Review: Interactive storybook apps PDF Print E-mail

Two iPad books from Moonbot Studios bring stories to life, combining learning with whimsical tales.

The thought that my children might not hold an actual book in their hands one day is frightening. My mother, who is an avid reader herself, read books to us every evening, made events out of trips to the library, and even scolded me for being unsociable when I was holed up in my room with my nose in a book. Having a younger brother gave me an excuse to read the Harry Potter series because he was too young at the time to read them himself.

I don’t like the idea that the iPad will take away the smell of old book pages, imprinted with coffee stains and dog-eared from being passed from reader to reader. I always look sadly at my book collection, wondering if it will end up like my CD collection one day – shoved in a cupboard gathering dust from non-use; yet I can’t bring myself to throw them out, even if all my music now resides on my computer.

So it was with trepidation that I decided to review two interactive storybooks from Moonbot Studios. I convinced myself that I would hate them, that I’d be biased and enter into our relationship with a perception that they are the enemy, here to burn my library that I’ve lovingly created over the years.

Oh, how wrong I was.

The iPad allows for a level of interactivity within a story that is not possible with a hardcopy book, taking the, erm, reader deeper into the story, in a way making them part of the story.

The Numberlys

The Numberlys is a charming tale of a black and white world inhabited by little people, otherwise known as the Numberlys. A world where there is no alphabet, only numbers. And while this makes for a very orderly way of life, an almost machine-like one, a world where everything is referred to in numbers is, well, boring. People are numbers, street names are numbers, buildings are numbers. There is no pizza or jellybeans, just numbers.

A group of five friends, while eating their lunch of goop, decide they’re tired of the same old thing, every day. Embracing their mischievousness, they decide to manipulate numbers to form letters – and so the alphabet was born.

This is where the reader comes in. By flicking, jumping, shooting cannons, spinning cranks, launching the characters at the numbers and deflecting numbers off a mobile platform, readers help the Numberlys squash, stretch and rearrange numbers to make letters.

Making their way through the entire alphabet, the Numberlys have to decide between themselves what they’re going to call their creations, and before each letter-making stage, the book’s narrator, in a rather amusing German accent, uses alliteration of the particular letter the reader is about to form. For example, when making ‘S’ and ’T’, the narrator says: “To swiftly swallow the tasty tidbits was the task now set for three.” Three is the ‘name’ of one of the Numberlys.

At any point during the story, readers can turn off the narrator’s voice, navigate between chapters, access the help menu, toggle sound effects and access the Numberly Web site.

You’ll have to buy the app if you want to find out what happens in Numberly world once the entire alphabet has been formed and letters and words disrupt the orderly functioning of the inhabitants (the rest of the Numberlys get slightly terrified when they realise five rogue citizens are sabotaging their precious numbers). Let’s just say there’s pizza, jellybeans and colour involved.

The app falls under the Educationary category, but I have an issue with it. Sure, it’s great for helping little ones learn the alphabet, but some words in the story’s text are spelt in such a way as to accommodate the narrator’s accent. For example, ‘last’ is spelt as ‘lazt’ and ‘the end’ as ‘Z end’. Being a grammar nazi, my head would explode if my child started spelling like that.

Also, I find the app a little pricey. At $5.99, it wouldn’t be unreasonable considering the price of normal books, but The Numberlys is a short story. A very short story. And there’s not much else to the app other than the story.

Still, it’s a charming tale and the embedded mini-games make for an engaging read.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore

The second interactive storybook, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, is less of an educational story and more of, well, a story. A story about books. A story about books on an iPad. The irony is not lost on me.

Mr Lessmore loves books. He reads books all day and writes in his own book whenever he gets a chance. One day, while sitting on a porch reading his books, a tornado comes along and blows everything away – even the letters in his book.

After tumbling through space, Mr Lessmore lands in a barren land amid upside-down houses. His world has turned black and grey. But at least he still has his book – even though there’s nothing on the pages.

Mr Lessmore is then surprised by a girl floating by, carried along by a bunch of flying books. One of the books, featuring Humpty Dumpty, flies down and beckons Mr Lessmore to follow him to a house that’s filled floor to ceiling with books. Mr Lessmore loves this house and decides to stay until he grows old.

Throughout the story, readers interact with the images. Touching objects in the images draws responses; some books talk, some flip their pages, doors can be opened and colour can be added to the pages. What I liked about this level of interactivity is that the reader is not explicitly told what to do. Rather, subtle hints are given in the narrative that the reader can act on. For example, when the narrator says: “Morris wondered if his book could fly,” readers are expected to touch the book in his hand, which he then throws into the air to test its flying abilities.

There are also mini-games along the way, like playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ on a piano, writing messages in a bowl of milk with letter-shaped cereal (users can also take photos of their creations, which are stored in the Camera Roll on the iPad), and helping Mr Lessmore repair broken books.

At any point while reading the story, users can turn off the narrator’s voice, minimise the text and just listen to the narrator, and toggle sound.

The app also features a short film of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, which is essentially the book in film form. The film itself has won a number of awards, including ‘Winner: Imaginative Storytelling, Nashville’, ‘Winner: Audience Award, Florence International Film Festival’ and ‘Winner: Animated Shorts, Cleveland International Film Festival’, among others. The awards don’t surprise me; this really is a heart-warming tale about a man who just loves books.

User experience

Both apps are beautifully designed, with stunning, crisp graphics. Navigation is simple, although there is not much to either app aside from the story itself and links to related Web sites.

Narration is clear and both stories flow smoothly – there was no lag or hanging.

In a nutshell

I have to admit that I really enjoyed both stories and would safely bet that children will be enamoured, too. I may have been slightly persuaded that tablet storybooks are not entirely bad, although I’m not convinced yet. Snuggling up with an iPad is a bit awkward and the missing distinctive ‘book smell’ was definitely missed (I’m the type who sniffs the book pages throughout reading – something that would be very odd to see if I were sniffing the iPad).

The stories are enchanting, coming alive through their interactive qualities, something children will love.

Although a bit pricey, I’d still recommend both just for the sheer enjoyment of being pulled into a story; there’s nothing better than being lost in a good book, and when that book is about books or letters, there can be no greater joy.

But I’m going to hang on to my book collection for now and if I ever do become an e-book convert, I’ll stash my books in a cupboard, returning every now and then for a good sniff for nostalgia’s sake.

IN SUMMARY

Numberlys
 
Good: Crafting letters out of number is fun, good learning resource
Bad: Deliberate spelling errors defeat the learning purpose
Rating: 8/10
Price: $5.99
 
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore
 
Good: Whimsical storyline, fun interactivity with story
Bad: The story’s ending is a bit disappointing
Rating: 8/10
Price: $4.99

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