Monday, July 25, 2011

6 Great New ePicture Book Apps: My latest review

I have written a number of previous posts on ePicture book apps for the iPad (listed at the end of the post). In this post I look at 6 recent examples, which I believe have merit. Overall, I have been disappointed by the quality of many ePicture books. While there have been many new apps released onto the market in recent times, most fail to realize the potential that electronic devices like the iPad have for adding value to children's experience of picture books. In a previous post (here) that was motivated by 'Alice for the iPad' I concluded:
It remains to be seen if developers can create interactive picture books that are more than just novelties. If they do, I'm sure that they will help to get some children more excited about reading and literature. 
Since that post I've continued to look for good new apps for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices. I continue to test them with some children aged 3-10 years. Many of the apps tested have been very disappointing. My major criticisms are:

  • Many developers have spent their time developing the app with fun interactive elements with little regard for the story.
  • Once developers have a programmed app they tend to re-use the code many times (for obvious and unavoidable commercial reasons) with different titles.
  • Many of the interactive elements divert reader attention away from the words and story to the 'gadgets'.
  • The interactive elements often add little to the reading of the story.
  • The quality of the illustrations and text quality are often poor, few leading writers and illustrators are as yet contributing material for ePicture books (I'm sure this will change).
  • Many developers have failed to use the potential of multimodality to engage and enrich readers.

In short, the apps continue to fall short of their full potential. Having said this, I believe that there is enormous potential to use sound, video, text, illustration, related texts, and reader initiated interactions that relate to the story. The following examples are some of the best that I have seen recently and offer some hope that developers might eventually understand what is required to enhance the picture books, not simply trivialise narrative.

As with previous posts I will give ratings from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent) in terms of a) Fun & interactivity, b) Useability, c) Benefit for learning, d) Story quality, e) Image quality, f) Value for money. I will also calculate the total score for each. I should stress once again that my assessments are about more than just whether children find them fun to use.
6 Excellent apps

1. 'The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross' by Jacqueline O. Rogers (Moving Tales) 

'Moving Tales' is a developer responsible for a series of ePicture book apps that present traditional tales in new ways. The organization states that its purpose is to present imaginative interpretations and adaptations, "...inspired by age-old folk tales, archetypal yarns and legends from around the world." In my view they have succeeded in doing this.  They have released four stories to date; each is presented in the same format and with similar stylistic illustrations. I will review just one of the stories. The other titles are 'This too shall pass', 'The unwanted guest' and 'Twas the night before Christmas' (see them here).

The 'Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross' is inspired by the age-old tale of a man who becomes rich through a dream. There are varied older versions of the story with origins in Persia, Israel and Ireland.  The story describes the journey of a poor pedlar woman who, guided by the shifting line between the real and the unreal, discovers a surprising and wonderful treasure.

As with all ePicture books you can read it yourself or have it read to you. The reader can also record their own reading if they wish. The storyteller provided has a wonderful Irish accent that works well with the traditional tale.  The background music also adds to the haunting nature of the reading of this story. The illustrations are monochrome, with touches of colour and partial animation on each page. It is available in English, Spanish and French.

The interactive elements are used sparingly (something that I like) with the most obvious gadget being the dissolving text on each page. This is cute and isn't too intrusive as it occurs only when the page is turned. The strength of these four excellent apps is the quality of the text, rich language, the understated but effective illustrations, the reader and the haunting nature of the tales.  It is wonderful to see an emphasis on the narrative in this app, not the gadgets.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - The book has less gadgets than many apps, but this is a case of less being more!

b) Useability (4) - Very easy to use, with a touch scroll at the bottom of the screen allowing the reader to move back and forth easily. 

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (5) - A complex story which children will find engaging. The language will stretch readers with wonderful words like 'detritus' and 'ineffable' being used.

d)  Story quality (4) - It is an excellent version of this old folk tale.

e) Image quality (4) - The monochrome and partial colour works well.

f) Value (4) -At $US 6.99 the story is reasonable value.

