iPad Interactive Book Review: Leonard does not have much "caws" to worry...
By Guy Dayen
I normally don't combine books when I write reviews, but I made the decision to do so in this case because these two interactive books came out just around the same time and they both happen to tackle the same difficult subject in the life of a child: moving away.
There are few things quite so difficult for a young child than to leave the house one grew up in. Getting separated from friends, relatives and familiar surroundings in order to pull up stakes and start over somewhere else can be a very negative experience; especially because children don't normally have much of a voice in the decision. The concerns and vagaries of the adult world are the major moving forces, and young children can feel helpless and adrift in the situation.
Leonard and From Tree to Tree both deal with a child who must face the prospect of going to a new town, and leave the friends and places they knew behind them. Strangely, the children in the two books face the same situation in reverse: in From Tree to Tree, a girl called Nia must leave her home in the country and move to a house in the city, due to her father's new job. Leonard, on the other hand, deals with a young boy who leaves the crowded town and the numerous friends he's come to know so well for a new home in the country, where he finds: no one...
Nia must say goodbye to a favorite shopkeeper, her school friends and her next door neighbors. She also must say goodbye to some special friends: the crows who live in her gardens. It is the crows that provide one of the major narrative threads in the story, as they follow Nia on her voyage to the city and caw as they announce her arrival to the crows who live in the city. Luckily for Nia, the city crows are also friendly, and on her first night, she is greeted by the crows, who wish her a good night, as they caw: "Sleep Tight!" Back at the old home in the country, a new family moves in, and a young boy named Larry meets the garden crows. He too is sent off to sleep by the cawing of the crows. Life goes on for both children, as they both find comfort and friendship in their new homes.
Leonard is told by his parents that they must move; they are going to the country. At first, he's excited, and imagines the new house and all the new friends he's going to make. But when Leonard gets to his new home, he finds something strange: there are no kids, none, not even one... Leonard goes out on a quest to find the children, and brings his cat along for the ride. They visit the forest and a stream; then, Leonard climbs a ladder and uses binoculars. Eventually, Leonard decides to take a break from his search to go to his sister's tea party. He soon decides it's not his cup of tea. Discouraged by his failure at finding anyone, Leonard decides to make his own friend and goes about building a robot of out odds and ends around the house. He brings his creation to the park where he finally encounters new children, and everyone has a fine time playing with the cardboard behemoth.
Once again, the story ends well, and a stressful situation concludes happily. In this regard, both stories deliver essentially the same message: moving might seem a very undesirable thing to do, but don't worry, everything will turn out in the end. However, I feel that Leonard is the more successful book. Its advantage is the appeal that it holds for young children.
I waited a few days to write this review so I could spend some time with two young family members and have them go through the two books with me. There was a young boy of four and his older seven year old sister. Both of them vastly preferred Leonard over From Tree to Tree. Both stories are similar, both are about the same in length, both are well narrated. So, why was Leonard so much more popular? I think it's because the developers knew exactly who their target audience was: young children from three to eight or so.
Leonard has wonderful character design: the young boy Leonard and his cat are both cartoony and expressive. The colors in the book are vivid and bright. The story is full of humor and originality. And the interactivity is much better integrated in the story. You see, Leonard is a very imaginative boy, and by sliding a little switch at the bottom of most pages, we see exactly what Leonard is seeing in his imagination: the forest is full of strange insects (and Bigfoot makes a cameo), the stream becomes a vast ocean, the garage ladder leads directly to outer space, and a pair of binoculars reveal African exotic animals all over the countryside. A bike becomes a horse, boxes and bits of scrap become a robot. Just the kind of thing a kid will do on a solitary day when no friends are around. What's more, there are a couple of variations for many of the imagination vignettes, which keeps the story more interesting. Sliding the switches makes the reader a part of the story, which young kids just love, as evidenced by my two little testers. They couldn't wait to change the scenes and see what Leonard was thinking. It's a great way to show kids how it's possible to beat off boredom just with the power of your own imagination. The narration, sound effects and music were also very appealing to my two helpers. They are kept light and fun, loud and breezy. Everything works together to make an interactive book that the kids wanted to go to again and again over the course of a weekend.
From Tree to Tree:
In contrast, it's not clear who From Tree to Tree was intended for. The young girl Nia is very nondescript. We rarely see her face, and when we do, there are few details to be seen. This is perhaps an effort to make it easy for children to identify with the character of Nia, but my two young friends didn't like it. They wanted to see her eyes, her smile, her expressions. At that age, those visual cues really help young kids understand the goings-on in the story. The colors are also muted, and the overall design seems more suited to an older audience. The problem is that the story itself is quite simple, and is certainly not enough to hold the interest of a child of ten or twelve. Even the seven year old said that the story wasn't very interesting. The interactive elements are not as involving either: you get to move a sign, move some boxes, start up a truck, move a crow. These certainly have something to do the the story, but they don't really involve children in the same way that Leonard has the kids move the story along by revealing what Leonard is creating in his vivd imagination.
The folk music that accompanies the story is quietly beautiful, but again, it seems to be intended for older children, who could better appreciate its greater complexity, and not the younger children who would conceivably be reading this quaint little story. In fact, as part of the app, children can listen to eleven songs from an original soundtrack (6 vocals and 5 instrumentals) The music is good, quite good, but I enjoyed it much more than my young friends.
From Tree to Tree:
From Tree to Tree also strives to incorporate an educational dimension. There is a short vocabulary section, where readers can learn about twenty Irish words. It's a nice idea, but because the words are pulled from the story, they have little connection to a child's life. Knowing what a yew tree is in Irish won't come up very often in casual conversation. Choosing words like Hello, Goodbye or My Name Is would have been more relevant for kids, and more fun to learn, since they could practice them every day through real-world use. It's a picky point, but as a French teacher, it's something that struck me as having a lot of potential for improvement.
I don't mean to disparage From Tree to Tree. It's a lovely short story. But the makers of this app need to rethink who their target audience really is, and retool some of the elements of the book. I think, as it stands now, From Tree to Tree holds much more appeal for adults who are amateurs of quiet tales and folk stories than it does for the younger crowd. The artwork is quirky and the music is good enough to find a place in many a playlist. But Leonard is the clear winner with young children. The story is much livelier, kids identify a lot more with the antics of young Leonard and his feline companion, and the interactive elements really draw the reader into the story.
From Tree to Tree:
If there is space on your iPad, go ahead and get both books. Your children will really go for Leonard, and the older members of the family will appreciate From Tree to Tree. However, if the choice comes down to one or the other, do your children a favor and get them Leonard. They will have a great time. But be careful, you just might find that their games are becoming much livelier, and that you may need to post signs in the backyard telling your neighbors to watch out for the lions !
Leonard: Seller: Ink Robin Release Date: Mar 15, 2012 Price: $3.99 Buy App: Leonard