—a day at the beach—
When I was in primary school, I was always a fan of computer games-whether it was Gremlins, Spy’s Demise, or the more educationally focused titles such as Alice in Wonderland & Jack and the Beanstalk. If it was there and on a floppy disk, I would have played it. Even the ‘sort of’ games like Storybook Weaver and Kid Pix, which were embedded into the computer already didn’t escape my attention. These tools were brilliant for allowing kids to showcase their imagination in a digital space, in addition to teaching them valuable computer literacy skills. And speaking of literacy, there is one particular game (I’m using the word loosely here) that stands out from the pack in terms of improving reading, and that is…the cute, the hilarious, and the extremely well illustrated-(insert drum roll) Just Grandma and Me.
Based on the 1983 Mercer Mayer picture book of the same name, Just Grandma and Me is an interactive story adventure that helps teach young children to read. It is part of the appropriately named Living Books series which also includes titles such as The Tortoise and the Hare and Green Eggs and Ham. These interactive text adventures were quite novel for their time, and gave rise to a new way of looking at multimedia as a potential educational tool. And the way education has evolved over time is fascinating without a doubt. Leah Young in The Age Green Guide (August 21,2014) writes that “not long ago, slates were used in most Australian classrooms…almost 75 years later, students are using small rectangular tablets for learning.”
We’re living in a world that is becoming increasingly digitalised by the day, but despite this, I still think that technology like digital learning tools or educational games have to make an emotional connection in order for them to have any meaning and be effective. Just Grandma and Me does a good job at this because of several factors.
First of all, apart from the gorgeous artwork that reminds me of Grug, an Australian picture book by Ted Prior, it allows any kid the freedom to play. The menu offers a Story option as well, where the whole thing can be read to you just like an audio-book, but you can bet your bottom dollar most children will be wanting to play this exciting, cartoon like ‘game’. Look at that font below. It looks so playful and exuberant, like a child who wants to go on an adventure. All this primes the imagination for a wonderful journey, and that’s without even beginning the game. You start off at Grandma’s house, walking to the front gate to wait for the bus. There’s a voice-over (Little Critter) that reads the text on the page, and it can be repeated and re-listened to as many times as you like simply by clicking the red dot on the left. The same can be done for individual words.
My second point about why this game is good at creating an emotional connection is that unlike your average picture book, there are hidden animations scattered all over the page that are an absolute joy to discover. Just on the first page alone, you can turn the fence into a musical instrument, make a frog leap out of the letterbox, and make a bird (whose flying animation sounds exactly like a jet) come zooming out of a tree. The sense of humour in this story is totally irresistible.
Once you’ve clicked all the background features and you’re ready to proceed to the next page, you can just click the arrow in the bottom right hand corner. The player has a nice sense of agency in this game, seeing as you can control the progression of the story and can click on most items. Playing this as a child, I remember being really curious to test out each and every possibility in the picture-the promise of finding an animation or sound I hadn’t discovered before was so appealing, and I searched for them unconsciously since I was having so much fun. It was the same feeling you get when you read page after page of a book and it barely even registers because you’re so immersed in the plot.
One of my favourite pages of the story was the scene when Little Critter buys some hot dogs for himself and Grandma, but the hot dogs fall into the sand. Now in the real world, that’s a deal-breaker. But in Just Grandma and Me, it’s perfectly ok to wash the hot dogs off in the ocean and return them to their bread rolls like they’re brand new.
Then there’s the page with the crab hiding under the seashell. When Little Critter tries to tell his Grandma about it, she replies with a simple, “Oh, that’s nice dear” and she promptly returns to reading her book. The three umbrellas in the background turn into a merry-go-round, and the sea star just near Little Critter’s foot begins doing some interpretive ballet dance. The creativity and anthropomorphism that went into the design of this story is to be commended. Now in terms of its effectiveness at helping children to read, I think the fact that there is a voice-over that plays automatically is a really great idea. Looking at words while having them read to you aloud will eventually help with your pronunciation skills, as well as word recognition (this could have worked well in games like Word Rescue). But I also think that the best way to guarantee a child is picking up new vocabulary is by having an adult there supervising them and helping to reinforce what they’ve just learnt.
Apart from being a really enjoyable point-and-click style adventure, Just Grandma and Me is also a nice documentation of a day spent going out with your grandparents. It captures the unique magic you felt growing up doing the simple things along side them, like helping them in the kitchen or learning about which plant in the garden is which, or whatever memory you hold closest to your heart. It’s a wonderful tribute to family but in cartoon form.
When Little Critter and Grandma’s day of adventuring at the beach is finally over, they catch the bus home. Naturally, Grandma is the one who is awake and must watch out for the stop, but it’s adorable to see Little Critter’s protective side. On the final page of the story, the moon wishes you a goodnight when you click it, and I imagine this would be the perfect moment for parents to sneak out of their child’s room if this were being read as a bedtime story.
All in all, Just Grandma and Me is like a living picture book that is full of wonder and fun. It reaches its target audience well and even succeeds at appealing to those outside that range. I also tested out the Japanese version out of curiosity, and if you’re learning Japanese then I’d recommend this as a starting point-there are different voice actors and the experience feels quite different from the English version. Now, the only thing that needs to be done is for picture books on sale in the shops to be interactive just like this, and instead of a mouse and keyboard, they work by clicking the page with our fingers. After all, technology is evolving at a very fast rate.
WHY YOU SHOULD PLAY IT:
If you like picture books with pretty drawings, find yourself mysteriously gravitating towards text-driven games, and just think the beach is a pretty cool place, you will love this game. It doesn’t matter that it dates back to the nineties either; this is the sort of gem that will never lose its charm.
- Beautiful and inspiring illustrations
- Fun animated effects
- Voice-overs are a great tool to improve listening/speaking skills
- Multilingual (English/Spanish/Japanese)
- Great and very catchy soundtrack
- Sometimes you want to interact with page immediately without waiting for voiceover
- The screen was a bit blotchy so I had to press the windows key to escape frequently
Alternately you can buy it for android or iOS devices and enjoy the fun in a whole new way, and if you prefer a real, solid, page turnin’ book, you can purchase the paperback version from here. What are your thoughts on Just Grandma and Me? Do you remember playing it as a child? What other games were your favourites growing up?