Category Archives: Books

App Review: MAD Magazine for the iPad

I haven’t really thought about the magazine in years, but when I was a kid, MAD Magazine was the funniest, most subversive thing on the racks at my local comics shop, and I devoured its pages religiously — along with a number of its inferior imitators, like Cracked, Crazy, and the short-lived Plop! In fact, as I was getting ready to write this post, I remembered the day I brought my copy of MAD’s infamous “middle finger” issue to school, only to have it confiscated (and, I’m sure, receive a stern talking-to from my appalled parents).

These were pre-Internet days, you understand, when a major media corporation could do something like publish a vaguely dirty satire magazine eight times a year and force its readers to wait patiently for the next issue. And not only that, but we actually had a shared culture back then, full of ripe targets that just about anyone reading would be familiar with. I’m not saying it was the golden age of satire, but none of us knew we were living at the end of the era when the act of smuggling a cheap bundle of newsprint home in your backpack was still a defiant thrill. MAD wasn’t always funny, not even then, but it was awfully cool.

Of course, like any satirical institution, MAD has been fending off charges of dwindling quality and cultural irrelevancy almost from the beginning; as art director Sam Viviano once quipped, everyone thought the magazine was at its best “whenever you first started reading it.” But looking back, I think it’s hard to overstate its influence — not only on American humor, which has absorbed its gleefully irreverent tone so thoroughly that MAD’s version now seems stupidly quaint, but on its generations of readers.

Bookshelves could be filled with everything that’s been written about the long shadow MAD cast over pop culture, but I think it’s worth restating here, if only briefly, that everything parents hated about the magazine — its rude humor, the vulgar joy it took from tipping sacred cows, its (frequently, depressingly correct) assertion that everything was a stupid waste of time, including MAD itself — was what made it not only so entertaining, but such a powerful educational tool.

Yes, I really wrote that, and let me explain: MAD treated you like you were smart enough to get the joke, even when you weren’t, and trusted you to figure things out for yourself when the gags were over your head. (As Salon’s David Futrelle remembered, “I seem to remember asking my parents what ‘graft’ was.”) And maybe more important, I’d argue, is the way MAD’s sneering tone helped its young readers learn critical thinking. Writing that makes me feel funny, but I think it’s true. As Brian Siano put it in the Humanist: “For the smarter kids of two generations, MAD was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything.”

But as time wore on, MAD stopped seeming so subversive. By the time The Simpsons started ruling Sunday nights, its laff-a-minute pace and jaundiced view of everything were pretty much the norm. During the ’90s, we gorged ourselves on cynicism and irony, and as the grandaddy of it all, MAD couldn’t help but look old and out of touch. And as the 21st century dawned and the monoculture really started to fray, worthwhile targets for the magazine started drying up — between that and the problems facing the print industry in general, it’s pretty impressive that MAD’s still publishing at all, even if most of us think its best days are far behind it.

All of this is why, even though I haven’t picked up an issue of MAD since the ’80s, I decided to check out its new iPad app. If Cracked can reinvent itself as one of the Web’s smartest humor destinations — and roll out its own killer app — why not MAD?

The answer to that, if you’re already tired of reading, is “because MAD isn’t funny anymore.” But if you want details, here they are. What MAD’s offering here is a digital subscription to the magazine — it downloads to your iPad’s Newsstand for $4.99 an issue or $9.99 for a one-year subscription. Because I’m an optimist, I took a chance and opted for the subscription option, figuring if I liked it, the extra five bucks would be worth it. The result? To cop a phrase from the magazine’s glory days: Echh.

It just isn’t funny. I think this is partly because, as I said, there aren’t as many viable targets these days — as you can see above, this issue’s main feature makes fun of Mike & Molly, which is a decent-sized hit by today’s standards, but with an average viewership of around 11 million per episode, it’s far from a cultural flagship. That kind of scrambling means filling out the rest of the magazine with lame potshots at easy targets like Twilight and the GOP candidates, and bungling a Hunger Games lampoon by settling for screenshots from the movie with horrible fake lines pasted over them.

I didn’t go in expecting to laugh at all of it, or even most of it, but I was hoping for at least one guffaw, and I didn’t even get a lousy chuckle. In fact, I was bored while reading it, which is probably the worst thing I can say about a magazine I used to have to hide from my parents. By the time I got to the end — a double dose of MAD fold-ins — I was just kind of sad.

I’m not sure it’s all MAD’s fault, because outside of really heinous acts of cartoon violence, I’m not sure I can imagine anything it could publish that would make me forbid my own kids from reading it. Times have changed, and our cultural mores have shifted to such a degree that I don’t know if a magazine like MAD can really be subversive anymore. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure they could do a better job of being silly and dumb. Maybe I just picked the wrong issue to start with, but if this is where MAD is these days, they should just stop. It’s embarrassing.

