TUAW's Holiday Gift Guide: Interactive books for children

David Winograd
D. Winograd|12.02.10

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TUAW's Holiday Gift Guide: Interactive books for children
Welcome to the TUAW Holiday Gift Guide! We've sorted the treasure from the junk and are serving up suggestions to make your holiday gift-giving a little easier.

Looking for an inexpensive gift for that special child in a home with an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch? You really can't do better than an interactive children's book or two (or three or four -- maybe a series of them!). Over the past year or so, the market for these new and exciting books has blown wide open. A quick check of the iTunes store shows hundreds of such books, and last April it was reported that a full 81 percent of top selling book apps on the iPad store were for kids.

In this quickly emerging market, you'll find many of your old favorites, as well as a huge number of new books especially made for iOS devices. Interactive books allow children to jump into the story by interacting with the pages. Not only do they give you the option of having the book read by a professional narrator, but objects seem to come alive when touched, providing animations, sounds and many other surprises, including the ability to touch a word and have it spoken, highlighted or both. In a real sense, these books seem to come alive.

This guide is far from comprehensive, since there are new books hitting the App Store every day, and I have only seen a small fraction of them. I will only recommend ones that I've read. With series like Dr. Seuss, I haven't read them all, but since they mostly work the same way, I feel comfortable recommending them as a series. Read on to find some great books for kids this holiday season.

Basic Features and Oceanhouse Media

The largest publisher of interactive children's books is Oceanhouse Media, who wisely decided to buy the rights to a number of popular properties, including Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears and Little Critter. They also had the foresight to take the time to build a terrific storybook engine that allows everyone from the youngest to the oldest of children to read or hear the book. An added advantage is that if you know how one of these books works, you know how they all work, since they all operate in exactly the same fashion.

In each and every book, the simplest option is Auto Play, where the entire book is read aloud, pages automatically turn and, using the cinematic techniques of panning and zooming, the books are brought to life by showing a bit at a time and then focusing on other parts of the page as they become relevant. Using appropriate soundtracks that include music and full sound effects, each word is highlighted as it is read, which helps familiarize younger readers with words.

Read To Me provides a bit of autonomy. Little readers swipe the pages which are then read. In this mode, touching just about anything displays the name of the object in large type as the name is pronounced. The third option -- Read It Myself -- eliminates the narration so that older children can enjoy the book without help, or have it read to them by their parents. If assistance is needed, tapping on a text block enables the narration, which could avoid frustration. Oceanhouse Media has done a wonderful job of bringing these much loved classics to a new audience. All of their books are universal Apps, and they work well on the iPad (where they really shine), iPhone and iPod touch.

Dr. Seuss Books

To date, there are 15 Dr. Seuss books available, and Oceanside Media intends to acquire the entire catalog over time. The books range from US$1.99 for the shorter books to $3.99 for the longer ones. Here's the list:

Berenstain Bears Books

If you're not familiar with the Berenstain Bears, they are the main characters in a series written by Jan and Stan Berenstain who, in each book, face a moral dilemma. They are lightly Christian in content, and every book ends with a Psalm or the Golden Rule to bring the lesson the Bear family learned to light. If you have any concerns, check any of them out to see if they are appropriate for your child. Each of the 10 books currently available sells for $2.99. This is the current catalog:

Little Critter

Oceanhouse Media has just acquired The Little Critter series by Mercer Mayer. I remember reading them to my now grown children when they were two or three; they were some of their all-time favorites. These are books for very young children who can identify with Little Critter, a character with a big heart who tries as hard as he can to get things right, but often fails. They were written to help children deal with issues of growing up through humorous storytelling. Each of these books contain a simple mini-game where children need to find recurring creatures. They are fairly short and sell for $1.99 each. Currently, these three books are available: Oceanhouse Media also sells two non-series books that I have seen and recommend. One is The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin ($2.99), which I reviewed. It's a Halloween book about a pumpkin that grows to be square and is shunned by the other round pumpkins. He winds up saving the day and proves that there's nothing wrong with being different. The other is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ($2.99), and it repurposes the 1964 Rankin/Bass clay animation TV special, narrated by Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman. Different voices are used, but it does have the same look and feel.

Violet from My Black Dog Books

A lovely new series of books has been published by My Black Dog Books about the adventures of Violet, a little girl with a secret identity. When she puts on a mask, she becomes the Phantom Girl, the world's most daring experimenter. This entertaining series was written and illustrated by Allison Keeme. The first two books have Violet solving two simple mysteries that don't seem very simple to her at all. There are not as many animations or interactive objects as in the previous books -- many objects just enlarge so that you can get a clear view of them. The objects are surrounded by yellow dotted lines to guide the child to what is important. What makes these books work for me is that the world of Violet and her family are brand new and don't look like anything I've seen before. The stories are quite easy to follow, and they are appropriate for children two and up. There is an option to enable or disable the spoken narration. The third book, just out, is Violet's The Night Before Christmas, which puts Clement Moore's famous poem into Violet's world. In this book, you have the option of either listening to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "O Christmas Tree" or "Deck the Halls" as background music. It is a very nice way to introduce young children to the poem. Each book sells for $2.99 and is specific to the iPad. [Note: Violet's Night Before Christmas is a universal app running on all iOS devices. The other two Violet books will be updated to be universal apps within a few weeks.]

