Oceanhouse Media has done something brilliant and can capitalize on it forever. In April, they released The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, which I reviewed quite highly. It introduced an e-book engine that any picture-oriented book can be plugged into. Currently they sell 12 Dr. Seuss books, with two soon to be released, and three Berenstain Bear books, with three more upcoming.
In each e-book, there are three options. Auto Play is for the smallest of children. It creates a seamless experience where the child can hold the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad while the animations work and the story is read, with each read word being highlighted in red. Pages turn, and music and sound effects play without intervention. While the story is playing, tapping on anything brings up an enlargement of the the underlying word.
Appropriate for slightly older kids is the Read To Me option, which requires the reader to swipe to turn pages. When they do, animations happen, the page gets read, and then it stops. This gives kids the chance to tap on anything on the screen. When they do, the word, if it's in the text, enlarges, animates, and is read. Other objects names just appear. This is great for getting little ones to associate pictures with words. Just about everything is a tappable item. There is a lot more specificity than in the earlier Cat in the Hat book. In fact, in one picture I found over 12 tappable items with very constrained bitmaps, which prevent little ones from tapping on one thing and hearing another.
For the oldest readers, there is the Read It Myself option, which plays the soundtrack but requires the reader to either read the page themselves or tap on the paragraph when the page will be read aloud. Again, tapping on a picture enlarges and reads the word if it's in the text. But if help is needed, a tap on the text paragraph reads it, with each word highlighted as it's read. In this mode, the child must swipe the page to change it.
A very nice touch is a little return button at the lower left of each page. Tapping it displays a pop-up box that asks if it should return to the main menu or not. This little touch is more useful than you may think, since little ones with roaming fingers can easily leave the app without even knowing it. Also useful is that if you leave the app entirely, when returning, you are asked if you want to start from the beginning or return to where you were. This may be a small thing, but if you have kids, you know that it's brilliant.
The soundtrack is one of the best I've heard in this sort of book. Many e-books for kids constantly play music, and the sound effects are superimposed over it. In this one, each page has appropriate sound to go along with it, whether it's music, sound effects, or a combination of both. The book is read quite well, with a soothing and professional narration.
From a technical perspective, the app is perfect. Tap on things as quickly as you like; it keeps up with you, which is something rarely seen in similar apps. As in all of the Oceanhouse Media e-books, there is a screen with simple instructions that shows options to turn the soundtrack on or off, or present news about upcoming books. It's a universal app that runs well on the iPhone or iPod touch, where it appears in landscape mode, or on the iPad, where enhanced graphics allow it to work no matter how you hold it. What I consider to be the nicest part is the engine, which may make it easier for Oceanhouse Media to plug books into. More importantly, it makes it easier for small readers to manage the app. If you know how to get around any of the other titles, you know how to run this one. That brings a certain comfort level to the experience, which I consider admirable.
With all of the options that it provides and the size of an iPad screen, I can really see this sort of thing replacing paper books. A parent can still read it to their children, who can have fun tapping on pictures -- so nothing is lost, but quite a lot is gained. Great work, Oceanhouse Media. Now please acquire the Maurice Sendak catalog, since Where the Wild Things Are was my children's favorite and hasn't been done as an e-book yet.
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