the project's scope (of course!), we've run into problems adding things to a job without reluctantly adding to the budget too. Or, sometimes worse, wasting days determining if the vendor you've already hired can actually handle the new scope you require. In the end, it's best to do all of your work upfront before hastily sending out your RFP. It will pay off on the backend!

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2. Build in extra time. One of the few limitations we've had with hiring companies from overseas relates to project delivery. Everything takes longer than forecasted. While I'm sure this isn't always the case for everyone, it has been for us. So, we build in the extra time into our planning and budgeting. As it relates to programming, we've created websites & apps with overseas companies, and in every case the development process has taken much longer than initially projected. One way to combat this is to include delivery bonuses for finishing on or before deadline; we haven't tried this yet, but would recommend doing so if time of delivery is especially critical. We hired an Indian developer to build our first educational iPad app, Letter Buddies AlphaBooks, and saved $20K from what we were quoted to have it programmed here the U.S. While that's a lot of money to save, it took our programmers nearly 3 times longer (6 months) to create the app than it should have. It can be frustrating when this happens, especially when you're midway through a project. I recommend setting your expectations correctly and going into any project with your eyes wide open. Be wary of companies promising an extremely short delivery period for something you know should probably take longer. Also, try to backload payment milestones so that companies are only paid as the project gets closer to completion. This has been one method we've used to align our goals with the company we've hired.

3. Vet. Vet. Vet. Take the time to look through portfolios. Some jobs we've posted have received 70+ proposals. It's a little daunting to go through so many different potential vendors, but you have to look closely at as many portfolios as you can. We generally avoid using vendors without a track record or vendors that propose something too good to be true (too cheap or too short a delivery timeframe). Elance does a good job of showing you details about how many projects and how much each company has earned. As a general guideline, we start vetting the more established companies first. That said, the more experienced companies may not always be the most appropriate for your job, so always try to find a company whose portfolio seems most relevant. We've worked with some of the higher rated companies, and while you feel comfortable your job will be completed, it doesn't mean it'll happen on time. Be vigilant!


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4. Over communicate. Once you've chosen a vendor, stay on top of the project. Pretty obvious, right? It's easy to ignore a project for a few days when it's being worked on in another part of the world and there's a 12/13hr time. Don't take your eye off the ball though. If you're not asking questions or getting status reports, then assume your project might be moving slower than it could be. Our advice: be willing to IM/Skype regularly and be available late in the evening if your vendor needs to touch base. Working through emails is sometimes not as effective as a 5min Skype session. We've had more success 'managing' vendors who know we're around to answer questions and keep the things moving forward. When we've been laissez faire, our projects have dragged on. 

Some of what we've learned is common sense type stuff, but sometimes when you're trying something new the most obvious things are the easiest to ignore and most difficult to overcome. We've had mostly good experiences hiring freelance vendors and we will continue to do so. The price and quality just makes it too compelling to ignore. But you have to be willing to manage your outside vendor as well, if not better, than any employee you might have!  Good luck!

- Kevin

 
KidTech is our new a monthly series of interviews with key "Influencers" in children's technology & early childhood education. From authors of our favorite children's books to influential minds in children's digital media, we endeavor to discuss what's happening in technology, and how the digital revolution is affecting our children and their education.

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For our inaugural post, we interview Carisa Kluver – the editor and publisher of Digital-Storytime, a review site for iPad picture book apps, and The Digital Media Diet, a smartly-written blog discussing kids, technology, and digital publishing. Carisa is a trusted voice for parents who are balancing technology and education, especially as it relates to storybook apps. You can also find Carisa on Twitter, Scoop.It, and Facebook.



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1. In late 2010, you and your husband, Marc, launched an app review site, Digital-Storytime, and your blog The Digital Media Diet. What inspired you both to go on this adventure?

We were both at a turning point in our careers and Marc, who had previously been working for Microsoft, was very interested in app programming. He decided to learn to program for Android and iOS as well as take classes in web development and database management. I was spinning my wheels a bit ... having worked in research that was no longer being funded, so after getting the first iPad when it came out in April 2010, I found myself rather obsessed with book apps.

I'd always loved picture books, even before I had a child, so it was a natural transition. But the ecosystem for book apps seemed a bit too 'unsupervised' by real adult curation and the kind of vetting process that assures parents of high quality. 
I wanted to create a site that could give parents an easy way to get good titles in digital, just like they could trust that the local bookstore or library would only carry well-crafted & well-produced books in print for young readers. 

