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Violet strikes again in the Mystery Next Door: an interactive iOS children's book

Our friend Violet is back in the third original installment of this excellent modern series of interactive children's books from My Black Dog Books LLC. Violet and the Mystery Next Door (US$3.99) is a universal app that looks great in landscape mode on any iOS device. The book tells the story of how Violet finds a mysterious new neighbor, just her age, and goes about finding more about him in the snow.

The Violet series has added more play value with each story, and this one adds branching. At two points in the story, you are asked a yes or no question. Depending upon your answer, you are taken to a number of pages that follow that line, eventually ending up at the same place and continuing the story. This adds much more variety for small children since they can follow a number of branches, making the book shorter or longer. Eventually, kids will take all the paths, causing them to spend more time with Violet and her world. This was an excellent design decision and really adds a lot to the book. Another good choice was to put a book icon in the upper left that lets you scroll to any page in the book.

In one branch, you are asked if the mysterious boy sees Violet sneaking up on him. Answering no causes the boy to go into his house, where you see that he has a lot of toys. Then he runs outside to make a snow angel and vanishes, so Violet has to find him. When she does find him, they have an interactive snowball fight. If you tell the app that the boy did see Violet, she chases him to his Clubhouse, where you'll find an empty snowman. You can build the snowman by moving his eyes, nose, buttons and some other things onto it, providing even more play value. Violet and the mysterious boy eventually wind up at the snowball fight, and the story takes off from there.

This book broke a convention that was set up in the second Violet book, and I wasn't entirely happy with the result. In the second book, anything you could tap on was bounded by a yellow line that would increase in size, like a looking at a photo. In this installment, there are a few unmarked things that move if touched, like rustling paper or swinging a swing set. It may be a small point, but children familiar with the series might not understand and might miss some of the fun.

A problem I noted in my first Violet review was that there was no way of knowing what to tap on. and since interactions were rather sparse, this could frustrate children who tap on everything without getting paid off very often. The way the third installment handles interactions isn't much better, because smaller children will still get frustrated or miss out on interactivity when it's less obvious. Several other potentially irritating UI inconsistencies exist in the book, but most of them should be relatively easy to fix.

I think developers Allison and Jeff Keeme should rethink the UI for the next Violet book and either get rid of the yellow bounding lines or put in more of them. As the project increases in complexity, there are still vestiges of the first book's UI that may not be appropriate.

UI issues aside, this is the best Violet book to date. It adds branching and activities while keeping Violet's world believable, complete, gentle, and a place that any small child would like to visit. Once again, Allison Keeme does a remarkable job of writing the story and creating the illustrations that bring Violet and her world to life. She seems to be getting better at her craft, and her narration is perfect. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for the next one.

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