Food Fight! by Glenn Melenhorst

I've come across some other single books of note. The nicest one for small children is Food Fight! - An Interactive Book by Glenn Melenhorst ($3.99). Glenn is a professional special effects wizard from Australia who has worked on a number of very popular films and TV series. The book tells the story of Tim, a boy who will only eat sausages no matter how much his parents try to trick him into eating other foods. It also tells the story of Sammy, a sausage from another planet who only eats little boys. They meet and come to a compromise. In my review, I said that it's the most beautiful children's book to date. The stylized graphics look like they popped out of of a computer generated cartoon. It is chock-full of animations, and nearly everything you touch creates an action and or sound, which are rendered in an engaging manner. Some of the animations seem to spill off the bottom of the screen. There is also a game that a child can choose to play. Five stars are hidden on the pages, and when one is tapped, instant feedback is given. When all five stars are found, a secret page opens that allows a child to color a two-page spread by tapping on an area. Each tap changes the section to a new color. This game can be reset so that the stars appear on different pages, allowing it to be played over and over again.

The next version of the game, which should be hitting the App Store soon and will be a free update, adds much more value. There are options to have Glenn read the story to you in a charming Australian accent, the pages can be made to automatically turn and, if all the stars are found, you can have Glenn read the story in a sped up voice for a fun effect.

Version 1.1 also includes an index page that displays little thumb-nail images of all the pages you can choose from. Another nicety is that a little one can tap on any word, and it will get highlighted and spoken. One problem that I found, which I'm sure will be fixed immediately, is that to hear the reading, choosing that option from the choices page doesn't work. What you need to do is to choose it from the index page in order to have it work properly. That should not stop you from gifting the game since this quirk is easy to get around, and the publishers are aware of the problem. I'd consider this the best of the non-Oceanhouse Media books for small children. This book plays on any iOS device, but the index page is nearly unreadable on any screen smaller than the iPad's.

PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit

PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit ($4.99) is a very different sort of book and meant for slightly older children. It is the full Beatrix Potter book brought to life, complete with all of her beautiful watercolor illustrations. It looks like it was printed on old parchment and contains the option of having it read to you by a woman with a soothing UK accent. Tapping on any word causes it to be highlighted and spoken. Also included is a pull-down index allowing you to jump to any page. It really isn't a pop-up book in the way that I remember it since nothing appears to leap off the page and construct itself. Instead, there are tabs that, when pulled or spun, create specific animations. My review speaks about all of the spring loaded characters and objects that, when tapped, reveal hidden pictures. I was quite impressed with this book, and it's a wonderful introduction to Peter and his world, all set to the beautiful music of Claire de Lune by Debussy. It's both elegant and excellent. Although it works on iOS devices, once again, the index page is just too small to view on anything smaller than an iPad.

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol ($8.99), with illustrations by Charles Fischer, is an iPad-only book that, although advertised as a pop-up book, has nothing to pop-up. This is for older children, and it has no option for narration. What it does have is a Victorian look and feel with most pages surrounded by a wreath. The pages look like parchment, and there is a lot of action built in. Words drop off the page, appropriate phrases are spoken and some pictures morph. When you touch the door knocker, you hear it knock, and then the picture turns into the face of Marley's ghost. Some pages use the accelerometer. When Scrooge is playing with his money, turning the iPad moves the coins in the direction that the iPad was turned. Other objects, like ghosts and the carriage carrying the turkey at the end of the story, can be moved with a finger, but these are flat objects, and I feel that the lack of dimensionality of what can be moved lessens the book to an extent. You also don't really get a sense of what can be tapped upon to make things happen. The only option I've found is that if you touch the lion door knocker on most pages, the pages swirl and a sliding page index appears. But it's a lovely telling of the old Christmas classic. I just feel that it's a bit over priced for the current market.

Alice in Wonderland

The last and possibly nicest of the longer books for older children is Alice for the iPad ($6.99). It was one of the first ones that was released, and it's still the best that I've seen so far. Again, it looks like a very old book with curling pages. It reworks and colors the original Tenniel illustrations, bringing them to life through actions.

There is liberal use of the accelerometer with many pages containing objects, like the bottle wrapped with the "Drink Me" note or the White Rabbit's pocket watch, that are able to be moved any way that you hold the iPad (with just the right amount of speed). I think that kids will have fun with twisting and turning to see things slowly move around the screen.

Often, 3D looking images can be seen through windows. The way that Alice avoids the 2D look of A Christmas Carol is by layering images, so when Alice looks out a window, she views the foreground moving at one speed and the background moving at a slower speed, which gives the window an enjoyable look of dimensionality. When actionable objects appear, they can be moved individually, allowing the overlapping of one onto the other. Every few pages, there is another treat to play with. Everything shown is absolutely gorgeous and well-suited to the age and feel of the story. You have the option of viewing a 52-page abridged bedtime edition or the original 240-page full edition. You also have the option of touching the Cheshire Cat and bringing up an index page, which is quite important for such a long book. I consider Alice for the iPad a masterpiece.

iPad books vs. smaller screens

When buying interactive books for children, it's well worth noting that the experience to be had viewing them on an iPad far surpasses that of reading them on a smaller screen. Often, an iPhone screen is too small to let you find all of the objects to tap upon, and you'll never be able to make sense of index pages or appreciate the sumptuousness of the graphics. That's why I think that so many of these books are made to only work with the iPad. If you don't already own an iPad, and if you have the money, I don't think that it's unreasonable to make an iPad one the biggest holiday gifts of the lot. Then you can fill it up with experiences that can never be had with print books. With every one of them, you have the option of reading it yourself to a child, and they add so much more. I know that taking books off the shelf, cracking the binding and experiencing that wonderful book smell is a hard paradigm to change, but my guess is that after putting a few good interactive books in front of a little one, parents and children may never want to go back.

Update: Commenter SK points out Bartleby's Book of Buttons, which we checked out this summer.

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