A Children’s Book Author/Illustrator: Making Apps by Roxie Munro

Everyone’s app story is different. My path to apps started years ago. In the mid-2000s, I got a fan email from a guy in The Netherlands and his six-year-old son. They had my first maze book, Mazescapes, which had been translated into Dutch (with the cute name, Doolhof.)

I’d been a children’s picture book author/illustrator for years, with more than 35 books published about nature, architecture, biographies, and also concept books. But, to paraphrase author David Halberstam: “Sometimes you outgrow your media.”

In late 2010 I was approached again by the dad, Omar Curiëre. He owns a graphics company in the Netherlands (OC Graphics), making virtual reality videos for architects and city planners. A creative man, he saw the future; he wanted to get into apps. He thought my maze books would be perfect. I was thrilled, and ready to embrace new technology. The interactive concepts inherent in my books was ideal - formats like lift-the-flap, seek-n-find, guessing games, mazes, ABCs, counting games, inside-outside concepts, hidden objects, ABCs…

He created a new division of his company called OCG Studios. All five of my maze books were still in print, and we didn’t want to license them, so I developed an original maze idea. We discussed it via email, I created an outline of the concept, and traveled to Amsterdam for a 3-day brainstorming session.

Over the next six months, I made a huge maze illustration (5ft x 3.5 ft), did 400 spots (for animation, fonts, objects to find), and scanned and uploaded the assets to OCG Studios. They developed the app as I finished the art. It was, in terms of idea and execution, a joint creative project, and we worked in great harmony. “Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure” came out April 2011. It is a game for up to five players, with random maze interactivity, original commissioned music, sounds, animations, many things to search for, count, and name. It’s wordless; language isn’t an issue, so it sells all over the world, daily even now after four years (last month App Report called it a “Classic”).

Working with mazes helps children with focus, visual discrimination and concentration, decision-making and critical thinking skills, judging spatial relationships (including map reading), and fine motor skills (maneuvering through mazes helps handwriting). Mazes are particularly suited to boys, reluctant readers, and special needs children.

Maze app 60-second trailer

Here’s how the maze app was made.

After that, we did “Roxie’s Doors,” a book-to-app adaptation from my out-of-print lift-the-flap book Doors (published by Chronicle). I acquired the scans, redid some of the illustrations for the 3-D effect, did more spots for animations, and recorded the author’s narration (there’s also a male voice, and read-alone option). Plus fun sounds, lots of animation and interactivity, text highlighting (good for vocabulary!), and it’s 3-D (images shift as you tilt the iPad). A year later, we created a story at the end, adding 20% more content.

Doors 60-second trailer

Here’s how we made it: Making the Doors App.

In 2013, we created "Roxie's Puzzle Adventure," repurposing the maze art. It’s a game with 16 interconnected jigsaw puzzles/screens - choose between 6 and 260 pieces per puzzle/screen; has rotation, hints, music; up to five players. It was called the “perfect” puzzle by 148 Apps and picked as a Top Ten App of 2013 by School Library Journal.

OCG Studios and I also have a series of nine apps designed to educate and interact in the school, library, or home environment with a new book product, K.I.W.i.StoryBooks - giant kid-sized nonfiction “walk-in” books, like a diorama or a theatrical backdrop – includes a Rainforest/Desert, Farm/Maze, Fire Station/ Risky Residence, Submersible/ Coral Reef, Dinosaurs, TV Studio, Castle, the Old West, and the Space Station.

They come in 3 panels (5 ft high by 7 ft wide) or 5 panels (5 ft high by 14 ft wide), printed on both sides. (A smaller desktop version, called KIWi Jrs, is coming out in April, which also uses the apps.)

OCG Studios KIWi apps have an elegant, simple, and intuitive interface. There is a parents gate, a menu, and a recurring character with written and voice instructions (can be turned off). The apps are free. Barcode-like markers are included with each theme. Using the device’s camera, children scan the markers and activate various features in the app:

SEARCH & FIND: Matching games. 36 unique images.

MAKE SOME NOISE: Hear sounds of nature, tools, equipment, more. Or, record your own.

EXPLORE & LEARN: The educational, play, and learning “heart” of the apps – fascinating fun facts about each subject, in a Q&A format.

PUZZLE (in select apps): Up to 4 unique jigsaw puzzles per app, 24 to 54 pieces per puzzle.

