Children’s Book Apps Get Curiouser And Curiouser

I’m crazy about Web browsing, movie watching and other activities on the iPad, but the idea of reading ordinary books on Apple’s device just doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer the old-fashioned experience of reading in the printed form.


When cards really attack

I’m intrigued, though, by the idea that the iPad, and eventually other tablet devices will give rise to a hybrid medium—call them book apps—that mix text with video, sound and game-like interactivity.

After sampling several early examples of these books apps, I’ve seen some tantalizing hints of the creative possibilities for authors and publishers who recast themselves as app makers.

I focused on kids’ books because they’re among the first to cleverly exploit the iPad’s capabilities and their rich illustrations can look great on the iPad’s color screen. It also helped that my 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son were fascinated with the iPad, looking for any opportunity to smudge up its touch screen.

The most interesting of the book apps I found in Apple’s (AAPL) online App Store was “Alice for the iPad,” a 52-page version of “Alice in Wonderland” by a small company called Atomic Antelope that costs $9.99. (A shorter “lite” version of the book is free.) The color illustrations for “Alice for the iPad” are based on the elegant wood engravings Sir John Tenniel did for the original 19th century “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which, like the text of the book, are now in the public domain.


White Rabbit’s pocket watch swings as you tilt the iPad.

The first sign there’s something different about “Alice for the iPad” comes when you flip to its third page, where the White Rabbit’s old-fashioned pocket watch, dangling by its chain from text, starts swinging whichever way the reader is holding the iPad. Other animated objects appear on later pages—a jar of marmalade, and collection of mushrooms—and move when you tilt the iPad or touch an object and drag it across the screen.

The animations can be predictable. On a page where Alice eats a cake that shrinks her body, a pile of cupcakes falls to the bottom of the screen, accumulating in an undamaged little pile, an action repeated on many pages with other objects. How much cooler would it be for the cupcakes’ frosting to get messy when they drop? I wanted to be able smear them all over the text on the page.

Still, there are wonderful moments in “Alice for iPad.” My favorite is when Alice is assaulted by a pack of flying playing cards. Alice’s arms and body bobble as a blizzard of cards slams into her. My daughter and I couldn’t resist trying to make the cards pile up on her by angling the iPad just so.

There’s something fitting about the sensation of gravity that the animations bring to a story with so much body-shrinking and mind-blowing going on it. It will be exciting to see what the Atomic Antelope crew does with their next project: an iPad version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

“The Lorax” ($3.99, also for the iPhone) from Oceanhouse Media is a vivid rendition of the Dr. Seuss classic, with some nice features to assist early-readers.

The app lets you read “The Lorax” like a traditional book, but with fun atmospheric sound effects like the sound of wind blowing and old crows cawing.

With my son, I choose another option that reads the book to him in a narrator’s voice. Words on the page were highlighted as the narrator said them.

While there’s no animation, one nifty feature of “The Lorax” app lets readers tap objects, like faucets, rocks and pails, to hear their names sounded out. My son was particularly fond of tapping to hear the words “Grickle-grass” and “Once-ler” over and over again.

The iPad version of “The Lorax” was the most static of the book apps I looked at, but considering the modest interactivity it brought to a lovely reproduction of a classic kids’ book, it was worth the price.

“Miss Spider’s Tea Party for the iPad” ($9.99) from Callaway Arts & Entertainment is based on a picture book about a lonely, tea-sipping spider that longs to make friends with other insects. The app narrates the story to readers or lets them read it on their own. Bumblebees, beetles and other illustrated characters make noise and move when readers tap on them—another big hit with my son.

The app also lets you passively experience the story as a short animated movie. With another option, you can assemble puzzles or color in paintings featuring the story’s characters.

“Miss Spider’s Tea Party” illustrates an approach I predict many book-app creators will take: tacking a lot of multimedia material onto an electronic book, without paying enough attention to weaving it all into one coherent story.

This app can’t decide whether it’s a book, a movie or a game.

I believe it’s a matter of if, not when, the great book apps for iPad will show up. I wager the good book apps will be original works, rather than adaptations of existing books, with an electronic version built from the ground up that will take advantage of the device. For now, “Alice for iPad” is the coolest book app out there.

Walter S. Mossberg will return June 24. Email Nick Wingfield at

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