Thursday, June 27, 2019

Technology Transformed Children's Books--Are You Up to Date?

This article was first published on Medium. This is a reprint of that article.

Technology transformed children’s books — Are you up to date?

If you have children in your life, you need interactive children’s books or book apps on your devices. Here’s why:

Technology has leveled up Story Time

Children’s picture books hold a special spot on my bookshelves. I love holding a child in my arms and reading the full-color story aloud as dramatically as possible. Certainly traditional books will always have a place in my house. But technology has transformed the children’s book landscape, and you should know that interactive books and book apps offer an earlier increase in vocabulary, more widespread literacy, as well as a huge dose of engaging fun!

Let’s Start with the Stats

This Cambridge study compared vocabulary learned from static ebooks versus interactive ebooks.
The conclusion?
Children “gained most in vocabulary after reading interactive animated e-books.”
Interactive ebooks, with their animations and sound effects, teach vocabulary better than a static print book, because they’re interesting and repetitive.
With a touch, children control when the interactive story begins or an animations starts its motion. Children participate in the story. And they hear and see the words, over, and over, and over. This is one reason to download iBooks or book apps onto your phone and tablet.
Interactive stories also benefit the story read-alouders.
By the end of the day sometimes Bedtime Story time suffers from my weariness. With interactive books, my child taps the narrations (and all the other effects) and I can just cuddle with him and enjoy the moment, rather than shortening our bedtime routine.
Unlike humans, the digital narrator NEVER gets tired of reading the same book again and again. This is another reason your phone or tablet should have interactive stories. But there’s more.

Myth: Learning from print books is better than from digital books

It’s common knowledge that reading aloud to young children is beneficial (see supporting studies herehere, and here).
But more important is this Cambridge study, which shows that whether learning from an ebook or a print book, long term learning is retained the same.
Why is this so important?
In part because sometimes we get concerned that print books are somehow better than a digital book. Turns out, a printed book versus a digital book is not a moral decision. Lessons learned are remembered equally, regardless of the source.

Did you know — ebooks bridge the socioeconomic gap

In the past, children’s access to books depended on their family’s wealth:
  1. In 2001, middle income neighborhoods had about 13 titles per child, but low-income neighborhoods had about 1 title per 300 children ( Research Compendium).
  2. And yet the more books in the home, the better a child’s reading score. And vice versa (Research Compendium).
  3. This Oxford Academic abstract explains that a home with access to only 25–50 books improves reading test scores by up to one grade level! We are talking about enough books to fill a shelf, not even a whole bookcase. But at-risk families, understandably, tend to spend more money on food and shelter and less on books.
  4. However, this book gap is closing. Nearly all children in the US between 0-8 years old have access to at least one mobile screen device in their home. And a mobile device equals access to books — ebooks, interactive books, and book apps.
Because of almost universal access to mobile devices, the have and have-not library divide is closing!
So a third reason to download the latest book technology: it increases the number of digital books in your home and increases the reading and achievement of the children in your life.

My experience with interactive books

I have an insider perspective of the digital book industry. My illustrator and I first published our children’s picture book series on the Amazon platform as static ebooks and paperbacks. After winning an award, we decided to try out Apple’s iBook platform.

Recording the narration and sound effects in a studio

On the iBooks platform we transformed our static books into interactive books. We recorded full narration. Added music. Created animations and sound effects. It took a lot of work — but it pushed our children’s books to the next level.
And we found a tremendous benefit of interactive books: As participants in the story — starting the action and sound with a touch — the interactive books reached reluctant readers as static books could not.
Here’s an example of an interactive book. It’s not a photo. Photos are static — and the whole point of this article is that interactive books are not static books. So it’s a short video.  This is a page from one of my iBooks, showing the narration, animations, and sound effects.

