Where the Digital Things Are: Talking Children’s Books in the Tablet Age

If there is one immutable truth of parenting in the 21st Century it’s this: Kids love tablets.

So we sought out Lara Perkins, assistant agent and digital manager at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which has placed titles from “Mostly Monsterly” to “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae” with publishers, to chat about how children’s stories are being reconceived as digital experiences. As Perkins tells us, it’s becoming “almost unthinkable” to create a picture book without including audio. The exchange below was edited for clarity and length.

Authors who publish for digital formats have many new interactive features at their disposal. What kinds of new capabilities are you seeing in picture books and which ones are you excited about?

Loud Crow’s award-winning “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a great example of some of the features authors and publishers now use. It includes a soundtrack with story-triggered transitions, animation, read-along technology and top-notch audio narration with distinct voices for each character. It also has fun features like the ability to collect Christmas ornaments hidden throughout, to play along with Linus on your own piano keyboard; to turn background lights on and off; to click the sky and see a shooting star and to play a few games at the end of the book.

What’s interesting is that some of these new features are already becoming almost indispensable. To paraphrase Kevin O’Connor, the director of children’s content, acquisitions and business development, and digital products at Barnes & Noble, it’s becoming almost unthinkable to create a picture book app without including audio because the “Read to Me” feature has become integral to strong sales.

As they become more interactive, some e-books for children are looking a lot like games. What’s the difference between a book and a game in the digital world?

To me, the difference between an e-book and a game is the story arc—the linear narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end—and the immersive reading experience an e-book provides. I believe these two aspects enable the best e-books and e-book apps to do what print books have always done so well: allow the reader to establish an emotional connection with the characters and invest deeply in the story.

Given that difference, I’d say these features are not fundamentally changing the format of the narrative. There are e-books and apps that use a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story-telling format, but this format still follows a mostly linear progression, even as the reader’s choices help shape the story. So, in this broad sense, the features don’t change the format of the narrative, but they’re also not just added bells and whistles.

Do you think authors have to be careful about how they use their new powers?

The new design capabilities are a bit like 3D technology in the film world, which can be used as a gimmick or can be used in service of the story and the world-building. The best children’s e-books and apps, like “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” use these new features to add something distinct and valuable, which couldn’t exist in print book form and which enrich the world of the story.

I think publishers, authors and developers do think about these differences when creating content for formats that use special features and interactivity. It’s certainly one of the central questions that reviewers often focus on when evaluating new e-books and apps.

As an agent, what do you look for in an e-book as opposed to in a print book?

No matter what the format, we have to love the project to represent it for both print and digital.

Second, broad distribution is central to healthy sales, so our hope would be that every title we represent is made available in as many formats as possible and sold in as many avenues as possible.

For enhanced e-books and e-book apps, authors are increasingly told to “write to the new formats,” which is good advice, but great storytelling is still central no matter the intended format. Aside from the central story, I think a lot depends on the author and/or prospective developer’s vision, much like it does with film adaptations. Books that already contain visual content and/or references to external content are a more natural fit for app development than books that contain only text.

With the right vision and quality execution, I think most picture books could work well as apps. For longer fiction, I think the question is trickier and depends on whether special features and interactivity can be seamlessly integrated with the immersive reading experience.

Morgan Peck
Morgen Peck covers technology with a focus on digital currencies and neurotechnology. Her work has appeared on Scientific American and BBC Future.
Morgan Peck
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Mobile Apps