Childhood isn’t what it used to be. Time was, the most technically taxing skill a fun-loving tot had to master was yanking the string on his Talking G.I. Joe. But nowadays, any self-respecting tyke worth his Game Boy is plugging in, booting up, and logging on. Kids still have to learn their ABCs, but these days they spell them CD-ROM.
Happily for parents reared in ancient times (i.e., before Bill Gates), you can still find some old friends in this new medium, as evidenced by a recent quartet of educational titles. Of these familiar childhood companions, Schoolhouse Rock: Grammar Rock may be the most unimposing translation: Pop in the disc and you can immediately watch all nine of the Emmy award-winning Saturday-morning cartoon shorts from the ’70s, including the ever-hip ”Conjunction-Junction.” (Upcoming editions will feature the rest of the Schoolhouse Rock series: Math Rock, America Rock, Science Rock.) Afterward, you’re encouraged to tinker with some tacked-on games and activities, but for the most part the interactive angle is unimaginative and bland. Fortunately, the heart of Rock lies in the videos — as any kid could tell you — and the inspired whimsy of their musical lessons. After all, when a song can take a line about how interjections are ”generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma when the feeling’s not as strong,” and turn it into a can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head-all-day jingle…well, that’s entertainment.
Like Rock, Dr. Seuss’s ABC relies heavily on its original source, in this case the classic children’s book of the same name. In fact, Seuss is pretty much a direct translation of its printed counterpart. Once you’ve had the text read to you by two annoyingly twee narrators, and you’ve clicked what’s clickable to elicit a few mildly amusing animations, there’s not much more to do. Hard to believe, but after a while it is possible to get tired of hearing a Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz play zither jazz.
By contrast, Disney’s Animated Storybook: Winnie The Pooh and The Honey Tree offers a lush and richly detailed environment to explore. Nearly every element of this warm, inviting world offers up such interactive opportunities as sing-alongs and games, and the storybook structure gives the program a smart, comfortably paced feel. And could there be a cooler character to lead you gently through a multimedia experience than that willy, nilly, silly ole Zen master himself?
The sleeper of the bunch may be Madeline and the Magnificent Puppet Show. Borrowing the jaunty, bright graphic style of the original Madeline books, this program puts you in the middle of a wittily designed quest to assemble a puppet show. You search for materials, paint backdrops, customize puppets, and spend time exploring your Parisian neighborhood. Most important, you’re actually immersed in a story — one that’s aided immensely by the evocatively throaty narration of Christopher Plummer — so you actually feel as if you’ve become partners with little Madeline in her escapades. How refreshingly absorbing. I haven’t gotten this involved with a character since I broke the string on my Talking G.I. Joe. Grammar Rock: B- Dr. Seuss: B- Winnie the Pooh: A Madeline: A