Total Score = 25/30 (The higher the better)

2. 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' by William Joyce (Moonbot Studios)

Moonbot suggests that the book was inspired in equal measures, by Hurricane Katrina, Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz, and a love for books. It is a story about people who devote their lives to books and how books in turn enrich our lives. It is a poignant, humorous allegory about the power of story. It uses a variety of illustrative and animation techniques to create a moving story.  It is presented in a style that offers echoes of the great silent films of the past. As the developers suggest, “Morris Lessmore” is old-fashioned and cutting edge at the same time.

The various interactive elements in this app are complex and yet they relate well to the story.  The reader can repair books, descend deep into a great storm, learn the piano, become 'lost in a book', and fly through a magical world of words. I could have done without some of the games sprinkled through the reading, but kids will love them. There is a surprise on each page of this app. The sophisticated CG animation, excellent original music, and quality illustrations work well to support the narrative. While I felt that there was just a little too much gadgetry, I don't think children would agree, this is a wonderful app. But I would still prefer developers to 'hold back' on the gadgets so that they don't distract too much from the reading of the text. When I tested the app with one group of children they spent ages making sentences out of the alphabet cereal. While it is a clever writing activity, it did little to maintain the continuity of the children's reading of the text.

Above: Image showing Morris discovering where the books were 'nesting'

a) Fun & Interactivity (5) -This app sets new standards for interaction.

b) Useability (4) - Very easy to use.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (5) - The book teaches, entertains and enriches. The language of the text is rich, e.g. the flying lady was pulled along by a 'festive squadron of flying books'.

d)  Story quality (4) - The story is excellent. While the story app felt a little contrived and there were some great narrative leaps in comparison with the film, this was probably due to the faster pace of the book than the video on which it is based.

e) Image quality (5) - Brilliant illustrations.

f) Value (5) - The app is excellent value at just $US 4.99

Total Score = 28/30 (The higher the better)

3. 'Timo and the Magical Picture Book' by Rian Visser and illustrated by Klaas Verplancke (Books2download)

'Timo and the Magical Picture Book' was written by well-known Dutch author Rian Visser and is illustrated by Klaas Verplancke, one of Belgium's most celebrated illustrators. It is a story app for younger readers (3-7 years).  It is about a little boy called Timo who receives an unusual birthday gift, a magical picture book from his uncle. A parcel that was not to be shaken, but... When Timo begins reading his new book he finds himself and his family mixed up into the story. As Timo enters the book, the app reader is able to interact with the illustrations, shaking and touching the images to elaborate on the story.

While the app doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the Morris Lessmore, it is an appealing picture book that has just enough interactivity to support the narrative. There are a few design ideas that I'm not keen on, for example, the font was a bad choice and didn't work that well over the illustrations. The animation also lacks a little of the sophistication of apps like Morris Lessmore, but it works well enough for readers that I've shared the app with. For me, this app does a good job balancing the interactive elements and story. The app plays English or Dutch language and the reader's voice is warm and friendly, although at times the reading is a little staccato.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - The interaction between Timo, the book and the app reader is quite clever.

b) Useability (3) - A simple app although the access to previous pages is a little clunky

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (3) - This is a basic story but the language is appropriate and the story structure clear.

d)  Story quality (4) - This is an excellent story that younger readers enjoy.

e) Image quality (4) - Simple illustrations and animation, yet appealing and appropriate.

f) Value (4) - At $US 3.99 it is excellent value.

Total Score = 22/30 (The higher the better)

4. 'The Three Pandas' by Valerie Min (See Here Studios)

I have reviewed another 'See Here' app in a previous post, 'The Wrong Side of the Bed' a 3D app, and I have just discovered 'Twinkle, Twinkle'. What I like about the work of this developer is the desire to put as much effort into the story and illustrations as the interactive elements.  'The Three Pandas' is based on the traditional story of 'The Three Bears' with an Asian twist.  It will appeal to younger readers aged 3-7 years.

