Thursday, February 2, 2012

Seven New Children's Story Apps

I recently reviewed a list of my 25 top children's apps in 2011 (HERE); this is my first review of new apps for 2012. Most of these were released late last year and are suitable for children aged 4-8 years. Of the many new releases, the following seven are worthy of consideration. It's pleasing to see that many of the negative things that have been commented on in previous reviews seem to be being addressed in some newer apps. While developers still need to work hard at maintaining a priority on the quality of the story, they have been using more engaging material with rich language and more complex story. There is also more evidence of use of sound, image and word in more effective ways, without simply producing an app with cute and fun interactive elements.

I've used the same rating scale as for some of my earlier app reviews, with four key categories and a 5 point rating scale - 1 (Very Poor), 2 (Poor), 3 (Average), 4 (Good), 5 (Excellent). The higher the score out of 20 the better the rating.

1. 'Cozmo's Day Off' from Ayars Animation

'Cozmo's Day Off' is one of my favourite new story apps. It has a cute story in simple rhyming verse that is complemented by a 'quirky' reader. Ayars Animation developed the wonderful 'Jack and the Beanstalk' app that I reviewed last year (here). It tells of Cozmo the alien who is having a bad day as he tries to get to work. 

It also has some brilliant and very funny interactive elements. Children love exploring the many interactive elements on each page, and yet because it's a fun rhyming story they also come back to the text.  The quality of the images is high, as is the rendering of every page. The app also has just about every option for reading it. You can listen to the story, read it yourself and record your own reading of the story. A fun device they've added is the ability to speed up or slow down the reading of the story. While this is a bit of a distraction once children discover it, they do come back to the story.

The app is also easy to use. It doesn't have a page swipe function (just a back and forward button) but this isn't a problem. It does have a scroll bar that allows you to move quickly from page to page or back again if you've lost your place. Overall, this is an app that makes good use of all that there is to offer in an eBook, including sound, image, movement, colour, language and text devices. A big pat on the back to the developers for using phrase highlighting in the read along option rather than word-by-word reading as is the case with many apps. This encourages reading for meaning, not just reading words.

Rating

a) Fun & interactivity (5) - Sets new standards for fun and creative elements
b) Ease of use (4) - Complex, with many options, but not hard to work out
d) Benefit for literacy & learning (5) - An enjoyable story, with rich language and an engaging storyline
e) Value for money (4) - at $4.49 US it is excellent value. 

Total =18/20

2. 'Ellison the Elephant' by Eric Drachman and illustrated by James Muscarello
Oceanhouse Media

This is a simple and enjoyable story about a little elephant who is different from other elephants because he can't trumpet properly. He is helped by Weasel to find his trumpet and in the process manages to invent jazz music. 

Oceanhouse Media has been developing apps primarily for previously published books. This strategy ensures that they end up with some quality stories. There is little animation, but the movement of screen focus across images works well and gains attention and increases interest. In this app they also include some good (and subtle) use of sound to support, rather than overpower the story. The interactive devices are limited, but that doesn't bother me, as it means there is more emphasis on the story. This is supported by the use of multiple voices for the storytelling mode that are excellent. Two minor quibbles. Ellison's mom seems to call her 'Alison' whenever she speaks, but maybe this is her accent. There is also one page with three font sizes for no obvious reason.

Rating

a) Fun & interactivity (3) - The level of interactivity is limited but acceptable (and not distracting)
b) Useability (5) - Very simple and easy to use
c) Benefit for literacy & learning (4) - Great story, rich in language and vocabulary and well written
d) Value for money (4) - Great value at $2.99 US. 


Total = 16/20


3. 'The Nutcracker Musical Storybook', artwork by Joko Janaka animator Andy Zibits & music audio Paul Zibits. Developed by Mouse King Media.


This story app is based on E.T.A Hoffman's classic story of 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King' (1816) and the music from the famous ballet 'The Nutcracker' that was based on the story.  It comes in story or movie mode. Each has a single line of text at the bottom of the screen that presents the simple narrative. In the read-only option the user can control page turning and tap pictures for a number of simple effects (mainly sound and some movement). In the movie mode the story moves automatically from one screen to the next. Both modes make use of segments from the opera. The read only page is controlled from an initial Christmas tree image with numbered baubles allowing different paths through the story. The reader can swipe the pages and interact with a number of visual elements on the way.

The images are delightful and capture the mood of the 19th century winter setting with wonderful variations in colour, light, movement, animated figures (puppet-like), sound and of course Tchaikovsky's wonderful music. The well-known scenes are all there with the 'Waltz of the flowers' and the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' brilliant!


Rating

a) Fun & interactivity (4) - The elements are simple but they fit well with the story and music.
b) Useability (4) - The app is simple, but I found the story sequence that was triggered by touching the right bauble on the Christmas tree a little confusing until I found the reset button.
c) Benefit for literacy & learning (4) - A wonderful introduction to a famous ballet and another period in history
d) Value for money (5) - at $2.99 US this is excellent value. 


