Friday, October 12, 2012

10 Exciting New Children's Story Apps

It seems some time since I reviewed some good educational and literature apps. Earlier in the year I reviewed 'Seven New Children's Story' apps and a little later I reviewed '14 Great Educational Apps for Children'. In this post I want to review 10 story apps published in recent months. As in my most recent app review post, I have used a rating scale that attributes a score from 1 (Poor) to 10 (Outstanding) to indicate the extent to which the app meets the following criteria:

  • The app is enjoyable to use
  • Children learn new things because of the app
  • The app makes it easier for children to learn
  • The app interactive elements don't distract from the key learning goals
  • The app is well designed, attractive and engaging
  • The app represents good value for money

1. Who Stole The Moon? (Windy Press, 2012)

This is a wonderful story app that is based on the delightful picture book written by Helen Stratton-Would (author) and illustrated by Vlad Gerasimov's, 'Who Stole the Moon' (2010). It is exciting to see a good book turned into an eBook with interactive elements that add value to the reading experience. It tells the story of Bertie who has a top-floor attic room and a skylight that lets him stare at the moon and stars. But one night, he realizes for the first time, that he can't see them any more. Bertie sets out to solve the mystery and in the process learns more about the way his world, the moon and stars 'work'.

The app uses a number of simple yet complementary interactive elements that expand the child's experience of the book and add to the reader's understanding of what happens with the movement of the moon's phases and clouds. My favourite element is the ability on one page to move the clouds to show how and why the moon at times will disappear. The reader in the 'read to me' option is also excellent.

The app also incorporates eight original songs that complement the bedtime reading experience of sharing this book with your child, and game elements that I could do without. But at least you can choose to use the games or leave them alone, and it's easy to get back to the story. The story is simple and the language is used well to communicate a simple story that children will love. It is available in multiple languages and is a story that transcends cultural boundaries, teaching about the world, while offering a great shared book experience. The illustrations are wonderful, with simple lines and deep rich colours with the feel of a watercolour wash. The app is suitable to share with children aged 0-6 and for beginning readers to read alone. You might note however, that there are buttons on the front page that link to Facebook and Twitter, which I'd encourage the developers to remove.

This review is based on the FREE Lite version. A full version is also available. It's the best free story app I can recall. I highly recommend this app and give it a rating of 9/10.

2. Jabberwocky 3D (Mythos Machine LLC, 2012)

This app is based on the Lewis Carroll poem 'Jabberwocky' that appears in 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There' (1871). This 'nonsense' poem is considered one of the finest children's poems of all time. The app is illustrated by Matthew Vimislik and presented either by two readers (male and female) or in 'read it yourself' mode. It also has provision for the child to record their own reading. The interactive devices used are simple and are primarily touch and watch features, where objects move, respond, make noises etc. While this doesn't add much to the reading experience they are not too distracting.

The illustrations are bright and engaging and complement the text, and the key illustrated characters often react and speak when tapped. For a poem that is difficult for today's child reader, the illustrations help the reader engage and follow the narrative within the verse.

There are a few other features that children will enjoy, but don't add much value. For example, the reader can turn the screen and touch it to reveal the Cheshire Cat on each page. While the app has just 8 pages, it is a complex poem that will intrigue children, especially if they like language and enjoy rhyme and nonsense verse.

Recommended for readers aged 6-10. I've given it a rating of 7/10.

3. The Land of Me: Story Time (Penguin, 2012)

This is a delightful FREE story app in which the reader has a key role in deciding on the main character, the nature of the story and the ending. There are numerous options that feature three youngsters (a bear, a raccoon and a bird) who are told stories by the storyteller, Granny Olive who at the commencement of each tale asks for volunteers to shape the story.  The stories are short (about 2 minutes) and are told delightfully by Granny Olive.

The app is brilliant for teaching story structure, character development and how to engage the reader. In many ways, this is a writing app as much as it is a reading app. Children aged 3-7 will have lots of fun with the app. The app has really only one mode, 'read to' and is on auto play once the story choices have been made by the 'reader', but it does present the text so that children who can read may follow. The text is presented in a type of cursive script that won't be easy to read for younger readers.

This is not your typical story app, something I like, and it will appeal to children. While I have reviewed the free version there is a full version of the app with many additional features. The app has been nominated for the British Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) in the 'Fun and games' section.

Highly recommended for children. I've given this free version a rating of 8/10.

