Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Beauty and the Beast app

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. We were able to go down to Virginia Beach to see my brother's family, play with cousins, work on riding a bike without dozens of cars all around, and visit Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg on Black Friday. It wasn't Plymouth, but it was great to see the site of America's oldest English settlement and the recently excavated site of their first church, where Pocahontas was married. (At least I think the covered hole in the ground was the site referenced in the article, which came out a day or two after we visited.) Loretta's just suddenly gotten into the American Girl books, so it was nice to have two in hours in Williamsburg so that she can identify with the place when she reads the Felicity books, which she started this morning on the subway. It was a really unexpected "text-to-self" connection, as they say at her school.

Recently I've really been trying to get up to speed on all the kids' literary/narrative apps out there, like the Mo Willems app I wrote about the other week. A new one came out on 11/11 that looks really promising, Disney's Beauty and the Beat Storybook Deluxe:

Here's the description as posted in the app store:

Experience a tale as old as time in this fully interactive Storybook Deluxe app. Complete with games, movie clips, puzzles, coloring pages, and sing-along songs from the film, you’ll find a surprise on every page. Hear the story read aloud, record your own narration, or explore at your own pace.

In this unforgettable story of love and adventure, a young woman named Belle finds herself in a castle with talking furniture, an enchanted rose, and a grumpy beast. Despite an awkward beginning, Belle and the Beast gradually become friends, and Belle learns not to judge a book by its cover. A beloved Disney favorite retold in a magical new format the whole family can enjoy!

* Interactive Storybook Deluxe app features your favorite characters from Disney's award-winning Beauty and the Beast.
* Two reading modes allow you to follow along as the story is read aloud, or explore at your own pace.
* Engage in exciting activities based on scenes from Beauty and the Beast—help Belle make her way to the Beast's castle in the hedge maze, or go on a hunt for hidden roses.
* Puzzles and coloring pages for all ages!
* Record your voice reading the story and hear it played back as narration.
* Jump to your favorite page with the Visual Page Index.

I haven't been able to try it out yet--I guess I need to put an iPhone or Pad on my Christmas list--but it shows the promise of the expanding field of e-publishing. The combination of gaming and print is interesting, expanding the story world of the experience in ways that can engage new readers or lengthen the experience for established fans, and the games and coloring pages look really fun. But I'm a little more interested in the ways the app lets kids interact with the text itself. Essentially, different reading levels and reading out loud yourself remind me exactly of reading a print book, but it is a little different. Hearing your voice back, for instance, is something a book can't do, and I'd love to hear more about users' experiences--or professional research--about how this influences kids and the act of "reading" a text.

If you watch this demo video, however, you'll be reminded that the Disney Beauty and the Beast that's being adapted here to app form is not a book but a film. At first I was hesitant about the use of the full-motion video, but it looks like it actually works with the printed text quite well; the music, visuals, and Linda Woolverton's narrative innovations are obviously the strength of the film version, after all, so it wouldn't make sense to ignore those in bringing the film to the iPad (plus the performances by all the actors). What you're left with is a nice mix of video, print, and gaming, which should be a great treat for any Disney Princess fan. I hope that with future adaptations the mix becomes more and more fluid, but how to do that will be the state of the art of narrative app design.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Off to Bed! with Dada Company

So even though I haven't yet been able to get an iPhone or iPad, I'm trying to get more informed about the children's media, particularly narrative media, that's appearing on their screens. One app that I've recently come across is the interactive picture book Off to bed! by Mariam Ben-Arab and David Yerga. It's produced by the Spain-based Dada Company and is now available in English as well as Spanish. Here's a video trailer:

And here's a little promotional film about the company in general, including their title on transportation. This is in Spanish and I wish the music were mixed a little lower because it's hard for me to follow what they're saying when Zooey Deschanel is so much easier for me to understand, but even if you don't speak the language there are some good shots of their art and design work.