Total = 17/20

4. 'Monkey Business', by Christopher Cheng and developed by Kiwa Media (New Zealand)

This is a simple story about a runaway monkey and his adventures while free from his confinement. It is in HD format but has unusual images for a young child's app. The zookeepers all look as if they're on steroids. The monkey images are simple and effective, but I wonder how 3-6 year old children will respond. Those I tested it with seemed to enjoy the story more than the images.  The language was also adult-like, e.g. "He was checked for injuries but the only visual evidence of Erwin's escape was a grazed foot". The app has many of the common features including ready alone or listen to, record your own reading, and a painting option. This is a cute feature that allows the reader to paint all illustrations on the way through. While children I tested the app with enjoyed the painting option, it does little for engagement in the story.

I can't say this is one of my favourite story apps; I'd encourage the developers to work on better texts for children and to think carefully about the appropriateness of their images for the age group. They might also consider more interactive elements to elaborate on text or enrich story elements and sequences.

Rating

a) Fun & interactivity (3) - Pretty basic with very minor interactive elements, the painting option was fun
b) Useability (4) - Fairly easy to use
c) Benefit for literacy & learning (3) - Limited in my view. The story does offer rich and complex vocabulary, but this seemed strangely inappropriate in places.
d) Value for money (5) - at $0.99 US you can't argue on value, this is a very cheap app 


Total = 15/20


5. 'Tacky the Penguin' by Helen Lester and produced by Oceanhouse Media.

I love this little story app. Tacky is a lovable character and the illustrations of Helen Lester are simple pen and wash with vibrant colours. She manages to create images that project different personalities for all the penguins. I like the fun names that Lester chose - 'Goodly', 'Lovely', 'Angel', 'Neatly', 'Perfect' and of course 'Tacky'. The introduction of the story complication (the bear and two wolves) with a repetitive verse adds to the fun of the story. But of course, Tacky, the crazy little penguin manages to confuse them with numbers and then send them packing.

As with other Oceanhouse apps, the use of quality literature means that they have a head start and don't need to use as many tricks and gadgets to engage young readers. The app also allows the reader to tap each image with the name of the object shown in word and sound. I'm not a fan of this feature because it often seems to distracts readers from the storyline as they play with the app trying to look for interactive elements. In my view, this simple app doesn't need this feature, which confuses the purpose of reading whole stories with word recognition drills.  


Rating


a) Fun & interactivity (3) - As indicated above, this is a simple app with only minor interactive elements. I'm glad to see sound used in this app to add to the reading experience.
b) Useability (4) - The app works well and is simple in format.
c) Benefit for literacy & learning (4) - The story is rich in language and elegant in plot and structure.
e) Value for money (4) - at $2.99 US it is good value. 
 
Total = 15/20

6. Some more Dr Seuss magic from Oceanhouse Media

(i) 'And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street' by Dr Seuss, Oceanhouse Media

This is another Oceanhouse production to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dr Seuss classic story 'And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street'. This was the first story Dr Seuss managed to have published.  It uses the images from the book and is not animated. The template used by Oceanhouse is the same as for the app reviewed above for 'Tacky the Penguin' and has the same basic features.

The simple sound effects work well and add to the experience of the story for the reader. These include music, footsteps, horse hooves, sounds of the wagon and the grand parade. Kids will love this story app.

Rating

a) Fun & interactivity (3) - A simple app with enough to interest the reader
b) Useability (4) - Simple and easy to use.
c) Benefit for literacy & learning (5) - Wonderful and timeless story from Dr Seuss with the usual richness of rhyme and language.
d) Value for money (4) - at $2.99 US it is good value. 


Total = 16/20

(ii) Dr Seuss Beginner Book Collection #1

This is a fabulous collection of Dr Seuss classic stories just released by Oceanhouse media. Each story in the set is ideal for beginning readers. The titles come in one app and include:

'The Cat in the Hat'
'The Foot Book'
'One Fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish'
'Mr Brown can Moo! Can You?'
'Fox in Socks'


All these books use the same design template as for 'And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street'. So you can read it yourself, have it read to you, or have auto play. It also uses the same picture tap function that primes the words and name for each separate image on each page. However, while I see this as a distraction in some of the apps in which it is used, it works well in this collection because all are fine examples of how Dr Seuss plays with words and language. Hence, the tapping of images to hear and see the label makes more sense.  One other feature in this app is that the sound works so well to support the experience of the story. This is seen particularly in 'Fox in Socks'. I should also add that the reader on the app is brilliant. Try reading '...they call this a muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle' with fluency and interest.

You can't go wrong with this collection; at about $2.50 per story, you should add it to your collection.

Rating

a) Fun & interactivity (4) - A simple app with enough to interest the reader. The word tap option works well with the repetitive language, use of nonsense words and rhyme
b) Useability (4) - Simple and easy to use.
c) Benefit for literacy & learning (5) - Five wonderful stories from Dr Seuss with the usual richness of rhyme, language and silliness.
d) Value for money (4) - at $11.99 US for 5 stories, it's great value.

Total = 17/20

Some previous reviews of 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)

'25 Great Children's Apps to Stimulate Literacy, Learning & Creativity   (HERE)

3 comments:

Phoenix day care said...

This is a good post! I will be sharing this with our other teachers!

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