Welcome to the first of two iPhone Gems articles we’re publishing today, looking at a variety of recent and interesting releases for the iPhone and iPod touch. This iPhone Gems focuses on three interactive childrens’ books: two different developers’ takes on the classic song The Itsy Bitsy Spider, and a separate story called The Little Red Hen. We chose to look at these three apps because they all take slightly different spins on the edutainment, story-telling theme, and each of their developers could stand to learn at least a little from the others.

Our top pick of the bunch is Duck Duck Moose’s Itsy Bitsy Spider. Read on for all the details.

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Of all the storybook apps we’ve seen for kids on the iPhone and iPod touch, the most consistently impressive have come from Duck Duck Moose, maker of Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald. This month, the company released Itsy Bitsy Spider ($1), which follows the same visual guidelines as its predecessors: you get a bright, colorful, and well-illustrated cartoon that is touched to trigger animations, progressing through verses of the classic song.


Apart from the title screens, Itsy Bitsy Spider spans four screens, showing the spider at the bottom of a house’s water spout, climbing up to its top, getting washed out and dried by the sun, then seeing a rainbow. Notable is the fact that Duck Duck Moose’s past titles offered many more screens, and consequently, a lot more background artwork; they also did more in the music department. This time, only two versions of the song are available in the app—the simple English song, performed by a man, and an instrumental track so that you can record yourself singing along. Multi-lingual support and alternate instrumental versions are absent.


When we initially tried and retried Itsy Bitsy Spider, we honestly weren’t as impressed as we had been with the company’s earlier applications. Most of the problem was the source material—Wheels On The Bus and Old MacDonald used songs that could conceivably go on forever, and Duck Duck Moose offered numerous screens and variations on the songs. By selecting Itsy Bitsy Spider, Duck Duck Moose wound up with a four-line song that had nowhere else to go, so it instead packed each of the four screens with tons of things to touch; the first screen alone has seven different things to interact with, some more than once, and each has its own sound or voice effect. Kids can therefore enjoy a non-linear, different set of interactions with the title’s animal inhabitants every time they use the app, some lightly educational, and others just sight gags. They pad a song that lacks for length and depth, but also show the developer’s interest in amusing and educating kids.


Most of the reservations we had about the Duck Duck Moose take on Itsy Bitsy Spider went down the spout when we tried Itsy Bitsy Spider ($1) from Mother Goose Apps. Both developers started with the same simple source material, and sell their apps for the same price, but the quantity of additional visual and interactive content in the Duck Duck Moose version turns out to be comparatively huge. Mother Goose Apps’ Itsy Bitsy Spider consists only of two screens: a static title screen, and a second screen that automatically zooms in and out as a song plays. This screen shows an image of a house with a spider, a simple animation of the spider crawling the spout, a cloud popping in to rain on the house, and a sun coming out to dry everything, before looping the zooming, simple animation over again. The art is nice enough, but there’s very little here to see or do relative to the Duck Duck Moose version, as the Mother Goose app is completely non-interactive except for honking and giggling noises that play when you touch the screen. It’s comparatively boring in these regards.


On the flip side, Mother Goose Apps outdoes Duck Duck Moose in the music department. Though the Itsy Bitsy Spider song may be short, there are four versions of it here, each in a different style with male and female singers, and you can choose to play any one of the four, or place the app in a random playback mode so that it changes versions when it loops the animation. Each song version is pretty good—not enough to make up for the simplicity of the rest of the application, but better than what Duck Duck Moose has done with the song this time. Overall, Itsy Bitsy Spider from Mother Goose Apps rates a B- and limited recommendation, pulling above the C level primarily because of the good alternate versions of the song it offers. The Duck Duck Moose version is a more complete and compelling take on the story, but a little less impressive in focus and music than the company’s earlier efforts. It’s worthy of our B+ rating and general recommendation. iLounge Rating (Duck Duck Moose): B+. iLounge Rating (Mother Goose Apps): B-.

The Little Red Hen by Stepworks

By comparison, The Little Red Hen ($1) from Stepworks offers a more linear storytelling approach—one that will be familiar to those who have tried Duck Duck Moose’s Wheels on the Bus. The Little Red Hen is a page-based book that tells the classic folk tale of a red hen whose friends won’t help her grow, cut, or process the wheat to make a loaf of bread, but are all too glad to eat the bread when it arrives fresh from the oven. The main screen offers “Read to Me” or “Read by Myself” choices to turn a child narrator’s voice on or off, plus buttons for English, Spanish, and Chinese languages, switching everything from the text to the voices. While we preferred the Duck Duck Moose approach in past applications, which hides language settings on a separate screen that’s not easy for kids to accidentally activate, we appreciated the fact that The Little Red Hen did include multilingual options.


What then follows are 25 lightly animated pages, each presented with arrows at the bottom, big, clear text on the screen, and characters that can be touched to make noises. Animations on the screens are automatic and essentially non-interactive, but they’re there. Unlike Duck Duck Moose’s applications, The Little Red Hen doesn’t try to pack its screens with tons of things to discover; rather, it’s primarily trying to tell its story, and when you touch the on-screen characters, they make the same hen, dog, cat, and mouse noises from page to page. Consequently, either reading or hearing the story is the key to this app, and though the animations and art aren’t amazing, the book delivers a good enough experience to justify its asking price.


Ultimately, different developers will find their own good to great balances of story, graphics, sounds, and interactivity for kids’ titles, and there’s no single “right” answer to what makes a great storybook app. That said, The Little Red Hen illustrates the value of including clear on-screen text in a kids’ app, along with the option to have the text read aloud or not, in multiple languages. Packing the screen with things to touch can make for a fun experience, and simply performing a song and animated video may be engaging for a little while, but including reading options helps to increase the educational value of a title, as well as the chance that it will be picked up again and again. iLounge Rating: B.

Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.