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The search for a new Book App

We’ve been using iPods and iPads for learning (literacy and numeracy skills initially) at school now since 2010 but I (rather sheepishly) admit that until this year we’d only purchased two book apps: Animalia and The Cat in the Hat. With a little leftover budget burning a hole in my VPP pocket, I Googled a few ‘top ten kids book app’ lists and found The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore continually cropping up in everyone’s top three. The unique app icon intrigued me more than any other:

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Sleek and simple at first glance (the students might say ‘boooringggg’) but so understated it just had to be laden with secret, stately symbolism. So within seconds of making my decision I had it downloaded from the App Store, in exchange for a credit card debit of AU$5.49 (I always buy a single personal copy to trial before lashing out on the Volume Purchasing… For 20+ licenses through VPP, this app will only cost you AU$2.74). Alas, ‘tis a slippery slope…

A Fantastic Flying Book

I’m familiar with the truckloads of free book apps that do little more than display a traditional story with swipable pages …and almost offensively stereotyped cartoon illustrations. The first serious iPad book app that I laid eyes on was Alice (in Wonderland) for the iPad. The design is gorgeous and its exploitation of the iPad’s touch screen and accelerometer dazzled me – a thoroughly new way to engage with the events and characters of a very familiar story. But Morris Lessmore (say his name our loud 5 times really fast …oh go on I dare you) promised something greater than a new way to engage with a traditional story. Better still, it seemed to celebrate the power of narrative via the written word in book form. Less… is More?

Screenshot from the iPad app: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore".

Screenshot from the iPad app, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore”.

I won’t dwell on plot but, reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz (classic film), it begins with a frightful wind that carries the main character to a colourless wasteland. Books bring the interest and colour back into his world. In fact, colour is contrasted with black and white as a narrative device throughout.

The Story of the Book

In the case of TFFBOMML, William Joyce’s story first inspired an (award-winning) animated short film (contained within the app but also fortuitously available on YouTube). Moonbot Studio’s iPad app followed and only after this was the printed picture book published. The quality of the former two versions of the story is exceptional, though Nathan Heller of The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review had this to say of the picture book:

The print-edition “Morris Lessmore” is a stylishly paced, vividly illustrated parable for young readers, yet it somehow lacks the dreamy creativity of its animated precursors. Ultimately, Joyce’s book tells us something we may already suspect: that storytelling these days has a broader canvas than the hallowed space within the ­library doors.” (Heller, 2012, para. 1)

The cover of the picture book, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore"

The cover of the picture book, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore” by William Joyce

Either way of engaging with the digital story (eBook or film) offers unique experiences and insights. I watched the film first (in the app) but the written text added an explicit ‘interpretation’ not accessible in a film without spoken language. This could have been disappointing and limiting if I’d begun with the eBook, as I had interpreted some scenes in the film differently and this gave me much food for reflection. For this reason I always show students the film first.

Deb Tyo comments on Good Reads with this recommendation for classroom use:

“My students are writing their own versions of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. 

I started by showing my students the first couple minutes of the short film […]. The students then began writing their story. Each day since, I have played a bit more of the film for the students. After each section, they continued their own story. I cannot wait for the students to complete their stories and share them. Each is incredibly unique and amazing.”

The Good, the Bad and the Even Better

Screenshot of the Main Menu of the iPad app, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore”

The promotion and marketing elements of the app (links to ‘More by Moonbot’ made me grit my teeth somewhat (for the same reasons I’ve always avoided commercial television in my home). Then again, Moonbot have worked such magic with this one they’d be a fool not to promote their other (exceptional) works. The ‘old school marm’ inside me (I do try to suppress her, I really do!) regrets that the app doesn’t offer the familiar word/phrase highlighting as the text is read that is so helpful to younger readers. I would also like children to be able to tap a single word to hear it read aloud.

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Screenshot from the iPad app, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore”

One other disappointment: the ‘lovely lady’ Morris sees with the flying books is drawn with ‘Barbie Doll’ proportions. Obviously this app is not your average ‘school reader’ but we have to be wary of the images we present to children and ensure that the sum total of these images represent a healthy dose of diversity. This one doesn’t help much.

I adore the design of this app book. It’s aged, quaint, like some historical artefact. Think sepia postcards, flickery silent films, gilt-edged leather bound volumes, high-waisted trousers and boater hats. The main character is clearly inspired by comic silent film actor, Buster Keaton, which might provide a good springboard for some studies of media history or intertextual references for older students. References to classic literature and film abound in the book app, making it rich fodder for teachers of English. The story is set in New Orleans’ French quarter but the link between the storm that blows all Mr Lessmore’s books away in the story and Hurricane Katrina did not occur to me until I read the dust jacket on the picture book version.

Buster Keaton [image by Bain News Service. Free license.]

Buster Keaton [image by Bain News Service. Free license.]

‘Instructions’ for how to engage with the images and turn pages are subtle and appear only on the first few pages. This avoids distraction once the narrative experience has begun. Certainly most iOS-familiar users, and indeed ALL children  everywhere, will be able to explore this app with intuitive ease.

Subtle instructions for interaction appear on the first few pages. Screenshot from the iPad app,

Subtle instructions for interaction appear on the first few pages. Screenshot from the iPad app, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore”

I wondered at the clear division between the written text of the story at the bottom of the screen and the interactive image at the top. There’s probably a very sensible technical reason for this, but I would have loved to see the written text merged with the illustrations more as a postmodern picturebook might. I’m prepared to be loudly and decisively shouted down over this suggestion. This app is clearly NOT a “picturebook” in the traditional sense so perhaps it does make design sense to separate these elements…

An All-Ages Experience

Master-just-turned-four’s favourite pages: drawing on a blank book then watching his ‘ink’ marks scatter in the wind; painting the sky blue; waving hello (ad nauseum!) to Morris and Humpty, playing the piano.

My favourite pages: playing ‘Name That Classic’ with the ‘thousand different stories …whispering an invitation to adventure’. And, well, ALL of them when I see how they can draw the teenager and the preschooler together in a gorgeous mutual experience of the celebration of books and stories.

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One of my favourite pages. Tap books in the foreground and hear snatches from classic literature. Great for playing “guess that title”!

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore is an adventure that venerates reading, writing and literary works and celebrates life as story. It’s already a treasured app on my iPad and represents $5.49 well spent when I think of how many awe-filled and appreciative family members with whom I’ve already shared it.

A book for all ages. [Photo by M Mead CC BY-NC]

A book for all ages. [Photo by M Mead CC BY-NC]

I think it’s high time we had the serious conversation at school about how best to fund, purchase, catalogue and make accessible these high quality ‘digital books’. Perhaps the story itself may help me sell this, as  its “emphasis on connecting readers and books and the care of books pays homage to librarianship” (Kirkus Reviews, 2012).

What’s your favourite ever non-print book experience?

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Featured Image: Screenshot of the opening screen of the iPad app: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore.

Image of Buster KeatonThis is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. According to the library, there are no known restrictions on the use of these photos.

Heller, N. (2012). Hanging on Every Word: ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’. The New York Times. Sunday Book Review. [Retrieved: 1 Nov, 2013]

Kirkus. (2012). The fantastic flying books of Mr Morris Lessmore. Kirkus Reviews.

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One thought on “Digital Text Spotlight: Fantastic Flying Books

  1. Maria this is a brilliant find! I am definitely going to have a close look at it for my class next year. You might find the online tool called Storybird interesting. It is a site where you can get students to create their own digital stories using beautiful artwork as inspiration. I used it for my English extension class and they LOVED it so much I introduced all my students to it!

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