Future of Learning

Books that snap, crackle, buzz and sing

The new world of transmedia books, which engage children interactively to encourage reading

Screenshot from Inanimate Alice, an episodic interactive story created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British/Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph. Alice is offered for free online -- it blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. The first of a planned 10 chapters debuted in 2005.

Screenshot from Inanimate Alice, an episodic interactive story created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British/Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph. Alice is offered for free online — it blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. The first of a planned 10 chapters debuted in 2005.

It was, she remembered, the first standing ovation she ever received as a librarian.

Laura Fleming was working at an elementary school in River Edge, N.J., one of those tiny suburban school districts across the river from Manhattan. It was 2009, she’d been working in education for 12 years and she’d long been searching for books that would engage her students. But each fall, it seemed, they arrived less interested in the books she loved.

Fleming often felt like a stand-up comedian in a smoky nightclub. “You have that go-to joke that always gets the crowd going,” she said with a laugh. But all of a sudden, her material wasn’t working. The crowd was silent. The books fell flat.

So she began searching for something different. She found a series of young adult novels called Skeleton Creek that embedded Internet URLs into the plot – the links took readers to a series of jittery, handheld Blair Witch style videos, seemingly shot by the protagonists. The videos moved the story along nicely, but mostly they scared the bejeezus out of young readers.

Then Fleming found Inanimate Alice.

Created by British novelist Kate Pullinger and British-Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph, Alice blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. Using her laptop, Fleming projected the first Alice story onto a library whiteboard … and her fifth graders went nuts. The story was immersive like little else, the first piece of fiction that helped them see life through a character’s eyes. A few students approached her afterwards to thank her, tears glistening in their eyes.

Welcome to the Brave New World of reading, the clickable, interactive future of books. Just as digital technology is transforming our work, our social lives and our family ties, it’s transforming the slow, solitary act of reading. Think beyond paper vs. pixels – this cuts to the very core of what it means to read a book.

What is a book anyway? If players of the brooding, atmospheric computer game Dear Esther can take in a full-blown ghost story simply by wandering over the landscape of a deserted island in Scotland’s Hebrides, finding fragments of letters, music and clues as they walk, shouldn’t we call that a book?

Related: Digital books could be the new frontier in getting more books into the hands of disadvantaged children

Critics can’t seem to agree on a name for this new genre: multimedia online novels, e-books, touchable TV, paratext or technotext. Someone has even suggested “Franken-novel.” Most often, though, “transmedia” has stuck. Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly has called them “books we watch or television we read.”

Fleming doesn’t much care what anybody else calls Alice. “It’s a book,” she said. Her students read it. They like it. The lines between different media “are so blurred for them” that there’s nothing to discuss. Alice’s world, she said, “is the world the kids are growing up in.”

With a few reservations, Warren Buckleitner might agree. The founder and editor of Children’s Technology Review, he pointed out that this is by no means the first time technology has changed the medium. At the turn of the 20th century, Beatrix Potter was “just another children’s author,” until she persuaded her publisher to invest in expensive four-color printing, and her books took off. “By using the latest technologies, Beatrix Potter became a rock star,” he said.

Buckleitner has spent his career test-driving children’s media and has seen it all – the good and the bad. He remains hopeful that e-books, or whatever we call them, can be done right.

“Quality illustration and quality narrative can live in any form, whether it’s print or on a screen,” he said, and if it’s done well, “you can get some real magic.”

Screenshot from Inanimate Alice, an episodic interactive story created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British/Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph. Alice is offered for free online -- it blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. The first of a planned 10 chapters debuted in 2005.

Screenshot from Inanimate Alice, an episodic interactive story created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British/Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph. Alice is offered for free online — it blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. The first of a planned 10 chapters debuted in 2005.