MOVIE MAKING: Make up eight 1-minute videos. Add sound. Edit. Name. Combine into movie.

Making apps is great creative fun. But, as many folks in the industry have said, you need a good story or idea for an app, just as you do for a book. Not all children’s books, however wonderful they may be in print, make good apps. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should; studies have shown that putting in lots of bells and whistles often detracts from the story, from reading, and from comprehension. Ideas that work well as apps have a sort of natural interactivity inherent in the concept. They are not an extension of a book, but a separate and exciting creation.


Behind The App: Thinkamingo

This week’s blog is from Ann Adair of Thinkamingo. Thinkamingo’s apps are widely used by writers of all ages and very helpful for those of you participating in #NaNoWriMo. The photo above shows Ann with FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez during the ACT Fly-In this year.

Thinkamingo Inc. celebrates its third anniversary this month! Since co-founding the company on 11/11/11 with my husband Jon, we’ve produced over a dozen apps for the App Store with several available on other platforms including Amazon, Google Play, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry.

Our flagship app is Lists for Writers, which is available on all platforms. Coincidentally, this was our first app, as well. The first version was our initial test to see if we could really build an app and get it into the App Store. We succeeded and haven’t looked back since.

Why Lists for Writers? Jon and I are both casual writers and have participated in the increasingly popular National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November. Over the years, we’ve each collected a lot of writing resources that are extremely useful when brainstorming for ideas or just trying to break writer’s block. The lists started out as a messy collection of Moleskine notebooks, text files, and piles of scrap paper. We thought it would be nice to put them all together and organize them in an app. We weren’t really sure that anyone else would want it, but at the end of the day we would each have something we could really use ourselves.

We just released a beautiful new version of Lists for Writers in October and it’s been featured in Slate magazine and The New York Times. Over the past couple of years, it has also been featured on Cult of Mac, in Scholastic’s Parent & Child magazine, and on numerous lists of top writing apps.

Our other writing apps are Story Dice, Spooky Story Dice, and Story Spark, and can be purchased together in our Creative Writing Bundle in the App Store.

Story Dice is consistently popular with schools and Speech Language Pathologists. This is a very simple app that produces prompts for storytelling. Spooky Story Dice is a smaller and spookier version that is perfect for campfire tales. Story Dice has been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and BoingBoing as a top pick for family activities on holiday road trips.

How did we get into app development? Jon has a background in Computer Science and has worked as a Senior Software Developer and Product Manager prior to founding Thinkamingo. It just happened to be the right time for us to strike out on our own in 2011. He does all of the technical and artistic work. I came to the business with a background in music. I have a Master of Music degree in bassoon performance and have worked as a musician in various capacities for my career including orchestral positions, adjunct music theory instructor, music director, organist, pianist, and non-profit arts organization board member. Over the years, I also had a desktop publishing company that slowly transformed into a web design and internet services business. It only seems right that we are in this business together since we met “online” via 2400 baud modems in 1992!

We have two children, Elizabeth, 15, and William, 11, who both have active roles in the family business. Elizabeth is our Junior Developer. She helps with programming and social media tasks along with general brainstorming for app ideas and video production. William puts in a lot of hours brainstorming app ideas in addition to testing and market research. He played a significant part in the development of our creative play app Spy Tools for Kids.

Outside of the daily tasks of running the family business, we devote time to causes that are important to us. Jon is a founding board member of the Tampa Hackerspace, helps coach our daughter’s FIRST robotics team Brick Buddies, and goes to Boy Scouts with William. I serve as the president of the Steinbrenner Band Boosters, an Ambassador for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, and spend a lot of time with William and his unconventional education. We are all avid gamers from tabletop games to Minecraft to role playing and everything in between.

One of the very first things we did as a company was join the online developer community of Moms With Apps. The support and camaraderie has been invaluable to us over the years. We have built many wonderful relationships with others in our field and are able to share our ups and downs in a thriving community. Giving back is something we take very seriously as we continue to participate in welcoming new developers and contributing to the ongoing conversations surrounding the children’s app economy.

On a final note, it has been my pleasure to represent Moms With Apps and other small developers on Capitol Hill for the past two years during the ACT Fly-In. Being able to express concerns about COPPA, children’s privacy, and other related issues with Federal Trade Commissioners and members of Congress has been a highlight of my career as an app entrepreneur.