4. 'Franklin Frog' (Nosy Crow, 2012)

'Franklin Frog' is a beautiful ePicture book based on the story written and illustrated by Barry and Emma Tranter. It kept me smiling with delight from beginning to end. Franklin is a frog doing what frogs do, hunting and eating dragon flies, jumping around, swimming, eating snails and worms, flies and so on. But the exciting part of this app is that it 'invites' the reader to join Franklin in his daily activities, touching him to make him speak, helping him to jump, swim and catch his food. It also engages the reader in an understanding of the complete life cycle of the frog as Franklin finds a mate, eggs are laid and eventually tadpoles born.

This is another fine example of an app that engages the reader in new ways and invites a level of participation in the story not possible without the app. And it does this without compromising the beauty and delight of the text and the illustrations. As well, it teaches the young reader about the life cycle of the frog.

The app works as you'd expect with simple page swipes, text highlighting that is switched off by default, but can be turned on, and delightful child readers. This is one of the best story apps I've seen this year.

I highly recommend it and give it a rating of 10/10.

5. 'Magnus the Magnetic Dog' (Demibooks, 2012) 

'Magnus the Magnetic Dog' is a quirky story written and illustrated by Julian Damy. It was actually developed by the author using the program Demibooks Composer. It tells the story of Magnus the dog who is afraid of storms. He climbs to the top of his building to face his fears, but is struck by lightning, falls and lands on top of a truck. When he finally wakes up he has a strange new quality, he is magnetic! He meets a girl named Olivia and they work out the source of the mystery together.

The animation's use of music and subtle interactive elements, work together beautifully to create an excellent reading experience. It is a delightful story that is well written and the pen and wash illustrations are perfect for this story about a lovable terrier.

One excellent feature is the addition of extra scientific information and safety warnings that offer new knowledge for the young reader. Each instance is found by tapping a small image of Magnus below the story text. The book also ends with information on how to make your own electromagnet. One thing I didn't like was the text font used, that was a form of cursive, and was very small. A text highlight feature might also have been helpful for younger readers.

Highly recommended. I have given it a rating of 8/10.

6.  'Babel, the Cat Who Would Be King' (EPIC, 2012)

This is a remarkable story app. It tells the story of a cat with ambition! Babel always wanted to reach the clouds, but he could never quite make it, so he decides to annoy them! But one day the pesky cat is struck by lightning and experiences a great wind which sweeps him up before a great 'fall'. This leads him to reconsider his life, but his ambition only grows. The self-declared 'King Babel' with a crown (that is really a cage with a sly bird within) upon his head, proceeds on a risky path at the urging of the sly bird. This leads to the gathering of some loyal subjects and the building of a great castle. The story has many biblical echoes including the story of the Tower of Babel and Genesis, that speak of human ambition in the face of God, but for many readers these themes won't be obvious. 

The text is well written and engaging and the illustrations and animation stunning. The words, images, sound and music and subtle interactive elements, work beautifully together to offer the reader or listener a coherent experience of a truly multimodal text. The app thankfully has few features to distract from the story. It does have an annoying 'help layer' (dotted lines over images), to encourage the reader or listener to tap the images, but this can be switched off allowing children to enjoy and interact with the app without this distraction. Some of the interactive elements are clever, such as the ability to blow on the screen and move things around, and many images can be shoved or moved about, made to spin and so on. One thing it lacks is a highlighting feature for the text. I'd suggest the developers add this, preferably with phrases, not just single words. As well, I found the page turning using arrows at the top middle of the screen to be 'clunky', a simple swipe would be much better. One final addition that would help sales would be languages other than just English and French.

In spite of the final comments this is a brilliant app that I highly recommend. I have given it a rating of 9/10.

7. 'The Waterhole' - (Graeme Base, 2012)

This app is based on the well-known picture book of the same name developed by acclaimed writer and illustrator Graeme Base. This is the classic children's early counting book, but Graeme Base's books are always anything but simple. The book uses animals gathered around a waterhole to play with number and rhyme. As with all Graeme Base books the images are filled with fascinating detail, vivid colours, complex hidden detail and rich vocabulary.

The app comes with a simple 'read to me' option with Graeme doing the reading. As well, the app includes a matching memory game, a hidden animal search and game a game of leapfrog that requires logic to solve (and won't be solved by many young children). I've said many times that add on activities of this type in my view trivialize the story, but in this case it's the author who is doing it, so who can argue with him.  I would have preferred more attention to the complexity of the interactive elements that as they are don't add much to the reading experience. The main element requires readers simply to touch the animals on each page, allowing a simple count to me made.  This might be helpful for very young readers. Curiously, the app doesn't have a 'read it yourself' option.

