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.

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