On behalf of Thinkamingo and other kids’ app developers, thank you for visiting Moms With Apps!


Behind the app: Happi Papi

When searching through the various app stores, you’re introduced to all sorts of interesting characters, games, puzzles, and books, but you never really get to know the actual people behind the app.

Next in our “Behind the App” series is Patrick Larson with Happi Papi. Patrick tells us about their experience creating an app in just one week.

At Happi Papi, my co-founder and I work on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m based in Florida and he is based in Sweden. Technology has made it very easy for us to keep in touch and run our business. Throughout the workweek, we end up sharing dozens of relevant articles over email to help us stay on pulse of the latest and greatest trends and topics in tech.

A recent article we shared was about how developers are spending too much development time on features customers just don’t want. It generally takes us 3-6 months to build an app, so we decided to try to focus on some fun app features and build an app in one week - a small fraction of the usual time spent. This includes all coding, graphics, sounds, and bug testing.

Since we are coming up on Halloween we thought a cute and semi-scary Halloween app would be a good challenge. We started building on October 13 and forced ourselves to finish on October 20.

The app we made is a multiplayer game where 2 people play against each other on the same device. In the app, the player can launch spiders into the vortex while the opponent does the same with her pumpkins. The first player to 10 points wins. We believe that enabling the whole family to play together on the same device will be a big hit in 2015. In fact, we believe it so much that we will release just such an app later this year or early next year called QuizFlick (but don't tell anyone, it is still supposed to be a secret).

Since we finished it only 10 days before Halloween we were a little afraid there might not be enough time for Apple to include it in the App Store in time for the holiday. Luckily, that was not the case and the app can, as of a few days ago, be downloaded for free, with no in-app costs and no ads.

If you are curious about what can be done in just a week (or if you just want some Halloween family fun), check out "Happi Halloween" on the App Store.

Genii games

Behind the app: Genii Games

When searching through the various app stores, you’re introduced to all sorts of interesting characters, games, puzzles, and books, but you never really get to know the actual people behind the app.

We’re kicking off our “Behind the App” series with Adebayo Adegbembo from Genii Games. Adebayo tells us why he is making apps and where he thinks apps can take us.

My name is Adebayo Adegbembo from Genii Games. We are a company based in Lagos, Nigeria. Our Asa brand of apps focuses on developing interactive educational apps for children that help them learn about African culture.

We got our start in February 2012 at a Tech-In Education hackathon where people came together to improve learning amongst primary and secondary school students in Nigeria. Our team decided to address the declining interest and knowledge of African culture amongst the younger children in our community.

Since our first meeting, we have launched several apps that teach different stories about the African culture. Our apps include Adventures of the Tortoise - a growing collection of African stories centered on the character, Tortoise. The stories are adapted from different African cultures and each comes with English narrations, text highlights, games, colorful graphics, folksongs and different reading modes.

We’ve also seen significant interest from the African diaspora audience, specifically in the USA and UK, thus we are expanding our targets to include younger children globally. Future updates to our apps our apps include improved content, additional topics and cultures outside of Nigeria using our established frameworks and based on user feedback.

We are in Washington, DC, this week sharing our story with the global community at the Mobiles for Education (mEducation) Alliance International Symposium. Over 200 people from around the world will gather to explore, promote and support mobile technologies that can improve quality education worldwide, particularly in developing countries.

I’ll be sharing with the audience how mobile apps are being adapted to promote literacy from a cultural angle in Africa. We’ve seen first-hand how our mobile apps can break the barriers that existed in stimulating the interest of kids in learning about their indigenous cultures while also helping with their literacy skills.

We’re happy to share our story with you. Please find us on our website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

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My Life in Apps

Whitley wrote recently about all of the apps and wearables that she uses for marathon training. I will never run a marathon (I know it’s said to “never say never,” but that doesn’t apply here. I assure you that I will never be training for a marathon), but some days I feel like I have – I am a working mom.

Smartphones and apps have changed the way we do so many things and I’m often amazed at how much things have changed not just from the previous generation of parents, but from the previous decade of parents.

On a typical day, here’s how my family uses apps for productivity, entertainment, communication, education, and in our home life.

My smartphone’s clock app is my alarm clock (for the days when one of my human alarms doesn’t go off too early), and the silent alarm on my Fitbit Flex is set for 10 minutes later – just in case.

