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Making a Connection With Interactive Children's Books

Publishers deploy low-tech and high-tech content to engage kids and get them invested in reading.

August 2014 By Gretchen A. Peck
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Though the very word "interactivity" conjures images of electronic gadgets, things to swipe, and other bells and whistles, it isn't a new concept for children's books. Publishers have been designing interactive content for quite a long time.

"There have been-literally, across centuries-any number of books that could be considered interactive," says Christopher Franceschelli, president and publisher of Brooklyn-based Handprint Books. "There were books with pop-up elements dating back to the 16th Century, and an extensive pop-up industry in Germany in the 19th Century. There was a renaissance for those here in the States during the 1960s and 1970s. And we've had sticker books, books with die-cut elements, scratch-and-sniff books, and holographic inserts. If you can think of it, it already exists, so there has been a long tradition of interactive books, long before the first ebook was ever contemplated."

Franceschelli also edited the English-language edition of The New York Times Bestseller Press Here -- its print version a stellar example of low-tech interactive content. Young children interact with the pages by "pressing" colorful dots which transition spread by spread into other colorful graphics, as though their touch is creating an action.

Press Here has been a resounding success -- 500,000 English-language copies sold, and more than a million copies worldwide, according to Franceschelli, who credits the engaging content for its popularity. "It underscored that level of interactivity, and a desire children have to be in control of their environment, therefore in control of their books. The child touches that first yellow dot, and something magical happens. That child knows innately that what happens when the page turns is not because of electronic wizardry hidden in the book, but the child's imagination that powers the action. And I think that's an incredibly empowering experience for a child. Press Here is sort of an anti-ebook. It was the artist's conscious effort to create something that did not need electronics to power, but rather the child."

While the print version of Press Here may be an anti-ebook in the sense that it runs on the child's imagination rather than computer technology, the content and how the child interacts with it lends itself to digital complements to the beloved print book. Since its print release the publication has been rolled out as an ebook for the iPad and mobile app on the iPhone.

The story of Press Here goes to show that while a book's interactive capabilities are unique to a given medium, the end goal of creating an engaging reading experience transcends platforms. By no means has the emergence of interactive ebooks replaced print interactivity; rather the two forms often compliment one another. And no matter what the platform, interactive features should serve the content, not the other way around.

Fun with Learning
Arbordale Publishing, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, is known for smart content. Many of its titles are focused on educational subjects, such as science and math, says Heather Williams, public relations coordinator, and these stories are often complemented by activities, quizzes, and games in the back of the books. Here, some of the content is elevated and challenging, inspiring kids to use the knowledge they learned through the story itself to complete them -- either on their own, or with the teachers and adults in their lives.

At Arbordale, ebooks are developed alongside their print counterparts: Print debuts first, followed by the ebook launch. Mobile apps, which Williams says are a little more complicated and challenging to develop, come later. The publisher has also developed its own ereader, which allow readers to utilize a key interactive feature: Children can switch between English and Spanish languages on the fly.

There is a distinction between the level of "interactivity" between the publisher's ebooks and mobile apps. Ebooks are often used in classroom or educational settings because teachers don't appreciate a lot of distracting features, says Williams. Mobile apps are more often used for recreational and home reading, when children are more apt to "play" with the content. At minimum, Arbordale's ebooks are all bilingual and feature audio; some have been appended with video clips, as well.

One of Arbordale's most popular titles is Newton & Me, available in print, as an ebook, and in mobile app form. This charming tale about a boy and his dog introduces children to basic physics and concepts like push and pull. It's this kind of content that lends itself particularly well to digital platforms in which kids can not just read about these actions, but see them in action.

"It's a whole lot easier to convey push and pull with digital, when the print is static," says Williams. "So this title, in particular, lends itself to a more interactive platform."

Dawn of the Interactive App
Sandy Philpott is director of marketing at Dawn Publications, based in Nevada City, California. In her estimation, interactive books aren't just new-fangled fads. They're here to stay.

"It's really hard to keep [children's] attention, and we're finding that more and more, younger children are into the digital age," says Philpott. "Although a physical book is still very important and key to their imagination, they like the ability to interact with the content. We've seen toddlers who will take a book and try to swipe its pages, like they would with a tablet, and expect the page to turn."

Philpott acknowledged that not all children's book subjects are conducive to interactive elements, but in the case of Dawn Publications' specialty -- non-fiction, science, nature, animals -- the topics are perfect for some level of interaction that's both educational and entertaining.

