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Brøderbund's Living Books return for iPad via Wanderful


Some of you may not remember the early 1990s. Heck, some of you probably weren't born yet in the early 1990s. But for Mac users of a certain vintage, it was an exciting time. The growing popularity of CD-ROM drives paired with Mac II-series machines (did the IIci really cost over $6,200 at introduction? Criminy) made for engaging, inventive multimedia applications on the platform.

Among the best of these multimedia experiences -- the young-kid equivalent of Cyan's revolutionary Myst immersive world, which is now back as an iPad app -- was the Living Books series from Brøderbund. The Living Books took children's picture stories (Mercer Meyer's Just Grandma and Me, Marc Brown's Arthur's Teacher Trouble and several Dr. Seuss books) and transformed them into clickable, lovingly animated and narrated environments.

Kids (and eager grownups) could listen to the story read all the way through, or take control and play inside each page of the virtual book. Objects onscreen reacted to clicks with individualized sounds, motion or transformation; even the narration, delivered in multiple languages, was broken down word by word. This let new readers explore and absorb at their own individual paces. Trust me when I say that they were all kinds of awesome.

Or, you know, you could skip the whole trusting me thing and just find out for yourself. These classic children's applications (in both the "great and old" and the "ran on pre-OS X versions of Mac OS" senses of the word "classic") are making a return to the market in the form of iPad apps. The original content may have been developed two decades ago, but the experience is brand-new -- and certainly almost all the target audience of early readers will be experiencing the Living Books for the first time.

The new Living Books, which preserve the animation and narration of the originals while adding teacher's guides and other enhancements, are available from Wanderful Interactive Storybooks. Current titles for iOS include The Tortoise and the Hare, Arthur's Teacher Trouble, Little Monster at School and the just-released Harry and the Haunted House. (The iOS version of Just Grandma and Me currently available from Oceanhouse Media is not the original Living Books version, much to the chagrin of App Store shoppers.) Versions for Mac OS, Windows and Android are in the works, as are other titles from the Living Books library.

Wanderful's mission to restore access to these landmark titles is a labor of love. When Brøderbund was acquired in the late '90s, the rights to the original Living Books began to bounce from corporate owner to corporate owner. They eventually landed with publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which maintained the rights to the software titles; the author agreements, however, had lapsed.

Many companies might have given up the effort to recover the rights at that point. In this case, however, Wanderful founder Mickey W. Mantle -- the early '90s-era CTO at Brøderbund who managed the development of the original Living Books -- pressed on, and eventually obtained most of the author agreements needed to bring back Living Books. Nearing retirement after a decade-plus stint at Gracenote, Mantle recruited several former Brøderbund colleagues to rebuild the Living Books content for a new, more flexible platform.

In the process of "getting the band back together," Mantle approached Mark Schlichting, the illustrator and creative director who invented the original Living Books products. Schlichting (a father of three grown sons and now grandfather to three young kids) came back to the project with the insistence that the new iOS Living Books not be simple reproductions of the originals; he wanted to see them enhanced and improved to stand with the best children's apps available today.

I had the opportunity to meet both Schlichting and Mantle at this weekend's Mac Computer Expo in Petaluma, Calif. It's clear from their enthusiasm and pride in their apps that this band of software veterans is ready to tackle the App Store. Sure, the Living Books are about as far from sleek, tightly rendered Retina-quality graphics as you could possibly get. The effort and care that went into their original versions, however, is still evident in the restorations that you can download and run 20 years later.

Each Living Books title is US$4.99 in a single-language version; a premium edition that includes all languages plus a teaching guide is $7.99 (languages can also be added to the single-language version via IAP for $1.99). If you are looking for apps to enhance your child's love of reading, the Living Books are a sure thing.

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