Last week, at Ben's Deli in New York City*, I interviewed legendary children's software developer (and author) Mark Schlicting. Mark, a creator of the Living Books interactive storybooks in the '90s, is now bringing them to a new audience on new platforms in the 21st Century. His new company Wanderful, based in San Francisco, will release five titles for the iPad, iPhone and iTouch devices this year.
It is not surprising that the Living Books are still wonderful entertainment for kids. They started life as real books, written by established authors and illustrators. They encouraged reading, not cartoon watching. They were multilingual, packed with hundreds of animations and interactions, lots of stealthy learning features, and great content. Best of all, they treated their audience with respect, never talking down to them or making things so sweet that they would give a toothache, as did many lesser products that have not stood the test of time.
Before reading my interview, you might like to see the Living Books in action on iOS in this short video:
I'm so excited that these favorites, these best examples of what children's software can be, will be coming to a new generation of emerging readers.
JamesGames: You were a children's writer and illustrator. Why did you decide to go into children's software? How did the Living Books series of interactive storybooks come to be?
Mark Schlichting: I got into this industry because I had three boys way back in ancient history, back in the 80s, and I couldn't find any software that my boys wanted to play. They would always be willing to play Nintendo. I watched one of my older boys and his friends rent a video game that came without a manual and in three hours he and his friends had gotten to the 52nd level of the game and I thought "what an incredible draw, critical thinking...but no content!" I wanted to apply that, because trying to get those same three boys to do their homework was crazy. I wanted to create software that had the draw to pull kids in like that. Kids are like a heliotrope that follows the sun, kids are technotropes. You put an iPad or iPhone down and you'll have six kids like a magnet: "Can I play on your device! Can I play on your phone!" I wanted to create content that was that interesting and also had real information inside that could help them learn. That's what Living Books was.
JamesGames: Have you followed the ups and downs of children's software since Living Books? Mark Schlichting: I've been tracking software for all these years, and with interest at all the new [digital] storybooks that people are working on, and the things that I think are missing in them. [Looking back on the original Living Books] I'm excited to see how much we really put into the detail. For instance, these days, when a story is read occasionally they highlight the text. We highlighted all the text because we found kids follow anything that moves. So, we could get them to follow the reading if that was the only thing on the screen that was moving. They would follow it through.
We also wanted them to be able to play with the text. The books were designed for early and emerging readers. We recorded everything, all the text, twice. We recorded it once as a spoken story and once as individual words recorded in the flavor of the story so that kids could click on the individual words and remap that story in their own language. They would "own" the story by playing with the individual pieces. We learned that that was how kids who were emerging readers played. We realized that the older kids who were readers at the third grade, the eight year olds, would play with the words out-of-order, building the silliest sentences they could, like "the wind blew Grandma's dress" and they'd all be falling down laughing. The play pattern was really different depending on where they were developmentally. Nobody does that anymore. Nobody does that in their story books.
JamesGames: You're bringing back the Living Books, now under the Wanderful Storybooks brand, retooled for portable devices like the iPad. How will they be different from other e-storybooks on the market?
Mark Schlichting: What is really unusual is that the interface in the Wanderful Storybooks, our new products, have a dynamic language changing feature. You can change languages on the fly from English to Spanish, from English to Japanese to French to German to Portuguese. It is amazing because, bang, you're in another language [at the press of a button]. I knew this was important because over the years I've had so many people tell me that they learned English from Living Books. I was speaking a few weeks ago on a panel at Digital Kids and the narrator for our panel came up afterwards and said "I came from Russia when I was twelve years old and I learned English from Living Books." This is a story I've heard over, over, and over again.
Mark Schlichting: We're just so excited to have a product that has more animations on one page than many products have in their whole book. That's not to fault them. [When we created the Living Books] we had budgets between $500,000 and a million dollars! We could write our own music, have animators to make the characters dance. All of that material is now in our new releases! Our relationship with the authors of the original books was that we would be taking their babies, their stories, their characters, and bring them over into animated media for the first time. Arthur, for instance, had never had an animated voice before. We were very careful to be true to the books. That's why we included the paperback books with the software, so there would be continuity. Whatever kids learned they could play between the two, the book and the digital version.