Marc, was (and is) a creative programmer ... he's been writing code since he was 9 years old, so he is also very versatile. I think my website ideas were an engaging challenge for him, worth the many hours of custom design for that reason alone. And I had no other idea of what to expect from a website, so I just naively asked for everything I could dream of in the perfect book app review site. We've grown a lot since then, but that was and is still the heart of our business plan to this day. Be challenged and dream big. I'd add that it's also better to be good at what you do, rather than be fast or big or even first. Being there for your readers consistently is worth a lot over time. We also were relatively fast, ambitious and among the first in the market, which didn't hurt a bit.



2. You’ve been at this nearly two years, how have you established yourself as a go-to resource for parents?

I didn't initially wonder about how to 'establish' myself, but instead tried to focus on having the highest quality content and largest number of reviews for book apps anywhere in one place online. I think we may still be ahead of everyone else on this measure. I took a leap of faith, hoping that this combination, in addition to a willingness to explore social media promotion and website development would be enough. Because we were among the first to cover book apps exclusively, we were able to make a name for ourselves early in the development of the industry; but it was as much luck and good timing as anything else.

I also assumed, based on the sheer number of hours it was taking me to review and keep up with the growing market, that no one had any real advantage over me, unless they spent more waking hours reading book apps. I was willing to spend what amounted to 18 hour days working, for nearly the first full year of our site in order to really establish it, which is basically what it takes to break into a new arena online. I have been gradually weaning myself off of this schedule, now that our site is more mature, but the real secret is being willing to eat, live & breathe your content niche on the web. It's a very busy business and many people start out with sites and then abandon them when they realize how much work it really takes to be heard above the noise online.

Overall, I try to be authentic in all my interactions on social media sites, remembering that real people trying to get good information for kids' media are my main audience. I am particularly inspired to be of service to the librarians and educators who use my site, since we are on the same page philosophically. For this reason, I made sure my site had clear info about who I am and our site's mission, not trying to hide my personal identity behind a website or random url.

I also partnered early and often with others I met online, from forums like MomsWithApps to Twitter & Facebook connections. I found a lot of people doing inspirational things around book apps and soon was part of a team co-hosting a regular twitter chat (#storyappchat, Sundays at 6pm PT). In the process, I also met other reviewers who could advise me about best practices and eventually collaborate on projects.

Both having a peer group to chat with about the industry and also understanding my audience, have really helped me make a name for our site. We couldn't have gotten this far without the support of a lot of people. Anyone as small as us with a website this popular, owes most of the credit to fans. I spend a lot of time being grateful that anyone is reading or listening. It's a great honor to be trusted with the important job of curating book apps for other people's kids.


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3. How many storybook apps have you reviewed to date? With our background in educational publishing, we would like to hear what elements you think make a strong educational storybook app.

I have reviewed over 600 book apps to date. We have a 9-point rating system that includes 'educational value' and this category impacts our overall reviews a lot. I look for solid production values that include easy navigation and ideally no links that leave the app, especially for titles aimed a young children. I also highly recommend highlighting word by word for storybook apps in general, as an option.

Ultimately, the story itself needs to be enhanced with digital options very carefully, since one too many interactive elements can tip the scale in such a way that you loose the youngest readers entirely for story comprehension. It's fun to add 'bells & whistles' to an app, but for reading, these things can get in the way if not done thoughtfully. Sometimes my son will read a new book and when it's over he can't tell me what it was about, only that it was 'fun to play with'. This is one of the things I look for most ... can a young reader understand the story on the first read, or are they more focused on the enhancements?



4. For parents who are interested in using storybook apps to help their children learn to read, how can they get the most out of these products?

I would recommend for pre-readers, that parents & educators look for book apps that have simple stories with narration and highlighting at first, engaging kids with more interactive apps slowly along the way. These 'first stories' are not going to be rich narratives, but more like the 'early readers' found in print. I would also strongly encourage parents to read with their young children as often as possible. Spending time discussing a story and doing activities to extend the learning can be a lot of fun and communicates to young kids that reading is special and important.

Also, I recommend that parents & educators always preview a book app first before sharing it with a child, especially if you are unfamiliar with the publisher. There is still a lot of inappropriate material in the app store when it comes to children under 10. I used to put my iPad in 'airplane' mode when my child first used it, to be certain he didn't end up in my email or buying things in the App Store. Now that my child is older, he knows not to open windows that pop-up, but before he was school-aged, this was a big issue.


5. How should a parent balance the relationship between storybook apps and real books?

I think this is one of those 'more of an art than a science' situations. A lot of what parents do is 'balance' or 'juggle' things, to keep all the different needs their kids have on their radar. Media use adds a new dimension to this and I recommend that parents set clear limits on not only the amount but the type of media their kids use during their 'free time'.