It looks like companies like this are starting to get their head increasingly around what interactive storytelling is and how it differs from traditional A-Z narratives. But what are these hybrid forms? Is this really a goodnight storybook or should we call it something else? Beyond semantics, is this really helpful in getting kids down for bed? I tried a Pajanimals clip tonight and it initially quieted my two-year-old down, but when it ended and we closed the laptop she broke down, so I'm not sure how helpful it was.

But those are the kinds of questions creators and parents will have to ask now, because there's obviously no going back to the pre-digital days, even for late adapters like me. (I don't want to be a late adapter! I'm just semi-employed!) So I'm excited by the enthusiasm and commitment on Dada's website and the respect they show both their young audience and their new tools. Whenever a new medium's been introduced theorists and practitioners have had to labor over finding its inherent comparative advantages vis-a-vis old media, and I think titles like Off to bed! will help move us in that direction--and entertain kids along the way. I can definitely see Izzy--and even Loretta--playing with those lights, swings, and the kissing moon for quite some time. Bien hecho y buena suerte con sus proyectos en el futuro!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Curious George Thanksgiving

It's been about three years since I've written about the PBS/WGBH show Curious George, which was then starting its third season, and the show is still going strong and worth revisiting. Obviously the source property has been a favorite for over half a century, but the television version adapts and builds on that in a style all its own. And it's still proving popular: the show won the Outstanding Children's Animated Program Emmy last year, it's the top-ranked preschool show in the U.S., and it's been renewed through its ninth season--which is three seasons away! Building upon that popularity, PBS is airing a new collection of George films this Thanksgiving in what it hopes will become an annual holiday tradition.

In a line-up called the Curious George Holiday Spectacular, PBS will be airing the network/public television premiere of the theatrical Curious George film from 2006, followed immediately by Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey, which had aired in '09, and then, getting in the all-out holiday spirit, Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas (also '09), a kind of mix between O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and of course Hans and Margret Rey. My 7-year-old had the chance to see the original theatrical film at an event hosted by PBS a few days ago, and she was absolutely enchanted. For the subsequent thirty minutes I heard every last plot point from beginning to end, accompanied with a tremendous amount of girlish giggling--in other words she loved it.

The films will air back to back Wednesday the 23rd and then repeat frequently throughout Thanksgiving weekend, when there's plenty of time to curate your own monkey movie marathon.

I got a chance to talk with the executive producer Dorothea Gillim (also the creator of another family favorite, WordGirl) and learned some more about how the books were adapted (a strict "no purple" rule to match the palette of the books, and the fact Margret Rey wrote in her will that George would never be allowed to talk) and what's in store for the property. Besides being slated to pass 200 regular episodes in the next few years, there's more long-form content on the way. Future television films include other seasonal productions--initially for spring and Halloween--that will roll out at least annually. These film ventures could really represent the direction George is going in his third iteration, after books and the television show, in the next decade.

Here's a spot on the Thanksgiving lineup:

And here's the trailer for the original feature film (lower resolution):

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App

Hope everyone had a great Halloween weekend. Ours was full of candy, pumpkin carving (Harry Potter again...), some Wallace and Gromit were-rabbitting, a little partying, and, for the first time, the Halloween costume parade by Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights. Izzy bit into her glow stick and immediately threw up, but she recovered almost immediately and remained the cutest little chicken in the crowd (as profiled on the Today show!).

Before the holiday, however, I had the chance to learn about a cool new app from Hyperion Books and Mo Willems (seen here): Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App. (For everything the Pigeon can't do, evidently sitting on heads is allowed.)

