Interactive Books - A Blessing or a Curse?

March 31, 2011: Recent comments by bestselling children's author Julia Donaldson have added to the debate on the advantages and disadvantages of digital interactive books.

If you and your children had been looking forward to seeing the terrible claws, knobbly knees and poisonous wart of the Gruffalo coming to life in an interactive children's book app, you may be disappointed. At least you will be if the author of The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson, has anything to do with it. In a recent interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper, this bestselling children's author described how she rejected the idea of creating an ebook of her much-loved children's picture book, The Gruffalo, because she thinks interactive books for children are a bad idea. She believes that the interactivity distracts children from concentrating on what they are reading or hearing.

interactive books

Yet interactivity with children's books apps just reached a new level with the release of "Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime" by ustwo. This app for the iPad and iPhone 4 enables parents to read their child nursery rhymes such as Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty and Three Blind Mice from anywhere in the world. Parents and children synch their iPads or iPhones by signing into Game Center - Apple's online gaming portal - so they can interact on their screens in real time, while being able to have an audio conversation at the same time. Parents can read the book while their child turns the pages, or they can watch and comment on how the child is making elements on the page move.

Both of these developments fuel the debate on the advantages and disadvantages of digital interactive books. As Julia Donaldson highlighted, there is a worry that excessive interactive features can distract from the story. I have certainly seen this happening with my children, unless I am sitting next to them gently reminding them to listen to the words as well as play with the features. Some people are concerned that children will get so used to this interactivity that they could end up rejecting 'boring' conventional books. And frankly, don't our children get enough screen time already without replacing books with yet another screen?

However, there are many tanglible benefits to digital interactive books too. As well as being fun for your children (and great at keeping them occupied while you tap out that urgent email), they open up a whole new type of reading experience. Good interactive books can improve comprehension of the story as children become involved in the pictures in a way which is impossible with a conventional book. They can also benefit beginner readers who see a consistent connection between written words and the sounds they make.

The best approach is to view interactive books alongside regular print books, continuing to read your child a combination of both types of book. Your child should learn the joy of cuddling up with a conventional book and discovering the delights revealed with the turn of each page. They should be able to open flaps, marvel at the pop-ups physically coming out of the page and feel the different textures embedded on certain pages.

Equally, however, playing with the interactive features of a good digital book app can make the words really come to life, which can help children connect more deeply with the book, particularly if you are sitting alongside them, helping them to keep focused on the story and not just the wizzy features. It is also good for children to be comfortable using such new technology which is sure to become more and more ubiquitous as they get older. They need to learn to read and comprehend text in both digital and print formats.

If you want to expand your collection of interactive books for your iPad or iPhone, you can find a comprehensive list of reviews at Kirkus Reviews and also at Digital Storytime, which includes a link to Top 10 lists which are worth perusing.

I downloaded my first children's book apps back in January, after receiving an iPad for Christmas. So I thought it was about time to try out some more apps. Some titles which come highly recommended and which I have downloaded for my children (and me!) are:

Have fun getting interactive!

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