Category Archives: Apps I Like

Apps I Like: Doodlecast by Tickle Tap Apps

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

Such is the case with Doodlecast, a new offering from Tickle Tap Apps. The idea behind this is simple indeed, but the app opens the door wide open to a world of kids’ creativity.

Doodlecast is nothing more than a tool which allows kids to capture the process of creating a drawing–in video form, with their own narration. Kids can choose from several ideas to get the creative juices flowing, or they can start with (my favorite) a blank canvas. There are several colors to draw with, and once a background/idea is selected, the video recording process automatically begins. Simply speak while drawing to record a voiceover for your video, if desired. Press ‘Done’ when finished…playback the video and press Save, and voila! Your video is ready to be shared on your device. Use the Photos app (included with every iOS device) to view, email, or upload to YouTube.

Watch the above video to see how my 6 year-old daughter used Doodlecast to create a short clip about playing in the park. Note: I found this in the camera roll on my iPad a few days after my daughter created it, which is a testament to how easy the app is to use. She did it all on her own with no help or prompting from me. Pretty neat, eh?

Here’s the official app trailer for Doodlecast. This is a fun toy that encourages free expression, and is a great deal in the iTunes App Store at $1.99.

(Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this app for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: My Little Pony by Ruckus Media

I have to come clean here. As a parent of two young girls, I am often on the lookout for stories that provide strong female characters and feature empowering, not stereotypical situations. Therefore I frown on, but do not forbid, traditional pink/princess/fluffy stuff like Barbie, the Disney princesses and (gulp) My Little Pony. However, I know both my girls love My Little Pony, and I thought the new app from Ruckus Media deserved a chance at my house. Could it take advantage of the format and provide an experience beyond simple entertainment?

My Little Pony by Ruckus Media

My Little Pony - Twilight Sparkle: Teacher for a Day by Ruckus Media

The app is centered around a My Little Pony story called Twilight Sparkle: Teacher for a Day which I suspect comes from the television show. The story is straightforward enough, and features Twilight Sparkle’s adventure after she is asked by Princess Celestia to share a history lesson with the Cheerilee students about Equestria.

My Little Pony story

The story features all the ponies your child knows from the show and the toy figures.

Word highlighting is included when the ‘Read to Me’ option is selected on the main screen. I think this is a must-have feature for a storybook app and I’m glad to see it here.

There are also little short videos that pop up between pages here and there that follow the story, as well as little bits of hot spot animation that are fun the first few run-throughs but don’t add a whole lot to the experience.

Sprinkled throughout the story are optional activities like mazes and spot-the-difference panels. Completing these correctly wins the reader words, which can be used to fill in the blanks in Twilight Sparkle’s diary. Best of all, there are several of the randomly-generated activities, so kids don’t get bored when going back to try to earn all the words.

My Little Pony maze

Finishing the activities earns you words, which you use later on to complete several pages of Twilight Sparkle's diary.

The diary is my favorite feature of this app, because it could be used to help kids hone reading comprehension skills. The reader uses the words collected along the way to fill in the blanks in the diary. Tapping on a single word reads it to you, and once you’ve placed all the words in their proper spots you have the option to read the entire diary.

My Little Pony diary

Use the words earned by doing the activities to complete Twilight Sparkle's diary.

Of course, you can place any word in any blank you wish–which provides a fun Mad Libs-style wacky reading, if you desire. I admit I felt a little rebellious doing this!

The main theme of the story (friendship and working together leads to great things) is hard to miss, but I liked the secondary theme even better (it’s OK if you’re not great at everything–ask a friend to help you out). And for my youngest daughter who loves all things girly, I’m happy anytime she chooses to interact with an app that aids literacy, even if pink princess pony parties are involved.

Bottom Line: Great production values and familiar characters add up to a solid, if unsurprising, app experience. If your kids like My Little Pony, they will love this app. Reasonably priced in the App Store at $3.99, and the app is universal (designed for both the iPhone and iPad).

(Full disclosure: I received  a free copy of this app for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: JibJab Jr.

Remember Elf Yourself? This was a holiday promotion by OfficeMax from a few years back. Just upload head shots of you and your family (or co-workers, or frenemies), position the eyes correctly, then watch as your group dances and sings in a hilarious customized holiday card that begs to be shared. I helped crash the OfficeMax website the year it debuted.

Or perhaps you recall the side-splitting “This Land” cartoon that went viral during the 2004 presidential campaign. I still can’t watch this animated duel between George W. Bush and John Kerry without giggling uncontrollably.

As it turns out, an outfit called JibJab was behind both projects (and many others). The people on the JibJab team are masters of funny animation, especially photos of human heads superimposed on delightfully ridiculous bodies, doing silly things and dancing along to hilarious original music.

Their new initiative is an iPad app called JibJab Jr., which contains a series of childrens’ books and allows you to make your child the center of each story. This sounded like a fantastic idea to me–so I was eager to try it out.

