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I may only have arrived in London two weeks ago, but I couldn’t resist the temptation, yesterday, to crawl out from under the boxes to attend The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference 2014.
I am so glad I did!
What a wonderful opportunity to cross paths with the few people I already know in the UK Kidlit world – shout out to you, Lucy Coats – as well as to make the acquaintance of so many other fellow writers and publishers. Most importantly, it provided me a quick lesson in all the latest news and updates in the UK world of creating awesome content for children.
Here’s a summary of what I learned:
In her opening keynote address, Ann-Janine Murtagh, HarperCollins Children’s Books, likened the current era in children’s publishing to the Gold Rush. In her view, there has never been a better moment to be working in children’s publishing. It's the fastest growing sector in the publishing market, at least in the UK.
She believes this is due to “the incredible transforming power of the story;” that in this increasingly fast paced world of screens and all the distractions that go with them, children are in need of being transported by narrative like never before.
I would argue, too, that kids are in ever increasing need of the story’s power to calm the mind and to bring quiet to an otherwise “noisy” day.
Narrative, Anne-Janine said, is the new gold. Creators and publishers of children’s media, she went on, are the natural custodians of the business of narrative.
“Have confidence in the resilience and power of great content,” she urged us, “and give kids the best, because they deserve it.”
That children’s publishing is a growth area was confirmed by John Lewis of The Bookseller, whose stunningly clear and in-depth overview of the UK children’s book market thus far in 2014 indicates there will be year-end growth in all segments of the industry, including fiction, non-fiction, picture books, and study and teachers guides.
In the second keynote speech, Alison York of Nickelodeon UK revealed the results of her research on the impact of technology and new media on developing minds. Her conclusion is that “digital natives,” i.e., those born into the world of smart phones, touch screens, and interactive virtual experiences, are able to negotiate seamlessly between the digital and real worlds. What’s more, the most successful media products for kids tend to facilitate access between the actual and the virtual. She stated that kids love immersive experiences: the bigger the screen, the better. But, in a world of quantity, it’s quality that holds kids' attention longest and keeps them coming back for more.
Michael Acton-Smith of Moshi Monsters' fame talked about how challenging it is to achieve success if limited only to the mobile space. The key, he stated, is to diversify across formats. Tom Bonnick of Nosy Crow joined him in this advice, advocating that re-purposing beloved kid's content across formats not only makes it available to a broader audience, but can also extend the life-cycle of both characters and narrative.
As you can imagine, I found the above advice very validating, coming as it did from these two industry pros, as this is a business direction we’ve already taken at Time Traveler Tours & Tales.
Similarly, literacy & technology consultant Bev Humphrey offered the TTT&T a proverbial pat on the back. Her presentation confirmed that schools are indeed “switching on,” that is, adopting digital learning tools, thus presenting a great opportunity for publishers targeting the education market.
The Bookseller Children’s Conference 2014 also included two great panels with voices spanning the industry from the usual agent and editor to the librarian, author, independent bookstore owner, and reviewer. I found this extremely refreshing – Bravo Bookseller conference staff!
One panel focused on the need for more industry collaboration across these groups at the service of win-win marketing, and of making kids media more discoverable, at a time when marketing budgets continue to shrink. The second panel focused on what’s working in social media marketing. Panel participants spoke, in particular, about where kids are congregating. The upshot? YouTube and Tumblr. But mostly YouTube.
So get your video mojo on folks! Our target audience still loves to read and to be transported, and calmed, by a great story, that much is clear. But they appear to be searching for their new fave reads on line, through primarily visual media, like book-trailers and author interviews.
The next Bookseller conference, FutureBook,
will take place on 14 November in London.
Can you guess who’s going to be there?
Technology + Learning Theory + Play Theory = Magic.
A major focus of the Dust or Magic Institute is to bring educators and technologists together in the same space, and to provide the latter with a crash course in Childhood Development. Why? So that they may create age- and developmentally-appropriate products for kids, steeped in sound educational theory. The most important one being that all of us, kids and adults alike, learn best through play.
As a teacher of 20+ years, I was gratified to discover educational theory being applied to children’s interactive media in this way.
However, lacking in the above equation, I felt, was the time-honored lesson to be drawn from the world of children’s publishing: that the visual element serves a valuable role too, and one often neglected in today's interactive media for kids.
As a children’s author and a connoisseur of picture book art, I was shocked by the low visual quality of some of the media products we studied at Dust or Magic. Many of them, I’m sorry to say, were just plain ugly, with illustrations that looked little better than clip art.
Anyone working on behalf of children must appreciate the role that great illustration plays in communicating with and teaching children. In illustrated books, the story and images weave seamlessly together to create something better than the sum of their parts. Indeed, great illustrations tell at least 50% of the story and can make an already great text shine even brighter.
Yet, this is not often the case in today’s digital products.
Not all children’s digital media will contain story. They don’t all have too. But digital media are nothing if not visual. It is imperative, therefore, that we developers make our products visually appealing. To make them works of art.
Beware Madame la Guillotine, for example, is illustrated with great period masterpieces as well as propaganda and popular lithographs dating to the French Revolution. While we place an emphasis on the history as revealed by the story and accompanying treasure hunts, and not on the art per se, the app is also a subtle lesson in Art History. And we trust that this will be understood on some level by each of our user/readers.
Our kids deserve the total package. It’s not enough to be age appropriate and steeped in sound educational theory. Our products must also be beautiful.
Nosy Crow and Touch Press set the standard in this regard, as do the apps by OCG Studios, illustrated by Roxie Munro. Their products combine great storytelling with gorgeous illustrations, topped off with interactive gaming elements that enhance the narrative and extend learning.
At the Dust or Magic Institute, participants rate demoed products on a scale of one to ten – one being “dust” and ten being “magic”. Judging criteria are not provided, so it’s hard to know what’s behind each participant’s decision. But I'll admit to aiming my laser beam low (see video above for explanation) for any product – even the most educationally sound – if it did not deliver a quality visual experience as well.
As a children’s author, app developer, educator, and burgeoning digital publisher, I feel most days as if I am contorted on a Twister board, struggling to maintain a viable position; or drifting the northern seas with each of my two feet and hands clinging to a different iceberg, each ice floe representing one the four elements -- educational theory, great story content, and compelling visuals -- I hope to bring together in my ambition to produce quality interactive product for kids.
But it can, and must, be done. As Warren Buckleitner, himself, beseeched us at the close of the 2013 Institute: “Go forth and do right by the kids!”
It is my hope that developers of children's interactive digital media will take a minute to hire a proper illustrator for their future projects. Following on that, I hope that the opening equation of Dust or Magic 2014 be modified as well to read Technology + Learning Theory + Play Theory + High Quality Visual Art = Magic.
What do you think? Should digital media for kids honor a visual aesthetic? Please leave a comment and tell us what you think.