I was pleased as punch when I discovered that Sesame Street had released There’s a Monster at the End of This Book for iPad. The original story, of course, is adorable, on par with children’s classics like Are You My Mother, and far better than tripe like Goodnight Moon. Couple the book’s excellence with Sesame Street’s iOS track record (the excellent Elmo’s Monster Maker for iPhone comes to mind), and there’s no reason to assume Grover’s monster-fearing opus would be anything short of great on the iPad.
I’ll admit I made one rookie parenting mistake when I first tried out The Monster at the End of This Book: I told my 4-year-old daughter Anya that we had a new Grover iPad book to read for bedtime, before I’d taken the time to preview the app myself. She loves the mostly excellent Dr. Seuss apps for iOS, and we figured that Grover’s app would be similarly excellent.
We were wrong.
As we started reading the book, my App Reviewer Brain started ticking off flaws. These flaws initially seemed minor, but they they just kept coming. You can’t turn pages until the often-lengthy animations and voice-overs finish. You can’t turn pages by swiping, the way you do in nearly every other e-book app for kids; you instead need to tap a tiny target area to trigger each page turn. You can’t swipe back a page.
There’s a Home icon, which actually takes you to a navigation screen that’s meant to let you jump to any page in the book. Cleverly, the button requires two taps, so that kids are less likely to trigger it accidentally. And indeed, the button helps you navigate the book more quickly—when it responds. Anya and I found that too frequently the button didn’t do anything when double-tapped, particularly if the current page’s animation or voiceover was still continuing. This can get rather troublesome, as I’ll explain a bit later.
As annoyances go, those were the more minor ones. As Anya and I were treated to a truly delightful performance from adorable Grover, other frustrating flaws in the app became increasingly bothersome. One of the app’s hallmark features is that it lights up the words in the book as Grover reads them, helping young readers learn. Except, it doesn’t—too often, the highlights lag behind Grover’s narration, rendering them nearly useless. The 1.1 update to the app slightly improves matters, but I found that sync issues remain in my testing.
Worse still, with nearly every page turn, you land on a completely blank page. As the app loads that page’s animation, artwork, and audio, you sit staring at nothing but a blank, hand-drawn book—for many seconds at a time. Parents out there can imagine how much youngsters enjoy drawn-out, action-less moments like these.
Sometimes, Grover starts talking before the animation starts—and before he actually appears. Then, things rush to catch up. It’s jarring, even to 4-year-olds. Occasionally, Grover’s mouth gets distractingly out of sync with his voice.
But the worst flaw by far is the app’s general crashiness. Anya never got to see the dang monster at the end of the book, because we couldn’t get that far. The app repeatedly crashed at later pages. And when you relaunch the app, you need to sit through the entire cover page animation and voiceover before you can double-tap that Home icon to jump back to where you were. When a crash interrupts your reading time—and unfortunately, I found that crashing continues even after the app’s recent bugfix release—sitting through that first page in its entirety is an aggravating time-suck. I should be able to turn pages and use the Home button to navigate the book at any time. And, of course, the app shouldn’t crash so darn much.
There’s a Monster at the End of This Book is fixable. But as is, it’s barely worth the discounted $1 introductory price. Sesame Street can do better, and my kid deserves it.
[Lex Friedman is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]