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Top 10 Apps of 2011

Apps are everywhere, and we think they have the potential to play an important role in children’s lives. That’s why we launched our blog “Touch and Go” last June. Since then, we’ve reviewed more than 80 titles. So when Rick Margolis, School Library Journal‘s Executive editor, asked me to create a top 10 list for the magazine’s December issue, my first thought was, piece of cake. After all, some of my SLJ colleagues had to sift through hundreds of items to come up with their top choices.

But once I got started, suddenly the job didn’t seem so easy. What exactly was I looking for? The most innovative apps? The most interactive or entertaining? Personal favorites? Trend-setters? Titles that best explore the platform’s potential? In the end, my choices fit neatly into at least one, if not more, of these categories. Above all, the selections will amuse, entertain, educate, or challenge kids—even after repeated viewings.

Although all of the picks are quality productions, I could easily have chosen a dozen more—there are loads of first-rate titles out there, including stunning editions of literary classics; nonfiction books that have been enhanced with audio, video, and visuals; and fun and fabulous titles inspired by our favorite picture books and fairy tales. There’s no question that some of the most creative minds in publishing and software development are now working on apps.

So, here goes. Remember, I limited my choices to the apps reviewed in this column over a four-month period. And, please, after my first choice, don’t pay any attention to the rankings…slotting these items in order of preference, now that would have been impossible.

For your convenience, each title is linked to the review that appeared in the blog.

SLJ1112w_app_1(Original Import)1. When it comes to vision, innovation, and depth, Touch Press is unquestionably the front-runner among app producers. The London-based company has set out to “forever transform the act of reading,” and with titles that offer superb visuals and a smooth integration of text, video, and audio, it’s well on its way. Start with Gems and Jewels, which highlights holdings from Chicago’s Field Museum and offers dazzling, 360-degree views of priceless stones that can be enlarged for closer inspection-perspectives unavailable even to museumgoers. Then there’s The Waste Land, which includes a stunning reading of T. S. Eliot’s iconic poem by Irish actress Fiona Shaw. And don’t miss March of the Dinosaurs, a fact-filled animated story about two prehistoric animals struggling to survive an Arctic winter.

SLJ1112w_app_2(Original Import)2. What sets Pat the Bunny (Random/Smashing Ideas Inc.) apart from the avalanche of apps for young children? Its engaging, age-appropriate interactivity. The app’s inspired, nonlinear take on Dorothy Kunhardt’s beloved classic features verbal prompts and praises, jaunty music, and a variety of activities that complement rather than compete with the original print edition. There are also nifty novelties, such as a mirror that viewers can see themselves in.

SLJ1112w_app_3(Original Import)3. Buster Keaton’s films and The Wizard of Oz were among the many inspiratons for William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (Moonbot Studios). The app, based on a film of the same name, combines fabulous set design, spectacular animation, sequences reminiscent of the silent-film era, and more than a touch of fantasy to create a spellbinding tale about the power of story that’s both poignant and timeless.

SLJ1112w_app_4(Original Import)4. Picture a teen or tween plugged into an iPhone, listening to…? I’d like to imagine it’s Sarah Towle’s Beware Madame La Guillotine (Time Traveler Tours, LLC), an audio tour of Paris that stops at the French Revolution’s most significant sites. Their guide? Charlotte Corday, the 24-year-old who killed Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat in his bath in 1793. A storyteller’s pacing, choice details, archival images, and musical interludes make this gripping narration irresistible.

SLJ1112w_app_5(Original Import)5. I love the idea of a road trip, most likely because I was introduced to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at an impressionable age. The app (Penguin/1KStudios) offers the complete text of the seminal work supported by a rich variety of print resources, video and audio recordings, and visuals culled from Viking’s archives and the Kerouac estate. Imagine the amazing conversations you could have if every student in your class had access to this app.

SLJ1112w_app_6(Original Import)6. David A. Carter’s ingeniously simple game Spot the Dot (Ruckus Mobile Media/Unicorn Labs) embodies the medium’s potential to create entertaining educational materials for all children, including those with special needs. Players are guided as they search for colorful dots, each challenge a bit more difficult than the last. Prompts, encouragements (“Good job!”), and new challenges each time the game is played ensure many repeat visits.

SLJ1112w_app_7(Original Import)7. Thomas Wharton’s Hildegard Sings (One Hundred Robots) is an ideal book-to-app. Hildegard, a flamboyant hippo, works as a singing waitress, but dreams of becoming an opera star. When she croons off-key, listeners experience it firsthand. Add to that flashes of melodramatic lightning, orchestra music, amusing interactive features, and a few games, and you have a flat-out funny, immensely entertaining theatrical production that hits all the right notes. Hippo hippo hooray!

SLJ1112w_app_8(Original Import)8. Al Gore’s Our Choice (Rodale), which targets the climate crisis, was first published in 2009, and this app (Push Pop Press/Melcher Media) updates the book. A video introduction by the author sets the agenda, while a cogent text, video clips, fluid interactive graphics, and spectacular photos address our world’s most pressing environmental issues. Gore’s message is a powerful one, particularly when it’s delivered on a multimedia platform.

SLJ1112w_app_9(Original Import)9. Ready for something silly and satisfying? Nosy Crow’s Cinderella: A 3-D Fairy Tale puts a fresh, modern spin on the classic slipper story. The app features animated scenes and reader-controlled text speed. And if it’s interactivity you’re looking for, this one can’t be beat. The story’s hilarious finale, featuring the ping-pong-playing newlyweds, is bound to make viewers press the “Start Over” button for one more round.

SLJ1112w_app_10(Original Import)10. Seat belts fastened? Edward Bell’s Journey to the Exoplanets (Farrar/Scientific American) explores the little-known planets beyond our solar system. The app offers many cool options, including a regularly updated “Exoplanet Feed,” animated explanations of key concepts, and gyroscopic views of these far-flung orbs. Ron Miller’s spectacular images of alien landscapes make this a top-notch production that’s perfect for the iPad.


  1. Keep up the good work! I scan your blog all the time to find apps for our school iPads.