“Quite a long time ago, in a small village in ancient China, there lived a boy named Bing-Wen.”
So begins Dragon Brush (Small Planet Digital, 2012), an interactive picture book app created by John Solimine and Andy Hullinger. Based on a Chinese folktale (no sources are given), the story follows a young rabbit artist, Bing-Wen, who comes in possession of a magic paintbrush, which causes everything he paints to come to life. When the greedy emperor hears of Bing-Wen’s enchanted artwork, he demands Bing-Wen paint a golden statue of him: “Then, there will be two of me — both dazzling!” But Bing-Wen refuses and is thrown in the dungeon. In the end, of course, Bing-Wen bests the selfish emperor, leaving him trapped on an island with his golden statue with the inscription: “The poor lack much, but the greedy lack more.”
What’s admirable about this story app is the restraint shown by the developers, both with the story and the digital enhancements. The balance of text, art, sound, animation, and interactive elements works well, with no singular aspect of the product overwhelming the others.
The retelling is straightforward and accessible. John Solimine’s stylized cartoon illustrations, starring (mostly) friendly animal characters, are uncluttered but with enough detail to give a sense of the imperial Chinese setting.
The interactive elements are thoughtfully chosen. When Bing-Wen paints with his magic brush, users swipe their fingers back and forth on the screen to help the images appear. Once complete, the paintings transform into colorful creations that move and make sounds. Most pages include a few user-activated features, not all of which advance the story but will enhance the experience (e.g., tapping a tree causes fruit to pop out, tap the fruit and it tumbles to the ground where users can then tip the screen to make the fruit roll around).
Matt Berninger’s easy-to-listen-to narration (which can be turned on and off) is engaging and skilled, as is the guitar accompaniment by two members of the band The National (of which Berninger is a member).
Users can pull down a menu of the pages to move around in the story. Kids can look for and collect ink pots hidden throughout the illustrations; they can use these “magic” paints to create their own pictures.
Dragon Brush is the kind of app I could see getting lots of screen time — the digital magic is cool, but the story and pictures are also worthy of repeat attention. Available for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch; $2.99.