Bottom Line: Experience the sights, sounds and maybe even tastes of India in this flawlessly executed story book app which features both a captivating design and an imaginative take on the traditional buddy tale. There is a lite version to try before you buy.
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The Magnificent Travelling Palace (Travelling spelled in the Queen's English) is the ambitious debut app from Planetree Family Productions. It is the tale of four young friends dubbed the Pottery Pack who go on an adventure together to catch a glimpse of a very special train which is described to them as a palace on wheels. Readers or listeners, as the case may be, are transported into the story quite literally as the book begins with a train moving across the page. The app icon says 3D rather than the usual HD and it's an apt description. The animation and interactivity are far more technically proficient than most ebook titles and include engaging 3D animation and creative special effects.
The author and developer, Shoham D., didn't miss a step in creating this app. It has read to me, read myself and autoplay narration options. There is no word by word highlighting but the age range for which the app is appropriate, 9-11, wouldn't generally need it. I for one am happy to see technical effort put to good use elsewhere in this lavish production. There is page-by-page navigation with thumbnails that include both a recap of the story and a run-down of interactive elements so none are missed. Text boxes can be collapsed so the artwork can be viewed in its entirety.
The kids are called the Pottery Pack because each day after school brother and sister Rajeev and Lalita take pieces of pottery their father has made and sell them in the market with the help of their friends Tushar and Deepika. The crowded market in Udaipur, a town in the Indian state Rajasthan, is a far cry from WalMart or the weekend arts festivals that pop up in my city now that the weather is fair. One day their friend Raju, who sells them sugar cane juice, tells them a train called the Magnificent Travelling Palace is coming to their town. Lalita can barely sleep due to her excitement at the prospect of witnessing this locomotive spectacle. Unfortunately the Travelling Palace leaves Udaipur before the friends get out of school, so they hop on a local train to chase down the marvel.
The adventure is a success because the children safely make it to Dungarpur where they find the train and are welcomed aboard. They discover silken bed linens, crystal chandeliers and explore all the wonders the train has to offer. Everyone on board is nice and friendly and the kids are treated like guests and offered refreshments. It's a happy and satisfying tale.
The book is fiction but I have it with my Social Studies apps because it is a glimpse into a culture and way of life many of our kids will never experience as they tap on their shiny iPads and surf the web with wireless Internet. The author uses very descriptive language that gives readers a real feel for India. Sitar music plays in the background. The four friends have large dark eyes and look and dress differently from children in other illustrated ebooks. Even the exotic font used on the home page adds to the setting. Kids learn about native refreshments like sugar cane juice, chai tea and lassi (yoghurt drinks). The app even includes a recipe for a dessert called semolina.
One of the extras I especially enjoyed was the cast of characters page. It has sketches of each character that were presumably used in the computer animations. This is a glimpse into app production that is rarely seen and was quite interesting. The cast page also had a brief backstory for each of the characters. This who's who helped me keep the characters straight and would make for a good creative exercise for using the app in school. Asking students to speculate about the characters themselves would be fun and a much more satisfying writing exercise than the usual dry fare.
The contrast in the story between the magnificent traveling palace and the local train the children take seems like a perfect metaphor for modern day India where sparkling hi tech industrial complexes in Hyderabad are a stone's throw from villages with open sewage. Rajeev and Lalita's window looks out on another palace, this one on a lake (and featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy), but in their own small abode the brother and sister share a bed. India is strikingly different from the rest of what once was the British Empire as is made clear in this special story.
Jill Goodman believes in spontaneous human combustion after sampling rice dishes made by her Indian co-workers at her former company's annual Thanksgiving extravaganza. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner