We’re not at all screen averse in the family Artsplorer, yet somehow despite my kid having her fair share of app-ing (educational ones!) and Netflixing, and myself having logged plenty of Kindle hours, I never thought to turn the iPad into a children’s book. So, when we were given a copy of digital book The Little Green Boat by Chris Stead, it was a new lit-adventure for me.
The Little Green Boat is part of a series of books about the adventurous young boy, Willy Nilly. In this installment, he and his family go to the beach, and when he wanders off on his own, he finds a boat, which is washed away, taking him on an unexpected journey.
My digital native 4 year old didn’t have any problem adjusting to the idea of swiping through a story book, and she was particularly charmed by the added sounds effects on many pages, like seagulls and waves crashing. I thought they were a nice addition, as well, because they were just enough to add intrigue, without being so textured as to take away from the imaginative magic of book reading. The story is a straight ahead adventure, which really appeals to her, at this age. The illustrations are bright, and the storytelling is light and cheerful.
From my perspective, I appreciated the notes at the beginning of the book with suggestions on further engaging with the story. The ideas like asking questions about what the kids notice or what might happen before you reveal the text are actually useful for any book.
The Little Green Boat may not find a home on our bookshelf, but it’s a charming addition to our collection.
I had a few questions for The Little Green Boat author, Chris Stead, and he was kind enough to share some insights into digital books and writing for children.
Would you tell me a little bit about you company, Old Mate Media and how you came to children’s book publishing?
After the best part of two decades making magazines and websites for other publishers, I began to get frustrated with being the creative force, but owning none of the product and getting only a tiny piece of the pie. So I started Old Mate Media and began to turn all I had learned over the years towards creating content that I owned, controlled and got all the profits for releasing. Plus, I wanted to have something I could pass on to my children (should they have similar interests).
Initially I stuck with video gaming, the medium in which I had won awards and been very successful. I created a new magazine and website called Grab It, which did well. Then when my first born came along I started making up stories for him. He loved them, so I decided to try my hand at children’s books as my skills transitioned across without problem. I enjoy it so much that we’ve kicked the whole business in that direction, and now we’re not only releasing a lot of books and experimenting with what is possible, but also helping other indie authors and illustrators get published, too.
What are a couple of the most important elements in an engaging children’s story?
I tend to prefer old-school adventure style story experiences over tales that are focused on delivering a moralistic message. In these types of books, I’ve found the best way to engage a child’s imagination is to start with a very relatable scene. In The Little Green Boat, that is a trip to the beach. In My Birthday Cake Needs a New Home, it’s a birthday party with a big cake. In Can You See The Magic it’s exploring a farm.
You start with a setting and a scene that the children already know, then you spiral that into fantasy, with a story that gets evermore outlandish, and action-packed, and wild. In taking this approach, the kids begin with something they understand. Their imagination is on the runway and you can then help their imagination gain speed, take-off and go with you all the way to wherever you take it.
It’s also important to make sure the character’s facial expressions convey the emotion of the scene, as the kids focus in on faces a lot more than you might expect. It’s one of the first things humans learn to read: body language.
I trust that you have a great focus group with your own children. How do they let you know that you’re onto a good story?
My children always think the books are great, so just asking them is a bad barometer. The two ways that they contribute greatly to shaping a story are at the polar ends of the book making process.
Firstly, I listen to the way they interact with the world. When they are at play, then tend to talk out loud and it gives me a great insight into what the world looks like through the filter of their imaginations. I take this directly into my writing and try to have that same filter between my brain and the page. A number of my plot concepts have literally sprouted straight from a stray comment or an excited idea the kids come up with in general conversation or while playing. Then I run with it and egg them on, taking mental notes.
The second way is after a book is done and I’ve read it to them. Later than night, or even the next day, I will ask them about the story and the character. “What happened next?” “What did he do?”
“Was that funny?” You get an idea then of what is sticking with them and resonating, and what’s not.
I haven’t explored e-books with my daughter much before this. How are you using the form to make your books unique?
I’m extremely disappointed by the way traditional publishers have gone about releasing their legacy titles digitally as it has generally been very dull, lacking in imagination and often criminally underusing the platform’s strengths. In my opinion there is a huge difference between a book you can read digitally, and a digital book. The former is often little more than the same PDF used to create a print book, which you read on a digital device. Boring!
A digital book makes use of its format. With our Willy Nilly series, for example, readers are greeted by a theme tune when they first open the book. We have interactive buttons that pop up text, animations that cause elements to move, and sound effects that further immerse the kids into certain scenes. We have links to extra resources as well. We can add video content and voice-overs as well, which we are working on for future editions. In this sense digital books can be much more engaging and powerful than a print book ever can be. This doesn’t replace print books of course, but it can offer a different experience.
What projects are coming up for Old Mate Media?
We’re working on so much. We just finished a book for an American author, called Much To Do Before a Dog, and I’m finalising an app version of the first book in The Wild Imagination of Willy Nilly series – The Little Green Boat – as I write this. Seriously, it’s uploading in the background. I have another 11 books already completed, that I am looking to finalise design on and then set release dates for. However, prior to that I want to get all the existing books – of which there are 11 – available in print forms as well as digital.
The next Willy Nilly book will be particularly exciting. I’ve worked out a way to make the digital version a “choose your own adventure” style experience. So the child we be able to make the story unfold in the order they want. I think that will engage them on an even deeper level again!
We’re also building towards the second novel in the Adam X universe, and I have been releasing some video game related titles as well. Lots to look forward to!
(A digital copy of The Little Green Boat was gifted to Artsplorers by Old Mate Media for review. Opinions are my own – well, mine and the 4 year old’s! This article contains affiliate links.)