The Mouse and the Meadow is one of Dawn Publications' most popular titles in digital form today, for it mimics a pop-up book. App developer Malachi Bazan leveraged augmented reality (AR) software to visually bring the content to life. Building AR into the digital companion enables two-dimensional art to be rendered in 3D form, and to add layers of audio and video to the reading experience. In the case of this title, children experience the physical book and the digital AR companion simultaneously via a QR-code-prompted free download from the Apple iTunes store.

Bazan also helped bring author Marianne Berkes' and illustrator Roberta Baird's The Swamp Where Gator Hides to digital life. With the digital app, children can choose between "Read to Me" and "Read to Myself." They can touch the animals to prompt realistic movements, and they can choose whether the star character -- the Gator -- gets to eat his lunch, or the "lunch" gets away.

A New Development
From a publishing perspective, interactive digital content has changed the way that books are created and released. Take the artwork for example, which Philpott noted used to be largely created by illustrators working in traditional media forms: "Even just a couple of years ago, we had illustrators that were working in watercolor and cut paper. And we'd get these beautiful illustrations, but when a developer would have to take those illustrations into digital apps, it took forever! They'd have to be recreated."

Today, paper-based books are developed alongside the digital companions, which requires artists and illustrators who work in digital media already. This cuts down on the creative time "immensely," says Philpott.

When titles like The Mouse and the Meadow and The Swamp Where Gator Hides are ready, they're put before "beta testers" -- teachers and classrooms of children -- to see if they pass the stringent real-world examinations. And while teachers still appreciate a great hardcopy book to share with their students, Philpott says that many are eager for great content to be used on iPads and other electronic devices now in widespread use thanks to educational grants and digital investments.

Parents still value a mix of traditional books, ebooks, and digital apps, says Philpott. "There are parents that still love to read a book to their kids at night, because they've had long days and have been on their computers all day, so the last thing they want is to sit in front of an electronic device. But I've also found that many younger parents are completely reliant on mobile devices and find that it's the best way to keep up with their children, to connect with them."

Engaging Content
With the introduction of ebooks and mobile apps to the publishing mix, the concept of "interactivity" becomes even more broadly defined. "The definition is so open at the moment -- everything from audio to coloring-in, virtual lift-the-flaps, to complex gaming mechanics," says Eric Huang, development director for London-based Made in Me, both a distributor and publisher.

"At Made in Me, we run two app bookstores: Me Books and Me Comics," says Huang. "Both apps are free to download, and you get one picture book, or one comic free, respectively. Then, you can go into the in-app shops to buy additional books. We stock content from nearly every major publisher and publish our own content as well."

In the case of Me Books and Me Comics, interactive features come in the form of recordable "hot spots," whereby readers can contribute their own narration, sound effects, and dialog. "The pay-off is that it mimics an age-old behavior of parents and kids reading together -- especially for picture books -- and making up their own stories to go along with the illustrations."

Interactive books -- no matter the platform, and by their very nature -- are adept at multi-reader experiences, engaging both children and adults. "Me Books is all about families reading together and telling their own stories," adds Huang. "A developer in London has also created an app called CARIBU, which is like Skype with a digital book shop. Families can read together, even when apart."

Yet Huang cautions publishers about focusing on those "bells and whistles" more than on the content itself. "I don't think it's necessary that interactive features be built into reading formats -- be they physical or digital. Many publishers fall into the trap of adding so many interactive gaming or animation features into reading experiences that the end result falls short of being a reading experience. Reading and gaming and watching animated content require different states of minds and moods. There must be a good reason to add interactivity to a reading experience."

While ebooks and mobile apps may be garnering a lot of attention and press, print books are still quite adept at capturing kids' imaginations and getting them engaged in their pages. "It's something that you can hold, grab, bite, chew on, and take with you, no matter what," says Handprint Books' Christopher Franceschelli. "And the fact that the book is always there is a positive in a child's life, rather than the sort of ephemeral appearance on the screen."

Adds Franceschelli: "It has been reassuring to me that some of the most successful traditional children's books are still popular in places like Silicon Valley, because it's precisely those software developers who recognize that the world of ebooks, the world of electronic interaction, somehow has to be balanced. It is my sense that the best ebooks will be those that are created, first and foremost, originally as ebooks -- not conversions of traditional print media."



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