Saturday, December 10, 2011

Secret Agent Josephine and the Kindle Fire

In lieu of a weekend reading post this weekend, I bring you a special event! A review post with giveaway.  And a title that sounds a bit like a Nancy Drew book. I even have a cool Nancy Drewish image.

As I've mentioned before, I recently bought a Kindle Fire. In fact, I ordered one on the first day that you could place an order, and therefore, got my Fire on the first day that they were shipping.

I bought the Fire for a couple of reasons. I have been a slow-adopter on the smartphone front, and still don't have one. In fact, I still don't really want one, although I do think it is nice that we can use my husband's smartphone to check traffic on the go and look up restaurants, etc., while we're out and about. But I was curious about apps, both because I wonder if the current boom in app programming has legs (or if I'm going to suddenly find it a lot easier to hire programmers at some point in the future when the app bubble bursts) and because I am interested in their potential as a way for people to make money in the "new economy".

I also wanted to let the kids try it out. OK, if I'm completely honest, I want it to help us through difficult situations, like waiting at restaurants. And the price was right for those purposes- I couldn't see buying a $500 iPad just because I was curious, and I doubted that I had the fortitude to hand such a thing over to my 2 year old at a restaurant, no matter how badly I wanted to not have to do laps around the place.

I wasn't planning to do much reading on my Kindle Fire. I have an "old" (I only got it last Christmas!) black and white Kindle, and I like reading on that. Actually, I love reading on that. I had checked out the iPad as a potential eReader and decided that I prefer eInk to an LCD for reading. (I also thought the iPad was too large and heavy to use one handed, which is a key requirement in an eReader for me, since I do a lot of reading while pinned on the sofa with a sick or sleeping toddler.)

Then, my Twitter friend Calee offered me review copies of some children's eBooks. Calee has founded Xist publishing, which has the tagline: "books for the touchscreen generation." Her goal is to create eBooks for kids. I love the fact that she has started her own publishing company (here is some of the back story on that). And I was curious to see what my kids would think of eBooks, so I agreed to take the review copies... and write this post.

So here's the disclosure: the three Secret Agent Jo books I am going to review were free. I am also going to receive two free prints from the Secret Agent Jo Alphabet book (one for each kid), and I get a print to give away- more on that at the bottom. Any other book I mention, I paid for (or downloaded for free as part of a general promotion). I paid for my own Kindle Fire, of course, but the links to books are referral links, as always. And I will confess that I am rooting for Xist Publishing to succeed. But I have tried very hard not to let any of that change the opinions you are about to read.

First up: my impressions of the Kindle Fire. I like it. For what I wanted, it is great. It is the right size to fit easily into my purse, and it is a good size for my kids to hold comfortably while sitting on the sofa.

It is reasonably responsive and fast. The picture quality is gorgeous. Really. We've watched some Sesame Street songs on YouTube, and the picture quality is top notch. I haven't tried the streaming movies yet, but I suspect they'll be good, too. As you might expect, shopping on Amazon is a breeze, but I don't find that I do that much on the Fire. Typing text is a pain- but that is a universal feature of the touchscreens, I think. No doubt, I'll get better at it. There were enough apps to satisfy me so far- and I'm sure more will be coming along. I got a memory matching game and a puzzle game for the girls, and they like those. I also got Angry Birds and made the mistake of letting them see it. Petunia still signs and asks for "birds" when she sees the Fire. My husband doesn't think they should be playing that game yet (a subject for another post, I think), so I regret letting them see it. But he has taken the Fire and played something like 20 levels o f Angry Birds, so I guess it works well. I got some Spanish flashcards for Pumpkin, and she loves those. She sounds out the English word, then taps to get the Spanish word and thinks that is great. Petunia struggles a bit with the dragging required for some games, but got the tapping action figured out quickly.

So all and all- I think the Fire is a great tablet for kids to use. Really, the only thing it lacks that I wish it had is 3G. I knew that was missing when I bought it, though, so I have no complaints.

