When Will Kidlit Leave the Printed Page?
The windowless Beinecke Library floats over a stone plaza. Inside its cool waffeled shell, sunlight makes the white marble walls glow.
Nestled in this twilight is a six-story glass tower of old books. The muted leather spines rise just out of reach from the surrounding catwalk. It is a tower of bookish treasure. Tucked into the far corners of the building are two smaller glass boxes, one holding an enormous portfolio of Audubon’s birds, his golden eagle swooping across the page, a life-like rabbit snared in its claws. The other case holds two original volumes of the Gutenberg Bible, its heavy font stamped on the page in tight columns, framed with painted green vines and ornate flowers not seen in nature. The Beinecke is a monument to old books, but we don’t puzzle over them, wondering what they’re for. They look just like the books we see in libraries and bookstores today.
They’re for telling stories.
Humans tell stories. We tell them to share information and to explain the world around us. We’re such eager storytellers that even flat geometric shapes on a screen take on personalities and intent (Goldman).
In the beginning of The Art of Immersion, Frank Rose says, “stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. […] They are the signal within the noise. […] but if stories themselves are universal, the way we tell them changes with the technology at hand. Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative.” (1, 2)
"As our expectations for more complex, immersive story telling evolve, will children’s literature, and specifically publishing, keep pace?"
Today, we tell stories in a moment of technological upheaval which is reshaping our expectations and the context in which we share our ideas. Just as the ability to print, to illustrate, to photograph, and to film changed how stories are shared, the world of digital animation and immersion is shaping new opportunities. As our expectations for more complex, immersive story telling evolve, will children’s literature, and specifically publishing, keep pace?
From Gutenberg’s press to today, we haven’t really changed our expectations for books. Perhaps this is why certain novelty books stand out in my memory. The immersive experience of scratch-and-sniff books ended when the last scent capsule embedded in the ink was scratched open. Pat the Bunny was patted, scratched, and torn as the structure of the paper book gave way to eager hands. Same for the pull-tabs and foldout complexities of more pop-up books than I care to admit. These novelties made the experience of reading more interesting, more immersive, but the complexity of the story was secondary, until Griffin and Sabine came along.
The first time I opened Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence, I was enraptured. The combination of beautiful artwork “postcards” and the handwritten messages sharing a mysterious connection between two writers felt personal. Immediate. Reading someone else’s mail was delightful, especially when it came time to pull a handwritten letter from an envelope and invade their secrets. These books were a voyeuristic. Tactile. Snoopy. And heart wrenchingly incomplete at the end. No wonder I waited impatiently for the next three volumes. Griffin & Sabine was an experience, like snooping through old letters in an attic.
I began buying the Griffin & Sabine books in a bookstore in Washington D.C. in 1994. S. arrived in an Amazon.com pre-order pouch on my front porch in 2013. If Griffin & Sabine was an adult novelty book, 25 years later, S. was an experience. The slick black case holds an "old" library book, complete with linen-textured cover, retro-embossed title, and a call-number sticker on its spine. The inside cover is stamped “Book for Loan” and from the first page, the margins are thick with a handwritten conversation in multiple hands and different colored inks. Stuffed between the pages are postcards, photocopies, a paper napkin with an inked map, newspaper clippings, including an Italian obituary, photographs, yellow notepaper, and a decoding device. The book tells a story, the notes tell another story, and the flotsam collected between pages is part of the story. It’s a mysterious, multilayered experience in a box. In a tiny bit of whimsy, the final stamp on the back cover says “keep this book clean.”
While S. is a more complex story than Griffin & Sabine, and probably scales of magnitude more expensive to produce, it remains an individual, voyeuristic experience. We dip into these stories, we’re immersed in the experience, but we enjoy it alone.
Is that all changing?
At first, the internet was a new way of posting old styles of news, stories, and entertainment. Like movies and television before it, we used it in the same way we used the old platforms. Then the great mashup of hyperlinks, games, media, and interaction began to emerge. Frank Rose says, “This is Japan’s ‘media mix’ strategy, based on the idea that single story can be told through several different media at once” (41), which began with manga in the 1970. Marrying manga with novels, video games and action figures, Japan lead the way to Pokémon today. The distinguishing feature of cross-media stories is that they’re enjoyed as part of a community. Frank Rose didn’t anticipate the Pokémon craze of people running around town to “capture” characters with their smart phones, but Dungeons and Dragons may have.