I'm sure that nearly all parents will be familiar with Mo's work in print--he's the author of the Pigeon picture books (starting with Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus in 2003), the Elephant and Piggie easy readers, the Cat the Cat books, and numerous other stand-alone books. Recently Loretta took a break from her Harry Potter craze to really get into Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, which we had gotten for Isabelle. There's no way a naked mole rat isn't funny, and leave it up to Mo to be the first to exploit that in a book for kids. I first saw his work when Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was being passed around the Strand Bookstore office--which is run by adults--when I was there in 2003. Through all this he's earned my everlasting envy by doing everything I want to do better than I ever could: he's won six Emmys while working on Sesame Street, created his own kids' shows, and racked up the awards with his books: three Caldecotts, two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals, and probably others I'm losing track of. And he's pushing boundaries as well: on October 23 Jonathan Hunt wrote a column at School Library Journal arguing that the Elephant and Piggie book I Broke My Trunk should be considered for (and win) the Newbery Medal, an award given purely on the merit of the text and hence not traditionally given to picture books; Hunt's somewhat controversial argument, illustrated through a really thorough analysis, is that Mo has blown right past all other easy readers and expanded the state of the art of the storybook or illustrated book in what most publishers and librarians would consider just a picture book. Whether that argument will persuade the ALA remains to be seen, but last month Mo published a new Elephant and Piggie book (the excellent Happy Pig Day) and installed an large-scale sculpture at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst; and another Pigeon book, The Duckling Gets a Cookie, will be coming early next year. Talk about polymathic. Maybe he should let the Pigeon do some of this stuff!

And now there's an app. At the event last week Mo said he'd long resisted doing something interactive. After his move from television to literature this reasoning makes sense: he's astute enough to know that each property needs to fully exploit the capabilities of its medium, and he didn't want to create any type of app that didn't fully capitalize on the interactive capability of iPads and handheld devices. He didn't want it to keep going if you set it down and left the room. (That would be a TV show on a tablet.) So when the inspiration came about how to create the right kind of app in March he and the folks at Hyperion jumped right in, working on it over the summer and launching last week. And it is a pretty great piece of software; Apple noticed and named it "App of the Week" last week. At $7 it's definitely on the pricey side, but that reflects the work that went into it and the variety of activities it presents youngsters.

This is the most basic: shake the Pigeon. Mo made sure that you could shake the Pigeon--causing him to freak out as seen here--indefinitely. Tickling works too. Beyond small creative corners like this, the app breaks down into two basic categories: drawing the Pigeon and telling stories with him. The first is fairly self-explanatory, with the tutorials introduced by Mo himself. This is enough to keep budding artists busy for some time, but it's with the storytelling where things really come to life. The Disney Interactive Publishing people described this as their first author-driven app, and Mo's drive for true interactivity (much like the original books themselves) means kids are intimately involved with shaping the narratives: the title page even credits it as an app "By Mo Willems and YOU." (So kids can "infringe on my copyright in interesting ways," Mo said.)

There are three levels of interactivity here for different age ranges: Egg, which lets the youngest kids change a few nouns to create new stories; Chick, where slightly older kids can create stories through multiple-choice options; and Big Pigeon, where audio cues tell kids to supply various words, Mad Libs-style, that are then plugged into the resulting story. With all the variables built into the app--let alone the creativity of the kids using it--there are over 100,000 stories in there. (One youngster last week suggested Don't Let the Pigeon Poop on the People, and Mo promised to read it if the boy wrote it.) So there are quite a few train rides built into this thing--although given its aural interface it might be better built for quieter car rides than the straphanger kids here in the city.

Mo's influence is all over this--in a nice Freudian touch he even voiced the Pigeon himself--and I really hope it indicates the direction future narrative-based apps will be going. Thankfully, the Disney/Hyperion folks indicate that it is. After this maiden voyage--the first collaboration between the teams at Hyperion, a book-only imprint of Disney, and Disney Interactive Publishing, the app people--they have several other properties lined up and are even interested in new authors angling to write in this new space. And that bodes well for the state of art of the app; we'll see what suggestions the Newbery committee is dealing with ten years from now.

As for now, there's one cool app out there starring one surly but lovable pigeon. Check out this video and more Willems-related stuff at pigeonpresents.com.