JamesGames: Do these early digital titles still hold up?
Mark Schlichting: When you look at Living Books they are still the best buy; they're incredibly rich. I've been testing them with kids to see if I'm delusional about this, and they love them. They're equally excited!
JamesGames: So these are the original animations and features on a new platform?
Mark Schlichting: Besides some of the interface features we added [screens weren't touchable in the 1990's], the only other thing we added is interruptibility because kids today like to hop around. If anything is too long or they want to try the next thing, they can do it. But, we also created settings for teachers and parents so that they can turn off that function. So if you're a teacher with ADD students and you need them to slow down, you can turn off the interruptible feature. They can also see where all the hotspots are [that trigger the animations]. We gave those options to the teachers in these new versions.
JamesGames: Why do you think this type of interactive book has disappeared from the landscape for so many years?
Mark Schlichting: The CD-Rom market died. There was a lot of competition in the late Nineties and the market collapsed. Then we were all delighted by the Internet. Children's software just sort of died for awhile in the early two-thousands. For me it came back with Club Penguin. Those guys came up with something that really worked for kids; they are wonderful, their whole team. That also got the attention of all the business people because what did they make? A hundred and fifty million from Disney. Then, thanks to Steve Jobs and all the people at Apple, we had the iPhone and then we had a new platform. For me this is the fourth or fifth platform that I've seen. First we were on floppy disks, then we were on CD-Roms, and then we had the internet, then there were several platforms like the Gameboy and now here we are in these portable devices.
JamesGames: So tell me about the new lineup?
Mark Schlichting: The first titles we're releasing are Arthur's Teacher Troubles by Mark Brown. Its a large book with 28 pages, including three pages of third grade spelling words which all animate, because it is all about a spelling bee. Each page all the way through is just packed. Another title in our first releases will be Mercer Mayer's Little Monsters at School. That was actually the prototype for Living Books when I was at Broderbund, so it is really warm in my heart. In fact it is voiced by my seven year old, who is now thirty! It is amazing how well these titles hold up. There is a little nostalgia in the "look and feel", but the animation and engagement for kids is not changed at all.
The third title will be The Tortoise and the Hare. Its a wonderful Aesop story that I adapted. The team really enjoyed making it and the original music makes it really charming. We intend to roll out five books by Christmas time, 2012. My own title, Harry and the Haunted House will probably come out at the end of Summer, in time for Halloween.
JamesGames: How much will the interactive storybooks cost?
Mark Schlichting: The pricing structure will be one title for $4.99, although things are often on sale, as we know.
JamesGames: How does that compare to the original cost back in 1990 dollars?
Mark Schlichting: They were forty dollars, $39.99. And, I was underselling many titles at seventy dollars at that time! So we've come a long way.
JamesGames: They are much more affordable!
Mark Schlichting: That's right. One of our quite rich storybooks will be $4.99. Then, there will be add-ons. You can add-on languages for $1.99. There will be a deluxe version for teachers or families that want multiple languages and our teacher materials. These were all taken into the schools. Living Books was one of the first line of titles to be used in the schools as electronic textbooks. We have a whole set of thirty page documents on activities and things you can do to extend the experience written by teachers.
JamesGames: When will the first title ship?
Mark Schlichting: Just before the end of June, 2012.
JamesGames: Where will people find them, in the App Store?
Mark Schlichting: They sure will. Search for Living Books or Wanderful Storybooks (like Lawrence Welk used to say, "wanderful, wanderful.") We like that word because it is about "wonderful" and "wandering". Its about being inside storybooks, exploring, and the magic of it all. You can also search by title: Arthur's Teacher Troubles, The Tortoise and the Hare, and Mercer Mayer's Little Monster at School.
*Btw, Mark paid for my corned beef sandwich.