The app also appears to have a programming glitch or two with my version stopping to 'load' several times, and once or twice my tapping of the screen led to a prompt to 'copy' the screen shot. This needs to be sorted out.

Overall, the weaknesses in the app are partially counteracted by the quality of the book and the illustrations, but to be honest, it doesn't represent for me a significant enhancement of the reading experience. I give it a rating of 6/10 based mainly on the brilliant quality of the original book.

8. 'Leonard' (Ink Robin Inc., 2012)

'Leonard' is a simple but engaging story about a little boy who has no friends. He tries everything to make some without success, and so he decides to make his own robot friend with an unexpected outcome. Leonard is a boy with a big imagination, who uses it for a great outcome. The app itself builds on this and in surprising ways engages the reader in exploring imaginative elements through the use of a small lever that appears on most of the 18 pages. This allows readers to slide the button to advance the story and see magical new scenes appear. The lever is a prompt to readers to slide it either to progress the story or to create a special effect linked in some way to Leonard's imagination. As Leonard (and sometimes his cat) appears in the scenes, we see what he is imagining. Leonard becomes a lion tamer, a deep-sea diver, he finds himself on safari, in a cafe in Paris and so on. Each of these is linked to the story in some way.

The app is very easy to use, and requires no distracting and awkward prompts or instructions. Children can find their way around the app in a few screen shots. The app works well in both 'read it myself' and 'read it to me' modes, uses clear text fonts, delightful simple illustrations, a clear reader and simple interactive elements that contribute to the reader's experience of the story.

I highly recommend this app and have given it a rating of 9/10.

9. 'Hairy Maclary From Donaldson's Dairy' (Kiwa Media and Penguin Books, 2012)

This story app is based on the well-known book of the same title written and illustrated by New Zealand author and illustrator Lynley Dodd. The book of course was followed by the many other delightful adventures of Hairy Maclary, so we can expect lots of follow-up story apps. When developers get hold of great picture books I always hope that they don't mess up something that was brilliant in the paper version. I'm pleased to say that they haven't on this occasion. They manage to keep the app simple, use a great reader, simple elements and the main gadget, the ability to colour the illustrations, isn't a great distraction (you can't see it in the 'read to me' mode). Even this element might just encourage some children to re-read the story multiple times. There is good use of sound, text highlighting in 'read to me' option, which I'd prefer to be phrase-based rather than word-based. There is also the ability to record your own version of the reading. The latter also includes the ability to record it in AUSLAN sign language. The pages are easy to turn with a swipe, and it also has the option to touch the words to hear the word read for beginning readers who are stuck on a word. Yiu can also double tap to have it spell the word (I'm not sure we need the latter). 

The story introduces us to the cute little terrier with the appropriate name Hairy Maclary and his many friends. This wonderful story is filled with repetition, beautiful use of rhyme, rhythm and verse to great effect. The characters have names like 'Scarface Claw', 'Bitzer Maloney' and 'Schnitzel von Krumm' and lively illustrations to match. This simple story comes alive in the hands of just about any reader, but David Tennant as the default reader is brilliant, and his 'mild' Scottish accent is perfect for the book.

All in all, the eBook version of this wonderful book works well. I recommend it and give it a rating of 7/10.

10. 'Dr Seuss Bookshelf' (Oceanhouse Media, 2012)

Oceanhouse Media has been producing the Dr Seuss book apps for some time, and I have reviewed some of these titles in previous posts. A new way to organize these apps is by using their new Dr Seuss Bookshelf. This is a free app which effectively locates all your Dr Seuss books in the one place and allows you to the go-to app for Dr Seuss books, and games available as a FREE download in the App Store location. This app lets users organize, launch and browse their favourite Dr Seuss apps on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. I would predict that other developers will follow suit with this type of organizational app.

While this is also a great way for Oceanhouse Media to promote titles that you haven't yet purchased, it is a convenient way to store your apps. The app allows you to sort by type, price or age, and use the search feature to find a specific app. In addition, the bookshelf app provides up-to-date information on new Dr Seuss releases, sales and suggestions for holidays and special occasions. I could do without the promotion, but others might like it. Of course if you're the type of person who organises your apps into folders already, then you might not find this app of much use.

I would suggest that people who have too many apps to organise them into folders might find the app helpful (but you'll need to avoid the product 'push'). I give it a rating of 6/10.

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