When judging and comparing disparate kinds of creative works, I like to ask myself whether they succeed in doing what the creator appears to have intended to do. This approach doesn’t gel with those Death of the Author types that seem to think reading is like taking a Rorschach test. Intentions are embodied in behaviour and, though there is definitely a lot of scope for mistake, it would be absurd to suggest that we’re absolutely uncertain about what was intended.
Thus, in the case of Mark Marino & family’s Mrs. Wobbles & The Tangerine House, I find myself asking whether it succeeds as an interactive children’s story for ages 6-12.
Mrs. Wobbles & The Tangerine House does a very good job of indicating what kind of story it will be. From the title, you know that it’s a children’s story of the kind that is clearly aimed at children (rather than adults reading the stories, or, in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, educated 18th century adults). Metrically, the title is a bit clunky, due to the word ‘tangerine’. It has great juicy colourful connotations but it jarringly breaks up the trochee of “Miss-us Wob-bles and-the”.
The introduction, told from the viewpoint of the book itself, is faintly didactic and soon you see that it’s going to be one of those kind of children stories. Stories are a very effective way of imparting information or lessons, and there’s a certain species of children’s book from which it is clear that one is receiving Life Lessons. As an adult, this is a tad grating but I’m unsure what the effect it has on children.
As a story, Mrs. Wobbles & The Tangerine House is strongest when it focuses on the children. The meta-story involving the Book of Loss is presumably meant to tie together several stories of loss, but as there’s only one such story (the children and the fire, which is set up quite nicely and perfectly believable), it acts as a barrier. The reader is encouraged to proceed through the initial meta-story about the book, but there’s no real pay-off for doing so. It’s supposed to set up the interactive meta-game elements (the points and poetry powers etc.) but as these appear to have no in-story effect at the moment, the whole intro is extraneous. Setting up the nemesis of the wind is an interesting metaphor for upheaval, and is shown subtly in the story itself, but (unless I missed it) Mrs Wobble’s purported power to prevent upheaval was never really shown. I was expecting a scene in which the wind battered outside but the children felt fine inside or something like that. Maybe the development of the nemesis theme will happen in later instalments.
As an interactive story qua interaction, Mrs. Wobbles & The Tangerine House, is a mixed success. The reader is free to read most of the story segments in whatever order they fancy but the writing makes it clear that these aren’t self-contained units and that they only really make sense if read in the order in which they’re presented. Almost every segment makes use of knowledge that the reader is presumed to have learned in prior segments, so reading them out of order doesn’t reward the reader’s sense of exploration. At several points the reader is presented with a choice of which there is a clear wrong answer. While the reader usually gets a brief alternative scene, other than making a mistake there’s no real reason to ever choose the ‘wrong’ choice.
One thing that was odd is that despite the title, we didn’t really get to see much of Mrs. Wobbles. I was expecting a proper scene when the children finally arrive at the house. Perhaps some kind of explanation why the children weren’t travelling with a social worker (is it the norm to send new foster kids out on their own on a bus?), or even just a proper introduction. What we have is one line from Mrs Wobbles (“Leave before you eat, li’l Leroy? When I’ve been spending all afternoon working on the Gathering Feast? My 1000-meat spice pies? I don’t think so!”) and then later at what is presumably the Gathering Feast, we have another description of the woman but no conversation. This seems an odd choice for such a central character. It’s understandable that Marino wants to set up a certain amount of mystery around her, but one expects a bit more from the introductory scene, especially as the point about her character is that she isn’t standoffish or aloof from the children. You get the impression from the initial book section that it’s a mystery whether she is or isn’t a witch, but then the magic in the actual story (with the toy factory etc.) is so flagrant that there really is no mystery after all.
The ‘1000-meat spice pie’ made me shudder. I don’t eat meat anyway, but even if I did I don’t think I’d find the idea of a pie having 1000 different kinds of animal in it in any way appealing (even if ‘meat’ is used loosely to mean ‘fillings’ as seems to be the case here). The fart sequence was distasteful, but I’m led to believe a lot children like that sort of thing. (Though given the intended age range of 6-12, I’d find that kind of scatological humour unbecoming in a 12 year old).
Ultimately, the success of the story is not whether I like it, but whether it’s enjoyable for children amenable to this sort of thing and that’s not a question I can answer. It has a lot of heart and it aims to tackle a pretty big issue and I think it’s great that people are using mediums like Undum to tell these kinds of stories, but it’s not clear that this particular story needed to be presented in an interactive form.