Wuwu & Co. (Step In Books, 2014-2018) tells the story of five creatures who come to seek help from the resident of a little red house in the woods during “the coldest winter in two thousand years” (p. 1). The story is told through a combination of written text and interactive scenarios that make use of a variety of the technological capabilities of iOS devices, as will be explored later in this review.
Though the information page on the app carries the Apple age rating of 4+, on the catalogue description page the developers have added “Made for Ages 6-8” (Step In Books, n.d.). The level and type of interactivity required in the app, the interest level of the material and the complexity of the language support the older age range indicated. The English language text difficulty is calculated in the range appropriate to Years 2 and 3 by the Free Lexile Analyser (MetaMetrics, Inc., 2018; Biblionasium, 2018). It is available from the Australian iOS App Store for AU$9.99.
Wuwu & Co. is a digital narrative (Walsh, 2013) created specifically for the iOS platform and cannot be effectively experienced without the use of an appropriate device. It blurs the boundaries somewhat when viewed through the lens of Annette Lamb’s (2011) five reading environments. While it can be classified as an interactive storybook app, it has qualities of non-linearity congruent with the hypertext or interactive fiction category that she describes. One of the notable elements of interactivity is the device-based virtual reality (VR) segments. VR is one of the modes of extended reality (XR) that some see as the currently expanding frontier of digital literature (Breeze, 2018).
The language and illustration style of Wuwu & Co. are reminiscent of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll (1961) and related works. The story is by Merete Pryds Helle, and translated from Danish into English by Paul Russell Garrett. It relates a whimsical storyline through rich literary descriptions and figurative language. Language stimulates senses not called upon in the interactive VR sequences, such as smell in this quote, “A lovely fire is burning in the fireplace and the living room smells of smoke and firewood (Step In Books, 2014-2018, p. 1).” The naive illustrations by Kamila Slocinska suit the timeless, fantastical, fairy-tale quest ambience of the storyline. Colour is used effectively to highlight elements of the images that are important to the story and integral to the interactive features.
Let us now consider the digital affordances (properties that enable certain uses of or interactions with a digital object) of the work and the degree to which they create synergy with the literary elements (Walsh, 2013). Lisa Nagel (2017) argues that interactive storybook apps such as this cannot be effectively evaluated in isolation from the reader, she terms this viewing of them an “event”. Each reading of the work is distinct and cannot be interpreted without considering the context of the reader or readers involved in the reading event. Therefore, considerations of the level to which the features encourage engagement, immersion and comprehension of the text will vary between readers and reading events. The observations below are from the perspective of a female primary school teacher in her mid-40s with moderately strong confidence in technology use.
The first affordance available to the reader is the choice of whether to read the story silently or have it read aloud by a narrator. The first page gives a brief introduction to the story and describes the setting of The Little Red House, the second page segues into an introduction of the VR affordances of the text. The app uses the motion sensitivity affordances of iOS devices such that, at particular points in the storyline, tilting the device towards a more vertical orientation initiates a transition to VR mode and tilting towards a more horizontal orientation initiates a transition to the text mode. In order to fully experience the story, you must switch between modes. In the VR mode, other interactions are afforded by touching various hotspots on the screen, usually indicated by colour or animation, by shaking and tilting the screen and by using the microphone and camera features on the device. Most of the required affordances are cued by information in the written text, dialogue from the characters in the VR environment or both. Research findings conflict on whether interactive features hinder (Takacs, Swart, & Bus, 2015) or enhance (Kao, Tsai Liu and Yang, 2016) comprehension of digital texts. While some of the activity inspired by the VR sequences (shouting, shaking the device and tapping the screen) could serve as distractions, their congruence with the text, and integral relationship to the progression of the storyline, leads this reviewer to conclude that they demonstrate Maureen Walsh’s (2013) digital-literary synergy. The affordances do not merely align with and maintain the integrity of the story (Yokota & Teale, 2014) but are part of the story line to be comprehended. Surely, this is the essence of a quality digital literature experience.
Note: For informational purposes – this assessment received an HD (just). The main criticisms were that the tone was not quite right for a scholarly review and that there were too many references and not enough space for my own opinions. The length was also an issue – while I was within the +10% leeway using the word count on the blogging platform, Word counts differently and assessed my posts as over that cutoff.
Biblionasium. (2018). Leveled text chart. In Biblionasium. Retrieved from https://www.biblionasium.com/lexile.
Breeze, M. (2018, July 20). Virtual reality literature: Examples and potentials [Blog post]. In The Writing Platform. Retrieved from http://thewritingplatform.com/2018/07/virtual-reality-literature-examples-potentials/.
Jansson, T. (1961). Finn Family Moomintroll. London: Puffin Books.
Kao, G. Y., Tsai, C., Liu, C., & Yang, C. (2016). The effects of high/low interactive electronic storybooks on elementary school students’ reading motivation, story comprehension and chromatics concepts. Computers & Education, 100, 56-70. Retrieved from https://www.journals.elsevier.com/computers-and-education.
Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17. Retrieved from http://www.learningandleading-digital.com/learningandleading.
MetaMetrics, Inc. (2018). Free Lexile Analyser® [Computer software]. Retrieved from https://la-tools.lexile.com/free-analyze/.
Nagel, L. (2017). The picture book app as event: Interactivity and immersion in Wuwu & Co. Journal of Children’s Literature Research, 40, 1-17. doi: 10.14811/clr.v40i0.290.
Step In Books. (n.d.). Wuwu & co.: A magical picture book [Mobile application store catalogue entry]. In Apple Computing. (2018). App Store [Mobile software application].
Step In Books. (2014-2018). Wuwu & co. (Version 1.9) [Mobile software application]. Retrieved from Apple AppStore (iOS only).
Step In Books. (2016, June 1). Wuwu & co. – A magical picture book [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt6SR2G0INE.
Takacs, Z. K., Swart, E. K., & Bus. A G. (2015). Benefits and pitfalls of multimedia and interactive features in technology-enhanced storybooks: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85(4), 698–739. doi: 10.3102/0034654314566989.
Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).
Yokota, J., & Teale, W. H. (2014). Picture books and the digital world: educators making informed choices. The Reading Teacher, 34(6). Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3886534/Picture_Books_and_the_Digital_World_Educators_Making_Informed_Choices.