For book apps vs 'real' or print books, I am personally a bit ambivalent. My child is now working toward 'fluent' reading, which requires quite a lot of time reading without narration. It is hard to enforce this on the apps, but easy with our stack of library books, so I make sure we always have 20-30 new print books every few weeks on the coffee table, where my son can be directed when he says, "I'm bored ... can I play on the iPad?"


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6. How do you use technology (devices and apps) with your son to foster learning? How much screen time is he allowed to have?

We are very careful with the kind of media our son is allowed to use. We have no commercial TV connection at all, so everything he watches (TV & movies) is from Netflix or the PBS Kids App, primarily. We are especially averse to anything that advertises to our child, which includes much of the mainstream media for kids. I'd like my son to form his own organic attachments to media characters, if he has any at all, based on his interests, not on who advertises the most.

Our child is allowed an average of 30-90 minutes a day of screen time, depending on homework and other activities. This includes about an hour of book apps that he reads before bed. We end our bedtime reading with a few print books or I choose the least interactive or most relaxing book apps, for the very end of our routine each night. Marc often will just go to my website & sort by bedtime to find good titles. Everything there is 'mommy-approved'. But we aren't perfect, sometimes letting him read these bedtime stories by himself now that he's school-aged.

On weekends & holidays, our 6 year old son is also allowed to 'earn' screen time with chores around the house or by playing educational game apps I've pre-selected. We have a rule where 30 min of an educational app earns 15 min of 'free' play on his new iPad mini. We won't buy games for him, but he is allowed to use iTunes giftcards from his birthday & Christmas to buy the games he wants for this free play time.

I also download free apps, including games, for him to try a lot, while stocking my deal page. The games I approve are primarily physics based, where some critical thinking skill is required to solve a puzzle or challenge, rather than 'platform' games where it is just about quick reflexes and remembering a map. Overall I want my child to engage his mind with media, not dis-engage, as much as possible. We only get to have this level of influence over our kids for a short portion of their lives, so I guess I'm eager to make the most of the time I have by being very involved.



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7. Do you have a favorite educational storybook app that you like to recommend?

I have so many favorites, it would be very hard to choose just one. I often get asked this and have a 'Sophie's Choice' feeling of panic, knowing I have so many very favorite apps. I love 100s of them! Overall, the ones I usually mention for questions like this are the book apps I consider serious 'sleeper hits'.

My first year reviewing I absolutely fell in love with "A Fine Musician" - for instance, but most people have barely heard of this lovely app. My other favorite sleeper hit is one without any sound at all, no interactivity & just a splash of animation, but it charms your socks off with a simple story and illustrations. It's called "RobotSquare" or "Little Robot Lost His Square".




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8. Finally, tell us who your favorite Letter Buddies character is.

We love the Letter Buddies! My son is now reading fluently most of the time & not as interested in those cute little guys as he was in Kindergarten & Pre-School, but we definitely have a favorite. The letter "Z" of course. My son's name starts with "Z" and "Zany" is something he does well. ;-)


Thank you so much to Carisa Kluver for taking part in the first ever KidTech interview!  Also, check out Carisa's review of the Letter Buddies AlphaBooks iPad app on Digital-Storytime - you can see it here (4.5 Stars!) and read our recent take on balancing technology and learning, here.

- Kevin & Yun

 
Almost every child that we've been around loves smart devices like the iPhone and iPad. I've lost count the number of times I've seen a child throw a tantrum when his or her parent takes back their device. (I obviously spend a lot of time around spoiled children;) Our 3yr old nephew uses his mom's iPhone like a mini Computer Science major; these devices are so intuitive that even the most untrained hands can manipulate them. This is the world we live in. Technology is becoming more and more pervasive by the year and even our littlest ones can't seem to avoid it. Many, in fact, relishing the chance to interact with it.

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The technology boom at hand is offering an interesting opportunity. We, as parents, must start to make some difficult decions in these unchartered times about how much technology we are willing to expose our young children (birth to six) to. Unlike with the rise of video games of the '80s when playing Mario Bros. was clearly for entertainment rather than stimulating brain cells, today it would be fair for some developers to argue that their programs, digital books, mobile apps, etc. actually offer tremendous educational value. So, how do we decide if the learning opportunity is worth our child spending hours in front of a screen?

