Just in time for Halloween, Harry and the Haunted House is definitely high on my all time top ten list of favorites. It was released for iOS on October third, but it's really 18 years old. And therein lies a tale. But first, let's take a look at this excellent app.
This is one of the best designed interactive children's books I've ever seen, and time was taken to get every small detail absolutely right. The title page starts simply where Harry, the protagonist in a fantasy world of talking animals, explains the two ways the book can be used. Either it can run on auto-pilot, which incorporates many of the interchanges between the four main characters and lots of sound and animation, or you can play with it yourself, having some of the dialogue read to you while you're off exploring.
Many Customizable Settings
I like this setup because it puts the child in control or seemingly so. Under the hood, accessible by the button marked options, are a wide number of controls parents can set. These options are also to be found under the iOS settings on the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.
Some things that can be set:
- Skip title page
- Bookmark setting, to get back to the page you ended the app, is on by default but can be turned off
- Patience Mode: which allows or disallows the child to interrupt dialogue or animations before they are over. For small kids this is very useful and thoughtful
- Page Swipe
- Highlight Hotspots: For very small pre-readers everything that kicks off an animation or interchange is surrounded by a red box. This is perfect for preschoolers, and I've not seen this done before.
A World of Discovery
All the words are not printed because that would take some of the fun out of discovery. There are all sorts of embedded interchanges kicked off by the child's fingers. Wanderful Inc. doesn't give away the store. There's constant excitement in not knowing what you'll find next, and the payoffs come quickly and are always fun.
At Least 20 Animated Objects
The characters of Amy, Earl, Harry, Stinky, Harry's dog, and even a bunch of singing and dancing bugs have real personalities. Mark Schlichting's writing is witty and charming with well developed characters.
Interactions Emerge From the Narrative, Not the Other Way Around
A major difference between Harry and everything else out there is that in other books tapping on something creates one action and often the action either contradicts the story or adds nothing to the narrative being employed. I surmise this is because either the designer saw it in someone else's book —like spring loaded everything— or appear for the sole reason of the designer being able to code it. Harry eschews this sort of brain dead clap-trap. Not only are cute, short animations embedded, but at least half the plot is meant to be discovered. This app is cognitive dissonance free. I only wish I could say that about the 99 percent of the available product currently on the market that can tend to confuse kids.
The Pictures Are Animated
Everything that happens adds and enhances the whimsical world where animals play baseball and the haunted house tells jokes and is a master of physical comedy. A nice addition is added dialogue and animations that happen when the reader turns a page.
Every word is recorded twice, once for narration and once for pronunciation. After it's read, tap on a word for it's individual pronunciation out of the context of the story or tap on the baseball to the left of the text block to have it read within the story.
The House is a Main Character
There is so much singing and dancing hidden away that I'm surprised that they could get the file size down to 103 MB. I can usually get through an interactive children's book in twenty minutes or less. This one took me well over an hour, and the new things I found were original. I especially loved the ending which is wonderfully satisfying and somewhat ironic.
Get To Any page At Will
Complete Curriculum and Activities Available
The app works in English and Spanish. An in-app purchase of $1.99 adds French. But for $2.99, if this is used in school, or for home schoolers, you get a premium upgrade that's worth much more than the cost: well researched and valid curriculum.
There is a free 12 page preview of activities and curriculum ideas that are quite impressive as an easily accessible .pdf. The premium upgrade gives you a much large 58 page .pdf that opens in iBooks or just about anything else and that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative and contains an annotated bibliography.
The curriculum is well researched and is an educational aspect I haven't seen in other children's books. So outside of fun, this book is also educationally significant and Wanderful Storybooks have the facts, activities, and matrices to back it up.
Spooky Mirror Room
Some Very Minor Problems
The only quibbles and, it's they are a matter of taste, is the quality of the graphics. The 2D artwork looks 18 years old. It lack the smoothness expected in current iOS products. On the iPad screen some jaggies are apparent in the graphics. I wish they gave it an artistic once-over. The other ever so slight disappointment was that the soundtrack was mono. I listen to apps with earphones and ghosts and ghouls scream out (pardon the pun) for well produced stereo sound.
Sort of Jagged Graphics
The Rest of the Story
At the start I alluded to the fact that this app, though excellent and in many ways groundbreaking, is 18 years old. Here's the story:
Some of you might remember a company called Brøderbund which published popular programs for the Apple II, the Mac and the PC such as Print Shop. In its heyday, the company put out a line of excellent educational software under the imprint of Living Books.
The first one was Mercer Mayer's Just Grandma and Me sold on iOS from Oceanhouse Media. Living Books put out a dozen or so titles ranging from Dr. Seuess to the Berenstain Bears. When you bought one, you were given a CD-ROM that ran on Windows 3.1 or the Mac, along with a printed book. They were well received in education and eventually vanished from the landscape. Harry and the Haunted House hit the market as a Living Book in 1994.
Flash forward to the iTunes Store, the iPhone and later the iPad, where a gold-rush mentality ensued and everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon and market a new and lucrative field of interactive children's books. Oceanhouse licensed the big names like Seuss, Berenstain Bears, Little Critter, and a ton of others, and went about reinventing the wheel. At the same time, seemingly everyone else was jumping on the same band wagon and bringing a ton of product to market that ranged from pretty good to utterly execrable. The gold rush was on, and in very many cases quality and an enjoyable reading experience suffered.
Eventually all the popular franchises were snapped up and the market has morphed from individual books to publisher run bookshelf apps to organize the books. It almost seems like such a shame that someone with inspiration decided to bring Living Books back from the dead at this point since all the good stuff, and a lot of content that was previously sold as Living Books, has been snapped up. The timing is rotten and most of their previous content is already taken, but if Wanderful Storybooks can bring back what is still available from the Living Books series and can come up with some new titles, I'd consider them doing a great favor for the K-6 market where iPads seem to bloom like tulips in the spring, especially in light of the soon to be shipped iPad mini.
Do I Recommend It?
Yes, I do, and with hardly any reservations at all. With everyone thinking they were the first-kid-on-the-block, corporate ownership, and problems with licensing transfer woes have kept the real goods off the market. If you buy Harry, you'll see that 3D G-Whiz apps can't hold a candle to good storytelling. Being in the driver's seat with a minimum of manipulation, while constantly being reinforced will inspire and delight young readers.