iPad Interactive Book Review: A Charlie Brown Christmas Reviewed by Guy Dayen
For those of you who don't have the time or inclination to read a longer review, here's my capsule version: it's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (That should be enough said right there!); it's everything you remember from those childhood evenings sitting in front of the television; "Linus and Lucy" is part of the soundtrack; and the book is narrated by Peter Robbins, the original voice of Charlie Brown. Charles Schulz would definitely approve. The app is simple to use and is universal, it performs flawlessly on the iPad as well as on the iPhone and on the iPod Touch. It's a perfect storm of holiday goodness - buy it with no hesitation. You will not be disappointed.
That said, onwards for the rest of you. I'll be centering on the iPad version of the app here. I will readily confess that I was a bit nervous when I saw this app. I've been a Peanuts fan for a very, very long time, and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is hands-down my favorite holiday fare. The show has been a hallmark of the Christmas season for me since its debut in 1965, and the soundtrack is one of the highlights of my holiday music playlist. I really hoped the publishers had taken care to honor that long tradition, and to honor the heart and spirit of this wonderful little holiday story. I'm happy to report that they did. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" does the Peanuts gang proud, and I think their beloved creator "Sparky" would give it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
The app opens to a screen showing a closed book, the cover of which you tap to start the story. There's also a child's record player spinning the soundtrack record (nice visual touch, there) and a set of old-fashioned twinkling Christmas bulbs. Right away, we're back in the early 60's; it's a great burst of nostalgia and comfort for the baby boomer generation.
Tapping the book starts the story. The animation of the book opening and of the pages turning is done really well. You get a real sense of three dimensions that is very pleasing to the eye. The title page presents a little Christmas tree; pay attention to it, because you'll be able to decorate it to your liking when you're done reading the book. Along the way, completing the interactive games will unlock the decorations for the tree and for the holiday Christmas lights display activity. (Should you miss completing some of the interactions, there is a helpful illustrated summary at the end of the book to help you along and give you a few hints if needed - the developers really seem to have thought of everything needed, considering the varied ages of the people who will be using this app.)
Each page opens with a narration by Peter Robbins, the original voice of Charlie Brown in the "A Charlie Brown Christmas" television special. What a neat touch that is! I think it's so cool that Peter Robbins comes back to this project 46 years later. What a way to bring things old and new together!
The dialogue for the story is done in a wonderful way: it's a system of tabs. Each line is printed on a sliding tab, and the character speaking is identified with both a name and a picture. This makes it very clear for the little ones who still can't read yet; seeing the picture lets them know which of the characters is speaking each particular line, but it doesn't condescend to them by treating them like babies. I really like this, because Charles Schulz never condescended to his readers. It always seemed to me that he had great respect for children and their natural intuition into human affairs. It's another sign that the publishers of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" really understand the spirit of "Peanuts".
Getting back to the tabs; the reader slides each tab individually. It's great because you control the pace of the story. Each tab can be repeated simply by touching the replay icon. Again, it's a good system in case younger kids need to hear the line more than once, or if a parent wants to tailor the pace of the story to the age and development of their particular child. Once a line is done, you swipe the tab to the left, and the next line appears. The story continues apace.
Another very nice touch is that the pages aren't static. The characters' expressions and poses change according to the dialogue lines. This makes the story much more dynamic. You can also touch characters and elements of the decor to make them move and change. In fact, once the dialogue lines are done, and the last tab has been slid over, there are some pages when the story will only advance if you tap the page and interact with the scene. It brings a real feeling of involvement with the story. Little ones will love being in control of the action, and making characters do different things to move the story along.
Another really fun interaction is the unlocking of the dance scene in the auditorium. To start the music, you have to play "Linus and Lucy" on a toy piano. It's easily done, as each successive note is highlighted, and there is no speed requirement. Once the notes are played, Vince Guaraldi's most notable composition starts to play, and the Peanuts gang is ready to rock the stage. It's a great way to introduce children to some of the best jazz music ever written for a children's' television show.
I took time before writing this review to sit down with a pair of children, a young four year-old boy and his six year-old sister. Both children loved the app. They were familiar with Peanuts already, but I think they would have enjoyed the book just as much without any knowledge of Charlie Brown and the gang. They had lots of fun catching snowflakes, making the characters skate and dance, and decorating Charlie Brown little Christmas tree. It was as much of a hit with them both as it was for me.
Of course, the original show is over twenty minutes long, and the publishers had to condense the story somewhat, but this is also true of the original book adaptation of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (which this app closely mirrors). The length seems just right to ensure that younger kids won't lose interest while still giving older readers the complete Peanuts Christmas experience. Rest assured that all of the high points in the story are still here, including Linus' very touching explanation of "what Christmas is all about". This book is a fitting companion to the television show, and it's definitely one of the best examples of how to adapt one medium to the other that I've seen since the inception of the iPad.
I should also mention that the graphics are extremely well-done. The colors are vibrant, and the transposition of the characters and the settings is spot on. The sound is wonderful as well; the dialogue is taken directly from the show's soundtrack, and it sounds as fresh as the first time it aired on CBS in 1965. It's a joy to hear those simple words spoken again from the magic screen that is the iPad.
There seems to be a wave of Peanuts related content coming to iOS. There is Snoopy's Street Fair, a game where you explore the town where the Peanuts characters "live", and the original comic strips themselves are now available for purchase through the new "Peanuts Comics" iPad app, may of them in digital format for the first time ever. (Another worthy addition to any Peanuts fan's collection, for sure!) My favorite is this Christmas treasure, both for its technical excellence and for its inestimable nostalgia value. It will appeal to older folks seeking to recapture a bit of the Christmas magic they felt in their youth, to parents wanting to share a favorite memory with their children, and to a new generation of readers lucky enough to be exposed to this classic, wonderful story for the first time.
This is destined to become an iPad holiday classic, and it will find a prime place on my home screen every holiday season. I recommend this book in the strongest possible way; it will be a perfect addition to any family's Christmas traditions. In this age of glossy Hollywood movie, and product tie-in animated quickies, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" truly reminds us "what Christmas is all about"...