Apps for Kids Who Love to Read: Moonbot Studios, Touch Press, and More

For that tablet-toting kid, the best present might be not an e-book but an app.

This started out as an article about the best e-books for young readers, but after some investigation, the search was abandoned. There are some tolerable offerings out there, but nothing much that moves the needle on the “ooh” meter.

Switch the search to apps, however, and the story is completely different. For a child with an iPad, it could be a very merry Christmas morning. So, for anyone with last last-minute shopping to do for that nephew you forgot you had, help is here.

In the story category, you can't do better than The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, from author and illustrator William Joyce’s Moonbot Studios. This standard-setting app, about which we have raved previously, began as a short computer-animated film, which is included. A beautifully simple tale of a man who loses everything in a hurricane and then finds happiness and fulfillment within the lovely confines of an old library, the app is an interactive delight. A 6-year-old could live in this thing for days. In fact, this app makes you wish you were 6 years old all over again.

For nonfiction the pickings are more plentiful and nearly all of it comes from Touch Press, the people who earlier this year brought you The Waste Land app, an intellectual thrill ride through T. S. Eliot’s epic modernist poem (watching Fiona Shaw perform—recite is hardly the word—the poem in its entirety is alone worth the price.) With one exception, Touch Press doesn’t design apps specifically for children or young people, and maybe that’s why a kid would like them so much. The apps don’t condescend. On the other hand, they’re so much fun to look at and explore that an adult or child could spend hours with one and not exhaust its pleasure. (They aren't cheap, but as soon as you open one, you’ll see why: no corners were cut, and the production budget was spent where you can see it—right on the screen.)

Touch Press made a splash not long after the iPad’s debut with The Elements, its visual and textual explication of the Periodic Table. Like most of the Touch Press apps, it gives you everything in a 360-degreee format—swipe the element on the screen and it revolves to show you every angle. There’s even 3-D capability. You’re shown not only what the element looks like (assuming it has a physical shape) but also what its properties are and how it’s used. Zirconium, for example, turns up in industrial abrasives, flashbulbs, and ball bearings, all of which are on display and can be turned and enlarged with a couple of swipes on the screen. And you know the people who made this app are not only well educated but also totally hip: they include as an introduction Tom Lehrer’s hilarious musical count off of every element to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

The company has also released Solar System, Gems and Jewels, March of the Dinosaurs, and, most recently, Skulls. With a lucid, accessible narrative by bestselling author Simon Winchester, Skulls has the usual excellent gallery of images that can be twirled and enlarged. It is also packed with facts, e.g., “Only a very small proportion of the tens of millions of animal species on our planet have skulls: taxonomists estimate a total of just 58,000 or so species.” And Winchester takes his mandate liberally, extending his story to include skulls in art and skulls as they appear in the various rituals and customs associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead (including shining s small spotlight on the great and woefully neglected artist José Guadelupe Posada, whose late 19th and early 20th century prints of skeletons engaged in all the quotidian business of life were each a little miracle of mordant humor). When you tell your friends about this app, chances are good they’ll wrinkle their noses, but once they start examining its contents, it’ll be all you can do to rip your iPad out of their hands.

Theodore Gray, one of Touch Press’s four directors, said he never thought of the company’s apps as being for children (they have done one, the slight but delightful X Is for X-Ray, a learning alphabet built around Hugh Turvey’s amazing three-dimensional X-ray photographs.) He was shocked, he says, when he discovered that 10 was the median age of those writing him fan mail. Not so surprising, when you think about it—kids may be small, but they know good stuff when they see it. Touch Press has done such a skillful job of exploiting the iPad’s capabilities, especially when it comes to organizing data and making it accessible and entertaining, that any curious child would find their work addictive.

Touch Press has no equals, but it does have competitors, chief among them Vito Technology, which also has a solar system app called Solar Walk. The visuals in Solar Walk are impressive, but the text is skimpier and not as well written as the text in Solar System. But Vito does have one app that without reservation can be called indispensible: Star Walk takes you past the solar system and into the cosmos, and when we say “takes you,” we almost mean that literally. When you open this app, you are shown a map of the night sky. Tilt your iPad above the horizon line and suddenly the sky comes to life, moving as you tilt your tablet. Point it south and it shows you the stars and planets in that quadrant of the sky. Turn around and point it north and you get a view of that section of the cosmos. You can zoom in on stars, isolate constellations or even find what satellites are currently overhead. If you’ve been meaning to brush up on astronomy, this is the app for you. Star Walk is, in a word, heaven.