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Autumnal round-up of kids apps

Ahead of today’s Bookseller Children’s Conference, our Children’s Editor, Miranda West rounds up the best of this autumn’s digital kids products.

Anyone with school age children will have noticed that as term ends and the summer holiday begins, their child’s brain disengages. It’s as if they leave it at the school gate. For the first week or so they move very little – usually from bed to couch – refusing to get dressed. They grunt responses and complain loudly when asked to help with chores. Things liven up a bit on holiday, but often to the other extreme and they go feral. Huge amounts of energy is spent scaling rock faces, thrashing about in treacherous waves, or sprinting away from you in foreign cities. Then as the school holiday draws to an end, terminal boredom sets in – and that’s just the parents.  So when it’s time to go  ‘back to school’ it’s no surprise that most of us embrace the new teacher like a long lost friend before racing off to check the 1,057 emails that have accumulated over the previous six weeks.

You may make various attempts to get your child’s brain re-engaged over the holidays. All will have failed. Yet once at school it only takes a few hours before they are reading, writing – even speaking.

So, we say: strike while the iron is hot! With your child’s brain primed and ready for NEW INFORMATION, now is the perfect time to share some of the latest book apps with them – educational or otherwise.

App Name: The Lonely Beast ABC

Platform: iPad, iPhone

Publisher : Pilcrow

Updated : 3 September 2012

Price: £1.99

First up, The Lonely Beast ABC for pre-school and reception kids. It was created in a ‘moderately comfortable’ shed at the bottom of the garden by Chris Judge (who published The Lonely Beast with Anderson Press in 2011 – if you’re not familiar with the book, the protagonist is big, black and hairy), developer James Kelleher and another chap called Simon who did the music. Their mission, on entering the shed, was to find the best way to help kids learn the alphabet. Not only have they succeeded, but it looks like they had a right laugh doing so.

Each screen presents a letter, given in upper and lower case, a memorable word: apple, boat, crab, etc, and a funny interactive image – always featuring the oddly-likeable black hairy monster. There’s no navigation bar so you simply swipe forwards and backwards through the alphabet. Highlights include playing the drums, making the robot dance, switching the light on and off, or blowing a raspberry at the elephant. Basically there’s something silly for you your child to play with on each screen – which means they’ll enjoy it, and in turn, enjoy learning and navigating the alphabet.

App Name: Piccadilly’s Circus

Platform: iPad

Publisher: Ink Robin

Date of Release: 6 September 2012

Price: £2.49

This is the third original storybook app from Ink Robin. Much like Will & Kate and their more recent release, Leonard, this is a beautifully-illustrated, lighthearted tale that will appeal to children of all ages. It tells the story of a circus troupe who swap acts for a night with disastrous results: clowns attempt to fire-breathe, the elephant walks the tightrope, and dancing dogs are fired from the cannon. Children will enjoy the quirky animation and interactive elements – particularly the Ringmaster’s big sneeze – but I suspect many will simply enjoy listening to this charming tale being read aloud by British comedian Trevor Lock (who sounds a bit like Chris Addison).

App Name: IMAG-N-O-TRON : The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Platform: iPad, iPhone (must have a camera!)

Publisher: Moonbot Studios

Date of Release: 28 July 2012

Price: 69p

When I first heard about this book/app combo, part of my brain quietly imploded. In basic terms, this is how it works: you buy the actual Morris Lessmore book from an actual bookshop. (Note: not the Morris Lessmore story app that famously won an Oscar, the one made of paper). Open it up so it’s nice and flat. Locate your iPad or iPhone – the new one with the camera in it. Load up the IMAG-N-O-TRON app (trust me it’s worth the 69p) then simply point it at the book and as the trailer says ‘watch the pages come to life!’.

As the children’s editor I shouldn’t be saying this, but if you’ve had a glass of wine at the time of pointing the app at the book, it’s entirely likely you’ll be shouting ‘JEEEZ LOUISE!’ at the top of your voice. You’ll then continue to play/shout/exclaim for the next 72 hours as you whirl your device around the room lost in a world of augmented reality. Heaven forbid your child actually wants a turn.

The most enthralling pages are when you’re invited to ‘look around’ – books, random objects, fly past the screen against a backdrop of your own living room – or when you take a full 360 degree tour of the library only partially presented inside the book.

The IMAG-N-O-TRON is being described as an augmented reality app. It’s a bit fiddly at times (I was using an iPhone, not an iPad) but what’s most exciting, for me, is that this incredible technology is being first applied to a children’s book – and a NY Times bestseller to boot. Just imagine applying it to a book about underwater creatures, the solar system, ANYTHING. Okay, maybe not Pride & Prejudice but you get my point.

So no, this particular app won’t help your child to read, learn the alphabet or make sense of their maths homework but it will excite them. And it will make them excited about storytelling and the blurred boundaries between books and new technology. They will experience something utterly new that will blow their tiny minds – and make you wish you were seven years old again.

App name: The Wind in the Willows

Publisher: Bibliodome

Platform : iPad

Release date: July 2012

Price : £4.99

At 190 pages, I can’t help thinking that this digital reworking of this children’s classic must have taken some producing. Hats off to Bibliodome, our new West country friends. Based in Exeter, author Sam North, artist Steve Dooley and mathematician Bobby Gilbert have come together to produce an abridged version of Wind in the Willows for the iPad.

Style-wise, it’s reminiscent of Atomic Antelope’s Alice for the iPad, another out-of-copyright work that was perfect for a digital overhaul. While developers are free to take on these works and don’t need formal permission, it’s interesting to see that Bibliodome did present theirs to the Kenneth Graham Society a few days ago. Chairman Nigel McMorris said it ‘was a landmark edition of The Wind In The Willows’. As Sam North says, ‘The KGS were tentative before they saw it, but then absolutely got it, and loved it. We are so proud to gain their support, it means the world to us’.

Unsurprisingly, given its length, some pages are text-heavy with little interactivity or animation. Others, however, are quite magical, for example the detailed map that allows you to trace a route with your finger, or Toad’s motor car leaping from the page. Parp! Parp! There is no narrator but there are occassional sound effects – running water, a crackling fire as you turn the waterwheel, help Ratty to row downriver, or turn off mole’s bedside light.

As autumn leaves float gently down the screen, it is clear to see that this is a beautifully-crafted book app perfectly in keeping with this whimsical tale. A future classic of the iPad.

App name : Rounds : Franklin Frog

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Platform : iPad, iPhone

Release date: 8 August 2012

Price : £2.99

Launching a brand new series, Franklin Frog is Nosy Crow’s first non-fiction app. Designed to introduce children to the life cycle of a frog, each stage is represented: hopping, swimming, eating, hibernating, mating (reader, meet Felicity), laying frogspawn, and growing from a tadpole. Nicely intuitive, children will enjoy helping Franklin hop across the lake or catch worms with his tongue (faster than Indiana Jones’s whip). The graphic illustrative style is bold, unfussy and allows children to focus on what Franklin is up to and why.

But the smartest aspect of this digital story, is how the idea of ‘life cycle’ is conveyed to children and when they grasp it. As Franklin’s offspring grows from tadpole to fully-formed frog, the story begins all over again as we’re introduced to… Fraser. The tale is circular and endless as we follow Fraser through his life stages and meet his offspring. It’s a bit Groundhog Day for the parent, but for the child, what an innovative way to learn the fundamental notion of life cycles – and one that is  brilliantly achieved using digital book technology and a simple narrative.

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