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.
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.
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?
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.
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?"
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.
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".
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. ;-)
- Kevin & Yun