Ah, Nancy. So accomplished, so self-possessed. Is it any wonder that Carson Drew's baby girl has successfully piloted just about every new media vehicle that she's come across? In another life that girl would be a test driver for Car & Driver magazine. Wow, that might actually be a ridiculous-but-cool premise for a TV series - Nancy Drew Behind the Wheel. Every week Nancy puts a new fancy car through its paces while solving a mystery and being chased by thugs! She'd get kidnapped all the time, of course, and she'd end up rating cars on the roominess and comfort of their trunks, and also the ease with which they can be unlocked from the inside.
In this new iPad app based on an old old book (originally published in 1931!), Nancy solves mysteries and rides horses, rescues a failing dude ranch, debunks a ghost and pals around with BFFs George and Bess. All that never gets old, I swear. I haven't read a Nancy Drew in decades, but the story in The Secret of Shadow Ranch kept me turning pages just like I was ten years old and reading my mom's copy.
The text has been somewhat updated, of course - Bess carries a cell phone, although it doesn't impact the plot, as she can never get a signal out the desert. There are some choose-your-own elements (tip: don't try to wrassle the rattler by yourself), and although Ned Nickerson is mentioned, apparently he's off at college rather than hanging around the girls being dopey.
And regardless of the very entertaining sound effects, music and animations; seek and find games and word puzzles that decorate, punctuate, and illuminate this text, it is in fact the text that gives The Secret of Shadow Ranch staying power. Every child I handed it to (boys as well as girls) quickly became immersed in the suspense, and kept returning to the story, choosing time with Nancy over time spent killing zombies, slinging birds at hogs, or driving muscle cars.
Some things I liked:
- game allows for multiple players so that each reader can preserve his place
- the music, which is blessedly not constant, is appropriate to the story in mood and instrumentation - harmonicas and fiddles and guitars
- the art is all weathered wood, saddle leather, and dusty rocks, all the surfaces we love about the West (although the pictures of people come straight out of a box)
- when the gang takes turns singing campfire songs, George's rendition of "Home on the Range" is truly and comically awful
I'd like to see a progress bar or page numbers (although given the choose-your-own-adventure sections I can see that page numbers might be difficult) so that players can assess how far they have to go to reach the end of a chapter - in this age of rationed "screen time" that information is important for children, both in order to prioritize their activities and to negotiate with a parent. "Can I have until the end of this chapter? I'm 80% through."
This is an excellent book/game hybrid, a rarity for middle graders, and an exceptional incentive to read. Even kids who at first hurry through the text to find the special items that let them play games get caught up in the narrative once Nancy and her friends go hunting luminescent scorpions, or when the ghost horse shows up.
Bonus: hapless, boy-crazy Bess gets into trouble every time she separates from the other girls: at my count, she is menaced by a rattlesnake, tarantulas, and a cougar, gets thrown from her horse, freaked out by a necrotic-looking doll, and falls down a hole.