If there’s one reading experience that truly has been transformed by the interactive wonders of the tablet, it’s got to be the children’s book. Apps like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the award-winning animated story from Moonbot Studios, have shown how the iPad really can feel a little bit magical when used with care and consideration. But creating a flashy book for young tots, where there isn’t much risk of the visuals stepping on the story, is one thing. The Jörgits and the End of Winter, a fantasy novel for a slightly older set of youngsters, shows how interactivity can work in a slightly more substantial text.
The app was created by Anders Sandell, a Finnish-born interaction designer who grew up in Hawaii, studied Chinese language and literature as an undergrad, earned a masters in NYU’s ITP program, and recently wrapped up a three-year stint establishing a toy design program at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, in Bangalore, India. Unsurprisingly, diversity and community are main themes of the designer’s book.
The novel, a cleverly disguised cautionary tale about global warming, tells the story of a band of aliens who’ve come to Earth seeking a warmer climate. They shoot for Hawaii but end up in Helsinki, learning all about our planet’s predicament along the way. “The Jörgits is conceived as a series of books that will introduce children to cultures around the world; the complexity of the problems that we face but also the wonderful diversity that is out there,” Sandell says. “The inspiration for the story is very closely tied to my family history.”
It’s a substantial work, closer to Roald Dahl than Goodnight Moon, with 14 chapters and an ensemble cast of extraterrestrial characters. Many of the 160-some pages that comprise the story only bear text. But every few pages, readers get the chance to jump into an audiovisual adventure of some sort or another–a lush animation or a simple interactive tableau. Instead of having to visualize the action for yourself, the app continually brings you back to this colorful, nuanced narrative world–a setting for your imagination to explore as you read. You’re never forced to engage with these interactive elements, but their inclusion makes for a vastly richer reading experience.
As Sandell was putting the book together, however, the App Store didn’t offer much in the way of a template to follow. In researching the category, the designer says, “I discovered that there were very few book apps that catered to older children. Most book apps were targeting children ages four to seven. In the few apps that I found for our target age range the interactivity was not well integrated with the story.”
He ultimately found inspiration elsewhere. One influence was Our Choice, a nonfiction app released in 2011 by Push Pop Press that laid out the threat of climate change with a deft marriage of text and multimedia. Other sources were less likely. Sandell says he drew from Rings of Saturn, the 1995 novel by German author W.G. Sebold, which integrated photographs and diagrams seamlessly with the narrative, as well as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, in which a parallel narrative plays out alongside the main one in the book’s footnotes.
For the animated interludes–the soundscapes, as Sandell calls them–Sandell looked at popular indie games like Osmos and Sword and Sworcery, where sound and animation work harmoniously to slip you into immersive, fully formed worlds. The result, in the case of The Jörgits, is a perfect balance between whiz-bang multimedia and old-school textual immersion.
“Text is a very quiet, contemplative medium,” Sandell says. “It’s very easy to disturb the reading experience with a lot of bells and whistles. I’m a voracious reader and I wanted to make sure that the story could stand on its own–if we strip away all illustrations, interactions, and animations we should still have a compelling story. The interactive experience that we set out create for The Jörgits was designed to expand upon the story’s universe and give more background and context to the story’s setting.”
And in terms of keeping readers both young and old engaged in the story, that approach is a smart one. “I think there’s a natural ebb and flow in our attention while we’re reading,” Sandell continues. “The interactive content is there for those moments; to let you wander off on a tangent, to give some humorous fact about a character, and to get readers lost in the world of the story.” But never so lost that you lose track of the story itself.