Magic Town, a virtual world based on picture book characters, was launched this May. Aimed at children between two and six years, Laura Fraine enlists her two-year-old and her five-year-old to investigate.
‘Instead of your bedtime story, we’re going to read a new story on the computer,’ I try. ‘Is that because you’re tired and you want a rest?’ asks Belle, my five-year-old daughter.
A bad start, but that was my fault. Magic Town, a virtual story world created by Mindshapes, is a place to play and discover that books are fun. Digital stories are not about to take the place of physical picture books any time soon and the time they are least likely to replace them is bedtime. Digital demands that we switch on and interact, not lie back, snuggle up and drift off.
I try again in the daytime and both children are instantly intrigued. I create accounts for each child, Belle and my two-year-old son James, inputting both age and sex. Their virtual worlds appear and at the outset seem to be identical. There doesn’t appear to be any gender distinction (a good thing in my view) but neither can I find any distinction between the ages. My five-year-old is capable of reading simple stories to herself, but the text in these books is not easy or large enough for a learner reader. My two-year-old would usually pick stories that are strong on rhythm and rhyme; books with which he can join in, but these are thin on the ground, too.
This turns out to be a minor point, because as children use the programme an algorithm detects the individual child’s usage and tailors the selection of books to their preferences. I suspect my eagerness to try everything has skewed our algorithms but I’ll admit it: I hate the thought of an algorithm choosing books for my children anyway.
The Magic Town landscape
Yet, we are all quite taken with this virtual world. The Magic Town landscape is bright, colourful and quirky; an inviting place. To start off with, the children have eight houses each, but the next time we log in they have each been given a new house. Daily usage also unlocks additional content within the houses.
Inside each house are several Livebooks, based around a picture book character or series. Children can choose to listen to the story being read; read it with an adult; or answer interactive questions in relation to the story. Apart from dominating the mouse, I am fairly redundant here. Neither child is interested in my reading to them when they can listen to a recording instead. They both love the option of interacting with the stories, though, and we are all impressed as picture book images are animated in simple but delightful ways. The illustrations come up beautifully. As well as stories, the houses contain character-related games, including card matching games and jigsaws. These will become more user-friendly for younger children when the iPad version of Magic Town becomes available this summer.
The Livebook format is, I think, a strong addition to the world of children’s books. I am not completely at ease with putting two-year-olds online, but I see that Magic Town has been developed in an educational, creative way which is likely to encourage a love of stories. In fact, in my home I feel confident that it won’t replace our usual reading at all, but instead will make a more interactive experience of downtime when my kids might otherwise be watching television. Between digital and print, we are sure to read more books than before.
The strength of the partnerships Mindshapes has made with leading children’s publishers, which include Simon & Schuster, Oxford University Press, Hachette Children’s Books, Hodder Children’s Books, Andersen Press, Egmont and Usborne, further enforces this view. There were 70 titles available at launch and an extra ten to fifteen stories are to be added each month. Classics such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Boy Who Cried Wolf sit alongside nursery favourites like Elmer and brand new digital-first series, Shrinky Kid by Ian Whybrow and Superfairies by Janey Louise Jones.
It’s like having our own little interactive library online (albeit one staffed by an algorithm rather than a well-read and intuitive librarian). I must admit I am quite intrigued to see what story tomorrow brings.
Subscriptions to Magic Town cost £7.99 for one month; £39.99 for six months and £49.99 for one year.
Laura Fraine is a freelance journalist based in the North East.