Source: The T-Rex Who Wanted To Be A Long Neck: A Children’s iBook about Overcoming Anger

You watched it. You read the stats. Technology has transformed children’s books into interactive stories-come-alive. The positive effect on reading and achievement has never been more clearly concluded. And access to books has never been more easy or available.
Story Time has leveled up.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Reviewing Again and iBook versions

Hi Readers,
Thank you for checking out my reviewing blog! I have taken some time off from reviewing (had a baby who is now a toddler) and I am gearing up to start reviewing again. If you are an author and haven't ever submitted for a review, please look over my reviewing guidelines, and then submit.

This time round, I will be giving opportunities to some of my students and other writers to help review. I think this is a great opportunity for my students to get some real life writing experience, and for high-quality children's book authors to be highlighted. Stay tuned for reviews (and if you'd like to join my reviewing team, fill out this form:!

In my own authoring news--have any of you authors and readers tried iBooks?

iBooks have an amazing opportunity
My illustrator put together AWESOME interactive versions of my children's picture books. The child touches the iPad screen and suddenly the story has sound effects, full narration (great for pre-reading skills as they follow along with what they hear), AND animation! My toddler is loving them.

Plus, my iBook is a picture book that reads itself--what parent-of-a-toddler doesn't want that by the end of the day?!

AND..for you dear readers...this iBook is FREE until June 26! Click on a button for your FREE iBook:


See the badge on the front cover of my book? This iBook series won the Family Choice Award in Tech and Apps!!  (Yes, receiving that award was an amazing day)!

Here are some screen shots of the app:

Actually, I'd be happy if you shared this deal around. I could really use some reviews (I haven't marketed these versions until now)--and if you enjoy the iBook, would you publicly say so on iBooks???

BONUS: As a bonus, there's another of the iBooks for free for a week as well 
(look for books under my name)--download it while it costs nothing! ;)


Friday, November 13, 2015

Children's Book Review: Paper Moon, Written by RM Hedgcoth, Illustrated by Tony Tibbits

Storyline: 5.0 Stars
Illustrations: 5.0 Stars

Cover: 5.0 
Total: 5.0 Stars
Book Review: Paper Moon presents the phases of the moon in successful rhyme (which is difficult to do!), with a parable about a moon who slowly tires and then wakes.

Storyline: Moon falls asleep to the lullaby of the Milky Way, and we see him wax and wane according to his sleepiness. Fun parable to introduce the concepts of the phases of the moon. Simple text suitable for young children, such lush illustrations that all ages will enjoy this book. 5 stars

Illustrations: Wow! These illustrations are gorgeous. Full of color, with a little mystery and adding so much to the simple story. 5 stars

Total: An enthusiastic 5 stars


Rachel Hedgcoth and Tony Tibbits are actually brother and sister! They agreed to an interview, see below.


VH: How did you come up with this book idea?
RH: I actually wrote Paper Moon years ago for a bedtime story contest. In hindsight, it is fortunate I did not win (or even place!) in the contest because eventually my brother and I joined forces to create this eBook ourselves! This book is a gift I will always treasure, and I am so grateful to my brother for adding such visual dimension to my little story.

VH: Is astronomy an interest of yours?
RH: I have always been fascinated by the moon. I love the sea, weather and animals. I am part Native American, and sometimes I wonder if that is why I am inspired by the natural world on so many levels.

VH: If you were a planet, which would you be?
RH: Actually, I would not be a planet. I would have to be the moon … because I am continually mesmerized by its ever-changing hypnotic charm.

VH: What are three favorite children's books?
RH: It is crazy impossible for me to choose only three, but I love Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” books, Maurice Sendak’s classic tales and anything by Mo Willems.


VH: What are three favorite books?
RH: I love anything by Stephen King. But at the other end of that spectrum, I am a forever fan of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.

Currently, I am reading a book by Liane Moriarty. My love of the written word spans a diverse range. I pretty much am addicted to books of all breeds. 

VH: Who is an author that has influenced you?
RH: I draw inspiration from children’s writers of yesterday and today. I love the silliness and simplicity of Dr. Seuss, the gentle honesty of Arnold Lobel, R.L. Stine’s ability to thrill and humor simultaneously, and of course Maurice Sendak’s brilliant imagination. I strive to soak up wisdom from these and other phenomenal authors and aspire to create stories of my own that children will enjoy.