From a technical standpoint, the app isn’t bad at all; like Wired or Entertainment Weekly, it offers magazine content that’s been optimized for tablet viewing, with an animated cover, tap-and-zoom navigation, and sharp text on the new iPad’s Retina display. If they can ever figure out how to put together worthwhile content, they’ve built themselves a decent delivery mechanism — but you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that, or waste your money on a subscription. Stick with the far funnier (and free!) content being cranked out on a daily basis over at Cracked.

Do We Need to Worry About the Ebook Poverty Gap?

Last week, Jeremy Greenfield at Digital Book World published an editorial titled “When Growth in Children’s E-Books Hits the Poverty Line.” You can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, the article points out two things:

  1. In general, children’s book publishers are making a lot less money from ebooks, and
  2. Low-income children are being deprived of access to digital content.

Both of which are demonstrably true. The first item, as Greenfield notes, is affected by a number of factors — and I’d argue that the main one is what he refers to as “the tactile nature of many children’s books.” Put another way, I think a lot of parents don’t see the value in tablet versions of books for young children; it can be a lot more fun (and a lot easier on your electronics) if you supply them with board books that they can hold, chew on, and otherwise abuse.

Because of what I do (as well as my general fondness for gadgetry), we’ve muddled around with a few ebooks at Dadnabbit HQ — and a lot of them are quite good, whether they’re presented as “books” or “apps.” Titles like Hugless Douglas, A Duck in New York City, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, and The Monster at the End of This Book are all beautifully made, and they all add a layer of interactivity that you can’t get from a paper book. I’m not saying it’s better, just different.

Animation and sound effects aside, though, my kids don’t really care. At the end of the day, they never ask for those titles at storytime — they always, without fail, pick books from the shelf. (And that includes the Kindle shelf, where I store the digital chapter books we read, like The Secret Zoo.) I don’t know if it’s because they think of those other ebooks as games or just because they’d rather be read to from the paper page, but for the most part, Douglas and his friends collect digital dust.

I’ve been thinking about Greenfield’s editorial a lot over the last week, and no matter how many ways I approach the issue, I’m not convinced we need to worry about this ebook poverty gap. I’m sure publishers do, but that’s another story — when it comes to low-income kids, I think what we really need to worry about is the wave of public library closings that American cities have been facing for years now. I think the health of our library system affects us all, but it really has a tremendous impact below the poverty line, and that won’t change no matter how many families manage to get their hands on an e-reader or tablet.

Again, I’m not opposed to children’s ebooks. I’m just not convinced that adding music and animation creates an essential experience that’s truly appreciably different from just sitting down and reading. I suppose you could make the argument that this is broadening the cultural divide that started to open with radio and television, and I don’t know enough to argue about the long tail effect of low-income kids being forced to catch up with their more gadget-equipped peers. It certainly seems, though, that we’re looking at the front edge of a technological shift — albeit one that doesn’t seem to be as profound as, say, the advent of home computers. A tablet isn’t really built to teach you meaningful skills — it’s there to encourage consumption, and while (again) I’m not knocking consumption in and of itself, I’m just not convinced that lack of access to apps or ebooks constitutes a meaningful disadvantage. It can certainly be symptomatic of one, but again, I think we should be much more worried about what those symptoms indicate on a broader level.

Or maybe this is just a generational knee-jerk reaction — a bout of grumpy old man shrugging? I’m perfectly willing to concede that I may not have a firm enough grasp of the big picture here. What do you think — is an ebook poverty gap something we need to worry about?

DVD Review: Caldecott Favorites featuring “The Snowy Day”

Because you can only interestedly read Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” to your toddler or silently prop up Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” only so many times, Scholastic Storybook Treasures has released a massive DVD set of filmed adaptations of a bunch of classic, Caldecott Medal-winning or nominated children’s book classics. Well, adaptation isn’t exactly the right word. They’re pretty much stills of the books with gentle transitions from one page to another with warm narration by celebrities. In other words, these are books-on-DVD.

And they’re wonderful. The three-disc set of video storybooks (available Nov. 22) is a great wind-down tool for a holiday-crazed little one. It includes 20 stories, most based on Caldecott-honored children’s books. Named for 19th century illustrator and children’s publishing innovator Randolph Caldecott, they wouldn’t be here if the images weren’t child-beloved and visually stimulating. None live up to the honor more so than “The Snowy Day,” probably the most famous and treasured picture book ever. Scholastic captured Keats’ book in that it’s just as gentle, beautiful, and quiet as the book, or a real snowy day.

“Snowy Day” leads off a whole disc of Keats stories, which also includes “Whistle for Willie” and “Pet Show.” The second disc is all animal stories, including “In the Small, Small Pond,” and the wonderful cap-thieving monkeys of Esphyr Slobodkina’s “Caps for Sale.” The third disc: all duck stories. Special features: Spanish versions of a lot of the stories, and open-captioning, or as its encouragingly called, a “read-along” option. It’s three and a half hours of classic, innocent, warm toddler books, video versions of a great early library.

Either your kids will recognize and enjoy these video versions because they know the books, or the videos will make them want to read the books, which you probably have already. Or you should have already. Why don’t you own “Snowy Day” or “Caps for Sale”?