Friday, May 21, 2010

Fusion of Image, Audio and Word - Paradigm Shifts and the Future of Children's Lit

I just finished two books that incorporate innovative forms of content beyond the printed word (and no, I'm not talking about digital ink, either). I'll get to those titles in a sec, but first I wanted to take a litle trip down Memory Lane, to the good ole days of 2007 and a little known book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Of course I'm being facetious. If you're one of about a dozen people who haven't heard or read this book, do it. But the point I want to make about Brian Selznik's "massive," 533-page middle grade novel is this: it won the Caldecott. You might recall that the Caldecott is awarded for illustration of a children's book.

Wait a minute. A novel winning an award for illustration? Well, yeah. And at 25K words, it's an easy guess (if you haven't read or seen the book yet) what fills those 500+ pages.

Selznik's book wasn't the first to mix word and image, but I think with the Caldecott win, it really ushered in the idea that the novel as we know is evolving to become more mixed media. (This ignores, for the moment, that graphic novels, or GNs, have been becoming more and more popular and complex of late. But GNs are separate thing altogether. I'm talking more about how the traditional novel is changing.)

Without a doubt, we are well along in a revolution where the written, printed word is becoming heavily encroached upon by images, video and audio content. And while traditional novels (both paper and ebook) will be around for a long time to come, they will have to compete more and more with stories that incorporate mixed media.

For example, I just finished Malice, Chris Wooding's paranormal 68K-word mixed novel/graphic novel. The interesting thing about this book is that, while the story could easily stand on its own, the graphic novel really adds a new dimension that children today will connect with, especially boys. And if that gets them to read, great. Remember, to publishers more readers means more sales.

The other book is Patrick Carman's Trackers, released last week, about a group of four teen tech geeks. The story follows an interview of the MC as he recounts the events leading to the present (I'm being purposefully coy here to avoid giving anything away). The book could be read from cover to cover without leaving its pages, but the reader is cued to logon to a website, enter codes, view videos and crack codes, thus becoming a participant in the story.

It's an interesting concept and a challenge for the traditional writer to consider. Will it be successful? In my opinion, as long as the reader has to physically leave the comfort of their chair/bed/hammock or whatever, no. But we are fast approaching an age where all these sources of content will soon be available all at once and from a single device. I think stories where the reader (soon to become "audience participant") can seemlessly shift between the active experience of reading and the passive experience of watching/listening, while also enjoying a little bit of both in interactive ways too, will become more popular.

Why is this happening?

I don't think this has anything to do with shorter attention spans or being bombarded with information from a hundred different sources all at once, or sensory overload. I think it's only natural to want to experience things more fully. And if a story can be experienced more fully (which is not to say totally passively, as films do), then it will succeed.

What does this mean to the author of next generation stories?

Well, first and foremost, I don't think it has to mean anything to any one author. As I said before, traditional books will be around for a long, long time. But they will compete with mixed media going forward. I think authors of children's lit content should keep all this in mind. Writers should think about whether and how they should access these new media to assist them in telling their stories, whether through image, video, audio or whatever comes next (olfactory?). Do you see an opportunity to turn your novel into a mixed novel/GN or tie-in the internet for expanded experiences?

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