VH: What advice do you have for budding children's authors?
RH: As someone who is still navigating that journey myself, my advice is to read, read and write from the heart! You’ll feel it in your soul when you have created something special.


VH: What is your medium for this book?
TT: Illustrations for this book were all created with Photoshop using brushes, filters and layering effects. Some original textures were created by scanning torn paper and layering.

VH: How did you get your colors so brilliant?
TT: Really just experimenting. I wanted the colors to evoke the mood of the words and change as the moon slowly fell asleep! Magic happens when words and images blend to create something beautiful.

VH: Who are artists who've influenced your work?
TT: I’ve been doing commercial graphic design for nearly 20 years. I’ve designed just about every printed and digital item there is! If I had to name my top influences, they would be Paul Rand, Storm Thorgerson and Stefan Sagmeister. Although my work is nothing like or even close to the level of work they have done. I admire them greatly for their ability to distill complex concepts into pure and simple communication. These designers are true artists in my eyes.

VH: How did you get started in illustration?
TT: I wouldn’t even call myself a proper illustrator. My passion is graphic design and I tend to like a bold graphic style. I try not to put too much pressure on myself in comparing my work to “real” illustrators. When the opportunity arises and I feel like it’s something I can accomplish and be proud of, I do it. I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of interpreting Rachael’s words and having complete freedom to put it together. We speak the same language.

VH: What advice do you have for budding illustrators?
TT: My advice is the commercial creative world can be a tough career. Budgets can be low, deadlines are short and you are expected to work miracles at every turn. I would recommend using your talents to create products that you can sell yourself. I’m a huge entrepreneur and love the freedom and reward of working for yourself. The less people between your vision and the customer, the better! It’s never been easier to start your own business.

VH: Who are three favorite children's book illustrators?
TT: I really like Mo Willems, Clement Hurd (who illustrated Goodnight Moon) and recently found Frank Viva, who has a great flat graphical illustration style and is incredibly talented.

For more information on Paper Moon and author RM Hedgcoth and illustrator Tony Tibbitts, check them out on this author page, iTunes, and Facebook.

~Valerie Harmon, Children Book Reviewer

Friday, November 6, 2015

Children's eBook Review: Momster, Written by Laura Jensen-Kimball, Illustrated by Peter Mahr

Storyline: 5.0 Stars
Illustrations: 5.0 Stars

Cover: 5.0 
Total: 5.0 Stars

Book Review: 
When son doesn't obey after several requests--uh oh, out comes Momster. Only a hug and apology will restore his Mom!

Storyline: This story is a morality tale encouraging children to obey their Mom on the first request. After asking several times, Moms tend to turn into Momsters! Although none of us Moms like to be reminded of the times we get mad at our children, the pattern of a child giving a hug, offering an apology and wanting to do better, is a pattern we want our children to learn. And this story explains and demonstrates the pattern in a funny way.

Illustrations: The illustrations are colorful and professional and add to the drama of the story.
5 stars

Author Laura Jensen-Kimball: 
Laura Jensen-Kimball is a mother of four children, a registered nurse, and author of the children's picture book, Momster. This is her first children's book, although she has six more she is preparing for publication.

Kimball was inspired to write after her youngest child was diagnosed with a speech delay. Books were a common tool used in improving his speech. She creates books with a touch of humor she feels both parent and child will enjoy.

What is the message in this book? Kimball believes the "most important message in Momster is how powerful an apology can be.  After mom morphs into a momster, it is through forgiveness that she alters back into her delightful self.  Through mother’s transformation, a lesson is learned and an alliance is formed.  Any book titled Momster should evoke a little well-placed fear in the heart of the reader."

Illustrator Peter Mahr:
Momster is illustrated by Peter Mahr. Mahr is from Budapest, Hungary and has illustrated many children's books. He uses software from the Adobe suite and also enjoys freehand illustration.

Want to know more? Click here for Kimball's website, or here to see Momster on Amazon.

