The World Inside the Computer
Fred D'lgnctzio, Associate Editor
Computer Pop-up Books
My seven-year-old son Eric is a highly visual thinker, as evidenced by the intricate and elaborate drawings he makes of bridges, underground mines, space stations, buildings, and mazes. Eric is fascinated by books with detailed, complex pictures like Noah's Ark by Peter Spier, and Cathedral and Pyramid by David Macaulay. On the other hand, he struggles with books which have lots of words but whose pictures are simple and spare. And, unfortunately, in school the tendency is to wean Eric from pictures and to force him to use words instead.
Eric may not love books and words, but he does love stories, and he has a rich imagination. He likes to do his storytelling visually by dressing up and acting out parts and by creating concoctions and inventions out of things like string, rubber bands, play dough, balloons, food coloring, and water. This interest in storytelling through manipulation of real objects carries through to Eric's love of Lego building blocks and robot GoBots and Transformers. Eric will spend hours designing a Lego spaceship or transforming his little robots, but he won't spend ten minutes with a book. For Eric, the environment of the book is too frozen, abstract, and visually impoverished, compared to the rich, dynamic, visual environment of his favorite toys.
Eric is not particularly interested in books in general, but he loves "pop-up" books where the emphasis is less on words and more on manipulating the characters and objects in the stories. I recently discovered a new series of pop-up "books" for Apple computers that I think Eric will love. The books are part of the Explore-a-Story series being published by D.C. Heath, the school textbook company. There are eight different titles in the series, including "The Bald-Headed Chicken," "The Lima Bean Dream," and "What Makes a Dinosaur Sore?"
Transformable Software Books
The books themselves are nice enough; they are similar to other children's picture books. But it is the software "books" that are unique and exciting. Children can page through the software book on the computer display screen just as they would page through the picture book.
Then the real fun starts.
Using a mouse, joystick, or keyboard, children can transform the original story into something completely new. They can move any character or object in the story, or change the entire background. They can add dozens of new characters and objects to each illustration. They can add their own text to each story page, erase the old text, or create entirely new text. The story can then be saved to disk or printed out as text or as a coloring book.
There are several features of Explore-a-Story books that appeal to me and which I think will appeal to Eric. First, unlike standard printed books, the Explore-a-Stories are not immutable. They are like sand in a sandbox—"story starters" which give children a micro-world in which to concoct stories of their own.
Second, Explore-a-Stories are like good pop-up books because they combine three great elements which appeal to children: mystery, surprise, and animation. Built into the stories are all sorts of surprise characters and character actions. Whenever you set a character down, it "comes to life": rabbits hop, frogs bounce, eagles soar, lima beans dance and flop. Mothers turn flips. Fathers somersault.
Third, Explore-a-Stories are like transformers because they let children manipulate the stories and transform them into something new and personally meaningful to each child.
"Create your own story" software is hardly new, but Explore-a-Stories have eliminated many of the defects in earlier programs and elevated the genre to a new level. And children like Eric might be coaxed away from a purely visual orientation to the world. This software gives them the ability to manipulate words almost as easily as pictures.
Each Explore-a-Story package costs $66 and comes with a double-sided disk, a backup disk, a teacher's manual, and five copies of the story. The disk runs on an Apple lie or lie with 128K. For more information, write D.C. Heath at 125 Spring Street, Lexington, MA 02173.