We have older phones—ones that we kept after upgrading ours–in the kids’ rooms that are multipurpose. In the toddler’s room, it’s a clock and nightlight. I like Less Code’s Pro:Alarm; the dock screen is simple, looks like an old school digital clock, and can be bright enough to do double service as a nightlight. In the baby’s room, we use Presence instead of a traditional monitor (which means it’s also much smaller than toting a traditional monitor when heading to grandma and grandpa’s) and as a white noise machine. I love Ipnos Soft’s Relax Melodies app, as it has everything from the traditional rivers and rain and ocean sounds, but also some kiddo-specific sounds.

Pro tip: Keep the passcode activated on these devices, or you end up with baby fingers somehow creating this:

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After they’re at the sitter, all of that white noise and kiddo content falls by the wayside and I listen to some grown-up focused podcasts on my commute, using either the Podcasts app or a network-specific one, like Podcast One, and using Bluetooth connectivity to be hands-free in the car.

When we’re shopping (or I should say, when we HAVE to shop—I do as much as I can online), I check sales and get discounts using store-specific apps like Safeway or Target/Cartwheel, then rebate apps like Checkout51, Ibotta, and eBates (and, of course, quick price comparisons with the Amazon app’s bar code scan feature). I’m a big fan of scanning the daily deals at Zulily, too, keeping in mind the birthdays and holidays that are coming up.

Naturally, the camera apps get a lot of use. The built-in camera is the default, but Camera+ is amazing as a camera and photo editor. PhotoCollage and Pic Collage are great for combining photos to give recipients a sense of what was happening—like a boy driving a truck around his sister’s head while shopping:

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While I get the baby ready in the morning, the bigger guy can look at photos and videos on the phone in that room. He’s currently obsessed with watching family members’ ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos, and the Photos app on iOS devices allow easy sharing so they’re not just on one phone. Or he’s playing with the Camera app and we get five pictures like this shared across devices:

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We’re also big, big fans of Pocketbooth, which uses the front-facing camera to create gorgeous photostrips. It’s simple and the kids have fun with it, too. It’s great to help kill some time when you’re, say, road-tripping:

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I’ll use Yummly, Epicurious, or search my bookmarked recipes on XMarks to figure out what we’re having for dinner, or to look up my favorite recipe for cake when the two-year-old hears it’s America’s birthday and insists on making one:

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(Despite having that in the house, I managed to win $17 in July by joining and winning a weight-loss challenge via DietBet.) After-dinner family dance parties, music provided by the curated song lists at Songza, are a staple for us… And I make sure that’s logged in my FitBit activity tracker.

Netflix on Roku is our go-to for kid-friendly programming. When they’re asleep and we’re watching non-kid stuff, I use IMDB all the time because I do a lot of, “Who’s that guy? What else was he in? Is he the one from…” and not being able to figure it out drives me crazy.

I monitor spending, pay bills, deposit checks through our bank’s mobile app. We chat with grandparents via FaceTime or Skype. Even when out of the office, I’m reachable via email and text and phone and can view all sorts of documents, no matter where I might be. Parents with older kids who are in sports and other group activities are using team communications and family calendaring apps that sync across users and cut down on email and phone calls.

And lastly, of course, there are the apps for the kids. Everything from counting to letters to puzzles to potty training to learning about foods and dinosaurs and animals and construction equipment – we’ve got all of it. And apps are helping our kids learn skills in addition to whatever’s in the app they’re using. For example, here they are sharing the tablet and the big kid teaching his baby sister about diggers:

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And then it’s bedtime with the sound machines and alarm clocks and nightlights. Wash, rinse, repeat. :)

Launching the new website

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of our brand-new website that makes finding great kid apps easy. We have over 1000 high quality apps from trustworthy developers and make it easy to find the right ones for parents to find the right ones for their kids.

This website is designed, from the ground up, by parents for parents. It starts with a tightly curated set of high quality kids’ apps from developers who are passionate about creating amazing apps for kids. We then gives parents simple tools to find the right apps for their kids by age range, subject matter, privacy settings, and even whether the app works without an internet connection.

This website showcases apps from hundreds of top app developers. Just like nutrition labels help parents decide which snack is right for their kids, the site also provides parents with information – in plain English – to help them decide which app is right for their kids.