It may look like a book, but in this magical item is far more... it's a LeapFrog Tag "Activity Storybook", part of the "Tag Reading System [which] engages children's senses to make reading a rich, fulfilling experience."
Wow. That sounds good. With all those fancy words, it's got to be better for your kids' education than boring old-fashioned books, right?
Actually, despite being sold in a cardboard outer sleeve packaging, the book you purchase for $12.99 appears to be just that... a book. In order to activate the special "interactive learning features of the Tag Reading System" you need to also purchase the magic piece of hardware that makes it all work... the "Tag Reader".
So, go buy one of those. US$39.99 + shipping. Get back to me when you've done that, and we'll carry on.
Right. Now let's get into it.
This book is 6.75" x 9.25" hardback. Inside are 26 pages. By themselves, they form a fairly ordinary comic book story that wouldn't be out of place in the pages of Spider-Man Marvel Adventures.
Peter Parker visits the zoo on a mission to photograph a rare Galapagos Turtle. He is guided in his quest by young Billy, who is visiting the zoo on a school trip. Billy is an expert in reptiles.
The other (less friendly) on-hand reptile expert is The Lizard, who suddenly arrives on the scene, smashing all of the enclosures to free his reptile friends and form an army with which he will... CONQUER THE WORLD! You know, the usual thing.
In this version of the story, Peter has never met the Lizard, nor the young boy Billy Connors. So he becomes Spider-Man and battles with the Lizard for a few pages, until Billy runs up and tells Spider-Man not to hurt his father.
Billy explains the how his dad created a secret potion which has just gone horribly wrong. Spider-Man then goes back to Doctor Connors' laboratory (with Billy) and creates a Lizard antidote. They return to the zoo, where Billy suggests that Spider-Man leads the Lizard into the Penguin house, where he will be slowed down enough to be force-fed the antidote. With a little more help from Billy, Spider-Man reverts the Lizard to human form, and all ends happily ever after.
By itself, it's a perfectly ordinary (though perfectly unoriginal) version of the generic Lizard story which has been repeated in a dozen different forms over the last four dozen years or so.
The bit that makes it all interesting is the "Tag Reader" pen. This is a handheld electronic gizmo with a built-speaker and a USB connection to your computer. To use the pen with your book, simply do the following:
Oh wait, we're not done.
Step #9. Every time your child earns a "reward", plug the pen back into the printer, go back to the site, login, and print out the "reward" in your color printer. Repeat again and again every 30 minutes or so until you're utterly fed up with that shizzle.
Once again, I must be utterly honest here. Despite being a computer programmer for a living, I despise any device which introduces unnecessary complexity into my home life. And this little device falls smack bang square into that category.
Also, my gut tells me that these electronic, interactive books aren't really worth a damn when it comes to bringing up a child to be good at reading. The absolutely critical thing that encourages child literacy is children seeing their parents reading, and for parents to read to their children. Buy your children books, and turn off the TV or Video Games regularly. It's that simple.
These books are all very fun. But a big part of me considers them a scam - a cruel illusion taking advantage of parents who would rather throw cash at the problem, instead of investing time and care.
I love books. I love reading, and so do all my children. I adore the simplicity of books, and their endless potential. No instructions, no batteries, no components, no licence keys, no passwords. All you need is literacy. To me reading is simple. Person + Book + Imagination = Infinite Worlds of Wonder. I can't see how LeapFrog Tag or any of the various other enhanced-book technologies are really going to improve that equation.
But then again, I'm not one of the "99% of teachers" who "Recommend Tag" (according to their website).
Most likely I'm just being unreasonable. No doubt there's a scale. At one end are parents whose kids will always succeed at reading... while at the other end are those who are near-inevitably doomed to failure. And perhaps in the middle are a a multitude of well-meaning but under-equipped parents, with nice kids who are just stuck in a difficult place - frustrated, straddling a literacy fence where they may fall on one side or the other.
And perhaps these "friendly, fun, interactive books" will help nudge them across on the right side of that fence.
Maybe the best way to think of these books is like water-wings for kids who don't have any confidence. You can't really learn how to swim properly while wearing them. But at least you can get wet, and discover that water can be fun... and that provides the vital motivation that is necessary before you can ever hope to actually learn.
I have no idea how to rate this. On the positive side, the book is high quality, and the hardware appears to be clever and well-made. To a regular Spidey fan, the Lizard story is utterly clichéd, but I guess to your average five year old the plot is slightly less threadbare.
The painful process of installing the software and getting everything running is probably a necessary evil - although it would have been a hell of a lot simpler to just have a little cartridge that comes with the book and plugs into the pen.
But then they wouldn't have been able to add that noxious "rewards" feature that sends your kids constantly running back to the corporate website to track their progress and print out bookmarks. And more importantly for the marketing strategy, that feature makes sure that you and your kids are regularly viewing all the online advertisements for all their other products. Order Now! Just use your credit card!
So, let's average things out.
For being a pretty nifty high-tech device, 4 webs out of 5. Then, for an utterly unoriginal but competently illustrated and smoothly scripted tale, 3 webs out of 5. Finally, for forcing you to register your children online, and encouraging them to be constantly running back to sit in front of the computer monitor instead of just enjoying the goddam book... a rock-bottom half-web.
That makes 2.5 on average. So be it.
Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against innovative mixed media. Comics are great. Computer games are great. I love pop-up books and audio books with buttons. So why am I so reluctant to express open support for this particular kind of product?
Firstly, I just can't buy into the idea that these expensive high-tech alternatives are superior to boring old books when it comes to teaching kids how to read. I object to the fear-based marketing that implies otherwise.
Secondly, I object to the online integration which so cynically sacrifices simplicity of use in order to get the chance to lock-in the customer and make follow-on sales.
Call me old fashioned, but I believe a good product is one which best serves the interests of the buyer, not the seller. Sadly, this whole system just sticks to high heaven with the bitter stench of corporate priorities.
Ah... maybe I should just feel sorry for these guys. Their entire business model is dead on its feet. Who's gonna pay all that money for this kind of stuff when an iPad app does all this and more for just $2.99.