I was recently discussing the subject with Sharon who writes the mommy blog, A Dollop of Me. I had asked Sharon if she was interested in reviewing our new preschool app - Letter Buddies Alphabet Discovery - but she informed me that she doesn't own an iPad. She was curious about my thoughts on whether digital products, like our educational iPad apps, are really having a positive effect on learning at these early years. Clearly they're more educational than playing Angry Birds, but are they better than reading a book? As I told Sharon, I don't think there's a widely accepted answer. I believe there are a lot of educational benefits, but the jury is still out on whether technology is having the kind of meaningful impact on children's learning that we all hope it would have. While those of us who create digital products for early childhood education, be it mobile apps, online educational games, video games or the like, feel strongly that we're bringing something positive to the table, I don't think we've been definitively proven right. Not yet. Much of what we believe is subjective and based on anecdotal experiences as seen on a case-by-case basis. For parents, like Sharon, who are choosing to limit the amount of screen time their child experiences in the early years in favor of more traditional childhood activities, there is certainly nothing definitive to say that their child is missing out on a learning opportunity. 

As with many parenting decisions, choosing how much technology to expose your child to is very personal with parents running the decision gamut from those willing to buy their 2-yr old an iPad to parents who shun technology all together. The only right answer is whatever you as the parent thinks is best. As far as The Dragon is concerned, we are going to land somewhere in the middle. Based on our work, you could probably guess that we believe things like digital apps for children can have a positive impact, but we also believe finding a balance between screen time, books, arts & crafts, and good-old-fashioned running around is the best answer. Learning comes in so many forms, so why not take advantage of the myriad of options that are available to kids whether that means interacting with an iPad app or spending the afternoon at the museum. How much screen time we will ultimately expose The Dragon to will depend on how she responds and where her interests will lie. We believe every child is different, and how best to teach them should be decided on a case-by-case basis.



Digital



VS.
Analog

As this generation grows up over the next 20 years, there will be more evidence about the impact technology is having on our kids' learning. So whether we want it or not, our kids are the guinea pigs. We believe that connecting learning and technology is the obvious next step, and offers some real opportunities that traditional mediums lack. One of the most compelling reason for digital learning products is that they can offer better engagement. Animation, video, sound effects, and music provide a multi-sensory experience that in many cases can be more interesting and engaging than a flash card or book (this is coming from a book publishers too!).  If something (an app, book, craft, etc.) is able to hold a child's attention for a meaningful amount of time, then there's a fighting chance that the child will be able to learn from the experience. In contrast, if a child is disinterested in what they're doing, then how could we expect them to be in the right state of mind to concentrate and learn?  
The mobile apps that we've created offer a range of educational opportunities from stimulating imagination, practicing phonics, to reading basic sentences. While we think there is a positive impact to be had by using products like ours, we are also realistic that not every digital product is able to affect learning. In the end, parents must be involved in their child's education. A parent's role should be to enhance and shape how and what a child is learning regardless of the learning tool. In the early years, it's not enough to simply plop your child down with an iPad or book and expect learning magic to happen. In the coming weeks and months, we will be launching a series of blog posts and videos that we hope will offer ideas for how to more effectively use a range of products (digital and not) to impact a child's learning. There's no easy solution, but a consistent, thoughtful balanced approach can help to foster good learning habits and build a child's enthusiasm for learning – the type of foundation that we believe all children deserve.

Cheers,
Kevin
 
To follow up on this article I contributed to that was published yesterday on CMN.com, we thought we'd share more of our stroller shopping experience for The Dragon.

In the lead up to The Dragon's birth in June our very supportive friends and family threw us a few baby showers to celebrate. Because of their generosity, Yun and I actually didn't have to buy many of The Dragon's baby essentials. Plus, my sister lives nearby and with 3 children under 4 years old, she was more than willing to let us go "shopping" at her house picking up a crib, clothes, and other goodies. In the end, the only big ticket item we really had to purchase for The Dragon was a stroller. As a result, what I originally anticipated being a very easy, straightforward decision, turned into the first BIG DECISION we would make as parents. Yikes! 

Being A-type personalities, "Decision Stroller" consumed us for the better part of 3 months (yes, months not days) before we could pull the trigger! It took us longer and required way more debate to choose this stroller than it did our last car. Seriously! It was like studying for a final exam; we watched a slew of Youtube videos (we really like Babygizmo), read product reviews online, and made a list of the attributes we really wanted The Dragon's stroller to have. By the end of it, I was ready to be a stroller salesman. 

In addition to our neurosis, what makes the process so labored is that there is a surprisingly large number of different stroller brands and models available in the market. It's as if we're in a baby boom and the best business to go into is making strollers. Anyway, variety and choice is usually a great thing, but it definitely makes some processes more complicated than one would otherwise want them to be. Ultimately, it wasn't that we worried we'd make a bad decision as much as we wanted to make the best decision. We're Asians after all. What would we be if not overachievers. The most important factors for us were: price, size, comfort of the ride, design features, and functionality in some order.