~Valerie Harmon, Children's Book Reviewer 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Children's Author and Illustrator Interview: El Perro Con Sombrero, Written by Derek Taylor Kent, Illustrated by Jed Henry

Storyline: 5.0 Stars
Illustrations: 5.0 Stars
Cover: 5.0 
Total: 5.0 Stars
Summary: Pepe is a lonely dog whose life changes drastically when a sombrero lands on his head. But what he really wants is a family. Would he trade his sombrero wealth for a real family?

Storyline: This story is adorable and speaks to the heart. A rags to riches story, however the story ends emphasizing the importance of a loving family over the kind of life wealth alone can bring. Just what a parent wants to read to their children! Plus, it's written in both English and Spanish! 5 stars

Illustrations: The illustrations are bright and as peppy as Pepe. They add a lot to the story and are very enjoyable. Read all the way to the end for more details on Jed Henry, the talented illustrator. 5 stars

Author Interview with Derek Taylor Kent, followed by an Illustrator interview with Jed Henry:
Author Derek Taylor Kent
Illustrator Jed Henry

Author Interview:

Valerie Harmon: Why did you choose to write a bilingual book?

Derek Taylor Kent: In my travels around California promoting my middle-grade series Scary School, I found that there are many schools out there that are becoming officially dual immersion in both English and Spanish, and a huge portion of my Scary School audience were Latino kids, yet they had very little representation in the children's book market. With that in mind, I happened to be dating a Nicaraguan girl named Gabriela a few years back who also had a wonderful dog, and somehow the phrase "El Perro con Sombrero" popped into my head and it became a running joke with us. Well, we broke up, but afterward I got my own dog whose hilarious antics had me laughing all day. Inspired by my new pup, I turned the El Perro con Sombrero idea into a reality and Gabriela was kind enough to translate it into Spanish. Plus I finally had a book that I felt was very badly needed in the Spanish-speaking community so prevalent in California and elsewhere.

VH: What are three of your favorite children's books?

DTK: Among picture Books: If I Ran the Circus by Dr. Suess, Animal House by Candace Ryan,   and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

As for Chapter Books: The Harry Potter series, Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, and Shark Wars by EJ Altbacker.

VH: How did you connect with your illustrator?

DTK: I didn't have to! The publisher hires the illustrator and works with their art director in creating the illustrations. Luckily, they did a fantastic job!

VH: What are three of your favorite books over all?

DTKHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.

What advice do you have for people who want to write children's books?

Do tons and tons of research. Read all the reference guides on not only how to write for children but how to pitch it to agent and publishers and eventually how to market them. If possible, try to have an original concept and make it funny!

VH: How did you get published with Holt/MacMillan?

DTK: I have a great agent named Eric Myers, who discovered me back from my first middle-grade novels and got those rolling, but we had been unable to sell my first few picture books. I sent him El Perro con Sombrero and it just seemed to connect right away. There were offers from several publishers, all of whom had different ideas on how they would create and market it. Holt seemed like the best fit. I've also been a fan of everything Holt has done and my author friends have had great experiences with them, so I was thrilled to be able to work with them.

VH: What do you do to market your books?

DTK: I do a crazy amount of marketing, which seems to astonish all the other authors out there.

When my first book came out I hired a book publicist. That was VERY expensive, but I learned what they did and realized if I was willing to put in the time and effort, I could do most of what they did myself.

I contacted all the best online book bloggers, all the local bookstores, and even many of the local schools. The book blogger features and reviews got the viral side of the campaign going, but most of the sales were coming from grass roots marketing. That includes creating a show/presentation, so schools will have me do a visit and perform at an assembly.

Then I will usually do a signing afterward or go to their book fair. The bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Books Inc do many book fairs with local schools, so I get to know the Community Relations Managers (CRMs) and then they'll pitch me to schools that they work with.

Once book fair season starts up, I'll be doing two or three school visits per week all over California and sometimes I'll travel to New York and Chicago as well. I've even done shows in Minnesota when a very enthusiastic school invited me to visit and created a whole Scary School day where the teachers and students dressed up as the characters. That came from just communicating with my fans who wrote to me and responding to visit requests.