But magic isn’t easy. It took children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle six tries and three studios to get the iPad version of his Very Hungry Caterpillar right. My Very Hungry Caterpillar, which debuted last November, “is gorgeous stuff, but it engages children in a way that pulls them in rather than tries to push them,” Buckleitner said. The app is wordless and the illustrations invite tiny touchscreen interactions that playfully move the story along.

Related: Are iPads or Chromebooks better for schools?

“At the end of the day, children’s books and the whole definition of what is an e-book, it’s never been more interesting,” he said. “There are more ways for an author to tell stories currently than at any other time.”

But whether publishers are using digital tools to tell stories more effectively is open for debate, said Heather Schugar, a researcher at West Chester University. She and her husband, Jordan Schugar, also of West Chester, have studied e-books and found that “interactive” doesn’t necessarily mean better. “Most of the features we’re seeing are more on the distracting end,” she said. “You’re making things wiggle and talk, but they’re not really supporting the text itself.” The Schugars’ research has found that students tend to spend more time reading enhanced books, but that they often comprehend less.

A few publishers are starting to get it right, they said. The duo recommend an app of the Judy Sierra/Marc Brown book Wild About Books, in which readers touch the word “stampede,” for instance, and trigger a stampede of animals across the page.

“For a child who is reading that book, ‘stampede’ may or may not be in their vocabulary,” Heather Schugar said. “So it visually shows them – it helps them make that inference.” Yet in the same book, touching an animal produces, for no good reason, its sound. “That’s distracting,” she said.

“Book publishers have told us, ‘We’re putting all of these things in because the more interactive it is, that’s what the parents want to buy, that’s what’s selling,’” she said. “O.K., we get that. Let’s think about the quality of what we’re putting in. Instead of just having it make a noise, let’s have it support what your text does.”

Most publishers have actually taken a conservative approach to enhanced versions of their books. Children’s author William Joyce recalled that his publisher warned him he was “going over to the dark side” when he began experimenting with interactivity. He and Moonbot Studios partner Brandon Oldenburg, based in Shreveport, La., had already begun shooting a short film based on his illustrated book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and were using iPhone cameras to set up shots. Then the iPad appeared. They realized that its bigger screen was “exactly what we need,” Oldenburg recalled. They decided to create an app that explored the “cool things the tablet could do” that the book couldn’t, Joyce said.

“We didn’t want to just regurgitate the same experience that you had with the film in a book form or a digital book form,” Oldenburg said.

Related: How compatible are Common Core and technology?

Screenshot from Inanimate Alice, an episodic interactive story created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British/Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph. Alice is offered for free online -- it blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. The first of a planned 10 chapters debuted in 2005.

Screenshot from Inanimate Alice, an episodic interactive story created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British/Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph. Alice is offered for free online — it blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. The first of a planned 10 chapters debuted in 2005.

The film won an Academy Award, the book was a New York Times best-seller and the app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Moonbot has since created interactive versions of several Joyce titles, including an “augmented reality” app called Imag-n-o-tron that requires users to have the paper book handy. “That was sort of our response to the fear, love and hatred of what we were doing with digital picture books,” Oldenburg said. In 2012, Imag-n-o-tron led School Library Journal’s list of “Top 10 Apps.”

Joyce said the best reason to turn a book into an app is to create “a compelling experience” that the book can’t provide. “This is going to happen, so what we have to do is figure out how it can be cool and how it can be an extension of the idea of a book.”

Buckleitner, the Children’s Technology Review editor, agrees. “Children today deserve adults who are willing to take a close look at this technology,” he said, “if for no other reason than because it has so much power.”

During a telephone interview, I asked Joyce and Oldenburg about their ground rules for creating compelling experiences. Joyce said he was open to suggestions, which he would jot on a sheet of paper. He later snapped a photo of the paper and e-mailed it to me – during our 23-minute chat, he and Oldenburg came up with six rules, including: “Don’t do anything crummy.”

Greg Toppo is USA Today’s national education and demographics writer. A former teacher, he is the author of the new book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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