The set up is easy enough. After downloading the app, just insert your kid’s face (choose a photo already on your iPad, or take a new one)–elegant and intuitive controls let you position the photo (rotate, resize, move) for best effect. Next enter said child’s name and gender, choose a matching skin tone, and you’re ready to explore the customized story–starring YOUR KID!

The free app includes one story–The Biggest Pizza Ever. I think all kids love pizza (and so do I) so this story hooked me from the very first page. Full of over-the-top superlatives, silly but artful animation and well-designed pages and typography, I adored this story. My kids and I all had to try it out with our own customization, and each reading of the story generated giggles all around. The Biggest Pizza Ever seems to have the same spirit as the Elf Yourself and other classic JibJab offerings–which is a Very Good Thing.

JibJab Jr. Pizza Story

I also downloaded and tried out the Ocean Commotion story, which is beautiful and just as well-done as The Biggest Pizza Ever, but seems to lack the trademark JibJab silliness. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing though–it may be more appropriate for quiet times (like bedtime).

JibJab Jr. Ocean Story

The JibJab team states that they don’t want to be part of the deluge of ‘hyper-clickable toys’–they are more interested in ‘enhancing the special wind-down time you spend with your child sharing stories at bedtime.’ Hear, hear! I’m glad there are no buttons to press, just cute, engaging, personalized stories.

However, the books contain no audio–no voiceover narration, no music and no sound effects. I think this is taking the move away from interactivity a bit too far. After all, the original songs and e-cards JibJab is known for would be nothing without audio. I believe the careful and thoughtful addition of sound effects and parent-recorded narration would make the JibJab Jr. books near-perfect.

Bottom line: you and your kids will love JibJab Jr. And (based on information from their recent customer newsletter) it looks as though they will be adding audio to their books soon. The app and the pizza book are free. The other books are a bit pricey at $7.99 each, but you can save some cash by signing up for the monthly book subscription (each month you get a new book for $3.99). Not bad! Get yours here.

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the Ocean Commotion book for review purposes.)

Thoughts on Bedtime Reading and Interactivity

Something a little disconcerting happened last night at storytime. During our nightly bedtime reading ritual, to be specific.

My girls and I were enjoying a new interactive storybook–one of our very favorites. Great production values, cute story, wonderful interactive features. So wonderful, in fact, that my two girls fought over who would get to press buttons on the screen on every page. For the first time ever, I had to stop the story in the middle because of the bickering. All of us went to bed a little annoyed.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that one solution would be to force the girls to alternate pages–take turns, if you will. That often works–unless there is more than one button on a page. Fairness makes sense to all concerned parties, until someone breaks the rules and chaos can then ensue.

The trouble is that I’m starting to think buttons don’t have a place at bedtime. Don’t get me wrong–I’m still crazy about the story app we fought over. I just think the place for it is during playtime, not bedtime. I think at bedtime, there’s still nothing wrong with a calm, thoughtful story, read by either a parent or other appropriate adult. Print books are great for this, but there can be a place for apps as well. I like the options to turn off both automatic page turns and the voiceover, so that we can go through the book ourselves if we choose.

Here is a list of my very favorite bedtime story apps, listed in no particular order. If you’re looking for a calmer, gentler bedtime, you might like these as much as I do!

The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin

The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin

Developer: Oceanhouse Media

Writer: Joe Troiano

Illustrator: Susan Banta

This adorable story is made so much better by the first-rate voiceover, provided by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, the guy who co-wrote and sang on the 1962 hit novelty song “Monster Mash.” Cute art, nice message (sometimes being different is good) and appropriate music and sound effects all add up to a perfect bedtime story, especially near Halloween. A word on how powerful the app form can be: I just ordered the paperback through Scholastic because it’s only $1 this month, but just between you and me, I will miss Pickett’s voice every time I pick it up.

Bella Goes BUMP in the Night

Bella Goes Bump in the Night

Developer: Patuto Press

Writers: Derek & Gina Roché

Illustrator: Jonathan Ashley

I just love the fanciful artwork in this story about a little girl facing the nighttime monsters in her imagination. Deliciously creepy without being outright scary, the app also features beautiful typography, word highlighting and an adventurous heroine. There is an in-app coloring book function, but it’s a separate option off the main menu and doesn’t pop up within (and therefore detract from) the story.

Maid Marian Muffins

Maid Marian Muffins

Developer: Maid Marian Muffins LLC

Writers: Jamie & Jessica Vander Salm

Illustrator: Ana Benaroya

This story is about a lady and her dog who go off in search of the perfect blueberry muffin and finding none in the entire borough of Brooklyn, decide to make their own–and share! The girls and I especially like the funky illustrations and funny character expressions. I like the ‘big idea’ that if you can’t find something, creating it yourself can be a great solution. This app also provides parents the option to record their own voiceover, which I like.

