RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's 8 o'clock at night. You have a stack of dirty dishes in the sink, a pile of paperwork on your desk and your kids want you to read to them. Guess what? There's an app for that. Okay, not the dishes. But you can download a children's book app to your Smartphone or iPad. Enhanced children's e-books include narration, animation and interactive features.
As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, some kids are getting their very first exposure to books on a digital device.
LYNN NEARY: Michel Kripalani is deeply invested in Dr. Seuss these days for two reasons. His company, Oceanhouse Media, has the rights to develop the works of Dr. Seuss as digital books; everything from "Green Eggs and Ham" to "The Cat in the Hat." Kripalani also has a two-year-old daughter, Kentia, who loves Dr. Seuss, especially on her father's iPad.
MICHEL KRIPALANI (President, Oceanhouse Media): Boy, she can navigate on that thing. It's incredible. There's something about a child's ability to navigate by touching what they want and I believe that's the magic here. It's just that the child is able to touch the tree, or touch the bird, or touch the word that they don't know and that's really one of the things that just changes everything.
NEARY: What's that?
Ms. KENTIA KRIPALANI: Kitty-kitty.
Mr. KRIPALANI: The kitty-kitty. Can you touch the cat?
Unidentified Woman #1: Cat.
Mr. KRIPALANI: Good job.
(Soundbite of a cat)
Ms. KRIPALANI: Meow.
(Soundbite of an e-book)
Unidentified Woman #1: No, Pat. No.
NEARY: Kripalani doesn't consider himself an expert on reading. He began his career as a videogame developer. But he says his team was very aware that Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, cared deeply about literacy. So in developing digital versions of books like "The Cat in the Hat," they wanted to use the interactive features to help children learn to read.
Mr. KRIPALANI: And as the app is reading the book, the individual words are highlighting. So the child is getting an association between what they're hearing and the actual word that's being spoken at the time. Or they can also touch on any of the pictures and they get a picture-word association. So if the child taps on cat, for example, the letters C-A-T float up and the narrator speaks in a clear voice: Cat.
NEARY: With the e-book market so hot right now, a lot of people are eager to get in on the ground floor. Rick Richter left the traditional publishing world, to found Ruckus Media, which develops digital versions of well-known kids' books, as well as brand-new book apps like "A Present for Milo."
Mr. RICK RICHTER (President/CEO, Ruckus Media): What a two to four-year-old wants in an app really is to poke and be satisfied and really a very high degree of interactivity. So "Milo" has 80 different touch points and 125 different animations. And they're randomized, of course, so every time the child enters it's a different experience.
NEARY: "A Present for Milo" begins simply enough with a story about a cat and a mouse.
(Soundbite of e-book, "A Present for Milo")
(Soundbite of knocking)
Unidentified Man #1: Who's there, there, there?
Unidentified Man #2: Milo, that's who and away they go.
NEARY: Words appear as the narrator speaks them and illustrations come alive. When touched, a mouse squeaks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: A plane flies.
(Soundbite of an airplane)
NEARY: A piano plays.
(Soundbite of a piano)
NEARY: Other book apps developed by Ruckus are less interactive but they might offer other options: substituting a well-known actor's narration with a parent's voice, for example.
Richter believes these apps are an entirely new art form.
Mr. RICHTER: People ask are you creating books. Are you creating games? Are you creating, you know, animations? And the answer is yes. And that's what we set out to do - books you can play with and games you can read.
NEARY: But as you might expect, for some, an app will always be just an app.
Professor PHILIP NEL (Director, Program in Children's Literature, Kansas State University): It's not a book, for a number of reasons.
NEARY: Philip Nel is a professor of English and director of the Children's Literature program at Kansas State University.
Prof. NEL: One, is that in a traditional reading experience, the reader is in charge. The reader acts on the book. With the interactive e-book, the reader does still act on the book but the book also acts on - and depending on the adaptation, sometimes against the reader. So I would say that it's not a book; it's maybe a relative of the book, but it's not quite a book.
NEARY: Nel agrees with Richter that these apps are something entirely different. He says highlighting the words can be helpful to a young reader, but he thinks some of the sound effects and interactive features may interfere with the process of reading
Prof. NEL: Reading may be involved but there's more to it than that, and it's different than that. It's, you know, we don't read a film. We watch a film. We don't read a videogame. We play a videogame. And I was trying to think: What's the verb to describe what the enhanced e-book experience is like. Is it work? Is it use? Do we play an enhanced e-book?
NEARY: Its true that some of the bells and whistles in kids' book apps can be distracting, says Elizabeth Bird. She's a librarian at the New York Public Library, who's come up with some criteria for evaluating children's book apps. She says it's important that all the artwork and interactive features in an app are well-integrated with the story. Obviously not all apps are equal, says Bird, but the ones that get it right can take a book to a new level.
Ms. ELIZABETH BIRD (Senior Librarian, New York Public Library): They allow you to do things that you really couldn't do before. For example, there's a wonderful "Peter Rabbit" app that's out right now, which sort of turns "Peter Rabbit" into a virtual pop-up book. And you can go beyond that. I mean, there're apps where you can touch a word, it will pronounce it for you - but it could pronounce it for you in any language, so you could learn a language a second way by using one of these picture book apps.
NEARY: Bird doesn't believe apps are about to overtake books. She says kids move seamlessly back and forth between traditional print books and digital books all the time. And if a parent wants to use a book app to distract a child, well, Bird doesn't see a problem with that either.
Ms. BIRD: Let's say that I'm in a grocery store and I see a parent handing their phone to their child. Do I want them to hand the child a game like "Angry Birds?" Or do I want them to hand them "Freight Train" by Donald Crews in the app form. I would prefer that they hand them the book.
NEARY: Kids' book apps are so new, says Michel Kripalani, it's not surprising there are problems still to be resolved. But when he thinks about his daughter, those questions go away.
Mr. KRIPALANI: I just stand back in awe and I just say wow. She is just going to be able to absorb so much, so much faster, so much earlier. It's really, really awe-inspiring when you see a, you know, three or four-year-old child that really gets it.
NEARY: And of course, just like a good old fashioned book, an app works best when a parent and child enjoy it together.
Mr. KRIPALANI: Kentia, can you touch the puppy?
(Soundbite of an e-book)
Unidentified Woman #2: Pup.
(Soundbite of a barking dog)
Mr. KRIPALANI: Can you touch the cup?
Unidentified Woman #2: Cup.
Mr. KRIPALANI: Good job.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And for links to download "A Present for Milo," "The Cat in the Hat" and the other apps we just heard about, visit NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.