Product Review: Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore

A book is something you read, but when it is written for children and available for the iPad, you expect it to be much more than mere text.
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by Carol S. Holzberg

Product Title: Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore

Vendor: Moonbot Studios

Website:http://morrislessmore.com/; http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-fantastic-flying-books/id438052647?mt=8 (App)

Retail Price: App available in iTunes, $4.99; Movie available in iTunes, HD version, $2.99, Movie available in iTunes, $1.99

A book is something you read, but when it is written for children and available for the iPad, you expect it to be much more than mere text. An iPad book needs music, sound, compelling graphics, animation and interactive hot spots on every page. A tap here, a swipe there, should make the text come alive. That's just what happens on the pages of Moonbot's Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore. Inspired by the William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg animated short film of the same title that won the SIGGRAPH 2011 "Best in Show," this interactive storybook artfully blends 2D and computer animation techniques with old-fashioned miniatures in 1/12th and 1/6th scale, 3D models, and exciting interactive fun for a whimsical look at reading.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore tells the story of Morris, a man who loves reading. His life changes forever when a hurricane disrupts his reading activities and scatters all his books. Lost and disoriented, he follows a friendly Humpty Dumpty illustrated book of verse to an extraordinary building with shelves filled to overflowing with stories, adventures and countless pages, all begging to be read. There he remains, caring for the books, finding friendship on their pages, repairing titles with fragile bindings, and reading his favorite tales again and again. When the time comes for him to move on, a young girl takes his place. The story comes full circle, bringing the treasures of reading to a new generation.

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Quality and Effectiveness

Reading is a skill that all children must know to succeed. One in six students who fail to master reading by the end of third grade often falter in later grades and drop out of school before earning a high school diploma. Their dropout rate is four times greater than that of proficient readers (report, pdf file).

An interactive audio-rich, child-appropriate storybook like Fantastic Flying Books can help build reading and listening (also an important part of the reading process) skills in engaging, non-threatening ways by offering a variety of playful reading and story-related activities. Children enjoy the book precisely because it offers much more than passive print. Instead of merely looking at words, they can read along with a narrator who expressively reads the text aloud, correctly pronouncing each word and responding appropriately to punctuation in the text. They can also interact with elements on-screen, tapping, swiping, and flicking their way through the presentation. On the pages of this dynamic storybook, a piano begs to be tapped and once obliged, it turns into an interactive piano that invites readers to tap out the tune to Pop Goes the Weasel. There are also puzzles to solve, seasons to control, book repair surgeries to perform, titles to dispense to eager library patrons, and programs settings to adjust to personalize the experience.

Ease of Use

Even young readers won't need much prompting to explore storybook pages. The graphical multimedia-rich interface makes operation intuitive and quickly puts readers in control. Some items on every page respond to the swipe or tap of a finger, providing rewards for exploration and curiosity. If readers do nothing, the story prompts them by drawing attention to the active element. On one story page. for example, readers who do not touch the screen see arrows appear, encouraging them to follow. On another page, they hear a knocking at the door. To see who is there, they must tap the door to open it. On a third page, cereal bowls light up and once tapped, a bowl of letters appears (see below). When youngsters investigate, they discover they can drag those letters around and turn them into words. The letter supply is unlimited. It can be cleared again and again or captured in a photo for sharing with others.

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Creative Use of Technology

Each of the book's 27 interactive pages is beautifully rendered with colorful graphics, except at the beginning of the story when Morris is without his books. On those pages, he and his surroundings appear in drab black and white, just like Dorothy's colorless Kansas before she travels to the land of Oz. High-quality animations and clever sound effects flavor each page, bringing storybook characters to life on screen. Readers can adjust book settings to suit individual reading styles by turning narration, sounds, and music on or off. They can choose to visit and revisit a particular page by making a selection from the book's table of contents.

Suitability for Use in a School Environment

Like other interactive storybooks reviewed here previously (see the December 15, 2010 review of Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross by Moving Tales http://www.techlearning.com/article/34154), the Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore models a real-life read-aloud experience, encouraging independent reading in a personalized way. Readers are invited to follow Morris and his book-reading adventures, paging forward and backward through the story with a swipe of the finger. A narrator reads patiently, clearly enunciating with expression and feeling, no matter how many times he's "asked."

Keep in mind, that this interactive tactile reading bonanza is designed for home use, not the classroom. It is missing some literacy-building elements that educators have come to appreciate. For example, words and phrases do not highlight as they are read aloud. Readers can't tap just one word and hear it read. Tapping anywhere in the text section causes the narrator to re-read the entire page. Additionally, the app lacks a dictionary function. Youngsters cannot select a word and bring up a definition. Finally, unlike books available from Moving Tales, readers cannot choose a different language for the text, nor record themselves reading each page aloud for later playback.

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OVERALL RATING

Regardless of the mild literacy-building shortcomings of this interactive book, Moonbot's Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Livermore is pure delight. Its compelling story has a happy ending. It features high-quality graphics, 2D animations, plus music and sound effects that help tell the story without dominating the page. Children can navigate the book on their own (during silent reading times if the iPad is equipped with headphones),in small groups with reading companions, or with an adult. When they read and explore the pages, they are rewarded with many surprises and fun activities that will encourage a sustained appreciation for reading and the written word.

Top three reasons why this product’s overall features, functionality, and educational value make it a good value for schools.

1. The book artfully blends colorful animation, lively sounds and music, compelling graphics, and engaging activities with words on a page to tell an original interactive story that encourages reading.
2. While the book is aimed at young children, even teens and adults will enjoy exploring its pages.
3. An award-winning companion animated short of the same title is available for download from the App store. The movie will provide additional motivation for reading the book.

About the Author: Carol S. Holzberg, PhD, cholzberg@gmail.com (Shutesbury, Massachusetts) is an educational technology specialist and anthropologist who writes for several publications and works as the District Technology Coordinator for the Greenfield Public Schools (Greenfield, Massachusetts). She teaches in the Licensure program at the Collaborative for Educational Services (Northampton, MA) and the School of Education at Capella University. As an experienced online instructor, course designer, and program director, Carol is responsible for developing and offering training programs and support for faculty and staff on technology for teaching and learning. Send comments or queries via email to: cholzberg@gmail.com.

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