Next: my impressions of the books. Calee was kind enough to send me review copies of all three books: Secret Agent Josephine's ABC's, Secret Agent Josephine's Colors, and Secret Agent Josephine's Numbers, all by Brenda Ponnay.  I downloaded all three onto my Kindle Fire and my old black and white Kindle. I put them on the black and white Kindle because I was curious what they'd look like (and because my review copies came before my Kindle Fire did). Of the three, the ABC's book works best in black and white- I like it better in color, but the illustrations are still cute in black and white. The numbers book is a bit hard to read in black and white, and the colors book just doesn't make much sense without, well, color. I think Calee's own Caterpillars Don't Check Email is actually the kids book that works best on the black and white Kindle- the photograph illustrations work well in black and white and the story is charming. Incidentally, this one is also free at Amazon right now.

I read all three Secret Agent Jo books to both girls on the Kindle Fire. Pumpkin (who is 4.5 years old, and learning how to read), liked all three. She could easily read the ABC book, because the pictures help. She likes to try to read the colors book, even though there are a lot of words that are well beyond her current skill level (like patisserie)- I think the pictures are engaging enough to hold her attention even though she is struggling a bit with some of the words. They are cute illustrations. But I think her favorite is the numbers book. She loves the detail, and the way that all of the items illustrated are labeled.

This is where the eBook format shines- the labels on the items are a bit small, but we can tap on the screen and zoom in, which Pumpkin thinks is pretty darn cool. I'd actually recommend that Calee consider adding more zooming features in future books- Pumpkin likes "exploring" the page.

Anyway, if I sit down with her and the Fire and say that she can't play a game but can read a book, she'll usually pick the numbers book.

Petunia (who is 2 years old and still has a tendency to wander away sometimes when you're trying to read to her) likes the colors book the best. The bright illustrations capture her attention, and she likes the alliteration in the text. She also loves to listen to the ABCs book... especially if her sister is reading it to her. The numbers book is a bit too detailed for her right now.

So, my verdict is that if you have a color tablet, you should get some eBooks for the kids on it, and you could do a lot worse than the three Secret Agent Jo books. They are all charming and engaging for the kids. Furthermore, they are formatted with an eReader in mind. This is actually reasonably important. At Pumpkin's urging, I bought her one of the Step into Reading books on the Fire. We bought Cat Traps, by Molly Coxe. It is a cute story, and I'd actually recommend it... in paper format. It was clearly a quick conversion to the Kindle format, and it shows. The pages do not take full advantage of the Kindle screen:

Whereas the Xist Publishing books do not have that problem:

(Apologies for the crappy photos. I am too lazy to figure out if I can do a screen capture on the Fire. Honestly, I don't know how I can call myself a techie.)

The books come in a variety of formats- Kindle eBook, Nook eBook, iBook, and old school paper. You can see the list on Calee's stealthy book tour page. Or you can order the Kindle or paper versions from Amazon, via the links I put above.

And finally... Calee and Brenda were kind enough to offer me a print to give away to my readers. I get the S print, for Scientist... and Snake. So maybe a herpetologist out there wants this? Just kidding- it is open to anyone. Here is the print I'm giving away:

If you want to try to win the print, just leave me a comment that says somewhere in it that you want the print, and I will do a random drawing... um, I'm not sure when. I need to check with Calee and see if I'm supposed to wait until the end of their stealthy book tour or do it now. So soon, anyway.

And of course, as always, I'd love to hear what you think. Do you let your kid play with your iPad or other expensive electronic gadget? What do you think of eBooks, for kids or adults?

Updated to add: Brenda has an etsy shop, and she says that if you like that S is for Scientist picture at the top of the post, she could add it to her shop. Also, the pheasant has no agenda. And if you want to know what that means, I think you need to poke around on her blog for more details of her book tour.


  1. sciDAD = droid, me = iPhone, kid apps save our A$$ all the time, figured that out while travelling this summer. I have a bunch of educational apps, while sciDAD has angry birds, hello kitty etc.

    i am curious about a tablet. the kids love my mom's iPad but i've not played with it enough yet to determine if I'd use one. I hate reading for fun electronically

  2. Your first giveaway! I'm pretty sure that's a blogger rite of passage.

    DH and I both have droids, and the puzzle games on there have been nice distractions for our kids - as well as for friends' kids - especially at whiny, difficult times in public.