VH: What's your favorite breed of dog and why?

DTK: Of course my own dog, Zander, who's an Italian Greyhound. I think he's the perfect dog for me. He's high energy, so he keeps me active. Friendly as can be. Never barks. Doesn't shed much. Doesn't smell. Never needs grooming. And is cute as can be. I also like  , Labrodors, and I had a great Bedlington Terrier growing up. But all dogs are special in their own way.

VH: If you were a dog, what breed would it be?

DTK: Maybe a whippet, the bigger version of the Italian Greyhound. They're some of the best at winning Frisbee catching competitions and I think I'd like that.

Illustrator Interview:

Illustrator Jed Henry

Valerie Harmon: What medium did you use to illustrate El Perro Con Sombrero?

Jed Henry: This book is 100% digital watercolor. No pigments were harmed in the making of this book - but billions of electrons were sacrificed.

VH: How did you become an illustrator?

JH: I studied animation in college, and after graduating, decided to do books instead. I put together a portfolio, found an agent, and the rest is history.

VH: Who are three of your favorite artists?

JH: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, John Singer Sargent, and Takeuchi Seiho.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
John Singer Sargent

Takeuchi Seiho

VH: What is your preferred medium?

JH: Watercolor or Photoshop, or a combination of the two.

VH: What advice do you have for people who want to illustrate children's books?

JH: Don't go to the library for inspiration - go to the book store. Look at the New York Time's bestseller's list. That is your competition. Vanquish them.

VH: What are three of your favorite children's books?

JH: Anything by John. J. Muth. He's a delight.

VH: What are the most important art classes for an illustrator?

JH: In the end, artists need to educate themselves. Teachers can only give you 10% of your knowledge. The rest is experience, observation and practice.

To buy the full-color eBook version (softcover also available) click here for Amazon.

Go here for Derek Taylor Kent's website, here for his book website (with select book pages), here to see him on Facebook, and here to follow him on Twitter.

Go here for Jed Henry's website, here for his blog, and here to follow him on Twitter.

Thank you Derek Taylor Kent and Jed Henry.

~Valerie Harmon

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

App Award: Family Choice Award and Interview about Book Apps

Congratulations to our reviewer and author Valerie Harmon, and Illustrator Carol Stevens, for winning the Family Choice Award for their 10 book apps.

Book App Interview:

What are book apps?

Book apps are versions of books, in our case, our children's books, that can be read on devices (iPads, Kindles, etc).

How are book apps different than regular books?

While we love reading from paper books, book apps present a new and interactive way to read. There are many types of book apps out there, but ours come with sound effects, animations, a narration option--the app platform is incredible and adds to childhood interest in literacy. With busy parents, book apps that read to children can help increase the length of storytime. And because they're digital, a whole library can be carried on one device.

How do you make a book app?

Typically authors must hire a coder to turn their book into an app. Stevens, however, was able to use Adobe In Design to make the apps herself. Harmon happened to be a voice-over actress, as well as author, so she read the narrations herself. We searched and bought the music and sound effects online. It was a tremendous learning process, but by the fifth book, we got the pattern down.


As a special offer to our blog readers, Harmon and Stevens have made one of their book apps FREE!

Chipmunk Wants to Be a Bear Book App--FREE
The Quest:
Chipmunk is so afraid of everything that he hates to leave his tree house! When he notices a grizzly bear who doesn't seem scared of anything, Chipmunk begins a quest that reveals him to be braver than he thinks. This app storyline demonstrates conquering fears of all kinds.

App Details:
Tapping or swiping the stars can drop an acorn on Bear's nose, catch Chipmunk riding on a fish, or send a hawk soaring in the sky, and much more. The icons on the left release a variety of sounds effects, including a laughing raccoon, gurgling stream or even a grumbling bear. This app teaches children to work hard toward a goal, no matter what, with 61 animations, 28 sound effects, music, and dramatized narration.

Thanks and Congratulations Valerie Harmon and Carol Stevens!

~The Children's Illustrated eBook Review