Three Night Before Christmas versions arrive for iOS

David Winograd
D. Winograd|12.14.10

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Three Night Before Christmas versions arrive for iOS
In December of 1823, an anonymous poem was printed in The Sentinel, a Troy, NY newspaper, titled A Visit From St. Nicholas. It was widely reprinted, and eventually attributed to Clement Moore and re-titled as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." It's arguably the most famous Christmas poem ever written. It introduced the physical appearance of Santa Claus, the names of his reindeer, his sleigh and his penchant of giving presents to all the good little girls and boys. It's a poem that most everyone knows by heart, or at least its first few stanzas.

This year, the much loved poem has spawned at least seven iOS versions, which are available on the App Store, ranging from very traditional with old-time look and feel, to a complete re-imagining of the tale. I'd like to tell you about three of them. Two of the three use the original text of the poem, and they have a passel of animated elements, as do most interactive children's books. But outside of the Violet re-telling, I really don't consider these children's books per-se. Maybe they are creating a new category of interactive family books.

PopOut! The Night Before Christmas

This book from Loudcrow sells for US$4.99 and is the second in their series of PopOut! books, the first being The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It's based on a book published in 1902 by William Wallace Denslow, the original illustrator of the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and like the preceding book, it makes use of spring-loaded characters and tabs that can be pulled or spun to reveal hidden information. It also makes nice use of the accelerometer, causing objects that fall off the page to be moved around the screen by tilting your device. Since the graphics are simpler than found in Peter Rabbit, it translates a bit better to smaller screens. To the strains of O Tannenbaum, each page is read by a comforting male voice, and each word, as it is read, is highlighted. Touching any word will cause the word to be spoken. There is an option to raise or lower the volume from the title page, and you can also choose to turn off the narration. Touching a certain button will read the text block regardless of the narration option chosen.

There is much more interaction than in Peter Rabbit, and this may not be a good thing. Touching any object causes a sound or action, and I felt that there was too much going on. Everything that's not fully animated appears to be on a spring, and after a few pages, it got monotonous. I didn't see the point of touching a face in a painting or a table on the floor and having it jump a bit. If everything moves, there is no sense of discovery. I can see this being a benefit for the very young, who want to touch everything and be paid off, but to me, it seemed like too much of a rehash of the mechanics of Peter Rabbit. However, many of the touches, like tapping a snowflake and having it pop out and fall, are rather charming, as are the leaves that blow across the screen. Other objects move without intervention and that worked very well, filling out the dimensional aspects of the book. Knowing a bit about the illustrator, it was a nice surprise to see a Tin Woodsman in Santa's sack of toys. This app runs on all iOS devices.

I may be carping a bit too much, since this is a lovely app that looks great and will please all ages. But I think it will please those who haven't seen The Tale of Peter Rabbit a bit more.

Twas the Night Before Christmas

This version of the famous poem was created by newcomer Popup Pixels, sells for $4.99 and takes a slightly similar approach. It's for the iPad and only runs in portrait mode. This app employs the typography and graphics created by Jessie Willcox Smith in 1912. When first run, you are greeted with a red Christmas present all wrapped up with a bow. Touching it unwraps and opens the box revealing a book. The book comes out of the box with a cover that shines when tilted. I felt that this acted as a pre-show, getting you into the mood of what is to come.

There is no music, but there are appropriate sound effects and the option to turn narration on or off. When narration is selected, the text box needs to be touched for the page to be read by a professional female British voice. Words are not highlighted, and touching a text box has the paragraph re-read, so individual words cannot be highlighted. The pages look like they were printed on aged parchment, and there is an excellent page turning effect when swiped, similar to that used in iBook. The animations are quite a bit different than the previous book. Firstly, there are less of them, but what there is seems just right. On one page, curtains fly open to reveal the person in the bed; on another, touching a window reveals an animation of Santa and the reindeer flying by the window to the sound of sleigh-bells. Touching leaves causes them to fall off the bottom of the screen as they are blown by the wind. The accelerometer is used, but sparsely. You can swing the stockings hung up on the chimney and roll a ball around, but it's far from overdone.

Some may argue that there isn't enough going on, with an average of about one animation per page, but I disagree. I felt that the design decisions were appropriate; since it's less of a busy-box and more of a focused presentation with enough animation and interaction to keep things interesting, but not enough to take away from the poem. It may be a bit sedate and perhaps not meant for the very young, but I was impressed with the fit, finish and elegance of this app.

The book contains more than just the animated poem. Also included are a biography of Clement Moore and another of Jessie Willcox Smith, the illustrator. There is also a section telling the history of Santa Claus through the ages and how the character became the Santa we now know and love. The description is quite detailed and taught me quite a bit about jolly old St. Nick. The last addition provides information about the history of the poem, and as in the previous book, an index page is provided. This is a great first effort from Popup Pixels, and I expect to see great things from them in the future.

Violet's The Night Before Christmas

This version is the third installment of the Violet series, preceded by Violet and Violet and the Mysterious Black Dog, published by My Black Dog Books. Allison Keeme has once again done a lovely job of illustrating the world of Violet. She also changes words here and there to make the poem fit better into the Violet's environment. The app sells for $2.99, and it works on any iOS device. You have the option of choosing from three songs to be played throughout the book; you can listen to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, O Tannenbaum (here, O Christmas Tree) or Deck The Halls, each nicely played.

This is not at all a traditional telling of the poem, but a version meant for small children that, although not changing very many words, changes the tenor of the poem, making it less antique and more accessible to small ones. As is usual in the other Violet books, there is limited animation, and most everything that's interactive is surrounded by dotted yellow lines. When you tap on one, the object increases in size to show you the photographs on the table, or the contents of gift boxes, etc. Tapping on a speaker icon starts a narration that sounds like Allison, a very appropriate reader.

For those familiar with Violet, there are few surprises. This one works the same as the other two books. When something is highlighted and it expands, it must be touched again to shrink it before you can interact with anything else. Touching a word does not show it highlighted. The only new things I found were that a number of non-yellow lined objects were active, and on a number of pages, there was continuous animation: like a warm fireplace, or the falling of snow. I feel that this will add some extra value for a slightly older audience than the two previous books, while seeming familiar to even the smallest of children.

If you have little ones already enamored with Violet, they will have a great time since familiarity can be quite comforting, but if you're looking for a more traditional and far better produced version of Twas the Night Before Christmas, I think you'd be better served with either of the other two choices.

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