The bigger the experience, and the more blurred the lines between reality and fiction, the more exciting the story.
Frank Rose describes the build-up to The Dark Knight’s opening in great detail in chapter one. People found clues on the internet that led to cell phones baked into cakes, mysterious calls, and keys that made them “participants” in the opening scene of the movie premier they were invited to see. Similarly when Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails conceived of their Year Zero album, he “started thinking about how to make the world’s most elaborate album cover […] using the media of today” (27). Thus an experience of clues on t-shirts, USB drives left in concert hall bathrooms, and “leaked” information about the future world of Year Zero, was born to tell the story behind the album through online forums and gossip. The band didn’t tell the story, they just dropped the clues and let the fans knit it together online.
Fan participation in stories is not new. Rose reminds us that Dickens, the ultimate serial storyteller, adjusted his stories based on his fans’ feedback (91). He was also soundly criticized for this new format. “It throws us into a state of unreal excitement, a trance, a dream, which we should be allowed to dream out […] But now our dreams are mingled with our daily business” (93). This two-way conversation leads us to wonder who owns the story if the audience directs its course?
Who owns the story?
The old world says the author or publisher “owns” the story. AMC sent cease-and-desist letters to fans who were tweeting as “their” Mad Men television characters. When Warner Brothers did the same with children who were running Harry Potter fan websites, the kids united online, generating a strong anti-Warner Broadcasting public relationship disaster. Warner Brothers quickly backed down, calling the whole thing a “miscommunication” (96). Rose describes our current moment as “Mass media versus deep media. Mass media are industrial, manufactured by someone else and consumed by you. The deep-media experience is digital; it offers a way to participate” (98).
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter enterprise is perhaps the closest we’ve come to deep-media in children’s literature. She began in the Gutenberg tradition, with pages between covers. Her books wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves of the Beinecke Library, but the online Potter community has more in common with dungeon masters and Nine Inch Nail fans. The Harry Potter website is a jumping-off point for a personalized experience of house sorting, wand-selection, and behind-the-scenes information to tell the story behind the story. Fan fiction takes it to the next level.
Creative engagement with the story is the next frontier in storytelling.
Virtual worlds, in-person experience, interacting with familiar characters, and experiencing “dreams are mingled with our daily business” is an alluring next destination for stories. Last Christmas, I signed my children up for a Mysterious Package experience. It began with a personalized letter, letting them know that a law firm had identified them as heirs to a personal collection of artifacts and to keep an eye on the mail. What followed was a series of artifacts, letters, maps, and finally a wooden crate with pieces of an ancient Egyptian tomb wall wrapped in dusty linen. Together, the pieces told a story that was being sent to them by the “lawyer.” Skeptical, as a generation raised on phishing and spam emails is likely to be (they immediately googled the address to see if it was “a scam”), a thrill of possibility accompanied each new shipment.
In general, children’s publishing seems to have stopped at the e-book, with small tokens of interactivity on the web, or perhaps a hand-off to movies and television. Fan fiction may create new writers, but how will authors tell our stories in five or ten years?
Is the future limited to pages, pixels? Or will we let deep-media change how we conceive of our stories?
As the form of the novel is broken apart into new structures including verse, texting, and interviews, I suspect we will begin to flex stories into an interaction that is less static than choose-your-own-adventure and more participatory and immersive, taking full advantage of our craving for complex, fractal worlds where we can go as deep as we want into the story.
Will some stories be delivered in bytes, shaped by the audience, and experienced in 3D? Will the lure of the collective experience draw fan groups together?
Perhaps the next generation of “books” will look less like a Gutenberg Bible and more like the immersive wall-to-wall screens in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, with 3D characters responding to our prompts.
Or imagine a world where fans don’t gather in bookstores to dress up as Harry Potter characters, but they gather virtually in Diagon Alley, inside the story’s world. Instead of witnessing the story, we could interact with the story, wearing the clothing of the moment, shaping the direction, engaging with other “readers” in real time.
I predict that eventually writers will partner with AI, technology experts, designers, and filmmakers to craft worlds that are fractal and layered so the deep-diving “reader” can plunge off the page into the depths of our imaginary worlds. Personally, I'm looking forward to it.
Examples include Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (verse),The Fault in Our Stars, by John Greene (texting), and Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid (interviews).