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Expanding the universe of the book

Last week, I attended Laura Fleming’s session on Storytelling in the Digital Age at the West Essex WeTech Conference.  Laura’s talk updated her 2010 Edutopia post, A Primer on Interactive Books.

For Laura, it is all about the story and how we experience it.  She contends: Many children expect a different reading experience now.  And she wants to meet those students where they are ready to learn now.

Like many of us, Laura considers story and storytelling the heart of her practice.  For years she’s seen some kids completely disengaged from reading.

As an elementary librarian, she thought that maybe it was the books she was choosing.

After trying book after book, I soon realized that it wasn’t the stories I was choosing to read, but for many children, it was the form of the ‘regular’ book that no longer appealed to them or engaged them as they once did.  At the time, back in 2010, I stumbled upon Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman and that was my epiphany!  🙂
Yes, Skeleton Creek is a great story, but it was the FORM of the story that engaged 100% of all of my readers!  Skeleton Creek is the one that is half print book and half video and the technology is essential in the telling of the story.  And for my most reluctant readers, that was the hook!  So, that year, I sought out all of the the interactive literature I could find and at the time, there wasn’t much out there, but what I found, and that includes Inanimate Alice, led me to amazing realizations.
Laura’s 2010 Primer tried to make sense of emerging story formats by organizing them into a three-tier taxonomy.
In 2014, story is emerging in even more glorious variety.  Laura’s model is richer.  And it may serve as a strategy, not only to engage the disengaged, but to charm and enthrall all fans of story who deserve opportunities to interact with, to live in story in new ways.

Laura sees story nudging even further toward McLuhan’s perception that the medium is the message.  In 2014, the medium and its story are one.

We can creatively leverage the multiple platforms available to teach children to interpret the world beyond the text; to connect with popular culture; to encourage creativity, not just consumption; to play with remix/mash-up; to expand the potential universe of the story.

Here are the tiers Laura proposes and some examples of stories that live on each step.

Tier 1—Fully interactive: Technology is essential in the telling of the story.

Examples: Inanimate Alice: the ground-breaking episodic adventures of a girl (and her digital friend, Brad) who grows up to become a videogame designer.  New episodes are planned to join the initial four.  Alice has inspired a slew of curriculum and fanfiction.

Cathy’s Book:  This first interactive YA novel is enhanced illustrated with Cathy’s doodles and drawings and connected to websites, message boards and phone numbers that draw the reader into Cathy’s not-so-peachy life.  It’s available as an app.

Skeleton Creek The story by Patrick Carman takes place in both journal and web/video form. Ryan writes about his haunted town and the dredge. He communicates with his best friend Sarah, whom he is forbidden to see, through the film messages she posts on her password-protected website.  Visit the Skeleton Creek site for videos, behind-the-scenes, creepy photographs, and download extras.

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure:  (National Children’s Book and Literary Alliance) Inspired by the form-busting surrealistic artists, this zany progressive story is launched with a cliffhanger by Jon Scieszka and passed from author to celebrate author and illustrators.  Readers (and their teachers) are invited to continue the story on a website that features readers’ theater, video discussions with the authors, background on the episodes, questions, and activities.

Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral: This engaging romance/mystery novel is available as an app. The story is told in photographs, graphic design, illustrations and augmented by videos and music clips available on YouTube.

Tier 2—Partially interactive: titles that have companion websites or companion books that enrich the experience of reading the story  (a reading+ tech experience)

Elliot’s Park: The series, also by Patrick Carman, for 6 to 8-year-olds, follows the adventure of Elliot, a very smart, problem-solving squirrel who live in Walla Walla, WA.  Readers can explore the real park online, play the game, and create a play with the characters.

Thirteen Reasons Why: The dark, compelling YA novel exploring Hannah Baker’s suicide is enriched by her tapes and blog posted on the companion website.  The Th1rteen R3search Why Project continues the story with a collection of reader reactions.

Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore:  The story by William Joyce was an Academy Award winning short film.  It’s also a book, an app, and an iBook. The companion augmented reality IMAG·N·O·TRON app brings the book to life and sweeps the reader up into a storm of flying books.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On: The subject of the stop motion animated short film and Sundance selection, is a soft-spoken and adorable shell who is interviewed in his home by a documentary filmmaker.  The initial film and its YouTube sequel morphed into a print book, an audiobook, a website and a app.

SpaceHeadz: The multimedia series by Jon Scieszka, Shane Prigmore and Francesco continues across multiple platforms to extend the reading experience. Kids can sign-up to become SPHDZ and help the 5th graders stop aliens from turning the Earth off.  They will be assigned a secret agent-type name.  They can visit the AntiAlienAgency site to follow protective government actions.  They can also visit Michael K.’s class website. The Spaceheadz in Action site encourages reads to share media to continue the experience online.

Fairy Godmother Academy: The online and book world by Jan Bozarth creates a dream space where readers can perform Wisdom Acts, read the blog,  view videos, create talisman, add their voice to the million-girl choir, design fashion and connect with characters (and shop).

Tier 3: Create your own storyworld! No technology component but you see the potential for you to use technology to make the story more interactive.

Example: Using the theme of self-preservation, Laura and students created fantasy storyworld extending the narrative of Paul Fleischman’s Westlandia,

You can find inspiration to do the same at the National Writing Project.

Check out:

Tier ? New story forms that follow you into the real world

The Craftsman: The Gothic, immersive iPad thriller, by Julian McCrea, turns the reader into a character and is considered, by some to be the future of fiction. Events are determined by the viewers through dedicated websites. Participants receive emails and texts from characters and may attend parties and other events that pop up on their real-life digital calendars. The app uses the iPad’s built-in camera to read facial expressions and build tension accordingly as the story develops.

MIT’s Sensory Fiction:  In this new project from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, authors can provide readers wearing a vest harness with physical feedback and sensations as they flip pages.

And years from now?  What happens to story?  Laura suggests that the physical book may be hardly be recognizable, but there will always be stories and will continue to immerse ourselves in them.  That will never change.

For now, we seek out immersive learning experiences based on story.

We might consider:

  • How we can translate these story forms into meaningful action within our classrooms and libraries?
  • How story could inspire creativity, not simple consumption.  How we might play with form, content, media, stories, narratives, and technology to remix, mashup, and tell our own stories.
  • How we might teach students to interpret the world beyond text.
  • How we might create experiences in our classrooms that use technology and resources in a unified way to effectively convey messages and immerse our students in meaningful content
  • How we might allow students the freedom and flexibility to actively participate in and take control of their own learning.

Laura’s generously allowed me to share her slides.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Kathleen Galarza says

    I had the pleasure of attending the Storytelling in the Digital Age workshop with Laura at the Librarians 2.0 Conference at Stockton State College last fall. She was a delight and I learned so much. So happy to see this article, Joyce! Thanks for sharing. And so glad to hear Laura is listed on the NSBA 20 to Watch! See

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