We wanted to find a stroller that could fit easily into the trunk of a sedan without much heavy lifting and since we walk a lot, we wanted a stroller that wasn't too big to push around stores and the supermarket. Another design feature that was super important was how the stroller would fold down. We wanted the closing mechanism to be elegantly designed so that it would be simple enough for our parents to use if they take The Dragon out on the town, and we wanted a stroller that would fold up all-in-one, into a single piece. Some larger strollers require you to remove the seat before the stroller will fold down, and that just seemed too cumbersome and time consuming. The luxury of having a lot of options and multiple pieces did not outweigh the impracticality involved. Not for us. 

Enjoying the southern California weather and walking on a daily basis is important, so having a comfortable ride for The Dragon was paramount. We inspected seat padding, tested shocks, and literally kicked tires. We put these baby movers to the test!  We also considered the size of the accompanying basket and how large it was for all the blankets and toys we expected to have to bring along with us. The bigger and more accessible the basket, the better. Yun is a shopper! Lastly, we needed a stroller that would be appropriate for our different heights. Not that I'm a giant at 5'8", but Yun is 5'2" and the one stroller that we most agreed on (at the 2 month mark), frustratingly, was simply too tall for her, so we decided against it. 
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We even considered some specialty strollers like a jogger, but ultimately decided that compromising The Dragon's comfort for the occasional jog wasn't a reasonable trade, so that was quickly nixed. 

All in all, we probably looked at 15 different strollers and seriously considered 3 or 4 before we made our choice. The brand name wasn't much of a factor in our decision though knowing that a company would happily replace any damaged parts was a comforting bonus.

Here are the top strollers we poked and prodded:

UPPAbaby: Vista


This was our #2 choice. It had everything we wanted, and I loved the matte black frame option, but there very limited colors that came w/ the black frame. Note to UPPAbaby: mistake! As a dad, there aren't a lot of masculine baby-related products, so you want to push around a cool looking stroller. Sadly, Yun needed to be 2" taller!

Baby Jogger: CIty Mini



If budget was our #1 priority, then we'd have chosen this one. It's very affordable, a nice ride and really easy to fold into one piece. A lot to like. Our biggest gripe was the seat felt a little cardboard-y. Okay, maybe a lot cardboard-y and we were worried The Dragon wouldn't like sitting in it. Also, the seat only faces forward meaning we can't stare at our beautiful bundle!

4moms: Origami


A very tech-y stroller for the 21st century. At the push of a button, the stroller would automatically fold up into a single piece. Talk about so cool! Unfortunately, SO HEAVY too! I think this was 30+lbs, which meant it would be pretty heavy for Yun though she's stronger than the average bear, but definitely too heavy for either grandmother. Out!

Orbitbaby: Stroller G2

A lot of thoughtful design options here. The seat swivels so you can turn the chair 360 degrees on the base. We liked the idea of the chair being able to swing from side to side without futzing with the stroller, but we ended up dinging it because it is a closed system that required you to purchase only their hardware (ie carseat & accessories) and we already had our carseat. Oh, and picking up their carseat was  like a trip to the gym.

So, here's what we chose: The Bugaboo Bee in Electric Blue (EDITOR'S NOTE: Yun wants me to point out that she was very pregnant in this photo:)
The Bee isn't perfect – it's not that masculine – but it satisfied most of the criteria we laid out: it's a smooth ride, it's not too big and has an accessible basket for Yun's shopping, it folds down into one piece and has a rather simple mechanism governing how it opens and closes, and it came in a fun blue color. Even though we didn't know her sex at the time, we didn't mind the idea of The Dragon in a blue stroller...  girls don't always need to be in pink. NOTE TO Bugaboo: Love the all matte black frame option, but we couldn't get it w/ the electric blue cover!!!

For the past four and a half months, we've taken the stroller in and out of our car, up and down the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto, and I'm happy to report that the Bugaboo Bee is the nicest, smoothest shopping cart anyone could ever own. What do I mean, you ask? After all of our research and well-intentioned testing, The Dragon doesn't much like her stroller!!! Kids, I tell you! The maximum amount of time she has ridden happily in her Bee is about 20 minutes. This is in no way a condemnation of the Bugaboo Bee, we're confident her aversion has nothing to do with the stroller itself. But, StrollerGate has become a running joke between Yun and me. Now, whenever we go out for a walk, invariably one of us will end up carrying The Dragon while the other pushes a baby-less stroller filled with all of our stuff. We're hoping she grows out of this sometime soon, before she gets too heavy to carry for long distances:)
 
Check out this great article about choosing the best strollers including a few quotes from a new dad you might know;)!