Thursday, 13 January 2011

Christian Book Apps for Children

Some of the readers of this blog know that I also write a blog concerned with 'Literacy, Families and Learning'. In the last month I have been considering the impact that ePicture books might have on children's reading (you can read some of these reviews HERE). While communication technology isn't without potential problems (some of which I have written about in the past on both blogs), it also offers some great possibilities. I am interested in how ePicture books and even just electronic Bibles for devices like the iPad, iPod and iPhone might impact on children's growth as readers but also in terms of their knowledge and faith in God.

1. ePicture Books that teach about our relationship to God

One example of the apps emerging in this category are a series of books by Stanley and Jan Berenstain. The Berenstains are very well-known authors of a series of over 300 simple children's picture books. Many parents will be familiar with books like 'The Big Honey Hunt' and the 'Bear Detectives'. These simple books usually have no more than 300-500 words of different vocabulary. They are engaging and amusing stories about an endearing family of bears. They have many adventures and have been popular with children aged from 1-7 years for almost 50 years.

Christian publisher Zondervan and Oceanhouse Media have formed a partnership to produce a series of Berenstain Bear books that have Christian themes. The titles include 'The Berenstain Bears Say Their Prayers', 'The Berenstain Bears Go To Sunday School', 'The Berenstain Bears And The Golden Rule' and 'God Loves You'. All are available from $US3.99.

Like all the Oceanhouse ePicture books, a simple format is used that incorporates the original artwork and text from the books. They have options to hear the book, read it yourself or auto play. They feature background audio and when you tap the pictures labels appear which can be read or heard. In the read aloud format their is word-by-word highlighting of text.

I reviewed 'The Berenstain Bears and the Golden Rule'. As you'd expect the story illustrates the Jesus teaching in Matthew 7:12. As usual, the Berenstain write an engaging and enjoyable story. It adequately illustrates the verse in terms that children will understand. It would offer a good opportunity for parents to discuss situations that the child has found themselves in at school or at home where they have felt excluded as well as other applications.

These books are an example of the type of Christian writing for children that I described in a previous post as Type 4 ('Moral Tales') that are based on biblical verses or principles. How would I assess them?  In short, they are an enjoyable and engaging series of stories that offer opportunities for parents to discuss moral issues and life according to Christian principles. Parents would certainly not see books of this type as a substitute for simply reading a good children's Bible with children, but as extra reading they would be helpful if parents are prepared to discuss the books. However, I have to say that there is nothing that the Oceanhouse ePicture books offer that an ordinary book cannot do. There will be better examples of apps of this type in the future, that will offer greater interactivity and use of the technology to do more than a conventional book. At the moment, the Oceanhouse developers are simply offering the normal book plus the ability to touch pictures and read labels. Frankly, this is simply a distraction from the ultimate purpose of these books, which presumably is to teach children about God and our relationship to him.

2. Bibles and Bible resources

BCN multimedia has recently released their new Children’s Bible 3.0, which improves on their free app for iPhone and iPod to enable it to work with iPad. It is published in 7 languages. You can purchase a range of Bible comics, videos and stories in two ways. You can download your own version of the major products like the New Testament or Old Testament comic ($5.99US each), or you can download a free version of their Bible Comic that will give you a different section of the Bible each week (for $US2.99). In the second purchase format there are three sections in each of the old and New Testaments - 'The Genesis', 'The Exodus', 'Kings and Prophets' for the OT and 'Birth of Jesus', 'Parables and Miracles', 'Passion of Jesus Christ'. You can also purchase individual Bible stories. In the free format you will be will 'pushed' varied products each time you open it. I found this frustrating and would recommend simply purchasing the Old and New Testaments if you want this app. Having said this, I'm not sure I'd buy the apps for the purposes of my children's biblical education. The comic book format will be appealing for children but the apps offer no more than this. There are no additional interactive features or even sound. The comics use simple language that most 6-12 year olds will be able to read and like any comics they have frames that have no words.

The version of the Bible used isn't made clear in the apps, although they acknowledge that they revise some parts of Scripture. It seems a relatively faithful use of Scripture in a form that looks like they may have use a modern translation like Good News as the foundation of the text.

The apps that are purchased are colourful and easy to navigate (great slide control at the bottom - see image below) and are available in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan. You can read the comic books on an iPhone, iPod or iPad. The new version allows a sharing feature for favourite scenes by e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.

BCN have done an impressive job with the comics. I suspect that many children will enjoy reading the Bible and its major stories in this format. The product will increase children's familiarity with the overall biblical narrative as well as the major stories that they would hear in any Sunday school. Children would also be able to use and enjoy them independently in the back of the car, in bed or wherever.  But if your children already have a good grasp of the biblical narrative and central themes of Scripture, apps of this type won't be a substitute for some of the many wonderful children's Bibles and independent study tools that are available in book format. It also won't be a substitute for parents sitting with their children to read and discuss the Bible. While you could read the comics together on the iPad, I don't see this as the way the product would be best used. As independent reading, or as an addition to good Bible study with parents, they have value.

I'm looking forward to see what major publishers of children's Bibles like Lion Hudson will do in this area.

3. Christian teaching aids

While there are many Bible activity books and games available on the Web for downloading (many of which are rubbish educationally and biblically), there is little available as yet for devices like the iPad and iPhone. Frankly, I don't see this as a problem, but there will be great possibilities for Christian educators to use devices like the iPad in combination with smart boards and data projectors in time. I haven't seen anything (as yet) that I'd recommend but I'd be happy to hear from others who know of emerging products for this market.

Summing up

It's early days with the development of apps for children's books, let alone specialist products like Christian Bibles and relevant Christian literature. The early attempts are interesting and will be received well by children but at this stage they have some way to go to harness the enormous potential that there is for the presentation of narrative material on devices like the iPad. The worst products will be those that simply put paper books on the iPad. The best products will be those that do the following:
  • Remain faithful to the texts that they are using (e.g. use the best available translations of the Bible and don't tamper with it, other than faithfully paraphrasing if necessary).
  • Use the complete package of features that are available on a device like the iPad to present exciting versions of known and new stories using sound, colour, video, linked resources and interactivity.
  • Don't trivialise stories by adding on features that have little to do with the story and the overall intent of the app. For example, why ruin a good story by making every page an opportunity to drill sight words.
  • In the case of apps that present the Bible, developers need good advice from theologians and children's educators to ensure that they do more than just present traditional Bible stories. While our children still need to know and understand these stories, they will need to be read and understood by children within the overall themes of Scripture. This is a plea for some understanding of Biblical Theology when embarking on product development.
Other links

'Alice', the iPad and New Ways to Read Books (HERE)
Literacy & the iPad: A Review of Some Popular Apps (HERE)
Literature & the iPad: A Second Review of Children's Literature Apps (HERE)
Other posts I've written on children's literature on the CASE blog (HERE)


Polly and Meek said...

Very informative read. As we research providing our book via kindle and ereaders, I am taking a lot away from your research.


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Polly & Meek,

Glad you've dropped in. Thank you also for following my other literacy blog.


Linda said...

I suggest one more apps is God's Ten Commandments Pictures Book on iPad. It has ni e pictures, God's sound for each commandment, and a simple game also. Very good app for Christian kids.