Mr. Wolf and the Ginger Cupcakes

Mr. Wolf and the Ginger Cupcakes

Developer: Blue Quoll

Writer/Illustrator: Lucia Masciullo

Mr. Wolf and the Ginger Cupcakes is a clever and charming retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood story. It includes all the elements of a perfect bedtime story app: beautiful illustrations, amusing and engaging story, and a crisp British-accented voiceover. I like the ability to adjust the volume of the lively background music (it is a bit loud at the default setting). You can choose from seven languages as well.

* * * * * * *

There are others, but these are four of my favorite standalone bedtime story apps (designed for the iPad) without all the bells and whistles. Did I miss any? Share your favorites too in the comments.

Apps I Like: Are You My Friend?

Are You My Friend? coverOK, so it’s not exactly an app. But the first book in the Raymond and Sheila Stories, Are You My Friend? is the ‘appiest’ story I’ve found so far in the iBookstore–and that’s a good thing.

This is a picture book aimed at kids 4-8, and in much the same way as the Franklin turtle series, features animal characters interacting and muddling through common relationship issues. Raymond is the central character, a young alligator whose best friend at the beginning of the book is his teddy bear Snowball. He has an older sister Sheila, who is usually busy doing something with her friend and next-door neighbor Ilana. Ilana has a little brother of her own named Iggy, who is Raymond’s age. The story centers around the apprehension Raymond feels as he tries to make a new friend in Iggy.

Are You My Friend screenshot

It’s clear the developers behind Are You My Friend? spent a lot of time getting this iBook edition just right. With word highlighting, lively background music, different sound effects on each two-page spread and whimsical artwork, this is a rich multimedia experience that is rare in the iBookstore. I was particularly impressed with the voiceover artist and was surprised to find out all the voices were done by a single person!

The story itself could stand on its own as a print edition–and the multimedia extras don’t detract or annoy. The anti-bullying message is one that parents will appreciate, but the age-appropriate text, colorful art and endearing characters will keep kids interested too.

Bottom line: One of the first iBooks to feature background music, voiceover narration and words highlighted as the text is read, Are You My Friend? is a children’s book that provides a rich, app-like experience and a solid, engaging story as well.

Developer: Electric Eggplant

Author: Annie Fox

Illustrator: Eli Noyes

$4.99 in the iTunes iBookstore

(Full disclosure: I received a copy of this iBook for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: Benny the Cat by Touchoo

Benny the Cat by Touchoo

I’m a big fan of the Touchoo apps. These guys have done a marvelous job of creating content for younger kids that truly takes advantage of the touchscreen medium that is the iPad/iPhone (read my review of their One Little Boy app). So their third effort, Benny the Cat, has some big shoes to fill.

This app isn’t a story so much as a ‘slice of life’ book where the child gets to interact with Benny on each page–including feeding him, petting him, and helping him get ready for bed. The art by Tamar Hak is whimsical and is accompanied by amusing sound effects and very simple text. My girls are a tad old for this level of story at ages 5 and 6, but all three of us were charmed by this adorable kitty app. I think it’s just right for toddlers and preschoolers, who will love helping take care of Benny.

Benny the Cat is $2.99 in the iTunes App Store. Have you cuddled YOUR cat today?

(Full disclosure: I received a copy of this app for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: The Three Little Pigs from Nosy Crow

There seem to be tons of versions of The Three Little Pigs in the App Store. Actually, there are 63 versions in the iPad category alone. Is there something special–something magical–about this folk tale, that makes it worthy of interpretation over and over again?

As it turns out, the magic isn’t actually in the story–it’s in the presentation. At least when the folks at Nosy Crow do it!

Nosy Crow is a small, independent publisher in the UK that makes both printed books and apps for kids up to age 14. The Three Little Pigs is their first app–and it’s a stunner. The app has earned the coveted Kirkus Star, and for good reason. The story is exactly as you remember it, but the interactivity that’s been built into the app is what’s so special.

Kids can touch the characters to prompt them to speak, flip them, and help them run faster (useful when the wolf is chasing the pigs). There’s a bunny who (I think) hides on every page, which provides a puzzle element to the story. The Three Little Pigs is also one of the only storybook apps that takes advantage of the iPad’s movement sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass)–as you tilt the device, the figures and objects seem to pop up off the background, and you can (to some extent) see behind and around them. It’s amazing!

The voices are wonderful too (all in lovely British accents), as is the music. The animation is amusing and appropriate to the story. There are several extras built in, like the ability to zoom in and out, shake to make objects fall, and you can even help the wolf blow down the houses by blowing into the device’s microphone.

Everything about this app is top-notch, and I have to say: it makes other app versions of the Three Little Pigs irrelevant. Nosy Crow has set the bar very high for storybook apps, which is great for both developers (this will push all of us to create better apps) and of course for kids. Get this fantastic app for $7.99 in the Apple App Store.