  3. Nice. We're thinking of getting an Android tablet, and hope that there are the same awesome educational kids' apps that the iPad has, esp. the Montessori-like ones I've seen. (Although it seems like activities on an electronic device are about as un-Montessori as you could get...)

    That print is ADORABLE. Enter me please, and congrats on the first giveaway!

  4. Our three year old daughter spends more time on our tablet than we do... writing emails, playing solitaire, reading Brenda's books, drawing pictures.... it's a new world we're heading into!

    In our house, S is for SPRITZER! (My last name!)

  5. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Thanks for the review. I've been debating whether to get a regular kindle or one of the tablets. And I'd love to win the print. It would be perfect for my daughter, Sophie's room. :)

    Carolyn Lopez

  6. I absolutely love my (old school black=and-white) Kindle! I wasn't sure about getting one at first, but I really prefer it now.

    Both DH and I have iPhones, and let Evan play with them now and then. One of the best apps we've found is AlphaBaby (which you can also get for regular computers).

    We both would LOVE to get an iPad. Both my mom and brother have one, and a lot of people at work do too. From what I've seen, they're a great step between the iPhone and a laptop.

    That print is cute! I'm not sure I'd be eligible, since I'm in Canada, but please enter me if you can!

  7. The apps on the iPhone have also saved our sanity while travelling and to be honest, changing nappies too. Wrestling with a poopy toddler gets old fast and if handing my phone over sometimes means the shit doesn't hit the wall, I can totally live with that.

    Moo has previously loved an app called Peekaboo Barn. It is beautifully simple - a picture of a barn bounces up and down, you hear a noise and tap the barn to make the doors open to see... a pig! or a sheep! or a mouse!

    At the moment though, what really holds her attention is looking at photos of people and videos of herself doing stuff.

    I use the iPhone to read on flights, because it is light enough to hold one handed and requires minimal movement to flick pages (thereby reducing the risk of waking a sleeping toddler). I like the electronic format, but find the small screen too annoying to read on regularly - so I have to admit, I have a Sony Reader waiting for me in my pile of Christmas presents. I tossed up between a Kindle and a Reader (Nooks aren't available in Australia) for ages - but ended up deciding I didn't want to be "locked in" to Amazons DRM format and I preferred the placement of the page turn buttons on the Sony.

    I don't have (or want) an iPad, but several members of my family do - I could have bought one earlier this year but decided to upgrade my laptop to a Macbook Air. Again, my family generally considers the iPad too expensive to let Moo play with - but her older cousins (ages 5+) are allowed and seem to have a lot of fun.

    One thing Moo has had fun with is a Microsoft Surface table. My sister works for a digital media company and I called in to see her once and while we were waiting in reception, one of the guys came out and played with M (at that point, age 9 months) who had a great time sitting on the table swiping and swatting at the images.

  8. I'd like the print... if Canadians can enter, of course.

  9. @hush- I know! I'm all grown up now, or something like that.

    On the Canada thing- I *think* there is no prohibition against Canadians in the giveaway. I'll check in with Calee and Brenda and find out.

    And actually- I don't mind picking up shipping to pretty much anywhere in the world, so if any of you non-USians are holding back because of that, chime in. I'll sort something out.

  10. Toria2:12 AM

    I adore my iPad. So does my 4yr old. But I don'tt take it out of the house to amuse/distract him in waiting rooms etc - that is a job for my trusty iPhone.
    I will definitely be checking out these books.
    The pictures look great :)

  11. I would love to have the S print since both my daughter's names start with S!!!!

  12. Let's see.

    We own nothing smart (well, maybe 1 of the 2 dogs). We both have conventional laptops that travel with us, and for international flights I have put some videos on mine (for DS) but otherwise I don't much do that. We did go through a phase of watching youtube stuff, mostly old Disney clips, but are out of that -- for now (DS does watch a fair-to-middlin' amount of TV so this isn't refusal/avoidance per se, just a medium thing. I wouldn't allow so much TV but DH does and I've decided not to fight that battle. Also DS actually isn't as devoted to watching it as DH would like/allow him to be, so ... . Frame this in the context of a kid Pumpkin's age who doesn't read yet but requires only 9-10 hours of sleep a night and is otherwise up-and-at-'em where 'em is us and you'll see where I might offer empathy not criticism).

