An interview with book app designer Roxie Munro

In the next few weeks the Youth Services (YS) Department will be debuting two new iPads which will be dedicated to our early literacy initiatives. The YS staff has been discussing all the fabulous apps that are available and we are excited to get started with our new endeavor. This got me thinking about different devices and book apps, and what makes a great book app for children.

With these thoughts in mind I reached out to author, illustrator and book app designer Roxie Munro. Roxie has authored and illustrated so many wonderful books that offer children a world of exploration. It’s no surprise that Roxie has taken her creativity to a whole new level and is recognized as being at the forefront of book app design. I asked Roxie five not-so-simple-questions and am pleased to share her interview with our readers.

1. Tell us a little about yourself, your background and what was the defining moment when you decided to become an author/illustrator?

RM: I have been an artist since age six, when my painting of a bowl of fruit won a county-wide 1st prize, and the picture was in the local paper. My parents encouraged us to make our own toys, holiday decorations and cards, and take art classes (my older sister, Ann Munro Wood, is also a professional artist). I studied art at the University of Maryland, Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Hawaii (BFA), and Ohio University (graduate school).

I do remember the exact day I committed myself to art. I had taken my first life drawing class in my sophomore year. One night that October I taped the drawings to my dorm room wall, and vowed (this was on the cusp of feminism) that “if the world will let me be an artist I will devote my life to it.” And I have. Other than a couple short emergency stints early on as a waitress, I’ve never had a “job.” I have been a freelance artist all my life. For ten years I lived in Washington DC and did newspaper and magazine editorial work, exhibited in galleries, and worked as a TV courtroom artist (great training for deadlines, life drawing, and working under pressure).

Moved to NYC in 1981 when The New Yorker bought my first cover. I started creating books in 1985, when a children’s editor suggested I come up with an idea. I woke up at 7AM a week later with a title emblazoned across my closed eyes, in red: The Inside-Outside Book of New York City. I knew nothing about making books – didn’t know what the gutter or a trim size was… It won a New York Times Best Illustrated Award and was on Time magazine’s Best Children’s List, among others, which was of course encouragement to stay in the industry! Now I have more than 35 books out.

I really love the children’s book world – the people who create them (artists, writers, editors, publishers), the professionals who know the books (librarians, reviewers, teachers), and the children and their parents who read them.

2. Your books are so vibrant and interactive. What made you decide to go to the next level and develop book apps?

RM: A few years ago a dad in the Netherlands wrote me a “fan” letter about my maze books on behalf of his then 6-year-old son. Omar Curire owns a graphics company doing virtual reality video work for architects, real estate firms, and city planners. He saw the future, and wanted to get into apps (creating a new division, OCG Studios). He thought my maze books would be perfect.

My books are considered interactive: seek-n-find, guessing games, mazes, counting, hidden ABCs, and lift-the-flap paper-engineering. It seemed to us that the interactive concepts inherent in my books, and even my art style (I draw with black lines, which are easier to animate than a more “painterly” look), would be ideal. I was thrilled, and ready to embrace new technology.

3. What is involved in the creation of book apps?

RM: Most important, you must have a good story, idea, or concept. Then the “assets” – text, art, narration/voice-over, sounds, music – need to be created and have to be of the highest quality. You can either do original work (as I did with “Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure,” based upon my five maze books) or do a book-to-app conversion (as with “Roxie’s Doors,” built from my OP [out-of-print] book by Chronicle, Doors).

For the maze app I made a giant maze (42”x60”, which had logistical and physical challenges!), and over 400 animation spot illustrations, which were scanned and uploaded to OCG Studios.

 It is wordless so no narration was necessary. It has original commissioned music, and sounds. (Here’s how the maze app was made.) Mazes help children with concentration, spatial recognition, problem-solving, and even improve children’s handwriting!

For the Doors app, I acquired the scans from Chronicle, sent them to the developer, and did more spots for animations. I recorded the author’s narration, we also have a male voice, and there is a read-alone option. Here too we have fun sounds, lots of animation and interactivity, text recognition (good for vocabulary!), and it is 3-D (images shift as you tilt the iPad).

(Here’s how the Doors app was made.) We also made 60-second video trailers of both apps. (Maze trailer and Doors trailer)

There are do-it-yourself programs out there, and many authors have a techy friend who may want to practice on their material, but I recommend a professional developer, who, in addition to being up-to-date technologically and contributing creatively, will put the app in the App store, do the necessary updates and bug fixes, and may even help market it, which is no easy matter. (My developer recently created a cool DYO (Develop Your Own) framework for children’s book writers/illustrators who want to do apps.)

Although most mainstream children’s book publishers have at least a fledgling digital program, they are still reluctant to whole-heartedly embrace apps, primarily because of difficulties in marketing, device/platform issues, and the pricing model.

Children’s book industry print review journals, like School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and the Horn Book are very important for getting a print book bought by school and libraries, but they have few app reviews, and little impact upon app sales.

Also confusing to schools, libraries, and parents: there are too many devices and platforms out there right now. For example, an iPad app will not play on a Kindle Fire device, and vica-versa. There is no Barnes & Noble, or independent bookstore, for the customer to browse through. Discovery, in the App Store for example, is pathetic. And the pricing model of apps vs ebooks is illogical (ebooks, cheap to make, cost up to $15 and more; apps, expensive to make, sell for much less). However, the good news is that you can sell all over the world, and updating or editing, shipping, and running out of stock is not an issue.

4. There are so many apps available today. What do you think sets an app apart and makes it special and noteworthy?

RM: You have to have a good story or strong concept for an app. You need great lively stimulating art and excellent writing, as in a print book. Not all children’s books, however, wonderful though they may be in print, make good apps. Animation, sounds, music may not make the idea better. There’s a mantra in children’s app developer circles: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Studies have shown that adding all the bells and whistles, unless integral to the idea, detract from rather than enhance reading and comprehension. There are also functionalities – social media buttons, IAP (in app purchases), others – that are red flags to teachers, librarians, and parents. So educational and children’s apps shouldn’t incorporate these. The “gamification” of educational apps, however, is gaining more credibility these days.

5. What exciting things can we look forward to from Roxie Munro?

RM: I have a new nature book coming out in August called Slithery Snakes. It incorporates the kind of guessing game format of Hatch! and Busy Builders. Showed it at some school visits this spring, and the kids had lots of questions and comments …the “ick” factor (which the bug book also has) didn’t seem to bother them.

I’ve been working on a project, a series of themes, for K.I.W.i.STORYBOOKS (Kids Interactive Walk-in StoryBooks). These are enormous Short Stories (5’x7′) and humongous Long Stories (5’x14′) that are similar in concept to my inside-outside picture books, only these illustrations are kid-sized and hang on both sides of a frame. The Short Stories include a Rainforest, Desert, Farm and Maze.  The Long Stories are Dinosaurs, the Space Station, a Castle, the Old West, a TV Studio, and a Submersible theme with a coral reef.

Included also are a cool series of iPad apps designed to educate and interact in the library or classroom environments. They have lots of info, guessing games, sounds from the environments, the ability to make short movies and also record your own sounds, and clever Q & As. The apps use AR (augmented reality) where you place a sticker on the backdrop to access some of the functionality and more information. This entire system will be available in May.


Roxie’s website:

Ann Munro Wood:

Roxie Munro will be joining us once again at the Princeton Children’s Book Festival on September 21, 2013. Roxie will be demonstrating her art technique and displaying all her wonderful books apps.

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