Reading 'The Wrong Side of the Bed' with 3D glasses
The story is set in a bamboo forest, where a little girl (Mei Mei) enters the house of three pandas. As you would predict, she eats their porridge, sits on their chairs, and sleeps in their beds.  But unlike the traditional tale there is a slight twist at the end. The story has been developed in association with 'Pandas International' and so the app provides additional facts about pandas and an external link that enables you to learn more about the Giant Panda. A portion of all proceeds goes toward Panda conservation efforts. The animation is delightful. You can tickle the pandas on each screen shot and be surprised by their responses.  As with most apps you have a choice of languages (English or Chinese).

The story is simple and delightfully understated. The illustrations would be a hit in any form of picture book.  The animation of Mei Mei and the pandas is photographic in nature while the backgrounds are a mix of drawn and real objects. All in all, the images are wonderful.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) -There is enough interest in the interactive elements with the 'tickle' function.

b) Useability (3) - This is a simple app but an easier way to be able to navigate back and forward would be helpful.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (4) - While the story is a simple tale based on a well-known fairy tale, the Chinese setting, changes to the plot and additional background information means that there are additional learning experiences for the reader. 

d)  Story quality (4) - A well-written simple story that younger readers enjoy.

e) Image quality (5) -Beautifully illustrated.

f) Value (5) - Excellent value for money at $US 2.99

Total Score = 25/30 (The higher the better)

5. 'The Wonkey Donkey' by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley (Scholastic)

This app is based on Craig Smith's wonderful book by the same name. The original picture book came with an audio recording of the song. This app can be read or followed as it is sung.  It is a funny, predictable and cumulative song, that uses rhyme to great effect. Each page tells something new about the three-legged, one-eyed donkey, who walks down the road. He ends up being a lanky, honkey tonkey, winky, wonky, cranky, stinky dinky, spunky, hanky panky donkey. No child or adult can use this app without smiling! There is much fun to be had by listening to the song and trying to predict the new word for each clue given!

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - There are a small number of interactive elements that children can activate by touching the illustrations. But the song itself is wonderful, who needs extra effects?

b) Useability (3) - Quite easy to use. The reader can also check their reading by touching the text but unfortunately is word-by-word only. There is a record function that is a lot of fun.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (4) - The book is a great way to introduce young readers to rhyme, rhythm and word play. These are all very important with readers under six years. 

d)  Story quality (4) - This is a wonderful predictable book. 

e) Image quality (4) - Simple, but excellent images.

f) Value (2) -At $8.49 this app is a bit expensive.

Total Score = 21/30 (The higher the better)

6. 'What was that Noise?' by Iain Anderson

"What Was That Noise?" is a simple, original, illustrated, interactive children's storybook. It's a rhyming, noisy book (each page has a sound effect!) that kids will love to read and play with. You can read to your child, or use the "read-aloud" feature to let them read on their own. It has to be the simplest app on the market and is perfect for pre-school children. You can touch the text and it reads the complete phrase or touch the picture to hear the noise that the text describes.  The illustrations are beautiful and yet very simple pen and wash. Young children will love this app; it is a good first app for 2-4 year olds.

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - Perfect for the age group.

b) Useability (4) - Couldn't be easier.

c) Benefits for Literacy & Learning (3) - Uses rhythm, some rhyme and excellent illustrations to introduce children to concepts of print and story. It offers an enjoyable experience of books and language.

d)  Story quality (4) - Excellent for its type

e) Image quality (5) - Beautiful.

f) Value (5) -At $0.99 it is incredible value

Total Score = 25/30 (The higher the better)

My previous posts on story apps

'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)

'Literacy and the iPad: A review of some popular apps' (HERE)

'Literacy and the iPad: A second review of children's apps' (HERE)

'eBooks, not what they're cracked up to be?' (HERE)

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