    Right. DS has met Itech; his grandma has an Itouch brought out for emergency situations (the first one literal -- I was in an ER with a badly broken bone) and his much older sister an Iphone that she allows him to use more or less unhindered but though she does spend wonderful amounts of time with him and I am thrilled that they are close they are not together so much that this is "an issue" (also she usually does stuff like take him to libraries, parks, etc., so it's not that they get together in order to spend a day playing angry birds). We have found it handy in restaurants at times (when with her) but muddle along without (of course that's with just the one kid).

    We do own an old (circle-style) Ipod, which is handy for music, and I checked a Kindle out of the library over the summer. It was fine, but not so cool I had to have one; several places in the town where I live are free book swaps -- drop off and pick up -- and I usually grab and save fun/decent paperbacks for trips and then discard as I go (we cart kid books along, but I choose little ones, like the Mr. Men ones, for trips where size/weight matters). Otherwise I rely almost exclusively on library books, not out of a commitment to the form (over Ebooks) but for cost reasons (and access to great libraries, making this feasible).

    I recently borrowed an Ipad from work and couldn't stand the thing; I've pretty much decided I never want to own something that doesn't have a real keyboard, so I guess if I ever go close to that route it's Netbooks for me. I'd probably pay up to say $50 for something Ipad-like that I could mount on a cabinet door and use to store/access recipes, but otherwise ... eh.

    The prints are lovely but we're not really in the market so please don't include me in the drawing!

  13. (I'd very much enjoy the S print)

    I didn't start out letting my kids use my expensive gadgets. It didn't take long for them to take over, though. Now my kids are IPhone & IPad experts.
    They've never damaged them, they are very careful (they are 8, 6, and just turned 3) but when they take my IPad, it's annoying that it usually comes back to me with 5% or less battery power and I can't read. That's why I love it, so I can read in the dark.
    (Can you do that with a Kindle, b/w or fire?)

  14. mary d9:27 AM

    We have iPads and iPods and BW Kindles but no smartphones. I'm too cheap to pay for the data plan.

    Our 5yo is an expert at iPad -- plays lots of games (Lego Harry Potter is a favorite of all 3 of us!) and has learning games (Teach Me Kindergarten and First Grade he really likes -- when he gets stuff right, he gets coins to "buy" stuff for a virtual aquarium and sticker book).

    The 1 1/2 year old just likes to push the home button.

    I prefer the Kindle to read on -- less bright and lighter weight.

    The iPads don't go to places like restaurants (the iPods do, though). They do go places like work with Daddy or Mommy -- places where he'll be waiting longer and that are not messy. :)

    We have family on opposite sides of the country so the iPad is a WORKHORSE for travel -- we load it up with movies and games and he's occupied for the entire trip, typically. LOVE.

  15. SAJ is the best! Would love to have the letter S!

  16. I love the S print! It's precious and remnicient of the Slytherin crest. Though I didn't think I'd let my child ever touch my iPhone, I quickly overcame that feeling when I upgraded from my 3G to the 4. Now, I call my old iPhone "his." But, he only gets it in the car or at restaurants. It's definitely effective at distracting him. And, it's great to download his favorite TV shows via iTunes. So much easier than keeping up with DVDs. I used to do this with my iPad for him also, but I sold the iPad and bought a Macbook Air instead. I wanted to type!

  17. @Yara- sorry, I forgot to answer earlier: the Kindle Fire is an LCD screen, so you can read in the dark. Black and white kindles are eInk, so you can't read without light. But you can read in direct sunlight, which doesn't work so great with the LCD screens.

    For picture books, I'd get the Fire, hands down.

    For older kids, it is a harder call. I prefer reading on my black and white Kindle, although I can do it on the Fire. I couldn't stand reading on an iPad when I borrowed one and tried that out. It was the wrong size for me.

  18. Oh, I'd love the S print... my son just loves snakes :) Thanks for the info on the Kindle Fire... I've been wondering if it was worth looking into purchasing or not for the uses I have for it (which are very similar to yours!)

  19. FYI- I did pick a winner, as promised. Congrats to Yara!

    Thanks for commenting, everyone.


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